What is Land Stewardship?

The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes.  This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land.  Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

What’s your personal land ethic?

Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside.  What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do.  We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with. 

I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit
Arboretum tallgrass prairie garden in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

The stewardship spectrum

I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane.  On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land.  They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land. 

On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices.  These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started.  This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds.  There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing.  This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.

Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.    

Developing a connection to the land

So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land?  Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made. 

This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions. 

“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” 

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
A small garden of native plants

People will want to change when they see change is possible.  If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving. 

Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.

“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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.

Every grass has its flower.

Grasses are tenacious harnessers of the prairie.

This humble family survives the open plains and thrives in niches that others are too flamboyant to endure. Their incredibly deep roots protect them from drought, and their tall silica-rich stalks scatter the next generation. 

Though often thought of as a backdrop for peaking wildflowers, grasses are actually flowering plants themselves. They evolved to stand and spread under vast, harsh skies. While their fraternal twin the orchid family grew alluring petals and fragrances, the grasses grew into tall and limber pollen casters. Well after the first flowering plants and more recently than the dinosaurs, grasses diverged from other buds as minimalists. 

They found resilience in simplicity. 

Smooth brome, Bromus inermis

Without a need to attract insects to jumble their genes, grasses didn’t have to spend masses of energy on lavish pageantry. They dug their roots in deeper, grew a few more stickers, and when grazers or burns mowed them down, they came back sprawling. 

Minimal beauty

Their flowers stayed small and muted. They lost their petals and rearranged their bracing bracts into something more hardy. When pastures bloom, their shy brilliance pokes out of camouflaged grains. They exist as rows of envelopes, smaller florets, braiding themselves into a diversity of branching inflorescence

Illustration credit: Barnard, 2014.

Grass flowers adorn themselves with what looks like a string of pollen-covered lanterns. From within, a curious set of small internal leaves will swell, pushing feathery stigmas and powdery anthers out of the floret. 

Grasses are anemophilous, “wind loving.” Although their blooms are only half as vivid as their stalks, many make small colorful gifts to the breeze. The female pistil can come in silver, yellow or deep periwinkle, whereas the male anthers can flaunt yellow, orange, green, crimson and even lavender-purple. 

You can see them displaying their small wares right now along the grounds of the Arboretum: blue grama, big bluestem and brome all in their summer suede. 

Beginners to winners

Another reductionist adaptation is their use of spiny awls. You probably know them better as stickers. These extra bristles get caught in fur and socks to be pulled across the prairie. Some awls are bent, some are straight and some will even twist and untwist with fluctuations in humidity, screwing themselves into the earth. 

They may have replaced fragrance for practicality, but ultimately it’s had major payoffs. Swaths of pasture persist through drought, fire and storm. Twenty percent of all wild plants in the Great Plains are grasses. Not only do their populations outnumber any other group of flowering plant, their distribution is sweeping. By weight they account for 70 percent of all crops. 

Truly subdued prominence. 

Resources: Barnard, Iralee. Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. University Press of Kansas, 2014

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!

Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.

Ailanthus webworm moth – an introduced species that uses the invasive exotic tree-of-heaven for its host plant. Unfortunately, this tree is showing up all over our neighborhood and it makes sense that this little moth is around now too.

Plenty of Moisture

Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.

15+ inches of rain in the last six weeks has made the garden quite lush.

Herbivores and Carnivores

I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).

Our big brown bat population (up to 16 at last count) eats loads of insects around the yard.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.

With monarch populations on the decline, regular monitoring of this species is more important than ever.

Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.

Gardening with Purpose

We have seen an abundance of blooms this spring. All this beauty and wildlife activity, particularly pollinators, has reminded me again about the roles our gardens play in benefiting our small corner of the world.  We can garden with a sense of purpose that helps wildlife ecologically.  With Pollinator Week quickly approaching (June 17th – 23rd), I thought maybe we could take a moment to think about our gardens in a different way. 

Garden with your goals in mind

When we garden, each of us has an opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design our garden to attract pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space where horticulture, imagination, and ecology are reflected purposefully in our garden design.  We need to think with the end-goal in mind.  By creating living sanctuaries, depleted and endangered native bees and butterflies can easily find the food, shelter and water they need for their survival. 

This is a small way you can show you care, maybe even rediscover your own humanity.  Along with others in your neighborhood who develop habitat gardens, you will help the predicament of these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.  Think of it as a way you can reconnect with nature in a very personal way as you care for your corner of the earth.

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Without milkweeds, monarchs can’t successfully reproduce or migrate, resulting in the species declines. If you plant milkweeds in your own garden you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Honey Bees

The plight of the honey bee and the collapse of entire colonies has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  Habitat loss, the use of pesticides and insecticides along the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.  

Choose Native Plants

Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems pollinators face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing habitat gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them. 

Stewardship starts at home

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens. Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them. You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

What will all this rain do to my native plants?

The spring of 2019 has been an unusually cool and wet spring here in Kansas. I don’t like to complain about rain, because I know at some point it will quit.  Conditions will get hotter and dryer through the summer.  I don’t know what normal is anymore. For many of us, a short reprieve from the rain would be welcome.  It would give us a chance to catch up and let our basements dry out. 

All this rain made me think about what it does to plants.  Many of you have newly-planted gardens or established flower beds and you, too, may be asking yourself – what will all this rain do to my native plants?

Native Pink Columbine

Excessive growth

Rain obviously causes the plants to grow.  One of the downfalls of excessive growth so early in the season is that it will need to maintain that growth the rest of the year.  Certainly, native plants are adapted to our prairie conditions and have root systems that can sustain the plants.  It makes the placement of plants even more critical and important as we work to match the plants with our sites.  If the plants are properly situated, it should not be a problem. 

Use this season as an opportunity to observe your plants. If you see some wilting over the next few weeks, it may be an indication that the roots have been damaged or that the plants are not happy where they are planted. 

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

Plant diseases

All this rain has created perfect conditions for plant diseases like bacteria and fungi to flourish.  There hasn’t been much time for plants to dry out in between rains.  Prolonged periods of leaf wetness and excess moisture around the plant root zone can damage leaves and the crowns of plants.  A few days of sunlight will help, but we need to make sure these plants are not smothered by mulch and the crowns of the plants have a chance to dry. Many plants, including trees and shrubs, have been slow to leaf out. Excessive rainfall and overcast skies has slowed the plant’s growth and can affect the timing and intensity of the blooms for the rest of the season. With rainfall like we have had, it makes us more aware of drainage issues, air circulation, plant selection and planting depth within our landscapes.  

Nutrient leaching

Native plants don’t typically need to be fertilized.  Their extensive root systems tap into nutrients that most plants can’t reach. 

Your plants may have a yellow cast to them, but that doesn’t mean you should fertilize them.  It is a result of lack of sunlight and too much water.  Let them develop new roots and they will begin to green up on their own.  By adding fertilizer, native plants have a tendency to flop and outgrow their root systems. Resist the temptation to fertilize your plants. While heavy rains have leached nutrients out of the soil, affecting the plant growth, these conditions will usually only cause temporary nutrient deficiency.  

Bank of Amsonia

Plants are resilient and quite adaptable.  They should recover over time.  The long term effects of all this rain may not be fully known until later this year or even next year, but a majority of them will be fine.  One reward is that we haven’t had to water much.  We established some plants here at the Arboretum and never had to water them other than the first watering.  That is very rare in Kansas.  I love the sunshine today.  All the lush plants are loving it too.       

Katie’s Weeding Guide Part II

In a previous blog post I discussed tips for common weed identification, but hinted at a second installment covering plants that don’t quite qualify as weeds. After all, a weed is just a plant out of place! Some lovely native flowers have ‘weedy’ tendencies but don’t deserve total eradication from the garden. Here is an introduction to a few of those characters, and what you can do to control them when weeding your gardens.

Spiderwort – Tradescantia ohiensis or T. tharpii

A lovely member of the dayflower family, spiderwort puts on a wonderful show throughout spring.

Ranging from true blue to purple, spiderwort germinates readily from seed and can quickly take over a garden. I find it in every garden we have here at the Arboretum. Hairy leaves with purple veins and a pronounced fold along the mid vein are easy ways to identify spiderwort. The short stemmed species (T. tharpii) is a nice filler around other perennials and will grow as a ground cover. T. ohiensis is taller and more unwieldy, crowding out desirable plants. When Arboretum volunteers are weeding, I ask them to remove all but a few intentional clumps. I cut the flowers frequently to prevent those clumps from seeding.

Prairie Petunia – Ruella humilis

So petite but not so polite, Ruella spreads rapidly and travels all over the garden, thanks to its exploding seeds pods. White, pink, or lilac flowers are borne on purple stems with deep green foliage. With a mainly prostrate habit, this creeper makes a nice border plant, especially spilling over rock edging. Deep rooted, it is hard to pull once mature. If these fellas get started in your garden, regular weeding won’t do it – you will need to dig them out. But maybe they are the free, fast growing ground cover you have been looking for!

Curly Cup Gumweed – Grindelia squarosa

Gumweed can be found growing north of our Prairie Pavilion, but not for long! I am overdue in weeding them out. This western US native is cheery and adorable, but too wild to be running amuck in our formal gardens. I’d be much happier to see it growing in our prairie or around the pond edge. If you have the space, don’t pull them all out – it is attractive to pollinators and can be controlled by cutting the flowers before they seed. 

Public domain image, USA

These are just a few of the weedy native flowers that your soil’s seed bank may be harboring. Perhaps they can find a happy home in your garden, as long as you are willing to tame their bad habits.