Short and Sweet: Short Plants for the Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.

“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”

Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015

Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!

Petite Garden Performers

Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)

Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa) has semi-succulent foliage and cheerful flowers that bloom all season long.

Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.

Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’

Most Amsonia spp. can get quite large, but the ‘Blue Ice’ variety delivers nice foliage and blue spring bloom in a tighter package.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.

Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and prairie dropseed mix well in the landscape and both stay under three feet tall. Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.

All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.

Front Yard Native Landscaping

As a new homeowner, there are a thousand projects around the house vying for my attention. But none call to me more than landscaping. After a few weeks working on the basement, I needed a break! I redirected my energy and landscaped my front yard!

Walk the Walk

I talk often and openly about the ecological problems inherent with a “well kept lawn”. Now that I finally have my own lawn, I wanted to convert part of it to something earth conscious, yet attractive. With smart design, landscaping can feed birds and insects, build soil integrity, and take very few inputs. I will always have a good sized patch of weedy Fescue for the dog to play Frisbee in, but more and more of the yard will get planted to natives every year.

Proper Prep

First, I sprayed two adjacent sections of our front yard with a strong application of glyphosate. It was not an easy decision: I am not a fan of using this chemical, or any chemicals in the landscape. But when contending with bermuda grass, my options were limited. Bermuda is a fierce, non-native competitor that will easily overtake a native flower bed if not eradicated properly. On the sides of the house, where bluegrass, Fescue, and dandelions are prevalent, I expect solarization to work wonderfully next spring and summer.

Hymenoxys scaposa (perky Sue) is adorably small; six inches tall with cheery yellow flowers the size of a quarter. It is a great addition in my front yard because of its petite, tidy habit.

Planting

A few weeks later I planted right into the dead thatch of the grass. I like to plant thick, aiming for a very full, lush look and less weeding in the long term. Then I back-filled each hole with some rocky, sandy soil from a long abandoned planter box on the side of the house. This might help the clay soil drain better for the drought hardy species I wanted to incorporate. A flag at each plant ensures I don’t miss any while watering.

Though I am always so excited to plant, it doesn’t look like much for the first year. But by next fall it will be the talk of the neighborhood.

In my design, I focused on purples, whites and yellows to complement a pale blue porch. Made up of many western Kansas species, this garden is extremely drought tolerant once established, staying full of blooms for pollinators even in hard times. When I get a free weekend, I will layer the empty spaces with newspaper and wood chips to discourage weeds. Luckily, my city has a free wood chip pile nearby!

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

Here are some of my favorites included in the design. Many are native, others are non-natives well adapted to heat and drought:

Allium spp.
Amsonia hubrichtii
Asclepias verticillata
Baptisia minor
Ericameria nauseosa
Hymenoxys scaposa

Lavandula ‘Hidcote’
Muhlenbergia capillaris
Nassella tenuissima
Prunus besseyi
‘Pawnee Buttes’
Sporobolus heterolepis
Scutellaria resinosa

I plant Amsonia mainly for its foliage, but the blue blooms are a welcome sight in spring.

Grass But Not Lawn

I used Sporobolus heterolepis along the sidewalk and Muhlenbergia capillaris for a slightly taller focal point. To keep my front yard looking intentional, tidy, and appropriate to my neighborhood setting, I kept the plants under twenty four inches mature height, except for a few accents. My neighbors are already giving me funny looks about all the flags in my yard!

Yet to be included in the planting, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium is a must have for pollinators and for its delicious minty scent.

My co-workers have all taken their work home with them too; planting natives in their home landscapes and seeing the wonderful change in biodiversity these plants bring . It was time for me to do the same! Once the garden matures, I hope it inspires others to convert more of their underused front yard space to valuable, attractive wildlife habitat.

What Do Pollinators Need?

One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom.   This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).  It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies.  They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant.  It was fun to watch and listen.

That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations.  With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators? 

It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size.  This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators.  Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.     

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Skipper butterfly on Tall Boneset Eupatorium altissimum

3. Create Habitat in your Yard

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl crescent butterflies meet at the watering hole – Photo by Dave Osborne

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their life cycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

Sumac in the Garden

Sumac might not be what you imagine when you think of an outstanding garden plant. Native sumac often grows on roadsides or prairie draws, and would be unruly in the home landscape. But there are two cultivated varieties that are wonderful additions to the garden — Gro-Low Sumac and Tiger Eyes Sumac. With all the loveliness of native sumac, but much more manageable.

Rhus aromatica Gro-Low has leaves that look similar to poison ivy, but this plant is completely harmless.

Gro-Low sumac is perfect for that spot in your yard you don’t want to maintenance anymore. It grows only sixteen to eighteen inches tall but sprawls out six to eight feet. A shrubby groundcover, it needs no mowing or trimming, no fertilizing, no attention at all! Poor soil in full or part sun will do just fine, and is very drought tolerant once established. It produces small green flowers in the spring, well-loved by native bees, and a brilliant red-orange leaf color in fall. Plant it with Prunus besseyi, little bluestem grass, or even Raydon’s Favorite Aster for groundcover that dazzles.

The native Rhus aromatica bush has lovely fall color, and gets much taller than the Gro-Low variety. Photo by Emily Weaver

Tiger Eyes sumac has been become a landscape favorite for Arboretum staff. They seem to find a place in every landscape design and new garden bed. Chartreuse leaves turn orange in the fall, and they can tolerate lots of hot sun and drought. They can grow between four and six feet tall. Poor soil is no problem; they are highly adaptable. Fuzzy stems and interesting branching make this plant wonderful to observe anytime of the year. Plant it with Amsonia and Red October big bluestem for a memorable fall color show!

These Tiger Eyes Rhus in the Prairie Lakes edition of Showalter Villa are thriving in full sun. We are always happy when we see native plants in the landscapes of our neighboring organizations!

These sumac will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 5-8. Staff can help you find the right plants for your landscape, and your purchase supports the Arboretum’s mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

Concentration of Blooms

When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.

A profusion of purple is about to happen at Dyck Arboretum when the annual Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) hits its colorful stride in late August to early September.

A Long Growing Season in Kansas

The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.

The angst I have in knowing that rigid sunflower (Helianthus rigidus) is having an increasingly dominating presence in our Arboretum prairie reconstruction is slightly soothed by the salve of its showy floral display in mid-September.

When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.

Prominent Prairie Grasses in July

This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.

Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pychnostachya) looks great when it blooms around our pond edge in late July, especially because of its eye-catching repetition.

Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers

My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.

Sunflower family plants wash this mountain-side in yellow with the punctuation of purple penstemon and red Indian paintbrush along Brush Creek Trail above Crested Butte, the so-called “Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.”

During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.

While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.

Creamy-colored beargrass (not a grass, but a lily) and pink subalpine spirea provide landscaping inspiration along the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

Encore Blog: Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Posted on August 8, 2019 by Scott Vogt

(Originally published on March 29, 2017)

Something interesting is happening to our front yards.  They are slowly shrinking.  The typical large expanse of green lawn is being replaced with low-maintenance, drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses.   Homeowners are realizing that this alternative to a mowed lawn has its advantages.  Certainly, this new paradigm will require less water over time, but it can be functional and beautiful as well.  The potential environmental impacts of making this change can be significant.

Shady area at Arboretum converted from fescue turf to columbine, blue star and other perennials and shrubs.

Lawn grasses such as fescue and bluegrass require more mowing and watering than native landscapes.  Here are some facts about lawns and their impact on the environment:

  • There are some 80 million home lawns across the country
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually
  • Nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • Approximately $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

If you are tired of the traditional front yard and wish to reduce your lawn, a simple landscape design focused on native plants can make a real difference.  With their deep roots, native plants can adapt to the regional climate and ecological conditions, while also addiing diversity, reducing maintenance and attracting a host of wildlife and pollinators.  Use these simple steps as a guide to develop a native front yard.

Step 1: Plan your design, start small

I prefer to lay out a garden hose to get the curves and flow that I want.  It is a great way to “fiddle” with the design before tearing anything up.  Start small by removing a section of lawn that you can manage.  You can convert other areas over the next few years.

Step 2: Investigate plant types

Think about the type of plants that will grow in your area.  I group shrubs, perennials and grasses to add impact in the landscape.  Strategically locating small trees such as redbuds and disease resistant crabapples will give height and take up space in the design. Are there some evergreen trees and shrubs that will give some splashes of green especially in winter?

Investigate the types of plants you wish to include in your yard.  Plan your garden for a succession of bloom to guarantee there are always a few plants flowering throughout the year. These native plants provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  A few plants such as milkweed can provide food for larvae and fruits and seeds will feed the birds.  A monoculture of lawn can be transformed into a landscape alive with diversity and activity.

Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and mixed prairie plantings

Step 3: Find your plants

Find the plants you need for your design by checking with local nurseries, or you can use our Native Plant Guide 2019.  Steal ideas from nature or visit the Arboretum to gather ideas of combinations and groupings that grow well together.  Then purchase the plants you want at our sale in April or September and get them in the ground.

Earth Partnership for Schools Prairie Planting along walkway to school

It will be great to see your front yard transformed into an oasis for pollinators and birds.  You will be able to look out your front window at a diverse and functional landscape that has a positive impact on the environment.  It will be a landscape that fuels pollinators and supports all sorts of birds and other wildlife.  It will be a landscape that is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, but maybe just a smaller place than in the past.*  It is not a bad thing to replace some of our lawn areas with beautiful and attractive trees, shrubs and other perennials.  Just think about the possibilities.

*If you like a larger expanse of lawn, but wish to consider drought-tolerant alternatives, consider buffalograss as an option.

Trusted Plants for Kansas Landscapes

It has been an interesting year weather-wise, to say the least.  We have seen monsoon flooding and sweltering heat.  I would like to say that this is another typical year in Kansas, but I don’t know what typical is anymore.  So with all the highs and lows, wet and dry, what will grow here?  How can you choose trusted plants with confidence, knowing that they are right for your site?

Plants are the best teachers

The simple answer is to look to nature to show you the way.  Plants are the best teachers.  So go ahead and choose plants that you believe will grow without much input on your part.  After a year or two you will have a pretty good idea which plants grow best.  You will need to plant more of the plants that are thriving and find a new space for those that are struggling.  Every good gardener has had their share of plant failures, but they keep finding new plants that work.  Don’t get discouraged, this is all part of the process of growing plants in a harsh environment. 

A display of Black-eyed Susan, Russian sage, and blue star.

Every Landscape is Unique    

The other thing to keep in mind is that every landscape is different.  What works for your neighbor may or may not work for you.  The plants they use may not be your cup of tea.  Choose plants you like and appreciate to make your landscape uniquely yours.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to bring you joy, fulfillment and increase your confidence to try new things. 

Start Small

Start with a small area and slowly expand it.  This way your garden doesn’t overwhelm you.  From weeding, to watering, to maintaining your garden space, establish a garden you can manage with just a few hours each week.  More than likely, it will not be perfect the first time, but with trial and error you will discover the types of plants that work in your areas. 

Rattlesnake master with red switchgrass

A Reflection of You

From those humble beginnings, you will have a space that reflects your interests and tastes.  Here are a few of my favorite “go to” plants.  I confidently use these plants because they are quite adaptable and provide consistent color, texture and/or bloom.  Some of these plants may work for you too. 

Grasses for Sun

  • Switchgrass: Panicum ‘Northwind’, ‘Ruby Ribbons’, or ‘Purple Tears’
  • Prairie dropseed: Sporobolus heterolepis
  • Blue grama: Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’
  • Little bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Standing Ovation’, or ‘Jazz’
  • Feather reed grass: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (Not native, but it has nice form and texture)

Wildflowers for Sun

  • Aster: Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’, Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’, Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady in Black’, Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ or ‘October Skies’
  • Ornamental onion: Allium ‘Millennium’
  • Blue star: Amsonia hubrichtii, amsonia illustris and ‘Blue Ice’
  • Baptisia varieties
  • Coneflowers: Echinacea angustifolia, pallida, and paradoxa.  Hybrid varieties are nice if properly placed.
  • Rattlesnake master: Eryngium yuccifolium 
  • Blazing stars: Liatris aspera, punctata, pycnostachya and spiccata
  • Primrose: Oenothera missouriensis
  • Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’
  • Wild quinine: Parthenium integrifolium
  • Black-eyed Susan: Rudbeckia missouriensis, fulgida, maxima, or triloba
  • Goldenrod: Solidago ‘Golden Baby’, drummondii, nemorails, rigida, ‘Fireworks’, or ‘Wichita Mountains’
  • Spiderwort: Tradescantia ohiensis
  • Ironplant: Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’

Grasses and Wildflowers for Part Shade

Yarrow, Amsonia, Aster divaricatus ‘Easter Star’, Solomon’s Seal, Coreopsis, Heliopsis, Monarda, coneflowers, phlox, coral bells, Rudbeckia, goldenrod, culver’s root, golden alexander, prairie dropseed, river oats (use with caution), sedges, and bottlebrush grass.

Design by Time and Color

The construction of our new HUB (Horticulture and Utility Building) meant a lot of new sidewalk installation to go with it. And whenever there is cement work around here, there is always a lot of disturbed turf grass and less-than-desirable fill dirt. Instead of reseeding more grass in the areas adjacent to the sidewalk and fighting the weed growth, I decided to put in a new garden. In only two short years, that garden has grown more quickly and successfully than I could have hoped! I designed it in a snap using just three main guidelines: light, color palette, bloom time.


I focused my design on purple. With the part sun conditions in the middle of the bed my bee balm, blue eyed grass and spike speedwell felt right at home.

Light

This space was a delight to design because of its unique conditions and shape. Long and narrow, it spans length of the sidewalk and changes gradually from full sun to full shade as you walk towards the HUB. It irrigated by the same system that keeps our fescue green and lush in that area. These factors gave me endless plant options — a garden situation anyone could design!

Starry champion or widowsfrill (Silene stellata) is a little known shade plant sporting fringed white blooms through June and July. Wonderful for adding a wispy, airy texture to the bed.

Timing the Blooms

I narrowed it down to mostly spring and fall blooming plants for this area. The adjacent sidewalk leads right to our FloraKansas plant festival, so I planned for the biggest impact at the highest traffic times. I have nicknamed this garden the ‘display bed’ because it allows our plant shoppers to see what the plants look like in the ground, actively growing in a garden before they buy them. This justifies the unusually high species diversity in this bed, breaking from my personal style of simplicity and mass planting.

In spring, copper iris blooms tower over the blue-eyed grass clumps. Purples and oranges always pair well together, and the foliage similarities between these two help carry on a grassy texture throughout the bed.

Pick Your Palette

Papaver orientale ‘Royal Wedding’ stuns in white and purple. The whites blooms in a garden help to blend and unify other colors that might clash.

Color was key in my plant selection. In this area we have a lot of fescue grass and pine trees. These all fall into the cool green spectrum of color. To contrast that, I chose lots of reds, pinks and warm purples to populate the garden space. Purple and reds are not colors I like to use heavily in garden design, but it really works against all the cool tones of that area.

Monarda “Cherry Pops” is still beautiful even as its blooms are fading.

I stuck with mostly non-woody plants so that I can mow down this bed in the spring without fear of damaging a shrub. The only shrubs I included were ‘Proud Berry’ Symphoricarpos — the pink matte-finish berries are too cute to pass up! I placed the shrubs in the back of the garden so they are out of the way for maintenance of the rest of the bed.

Designing a cohesive, attractive new garden bed can be simplified by giving a little thought to these three important factors. If the thought of balancing light, color palette and bloom time still sounds overwhelming to you, email us to schedule a landscape consultation. We are here to help!

Landscape Design Principles: Plant Placement, Proportions and Scale

Plant placement, proportions and scale – these three elements of a successful design are really straight forward, but often overlooked.  They hinge on a certain level of understanding regarding plant height and spread at maturity.  These design principles also require you to incorporate clusters, sweeps and groupings of plants that look natural together with a succession of bloom all through the year. 

Plant Placement

When I start a design, I think about where the bed is going to be viewed.  Is it from the street?  Is it from the living room?  Will I want to view it from different vantage points?  This helps me frame the landscape.  For instance, if you have a foundation planting, you would obviously put the taller plants in the back working down in layers to the smaller plants along the border/edge of the bed.  If you were designing an island planting that would be viewed from both sides, I would plant the taller plants in the center with shorter plants spaced around the central focal point.  It seems obvious, but we don’t always think about sight lines. 

Another element of effective plant placement is bloom time.  With native plants, you need to think about succession of bloom.  You want to have plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Don’t plant two spring blooming plants next to each other, but rather plant a spring blooming wildflower next to a grass or later season blooming wildflower.  By incorporating plants that have color at varying times, you have something interesting happening year-round. 

Proportion and Scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late.  The beds you design and the plants you include should look appropriate with the size of your home or the size of the flower bed.  As a general rule, I include plants that are no larger than half the bed width.  For instance, if your area is eight feet wide, try to find plants that are no taller than four feet.  Sometimes, smaller beds are all we have to work with, such as the small area between a sidewalk and your home.  Maybe it is only three feet wide.  Don’t try to put plants that are four to five feet all in that space.  It will flop onto the sidewalk and look out of place. 

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

If you are starting from scratch, lay out a garden hose away from your foundation.  Take note of the gentle curve around your home.  I like to have at least four to six feet of width to work with.  That gives you so many more plants to choose and include in your design.   On the corners, I like to give myself a little more room of maybe up to 10-12 feet.  This allows larger plants to be combined to soften the corner.  You probably have a picture in your mind of what you want to frame the views and keep it simple.  A garden that is too busy and out of proportion detracts from your home rather than complementing it. 

Again, it is important to know how tall and wide each of the plants will grow.  I like to include plants that will fill in the spaces available to them.  Really think about the plants you want to have near sidewalks, windows, patios, and porches.  You don’t want to be continually cutting them back when they have outgrown the space. 

It sounds so simple, but these are the design principles I struggle with the most.  There is so much to consider with each design, from site analysis, plant habit and bloom times, textural elements, and so much more.  We can’t have it all, but a basic understanding of scale, proportions and plant placement will help you create a successful design.  Now is the time to get started.  If you need help, we will be happy to work with you during our remaining Native Plant School classes or at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Landscape Design Principle: Lines

A native plant design is a highly subjective project.  The plants you like may not be the ones I would choose and vice versa.  Your garden area is unique to you.  Sun, soil, moisture conditions can vary as well.  The canvas you are painting on will look distinctly different than my artistic design.  As we strive to create a sense of place in our landscapes, our medium is the land.  Even though each garden is one-of-a-kind, there are a few design principles that we all should follow.  Over the coming weeks, we will discuss some of these design principles.

Today, we will be tackle lines within the garden. 

Lines should be used to draw people in and through the garden.  They appeal to the senses.  They lead you through the garden and help frame views we see or don’t want seen.

Straight lines

Long, straight rows of plants can be rather formal.  They are structural, often symmetrical and lead the eye directly to the focal point like the front door.  Straight lines can be boring if you don’t cluster plants and repeat patterns.  The strong straight line of a fence can be softened with a sweeping curved edge or accentuated with parallel plantings that run the length of the fence.

Vertical lines

These lines move you up and down in the landscape.  Taller trees, larger structural features such as an arbor should make your eyes go upward.  They make the space feel larger and help enclose the space. 

Horizontal lines

Just like vertical lines lead your eye skyward, horizontal lines lead your eye along the ground plane.  These low lines help define the space and work to tie everything together.  Rock walls, edging with plants or stone, hedges, or a clean line between turf and plants are examples that create these intentional low lines.

Curved lines

Curved lines look intentional and informal.  Gently bending lines can be used to lead people slowly around a corner to an architectural feature or element such as a bench, garden shed, arbor or vegetable garden, which adds mystery and intrigue to your garden space.  Curved lines can help dissolve rigid straight lines of a walkway, fence, house or other structural feature.  Curved lines fit better in a natural asymmetrical design using native plants.  I like to place a garden hose on the ground to help me visualize these meandering lines.  As you step back to look, you are able to move the hose to create the effect that is most appealing before you break ground on your new garden. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Be intentional in grouping plants.

No matter the lines you use in your landscape, plants obviously play a key role.  Formal and informal looks can be achieved with the use of certain plants grouped together or spread apart.  Cluster plants together for more visual appeal.  Repeat structural plants like native grasses and incorporate filler plants throughout the design that bloom at different times during the year to draw you into the garden and through the garden.  Plants that spill over onto the straight lines of a walkway soften the edge. The possibilities are endless because there are so many plants to choose.  How you use lines will distinguish your design from others.  Really think about this important design principle and what lines you want to use.        

Next time, we will talk about plant placement, proportions and scale.