Continuous Color in Your Prairie Garden

Many people ask for prairie plants that bloom continually from spring through fall.  There are no such plants growing in the prairie. Prairies rather have seasons; each time you look at them, something has changed. If you think about it, there are always plants coming into bloom and others going out of bloom throughout the year. “Petunias” don’t exist in the prairie, so to integrate wildflowers into the landscape, you must mix bloom times and plant heights. 

This list, ordered according to bloom time, will be a starting point as you think about establishing a prairie garden with continuous bloom. 

SPRING

Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a popular landscape plant with large yellow flowers from May-June and maybe again later in September atop waxy green foliage.  It stands 8-10 inches and likes a sunny location.  Dwarf blue false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) can be found in pastures and prairie remnants throughout the state.  It is usually less than 24 inches tall and its beautiful light blue to lavender flower spikes can be seen above the emerging prairie grasses in May and June. The foliage is unique with its waxy blue green leaves which eventually dries to an intriguing black color in fall. Dwarf blue false indigo thrives in full sun, tolerates clay heavy soil,and needs little supplemental watering throughout the summer months.  Other spring wildflowers include purple poppy mallow, penstemon, amsonia, shooting star, yarrows and golden alexanders.

Missouri Evening Primrose

SUMMER

Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) can be seen throughout the state during the early summer months.  Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet.  Whether it be the true species or one of the many new cultivars, purple coneflowers cannot be beat for their adaptability to sun or light shade, and the mid to late summer color they provide.  Purple coneflowers prefer moist, but well drained soil. Pale coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) can be seen throughout the Flint Hills and tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas.  Growing to three feet tall, pale coneflower is a drought tolerant and heat resistant addition to the garden.  Make sure it gets full sun in a well-drained soil.  The slender pale purple ray flowers (hence the name) in June and early July are sure to brighten up any perennial garden. Narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is shorter than pale coneflower.  It averages 16 inches to 18 inches with short, wide, pink ray petals that bloom in late May and early June in south-central Kansas. Its range is the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the central Great Plains.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is perhaps the most recognizable prairie plant. Its adaptability, vibrant colors and the lure of pollinating insects make it an excellent choice.  Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep fibrous root system.  Flowers range in color from the deepest reds in eastern Kansas to orange and even yellows further west in Kansas.  It prefers full sun and good drainage and it will tolerate light shade. Once established, it is very drought tolerant.  Several cultivated varieties have been developed including ‘Gay Butterflies’ and ‘Hello Yellow’.

Gayfeathers/BlazingStars (Liatris sp.) are true symbols of the prairie.  There are seven species that are native to the state, all bloom during the late summer and early fall.  Their upright spikes crowed with rose-purple flower heads add a vertical dimension to the last season landscape. Thickspike gayfeather, (Liatris pycnostachya) the past Kansas Native Plant Society wildflower of the year,found in the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas is the tallest ultimately reaching up to five feet.  Rough gayfeather (L. aspera) is generally only about three feet tall and occurs in dry, rocky, tallgrass prairies and open woods in the eastern half of Kansas.  Several other worth mentioning are L. muconata, L. ligulystylis, L. spicata, L. squarossaLiatris spicata is the most common blazing star in the nursery trade but all would make a nice addition to any garden.  Other summer bloomers are black-eyed susan, purple prairie clover, and other milkweeds.

Purple Coneflower with Bumble Bee

FALL

Asters fill the gap between the relentless heat of summer and the frosty chills of autumn.  They complete the cycle of bloom in the prairie. There are more than 30 different asters represented in the Great Plains.  One of the showiest of the asters is New England aster (Aster novae-angliae).  It reaches up to 6 feet in height and has pinkish purple or lavender ray flowers.  It is found blooming in September and October in medium to moist tallgrass prairies. Other asters such as Aromatic asters ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’ are wonderful late season bloomers.  Another nice low growing aster is heath aster ‘Snow Flurry’.  Include some goldenrod and Iron plants to add color options to the autumn garden.

Aster ‘October Skies’ in full bloom

WINTER

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of the many prairie grasses that add winter interest to the landscape.  Taller grasses like and big bluestem, swithgrass, indiangrass will provide texture and movement in the garden.  These grasses are drought tolerant with deep roots systems that sustain them even through the harshest conditions.  Look for switchgrass cultivars like ‘Cheyenne Sky’, ‘Northwind’ and ‘Totem Pole’

Little Bluestem with beautiful fall color

This is one of several design principles that are key to the success of any prairie garden.  It is one of the easier design elements to incorporate.  To learn more about using native plants in your landscape, join us for one or all of our native plant school classes in the new year.

Water Conservation in the Home Landscape

Over the past few years, there has been a renewed emphasis on water conservation.  An ever increasing number of communities in Kansas and elsewhere are realizing that water is a finite resource.  These concerns are causing them to ask hard questions and ask homeowners to look for ways to reduce water usage, but still keep an attractive landscape.

The need for better stewardship of this precious resource, paired with higher municipal water rates, makes this a good time for us all to consider ways to reduce water consumption in our homes and in our landscapes.  The basic approach to reducing water usage in the landscape centers on efficient design, proper site preparation, and the use of low water-demand plants. All these work together to help conserve water. Collectively, these principles make up an approach to landscaping termed “xeriscaping” (“xeri” meaning “dry”).

Tha Arboretum xeric bed in May.

From the standpoint of design, a key principle is the reduction of turf area. Turf grasses such as fescue and bluegrass demand the most water of all of the components in the landscape.  Consequently, reducing the amount of area planted with these turf grasses and thinking strategically about where and why we need turf areas will make a tremendous difference.  Replacing them with deep rooted perennials and shrubs will also reduce water usage.  Another option in sunny areas is to use buffalograss, a native, drought tolerant grass, in place of a high water-demand grass like fescue.

A home owner beginning to reduce the amount of turf in the landscape. These mulched areas were planted with drought tolerant perennials.

The Arboretum buffalograss in the summer

Another water-conserving measure that can influence your design is to separate the landscape into zones according to water usage, with areas that are difficult to water, or which are less-used, being planted with trees, shrubs and perennials that require less water to maintain them. Zoning an irrigation system to accommodate the water requirement of the different areas of the landscape further aids conservation.

Proper preparation of the site is also an important consideration. Constructing retaining walls, or terraces, where steep slopes favor excessive water runoff is one suggestion.  The planting of deep rooted wildflowers and native grasses are another viable option to holding these slopes in place.

Planting wetland species along the Arboretum rain garden near the greenhouse. These plants quickly established and are holding the shore of the rain garden from eroding.

The use of mulches to cool the soil and reduce water evaporation is also helpful.  A newer technique is the inter-planting of wildflowers and grasses that mimics the natural prairie system.  By planting closely so all layers are covered with plants from the ground level to the higher, more ornamental plants, you will also reduce overall water needs while reducing weed competition.

Obviously, a major part of an overall water conservation program is the use of low water-demand plants. Native plants are particularly valuable for this, since they are already adapted to the region’s precipitation amounts and patterns as well as summer heat and winter cold. Once established, these plants should do well with little or no supplemental irrigation.

Photo by Brad Guhr

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum. Photo by Brad Guhr.

At the Arboretum, we are concerned about water conservation from both an ecological and economic standpoint.  We think critically about the plants we use.  This is not a perfect system, but we manage to maintain our 30 acres with a water budget of only $7,000 or less.  I think this is quite a feat, since we have so many intensively managed and beautiful display areas.  Buffalograss is used extensively as turf and we select deep rooted native and adaptable perennial, trees, and shrubs.

The reasons for conserving water are many.  It will take all of us doing our part to begin to reverse the water trends.  Why wait to have water restrictions forced on us? With a few changes now, we can save ourselves money and benefit the environment in the process.

Regal Fritillary on yellow butterfly weed. Photo by Brad Guhr






Finding More Meaning in Our Food

We talk quite a bit about landscaping with native plants in this Dyck Arboretum blog space. Native plants have productive flowers and fruits, which benefit our sustainable landscape aesthetics and provide habitat for wildlife. The initial establishment process of prairie garden planting, watering, mulching, and tending is very similar to food gardening. I spend a fair amount of time gardening with both native plants and food, and I’m wondering why we don’t utilize more of both in our landscapes.

The practices of raising native plants…                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

…and food plants are not all that different.                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Everybody needs, wants, and loves food. Most of us in the U.S. eat food three times per day, if not more. The amounts and kinds of food we eat relate to our culture, income, and health. Food is critical to our human physical well-being, and I would even argue that food is an important part of our emotional and mental well-being. Agriculture is also deeply related to the health of our Kansas environment and economy. Food just plain matters.

Searching for Meaning

I view eating food on a spectrum of connection and enjoyment. On the least connected and lowest enjoyment end of the spectrum, I would order from a fast food pick up window or open a can of tuna and loaf of bread to gain quick, easy calories for a meal. On the other higher connection and enjoyment end of this spectrum, I would grow/raise, sometimes home preserve, prepare, share, and eat a meal over a couple of hours with family and friends. And I would enjoy all the love that went into that meal – from the garden to plate. I definitely find more happiness, meaningfulness, and even entertainment in the latter end of the spectrum, but it also requires more effort, education, and time. In this regard, I think our society, in general, would benefit from doing more rituals of hunting, gathering, growing, and preserving of our own food.

Food acquisition and preservation rituals can bring people calories and joy.  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Every calorie we eat has its own story and sum of energy required to get it from farm to plate. We learned a great deal about this topic during our spring 2011 Locavores on the Prairie Symposium. Barbara Kingsolver explores this topic in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Few of us in this world of increasingly accessible food will spend an entire year eating food raised from within a 100-mile radius of where we live as the Kingsolver Family did.  But doing so would certainly cut down on the size of our carbon footprint and add to our enjoyment of food if we could eat food sourced as locally as possible.

The Problems – Poverty and Disconnect

Poverty – The U.S. may be a developed country, but poverty and/or a variety of other barriers here (disabilities, single parents working multiple jobs, substance abuse, etc.) lead to food insecurity and prevent families from getting adequate, quality food. In my home City of Newton, KS, 80+ percent of kids in a number of the elementary schools qualify for free or reduced fee breakfast and lunch programs. Backpack food assistance programs organized by the Kansas Food Bank and supported by local churches and organizations try to help fill some of the calorie voids for families with elementary-aged children. However, these backpacks do not meet all nutrition needs and are filled with mostly dried or preserved foods that can sit in storage for long periods of time until consumed. The adults in these homes may not have the resources or abilities to grow/raise/hunt/gather/buy adequate supplies of food nor model those healthy behaviors for the children in the household. Not only are these children not getting the calories they need, but they also are not learning the good food-raising habits to pass along to future generations either.

Disconnect

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” ~Aldo Leopold

Advancing technologies in agriculture, transportation, and food preservation make it even easier for people in urban areas with adequate resources to have food wherever and whenever they want it. There is a tradeoff though…people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food they consume. The first food-related part of Leopold’s famous quote above is coming true. We know less and less about the origins and journeys of our food.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” ~Wendell Berry

Aldo Leopold biographer, Curt Meine, introduced me to this Wendell Berry quote at a 2017 Land Ethic Conference in Baraboo, WI entitled “Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide”, and it certainly resonates with me. According to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report, 81% of the U.S. population is urban, and 19% is rural. This disparity continues to grow. This statistic tells me that fewer and fewer people (including children) know where their food comes from. Fewer and fewer people (including children) know how the growth, transport, production, and processing of that food impacts their environment and their health. But everybody (including every child) wants a clean environment and personal health. There is a growing disconnect here.

Can we fit more food plots into the human part of this spectrum?             Photo Credit: Curt Meine

There Is Hope

Schools would be an excellent place to teach some of these important life skills of growing food. Schools can help empower students to combat the food-related problems created by poverty and disconnect. Growing food plants alongside native plants in school gardens would not be very different from what we already promote through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. Growing Kansas-adapted flowering prairie plants that can attract beneficial insect pollinators and predators next to tomatoes, squash and peppers – while adding pleasing aesthetics – can only be a good thing, right?

Fortunately, we do not need to start from scratch in this endeavor, because inspiring examples are already out there to guide us. The following people are passionate and experienced in their successful efforts to teach kids and local communities how to grow their own food.

Stephen RitzGreen Bronx Machine, New York City, NY – “We are a whole school approach to education rooted in health, wellness, and mindfulness.” By getting kids to grow, consume, and distribute food using school gardens, he is helping improve student grades, attendance, and performance. Through the Green Bronx Machine, Stephen is cultivating minds and harvesting hope. Using urban agriculture aligned to key school performance indicators, the program grows healthy students and healthy schools to transform communities that are fragmented and marginalized into neighborhoods that are inclusive and thriving. A visual component of their gardening projects includes vegetables growing via indoor towers.

Stephen Ritz                      Photo Credit: Green Bronx Machine

Will Allen – Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI – The story of Growing Power is an interesting one. Former professional basketball player, author and genius grant winner, Will Allen, grew up on a farm in Maryland. Through the entity Growing Power, which he started with the priorities of growing compost and mentoring youth, Allen became one of the most influential nationwide leaders of the food security & urban farming movement. Turning vacant lots of Milwaukee into vegetable-growing gardens, Allen’s organization successfully raised compost, worms, tilapia through aquaponics, bees, chickens, goats, and more. Growing Power dissolved in 2017 due to mounting debt and Allen’s retirement, but for more than 20 years, through workshops, internships, and leadership programs, Growing Power inspiringly trained and exposed thousands of people to a more community-based relationship with their food.

Will Allen                    Photo Credit: Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Michael HowardEden Place, Chicago, IL – In the Fuller Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Michael Howard has helped turn a former dump site into an oasis of food production and biological diversity that promotes nature conservation and urban agriculture. Their story is helping transform the conversation in this area from lead poisoning and urban blite to nature conservation and urban agriculture. Environmental education at Eden Place focuses on undoing cultural disconnect and scars of the past through hands-on food production and habitat restoration. New funds and programming are focused on bringing stronger science proficiency for students, teachers, and families.

Michael Howard                      Photo Credit: Mike Nowak

Jared Hall – Coleman Middle School, Wichita, KS – An inspiring local example of kids learning about community-based food systems can be found at Coleman Middle School in Wichita. 7th Grade Science Teacher, Jared Hall, makes science fun with hands-on, project-based learning endeavors, including a honey-making beehive in the classroom, vegetable gardens just outside the door, and chickens and rabbits on the playground. Hall is teaching economics, entrepreneurship, botany, and ecology in the process and his students are having a great time while learning.

Jared Hall                           Photo Credit: Coleman Middle School

I attended the Kansas Rural Center 2018 Farm & Food Conference last week and learned that there are many more inspiring sustainable food examples out there to learn about and emulate. Mary Hendrickson, Rural Sociology Professor from the University of Missouri, taught us about the sustainability of Community-Based Food Systems. Donna Pearson McClish of Common Ground in Wichita taught us about food deserts in south-central Kansas and what she is doing to combat them. Terrell Dyer and Aaron Marks of Project RALLY in Kansas City presented about how their urban gardening program is focused on Respect, Accountability, Love, Leadership, and Youth.

The Future of Food

There are good ecological reasons for mixing native plants with food plots as highlighted in the Xerces Society Book, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

Polyculture farming solutions have been a successful message of the Land Institute for decades. But these are topics for future blog posts.

Stay tuned for possible food-laden tweaks to the Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools Program in the future.






Native Grasses in the Garden

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses, not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they do not have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes.

With long narrow leaves and upright habit of growth, grasses have a fine texture, which can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens.  They can also be used alone as accent plants in the landscape. Many grasses produce attractive seed clusters and have foliage that changes color at the end of the summer.  The dried foliage of grasses can be left standing through the winter, adding movement and texture to the landscape when garden flowers are dormant and tree branches bare.

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe. There are a number of different grasses from our prairies, however, that also make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well adapted to our soil and climate.

Big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive plants in the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders as screens and as accent plants.  Switchgrass is the most common of these added to landscape designs because of cultivars like ‘Northwind’, ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Totem Pole’, which offer consistent height and color year after year.

Like the leaves of certain trees, the foliage of these grasses also changes color with the onset of fall.  Big bluestem is particularly noted for its reddish fall color. Each of these species also produce distinctive seed clusters that add interest to the plant toward the end of the growing season. The seed clusters are shaped like a turkey’s foot.  Indiangrass produce attractive golden plumes.  Switchgrass seed cluster are open and feathery.

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Sand lovegrass is another attractive taller species. It grows 3-4 feet tall and is found in sandy prairie areas.  It produces graceful arching foliage and open, airy seed heads.

Although found throughout much of the Great Plains, little bluestem and sideoats grama are two grasses that are particularly characteristic of the mixed grass prairie region of central Kansas. Both make beautiful additions to gardens and landscapes.

Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall.  Its landscape value is enhanced by its attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. There are several selections that offer nice winter coloration and sturdy habit.

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Sideoats grama is of similar height.  The most ornamental attribute of this grass is its beautiful seed clusters.  The seeds hang gracefully from one side of the seed stalk, giving the plant a windswept look, even when the air is still. The Sioux Indians called this plant “banner-waving-in-the-wind grass.”

Prairie Dropseed is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough, that they are often planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. Yet these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.






Beautiful Bee Balm

Even though the grasses of the prairie are drying up and seed heads are ripening, creeping quietly beneath it all is bee balm – still green and growing. I have stumbled on to quite a bit of it around our grounds as I begin to hang Christmas lights through the gardens. I can tell when I am tromping through a patch of bee balm because of the fresh, minty smell the crushed leaves exude. Extremely hardy and adaptive, monarda species stay green long into fall and early winter. Bee balm is a timeless prairie flower, and an excellent performer in the landscape.
Here are some tips to getting the most from your Monarda!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

Know Before You Grow

Though bee balm is quite adaptable, each species has its preferences and will thrive in specific environments. Monarda fistulosa, for example, is native to much of North America and thrives in full to part sun conditions. You may have heard this plant referred to as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. This is the species you are most likely to find in the prairies of eastern Kansas. Monarda didyma, however, prefers a much shadier and protected environment. This type of bee balm is native to eastern regions of the US and cannot handle our full Kansas sun. There are countless varieties of bee balm, specially made to fit any color scheme or garden space. Just be sure to check the parentage of the cultivar to know what its true growth habits are.

‘Cherry Pops’ Bee Balm. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Not Just For Bees

As I mentioned earlier, Monarda species often have common names that refer to its culinary use. It is sometimes called wild bergamot because of its aroma, reminiscent of bergamot orange oil in Earl Grey tea. The use of bee balm as a tea has a long history within the nations of Native Americans, for its pleasant taste and medicinal properties. I have personally had tea made from bee balm growing right here on the Arboretum grounds, and I love the warm, spicy flavor. I have even seen people use the flowers as cake decorations and in salads! Do your research and be sure you have edible species of bee balm growing in your garden before you decide to make any herbal concoctions of your own.

Monarda seed heads in winter add lovely texture to the landscape.

The Mildew Dilemma

One of bee balm’s fatal flaws is its tendency to contract powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that causes the leaves to look as if they have been dusted with powdered sugar. This affliction causes leaves to twist and break off, and can lead to quite a bit of defoliation. It usually doesn’t harm the health of the plant, but can make it look a little sickly through the growing season. There are lots of ways to treat this issue, from conscientious watering to chemical options, as well as low-cost low-impact homemade remedies. Even though Monarda is so susceptible to this disease, it still stays in my top list of landscape plants because of its floriforus habit, aromatic leaves and pollinator attraction. As you see in the photo above, it even looks nice in the winter when the globe-shaped seed heads make their debut!






Pathways in Your Garden

On a cool crisp morning in October, I meandered through the Prairie Window Project here at the Arboretum.  The frost was clinging heavily on all the plants.  I would have been wet if not for the pathway leading me between the tall grasses. It made me thankful for that wide gravel path.

This path is less than ideal, because the rocks are loose and make it hard to walk.  It will take smaller stones and work compacting the path to make it easier to navigate.  It made me think about garden paths in general.  What are the best paths for gardens?

Rock Paths

Stone is a fantastic pathway material.  It has a natural look and can be made very hard and stable.  We have many paths with stone and they seem to hold up to our climate well.

To establish a stone path, we often dig out the soil two to three inches deep to get a good base for the path.  We have used edging (metal, wood, or larger stone) or established paths without edging. Both strategies work fine. Edged paths look more formal, while non-edged paths tend to blend into their surroundings better.  We spread larger limestone (1-2 inch stone) in the bottom of the trench and then cover with smaller limestone (3/4 inch) with fine pieces to weave and bind the path together. It is good to have the path slightly higher than the ground so that water does not stand on the path.  Also, consider drainage and water flow to make sure your path does not become a dam and impede water movement.  We usually add new limestone every two to three years as needed, because the stone will naturally breakdown over time.

Note about other stone: We have used pea gravel and sand, but neither makes a stable walking surface.

Mulch Paths

Mulch paths are the most organic substrate.  They naturally blend into the landscape, while softening the edges of display beds and lawns.  Developing a new path is similar to rock paths.  As with rock, mulch decomposes over time and needs to be replenished.  Larger pieces mixed with finer pieces interlock the mulch and keep it firm.  It will never be as firm and hard as a rock path, but makes a nice cushy surface in which to walk through your garden.

Straw Paths

I have used straw in my garden and it makes a wonderful path.  The advantage of straw in this setting is that at the end of the growing season, it can be tilled into the soil to add organic matter to the soil.  A layer of two to three inches of straw will help with weed control and keep your feet from getting muddy.  I have seen it used around most vegetables.  Straw moderates soil temperatures and reduces evaporation.

Semi-permeable pavement

Permeable interlocking concrete pavers

The use of porous concrete or concrete with holes filled with sand is becoming popular. These solutions allow water to infiltrate quickly and then be held, released slowly and/or diverted to holding basins.  This has merit as we think about rain gardens and capturing water from our landscapes.  The concrete with holes are filled with sand and can be planted with grass, sedges, or some other low growing vegetation that can be walked on.  These stepable plants quickly blend the path into the landscape.  Certainly, this is the most costly of the path options, but it can do so much more than just a rock or mulch path.

Pathways are an important component of any landscape.  They lead you through the garden.  A well designed landscape has paths you don’t notice. Paths complement the garden and harmonize everything within your yard.

Semi-permeable Pavement

 






The Best Trees for Fall Color

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.’

– Chinese Proverb

 

For many reasons, fall is my favorite time of the year.  I love the cooler weather and changing landscapes.  This signals the end of another growing season, but there are still a few highlights to come. The beauty of the fall wildflowers like asters and goldenrods makes them stand out in a sea of grass.  The native grasses are at their peak with attractive seed heads and brilliant fall color.  It is also a time when trees begin to change, developing shades of red, orange, yellow, and tan.  I know winter is coming, but the crescendo of our gardens is fun to watch.

Native Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

How do trees develop fall color?

Fall color in trees is a result of a complex process of removing the green pigment, chlorophyll, from the leaves, which allows the other pigments to be seen.  For instance, carotene and xanthophyll (carotenoids) are yellow pigments that are produced all year long with chlorophyll.  With the shorter days and cooler fall temperatures, chlorophyll production is slowed and the green color slowly disappears revealing the yellow pigments that have been there all year long.  Green ash and ginkgo are good examples of trees with nice yellow fall color.

Other trees produce red and purple pigments called anthocyanins, which tend to cover the yellow pigments present in leaves during the fall.  As the fall season progresses, the increased sugar content in these leaves works to intensify these reddish-purple leaves.  American ash, shingle oak and shumard oak are nice trees with red fall color.

In trees with a combination of carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments, an orange fall color develops.  Sugar maples, smoke trees, and sweet gum trees are wonderful examples with orange fall colors.

Some of our trees have no vibrant fall color, but rather the leaves turn to tans and browns. This is caused by tannins in the leaves, which accumulate as the chlorophyll is removed from the leaves.

Fall color can be a little different every year.  Plant genetics, and environmental conditions make subtle changes from year to year fun to watch.  Each year, there is a unique beauty in the landscape that should be savored, enjoyed and not taken for granted.

White oak

My Favorite Trees for Fall Color

Shumard Red Oak (Quercus shumardii)

This oak tree will reach a height of 40-60 ft. with a nice rounded-pyramidal habit.  It is a stately tree that produces a wonderful range of colors from deep red and maroon to dark oranges.  Fall color can be quite variable from year to year depending on environmental conditions.  Other oaks worth trying: shingle oak, white oak and black oak.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Sugar Maples and many other maples are the quintessential tree for fall color. In Kansas, sugar maples are relatively slow growing but worth the wait as a mature tree can put on quite a fall display.  They reach an ultimate height of 40-50 feet tall and equal spread.  The bright red, orange and yellow leaves appear in October and last for many weeks.  Try the cultivars, ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’, ‘Flashfire’, ‘Oregon Trail’ or ‘Legacy’ for the most consistent fall color each year.

Table Rock Sugar Maple

Bald Cypress

This is not usually recognized as a tree with exceptional fall color, but when the fine leaves turn reddish-brown in the fall, it is striking.  We have planted Our specimens near the pond where the “knees” can develop. The pyramidal habit reaching 50-60 feet tall make it a majestic tree for certain situations. It is certainly worth a try.

Bald Cypress fall color

Others worth noting:

  • Viburnum rufidulum
  • Viburnum prunifolium
  • Cotinus ‘Grace’
  • Betula tremuloides ‘Prairie Gold’
  • Sassafras
  • Ginkgo ‘Autumn Gold’
  • Carya cordiformis
  • persimmon

We are already seeing signs of fall here at the Arboretum.  Fall color starts in September and ends in November with peak coloration sometime in October.  Cool night temperatures above freezing, calm winds, and sunny days will make the colors more intense.  So, even though it’s not New England, let’s enjoy the beauty of fall.

Sugar Maple






10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

I heard a great presentation this last Saturday entitled “10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows” by Katie Kingery-Page, Kansas State University (KSU) faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning. Ms. Kingery-Page was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Native Plant Society’s Annual Wildflower Weekend and her message fit perfectly with the weekend’s theme of “Native Plants in City Settings”.

I find Katie’s background of fine art, landscape design, and ecology intriguing. When she introduced herself as someone who sees landscape architecture as the design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place, I knew that her presentation was going to speak to me.

Katie’s insights in this presentation were based on her experiences with “The Meadow” Project in front of the Beach Museum of Art on the KSU campus. From 2013-16, Katie and her team of volunteers converted a half acre of neglected turf into a native plant meadow. Her 10 lessons learned from this process were as follows:

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

It takes all kinds of people to complete a big project, and she showed a diagram of a “volunteer tree” she created.

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

Their planting list started with an extensive Flint Hills species template of the plants found at nearby Konza Prairie and was carved down to the resulting planting mix. Hackberry trees removed from the planting site were milled into everything from benches to mushroom-growing media.

Schematic diagram of prairie and forest-based planting mixes. (Image by Katie Kingery-Page, 2013)

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

Their team developed a mission statement and goals including that the site would integrate art and science and be a living laboratory that would minimize the usage of water and chemicals. An outcome of this plan was to forego the conventional use of killing existing vegetation with glyphosate and instead turned to compost smothering and mechanical scraping.

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

Have patience and don’t expect an instant landscape. Using flashy, early successional flowering plants such as the annual species Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – the “bacon of plants” – helps distract onlookers that might otherwise see the weedy nature of the early stages of a planting.

Early successional, flowering “bacon” or “eye candy” plants Plains coreopsis (yellow) and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). (Image by Katie Kingery-Page)

5. Tell the Project Story

Stories of these projects need to be told and can be done so through various media. Photos, drawings, and interactive touch tables at the Beach Museum were all used to tell The Meadow Project story.

Root development and above ground biomass increase over time, which also leads to increased soil porosity.

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

Volunteer efforts were critical to the success of the project and instead of “work days”, they had “convene with monarch days” where learning experiences were an attractive part of the labor-filled get-togethers.

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

Weeding is skilled labor amounting to “surgical plant removal” and it should be rewarded. However, if money can’t be given, then at least try to find ways to acknowledge the people helping.

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

Native landscaping is perfectly imperfect and the inevitable weeds can be seen as beautiful too. Learning strategies that aid perception of such projects include maintaining a mowed edge that is critical to the perceived success of otherwise “messy” native landscapes.

All ages are welcome to weed. (Image by Richard Dean Prudenti)

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

Such projects are multi-faceted in their environmental benefits, and assessment measures should broadly include plants, soils, stormwater, wildlife, and more.

Restoration vs. Conservation – Katie used to use the word “restoration”, but there is a danger in implying that this process can fix all impacts to a diverse remnant plant community. Perhaps “conservation” is better with a focus on ecosystem functions such as soil structure, stormwater infiltration, etc.

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

Katie learned early on from school gardening projects that such endeavors need project champions to carry the project through.

“The Meadow” Project. Long view toward the Beach Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of K-State Communications and Marketing)

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The 10 lessons in this presentation were familiar to me in a variety of ways. From 2003 to 2008 at Dyck Arboretum, our staff and an extensive team of volunteers and college student interns collected seed from local prairie remnants and planted the 13-acre Prairie Window Project. Distinct examples come to mind of our project that relate to each of these lessons and I’ve blogged about various interpretations of that project over the years. It would be fun to come up with our own 10 lessons as well. I can tell you that, similar to The Meadow Project, it included the “design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place.”






How to Beautify Your Home Habitat Garden This Fall

I have said over the years that fall is a great time to plant just about anything.  I will not go into why fall is an ideal time to plant because you can read it here.  Whether you are creating a “new front yard” without turf grass or just supplementing your existing landscape, you will be rewarded in spring with healthier, heartier and well rooted plants that jump out of the ground.  The new fledgling plants you get from our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival will create a habitat garden that will be beneficial and attractive to wildlife as early as next spring.

The “New Front Lawn”

People are increasingly aware that the traditional front lawn is only marginally beneficial to wildlife compared to a habitat planting with wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.  This is an important paradigm shift as we think critically about how our landscapes can improve habitat loss.  By replacing small sections of turf with deep rooted plants, you reduce the need for water, create islands that wildlife, including pollinators, can use while increasing the overall aesthetics of your home.  This alternative to the traditional lawn starts with a thoughtful design followed by the removal of the turf you want to transition to native plants.  The area needs to be free of vegetation and problematic weeds.  Think about how you will be viewing your new landscape (from the kitchen window or from the street or both).  This process will help you lay out and stage your plants.

 

 

This gentleman is defining the new garden with a garden hose. Over the next year, he will dig up the grass and plant potatoes in the area while continuing to dig up any sprouting bermuda grass. It is a slow process, but he is able to develop a new garden without spraying. He gets nice potatoes too. A year later the area is ready for native plants.

Just a few additions

Fall is a great time to fill in some holes that have developed this summer.  Here at the Arboretum, the landscape is constantly changing.  As the landscape evolves and matures, new plants are added that complement the existing landscape.  I like to ask the question, “What is missing?” Do I need some structure plants, or wildflowers that bloom at a specific time? Do I need plants that can withstand a certain environmental condition unique to the site?  Asking these questions now provides you an exciting opportunity to add just the right plant(s) to round out your yard and help develop habitat.

Blank slate

I have done several designs this year and most are starting with new gardens. By starting from scratch, you have so many options available to you.  Homeowners want to make the switch and establish an alternative landscape.  Plan your garden, choose plants that fit your site, and get them established properly.  If you are not ready to plant the entire area this fall, I recommend getting the bones of the garden established.  Plant a cluster of grasses along the foundation of your home, a few shrubs in the center of the design, or a grouping of wildflowers along the perimeter. This will make it easier to fill in the holes and visualize the mature landscape next spring.

Photo by Brad Guhr

New garden ready for planting

Selecting plants with wildlife value and natural beauty will transform your landscape from dull and drab to dynamic and beneficial.  To see dragonflies, monarchs, other pollinators and birds being supported by your landscape is an inspiring experience.  Offering an attractive mix of drought tolerant plants will create the habitat these creatures seek to inhabit and use it.  Diversity of plants attracts a diversity of wildlife. Your garden can be part of the solution as we work to find balance in the world around us.

Habitat creation – the ultimate goal of any home landscape!






Let’s Talk about Mulch

It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add mulch around your plants.  Mulch is a great insulator, because it modifies the soil temperature.  It reduces erosion, prevent weeds from germinating, retains soil moisture, provides a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems, and increases the aesthetics of the overall landscape. As you add mulch to your garden, here are some things to know:

How much mulch is enough?

Mulching is not an exact science, but as a general rule, we try to apply 2-3 inches of mulch consistently throughout the landscape.  This depth of mulch will control weeds by decreasing sunlight exposure, which prohibits seeds in the soil from to germinating.  More than three inches of mulch seals off the soil and suffocates your plants.  It is extremely important that the plants are able to get the oxygen they need.  Spread the mulch evenly and don’t build a mulch volcano around the base of the tree.  Since mulch decomposes slowly, it is good to periodically check the depth and add some as needed.

Mulch volcano at base of tree. A big no no!

Nicely mulched new planting

What is the best way to mulch?

We start by laying out a garden hose, which allows you to visualize the curves and width of a bed.  You can either spray the area inside the hose or dig up the vegetation and let it slowly die.  When the area is cleaned up, we begin applying the mulch and leveling it to the desired depth.  Keep in mind that too much mulch will encourage growth of the roots into the mulch, where it will be susceptible to freeze damage.  The ideal 2 to 3 inch depth of mulch will keep the roots in the soil.

When is the best time to mulch?

We are mulching throughout the year, but direct most of our efforts in the spring or fall.  As we clean up our display beds in the spring, it is always a good time to freshen up the mulch, too.  At this time of year, soil temperatures are beginning to warm and a new layer of mulch will slow down the warming process.  A new layer of mulch will also cover seeds that may have landed in the mulch and covering them now will prevent germination.  We mulch anytime a new tree or shrub is planted.  This practice will keep the soil cooler, help retain moisture longer and insulate new roots from the cold weather. Some thicker mulch areas may benefit from being fluffed from time to time.  Simply take a rake and loosen up the top few inches of the mulch.

What type of mulch is best?

We use whatever is available to us.  Mulch is not cheap, so we use chippings from the tree trimming service.  We have used semi loads of hardwood mulch, which is expensive. It is not as important what you use, but how much you use.  Even free mulch can look attractive and function just like the most expensive mulch.  For sloped areas, the larger and heavier mulch works the best.  It is not as susceptible to runoff or wind displacement.  Smaller or finer mulch decomposes quicker too.  The bottom line is use what is available to you.

Our mulch pile of chipped up trees

River rock as mulch with blackeyed susan and prairie dropseed

Can I use plants as mulch?

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants.  There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds.  These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

Lenora Larson’s Garden with dense plants that smother weeds

A few final thoughts:

Purchase a heavy duty mulching fork and stiff garden rake for leveling.

Essential mulching tools: Silage fork and stiff leaf rake

Insects can be a problem in mulch, so keep it away from the foundation of your house and base of the plants.  Termites generally like larger pieces of wood but can even live in the finer mulch, especially if it is too thick.

Landscape fabric under mulch is something we avoid.  It only keeps weeds out for the first few years and then the decomposing mulch turns into compost, which is ideal seed bed for weeds.  It is also hard to transplant into it and often suffocates the soil.  We have purged the Arboretum of just about all landscape fabric.  Save your money and buy more plants.

You can use rock as a mulch, but don’t buy the recycled rubber mulch.  The rubber mulch may last forever but it does nothing great for the soil or the plants around it.  In fact, the compounds and residues that leach over time may do more harm than good.

Happy Mulching!