Winter Watering Tips for Your Garden

Growing plants in Kansas can be a challenge.  This spring we had an abundance of moisture – too much in fact – and now we are experiencing expanding drought conditions throughout the state.  With the landscape in a state of dormancy, you may forget to water those parched plants.  With winter upon us, how do you keep your plants alive?  Here are some winter watering tips that will save your landscape investment.

Little bluestem in late fall

Should I water my garden in winter?

Even though plants have gone dormant and lifeless, they should be watered periodically.  Newly planted perennials, trees and shrubs have not developed the extensive root systems to sustain them through a dry winter.  Dehydrated plants will struggle to survive the winter even when they are not actively growing.  Your plants are thirsty, so you will need to give them a drink. 

Cold weather watering tips

  • Look at the soil around your plants. If the top inch or two is dry you must water the plants.
  • If the soil is unfrozen, water on days above 40-45 degrees
  • Obviously, it is better to water after noon so water has time to infiltrate the soil before freezing at night. 
  • Water through the winter any time the top inch or two of soil is dry. 
  • Evaporation rates are slower during the winter, so you may only need to water once or twice a month.
  • If it stays dry through the winter months, it is critically important to water as the plants break dormancy next April and May.

What to water in winter

  • Plants installed this year (perennials, trees, shrubs and cool season turf)
  • Established cool season (fescue) turf, especially under trees and around shrubs.  Roots are competing for moisture with the grass roots
  • Pay special attention to evergreens as they are more susceptible to winter dry-out.
  • If it is especially dry, even established trees, shrubs and perennials will benefit from an occasional winter watering. 
Taylor Juniper (foreground) and Canaertii Juniper (background) – Don’t let these evergreens get too dry!

How to water in winter

Use garden hoses to connect to sprinklers and water nozzles.  These can be easily disconnected from the hydrant.  Obviously, irrigation systems will be damaged by freezing temperatures, so don’t restart any underground automatic sprinkler systems.      

Established turf and trees, especially those in sunny, windy, or exposed areas should be a high priority. Watering prevents them from drying out due to unique environmental conditions.

Don’t overwater your plants.  Soggy soils and heavy clay soils that stay wet for long periods of time will cause root rot and fungal issues.

Water as needed with one-half inch to one inch of moisture to rehydrate the top few inches of soil. 

Remember to remove hoses from spigot so pipes don’t freeze. Drain hoses of water to eliminate freeze damage to hoses as well. 

The winter landscape can be stark and often forgetten since it is not producing flowers or new growth. However, dormant plants are still using water and can be damaged by prolonged periods without moisture. Hopefully, we get some rain or snowfall, but it takes around 10 inches of snow to equal one inch of rain.

Don’t forget about your plants in this busy season of the year, keep checking those plants and the soil around them.  We don’t want you to be surprised by dry, dead or desiccated plants next spring.  A little winter watering now will keep you from replacing plants next spring. 

What to do with those leaves, leaves, leaves.

(This blog was originally published on October 22, 2014.)

The other day I was driving through town and really noticed the changing leaves for the first time this fall.  They are looking particularly colorful this year.  The maple trees varieties like ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’ and ‘Autumn Blaze’ put on quite a show.  My favorite tree at the Arboretum is the Sugar Maple called ‘Table Rock’.  It has consistent orange-red fall color. 

Table Rock Sugar Maple

These leaves, no matter how beautiful, will eventually fall.  Then we need to decide what to do with them.  Here at the Arboretum we compost them.  Leaf compost makes excellent plant food and humus that can be incorporated into your garden or flower bed.  Leaf compost is high in valuable minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and other trace elements.  Analysis shows that leaves from most trees can contain up to twice as many minerals as aged manure. 

American Ash

Why wouldn’t you want to make your own compost from leaves?  Good compost developed from leaves also adds organic matter to the soil.  This organic matter is great for aerating heavy clay soils or increasing water holding in sandy soils.  Take advantage of these free gifts.   

Steps for composting leaves:

  1. Collect leaves. Shred them into small pieces to speed decomposition.  Place leaves on the ground which will make it easier to turn and allow beneficial organisms such as worms to infiltrate the pile. 
  2. Initially, put a layer of leaves down several inches deep on the bare ground.  This helps aerate the entire pile.    
  3. Layer compost pile if possible with alternating green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) material.  Green material can be grass clippings, food scraps, algae, tea bags or any nitrogen source.  These green ingredients speed the decomposition of the brown material.  Brown material can be leaves, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, or straw.  These ingredients are generally slow to decompose and clump together.  They need time and moisture for optimum breakdown.  As a general rule, try to have one-third green and two-thirds brown.  The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.  Too much green makes a smelly, anaerobic mess.  More brown is better than too much green. 
  4. Keep pile moist by either manually watering or allowing rain to infiltrate compost.  Not too moist though.   
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks.  This incorporates and mixes all the elements together while aerating the pile.  If the pile is never turned, oxygen which is an essential component in the process of decomposition will be excluded.  Allow the compost pile to reach an internal temperature of 140-160 degrees to kill weed seeds.  If your compost pile is not reaching these temperatures add more green material.    
  6. In 4 to 6 months (next spring) the composting process will be complete.

If you don’t have need of fresh compost, the Arboretum is willing to take your bagged leaves.  We are again filling our leave house with our leaves but can take more.  Just drop your bags of leaves in the bus parking area at the arboretum.  We will take them back to the leaf house.  The leaf house is a great example of decomposition in action.

Quiet stop in the leaf house

October Richness

Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.

I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.

Monarch fallout.

October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.

Tagged monarchs.

Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.

College students observing a garter snake.

Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Putting Your Garden to Bed for Winter

It seems that winter has come earlier than expected this year.  I don’t know about you, but I have been caught a little off guard.  I wish I could say we have everything ready for winter, but that would be untrue.  In preparation for colder weather, I have put a simple checklist together for putting the winter garden to bed.

Perennials

Every year we receive quite a few questions about when to cut back perennials.  As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the winter garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a backdrop of little bluestem.

I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Black-eyed Susan with Switchgrass. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Lawns

Fall is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees, the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Leaves

I purposefully don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Clean and sharpen tools

I often overlook this step in the fall garden prep checklist.  A little time cleaning your tools like shovels, spades and other digging tools will give you a jump start next season.  This simple practice will prolong the life of your tools.  Doing this will prevent rust and deterioration.  I like to use a wire brush in the cleaning process before I sharpen each tool.  By cleaning off dirt and debris and applying a thin coat of oil, you will extend the life of each tool.

Store power tools

We always have trouble with our gas powered tools in spring.  We forget that they need to be drained of standard pump gasoline before being stored for long periods of time.  Today’s gas deteriorates relatively quickly and gums up the carburetors.  Empty your fuel tanks into storage containers of fuel, oil, and fuel mix if you are not going to be using the equipment in the next 30 days.  We add fuel stabilizer to the stored fuel over winter.  We like to run the engine completely out of fuel before we put it away. 

Disconnect and drain garden hoses

Obviously, garden hoses that remain attached to the spigot during cold weather will create problems. This connection and the trapped water in the hose will freeze not only the hose, but the spigot on your home.  I have seen these freeze and then burst as they thaw out.  It can be a mess and quite costly. 

Drain garden hoses before you store them for the winter.  It is best to bring them inside so they are not deteriorated by the winter sun.  Extreme winter conditions also break down the inner lining of the hose, weakening it over time.  We like to loop each hose into two to three foot loops. Create flat stacks of coiled hoses.  Hanging hoses will put stress on the areas where they are attached to the wall.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Spring is only six months away!

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.

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

We are coming to the end of another growing season in Kansas.  Here at the Arboretum we have seen highs and lows as far as moisture is concerned, but all in all it has been a nice year.  The grasses are at their peak now with beautiful plumage and incredible fall colors.  As we prepare our gardens for winter, it’s a good time to evaluate how your garden performed this year and what it needs for winter or next year. Many gardens will need a fresh layer of mulch.

Arizona Cypress nicely mulched on a berm.

What needs to be mulched?

I typically focus on trees and shrubs because they benefit most from a new layer of mulch this time of year.  I tend to only mulch perennial beds as they are initially planted. More recently, we are planting new beds denser (plants closer together) so that the lower ground level plants fill in and out compete the weeds, making a thick wood chip layer less necessary.  In a prairie, there is no mulch in between the plants — low grasses, wildflowers and sedges cover the ground so weeds don’t germinate and cause problems. We are working to mimic that layered planting style.

What are the benefits?

Obviously, mulch is good at stabilizing soil temperatures which is important as colder weather sets in. It is also good for holding moisture and reducing weeds around the base of the trees and shrubs.  Aesthetically, mulch gives your landscape a finished look that distinguishes it during all seasons of the year.  An often overlooked benefit of mulch is that it keeps the mower and string trimmer away from the base of the plants.  As the mulch slowly breaks down, it releases nutrients into the soil and increases the water holding capacity of the soil.

How much mulch is needed?

For trees and shrubs, I prefer to use between two and four inches of mulch.  It is important to keep it away from the base of the trees and shrubs so insects and rot don’t become a problem at the stem or trunk.  Please don’t create mulch volcanoes, which are death to trees. An evenly spread ring around the base of the plants, replenished regularly, will help them tremendously.  For perennials, we only place one to two inches of mulch down and again we keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established but as they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch. 

Too much mulch piled up at the base of the tree can lead to fungus, rot, low oxygen levels and tree death.

Should you use landscape fabric? 

I am not a fan of landscape fabric.  I have seen it do more harm than good especially for many of our native plants.  One problem is that it keeps our clay soils too wet, leading to crown rot and other fungus growth. Using landscape fabric also makes it challenging to change your landscape plan in the future.  As an alternative to fabric, we encourage the use of large pieces of cardboard covered by mulch.  It still provides weed control during establishment but breaks down over time to be incorporated into the soil.  Just slice holes in the cardboard to install your plants. 

What type of mulch should be used?

Here at the Arboretum, we use wood chips from local tree trimming services.  We like it too be fairly coarse so it breaks down slower and is less susceptible to wind.  The type of mulch is not really important but texture is important. Finer mulches tend to cake up and seal off the soil which can be problematic to the plants root systems. Many municipalities have wood chip piles that can be loaded and used at little or no cost to you.  Why spend money on fancy wood chips when you can get it for next to nothing?  Most mulch looks the same after a few weeks in the sun anyway.

Mulch pile shown here is rough and natural colored, showing our prefered texture and style

 It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add it to your landscaping routine.  A little work now will pay dividends next year.   

Finding Value in the Undesirables

It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.

In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.

In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:

  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!

Rethinking Garden Clean Up

It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming.  I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.

Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden.  The grasses are spectacular this year too.   

Monarch on New England Aster

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape.  It will be time for the prairie to sleep.  Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.

Taking stock

I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring.  I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens. 

Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March.  What areas am I going to focus on next year?  Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning?  What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape?  What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife? 

Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized.  Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Your stewardship efforts are making a difference.  Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden. 

Perennials

We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds.  It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem.  Enjoy these autumnal combinations. 

Little Bluestem

Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early.  Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months.   Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds.  Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape.  By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife.  We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch.  Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil.  In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good. 

Leaves

I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.

When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away.  They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.   

Tablerock Sugar Maple

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take note of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Fall Gardening for Spring Bees

Shorter days, cooler nights, bronzing prairie grasses and asters in bloom – all herald the arrival of fall on the prairie. However, as this year’s abundant growth recedes, our garden’s care and keeping into the fall and winter will affect both plants and pollinators in next year’s garden.

Mason Bees

One of our most desirable spring pollinators is the Mason Bee; and our prairie gardens provide great habitat for this species. You can begin planning now to attract this special native bee species.

Mason bee (Osmia sp) females carry dry pollen in a patch of hairs on the underside of the abdomen, a feature they share in common with other females in the leaf-cutting bee family (Megachilidae).
Photo By Rollin Coville (https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/wildlife/types-of-bees-osmia-mason-ze0z1311zcov)

Mason bees are solitary nesters. They are incredibly efficient pollinators (one Mason bee can do the work of 60 honey bees), and they are docile. In March, adult females emerge, mate, lay eggs for 4-6 weeks, and then die.

Eggs are laid in a series of small chambers the females build within tunnels of dead wood or hollow plant stems in a protected spot. Each egg is provisioned with pollen and then plugged with mud, hence the name “mason.” Eggs develop for the remainder of the year. Allowing stems and dead woody plant materials to remain in our gardens in fall and winter preserves developing Mason bee larvae that may be present. 

Create a Nesting Box

Because a number of our North American native bees, including Mason bees, are in decline, native gardeners can further encourage Mason bees by adding nesting bee boxes. Bee boxes are simply made, whether from wood, bamboo or cardboard.

Simple, untreated wood block nesting bee box with holes plugged.
By Red58bill – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6022789

As you plan for spring, you might include a bee box-making day as a winter project. Install your bee box in a dry, warm, protected spot early next spring, make sure there are a number of nearby sources of pollen and mud, and you are welcoming one of our most interesting native bees, the Mason bee, into your spring prairie garden!

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Further information on Mason beekeeping: 

Planting for Pollinators

One of the hottest trends in horticulture is planting for pollinators.  In tending our gardens, we all want to do our part to make it easier for butterflies, bees, and other winged friends to find the plants they need for survival. 

September is a great time to plant wildflowers.  If you keep pollinators in mind as you plant, they will come.  Try a few of these summer and late-season wildflowers in your landscape.  They are pollinator-magnets. 

Rigid Goldenrod

Goldenrods get a bad rap.  They don’t cause hay fever.  However, they do attract all sorts of wildlife to their bright yellow flowers in late summer.

Rigid Goldenrod with Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’

This is one of my favorite asters.  They each have nice lavender flowers in late-September into October.  These plants are abuzz with activity as pollinators seek the last sips of nectar before migrating or hibernating for the winter. 

“October Skies” aromatic aster

Swamp Milkweed

This milkweed is vital to monarchs as they migrate back south to Mexico.  The pink blooms appear at the right time to provide the energy they need to complete their journey. 

Monarch on swamp milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

New England Aster

This wildflower prefers a medium to moist soil.  The dark purple to pink flowers attract tremendous diversity of pollinators to the flowers in fall.  I like variety ‘Purple Dome’ with its shorter habit and dark purple flowers. 

Painted Lady butterfly on a New England aster

Coneflowers

There are so many varieties of coneflowers.  I love the new colors but have really come to appreciate the true native species Narrow-leaf coneflower, Pale purple coneflower, Yellow purple coneflower and Purple coneflower.  The rounded cones make perfect landing pads for all sorts of insects searching for pollen.   

Photo by Emily Weaver.

Black-eyed Susan

This easy to grow wildflower is one of the best pollinator plants.  The yellow flowers with the dark center attract a host of pollinators in including Great Spangled Fritillary. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Liatris mucronata

Dotted gayfeather is blooming right now in the arboretum.  The lavender spikes lay lower to the ground than other taller forms but these late season wildflowers are still attractive to bees and butterflies of all shapes and sizes.   

Native Grasses

Don’t forget the native grasses.  Many pollinators overwinter in clumps of grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass.  Besides their beautiful fall color, these denizens of the prairie provide great texture and structure in the winter garden, too.

Aster ‘October Skies’ with the dark purple blooms of ‘Purple Dome’ aster with a backdrop of little bluestem