A Four-Season Garden

As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on.  If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”

– adapted from an English nursery rhyme

That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:

Add a variety of plants

Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.

Summer Prairie Garden

Plants out of bloom

It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.

Coneflower seed heads and little bluestem

Create layers

Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.

Summer border. Photo by Brad Guhr

Do your home work

It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.

It’s not easy being brown

Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden. 

Switchgrass with snow

Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden.  Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away.  I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window.  The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too.  I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.

A Garden for the Dogs

As a horticulturist and a dog lover, life can be a little ‘ruff’. I dream of a beautiful, lush landscape of gorgeous plants and well-tended lawn, but we all know how dogs wreak havoc on our outdoor spaces. Even my sweet pooch, well behaved and trained to a T, inadvertently tramples my plants and upends my #gardengoals with every enthusiastic game of frisbee.

But there is light at the end of this long, muddy, paw-printed tunnel — with some careful planning, you can love your dog and your yard.

To save my small lawn from total destruction, Rosie and I sometimes take our game of fetch to the tennis courts or a park.

Safety First

This should be a no-brainer, but bears repeating: Keep harmful chemicals and pesticides out of a dog-friendly yard! Even if you think your dog doesn’t “go over there that often”, or you are pretty sure the treatment “will dry by the time she gets there”. Remember that your doggo is in direct paw-to-ground contact with the plants and soil they walk on – not to mention the digging, rolling, and rooting around that pups do on a daily basis. Some studies show a growing link between lawn-care products and cases of canine lymphoma. So, if you or your lawn care professionals are applying ANY pesticides or herbicides, do your research and call your vet to make sure you are making a safe choice for your canine friend.

We all love our dogs and smother them in love, and your yard is part of that! Commit a little time to providing a safe and fun space for them!

Do Your Homework

It is impossible to keep straight all the poisonous and non-poisonous plants out there. Even the most well intentioned garden center clerk might get it wrong, putting your pup at risk. Check before you buy at ASPCA.org’s Poisonous Plants database. Be aware that even the most benign plants can cause problems if ingested in large quantities or if your pup has other health issues.

On the whole, plants in the mint genus (Mentha) seem to be fairly safe for dogs, including peppermint and spearmint, (but excluding Mentha pulegium.) In fact, many common herbs are safe for dogs and keep their highly evolved noses stimulated. Look for lavender, basil, rosemary, and oregano to include in your garden. Not only will these herbs freshen your pet’s breath should they choose to take a nibble, but they also attract pollinators and have lovely foliage.

As much as I love milkweed, this plant DOES NOT belong in a pet-friendly garden. Milkweed has toxic sap with cardiac glycosides in it. Keep all milkweed species far away from your pup’s nibbling snout.

Dog-Friendly Perennials

As native plants go, it gets a little more difficult to pin down exactly what is safe and what is not. Most native plants only have a toxicity rating for livestock, but with completely different digestive systems, does that rating apply to dogs as well? There are lots of online sources for toxic plant information, so all I can provide here is a short list of native and adaptable plants that DO NOT appear on those toxic plant lists and DO appear at our spring sale.

Aquilegia spp. – columbine
Agastache spp. – hummingbird mint
Callirhoe involucrata – winecups
Coreopsis spp. – tickseed
Echinops spp. – globe thistle
Glandularia canadensis – prairie verbena
Heuchera spp. – coral bells
Monarda spp. – bee balm
Oenothera macrocarpa – evening primrose
Phlox divaricata – wild blue phlox
Phlox subulata – creeping phlox

Be sure to check with your veterinarian before assuming the safety of any plant, especially if your pet is prone to grazing.

Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) make an excellent ground cover. They love hot sun and dry conditions.
Oenothera doesn’t show up on many toxic plant lists. Its large cheery blooms and drought tolerance make it perfect for xeric gardens.

Happy Tails, Happy Trails

If your dog spends unsupervised time in the yard, you have surely found narrow, hard-packed trails devoid of vegetation. These are a dog’s version of cattle trails — a safe and quick way to get from A to B. Dogs are creatures of habit, and this one may stem from their wolf ancestors. Pro tip: DO NOT try to change the trail. It is extremely unlikely you will change his walking pattern; this deeply ingrained behavior is stronger than your desire for a perfect lawn. If you plant anything in this path your pup will tromp over it or dig it out of the way. Instead, think about hardscaping problem areas with pavers, gravel, or a charming boardwalk. A friend of mine has four huge Labradors (yes, you read that correctly) and still manages a stunningly beautiful landscape. How? By planting and planning in accordance with their flow of traffic.

As a young pup Rosie often came to work with me. Here she is staying cozy in our trusty Arboretum work truck.

How to Stop the Digging

A once beautiful garden can turn into an ankle-twisting nightmare once your pooch gets the urge to dig. Punishment often won’t deter this behavior, as it is almost impossible to catch them in the act. In some cases, this is just a phase of puppyhood and the dog will grow out of it. In others, it signals she is bored and frustrated – time for us humans to get serious about fetch, walks, and training to placate their need for interaction. Lastly, if you notice the holes seem to only show up in summer, it means Fido is just trying to find a spot to stay cool. Dogs will dig in cool, moist areas of soil to create a comfortable spot to lounge. An easy fix for this comes from landscape designer Maureen Gilmer,

“…provide them with a pit of their own where it’s more damp and cool than the flower beds. Give them sand to lie in and it won’t make mud or stains, and easily falls away from their fur. Keep the area moist and your dog will prefer that spot over all else .”

THE DOG-SCAPED YARD: Creating a Backyard Retreat for You and Your Dog

With some careful planning, your backyard can be an oasis for dogs and people alike. If you are needing a little help planning out your garden space, please call us to set up a landscape consultation. If you would like to get Fido out of the yard for a while, visit the Arboretum grounds for a long walk in the prairie. Be sure to have your pup on a leash and to clean up after her! Our grounds are open dawn to dusk, 365 days per year.

How to Increase the Value of Your Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens have become increasingly popular over the past ten years as homeowners and businesses seek to directly reverse the trend of prairie degradation.  Using prairie plants in the landscape is one way you can implement small-scale conservation and stewardship practices and become a part of a growing patchwork of prairie gardens in the Great Plains region. 

These patchwork prairies will not replace what has already been lost, but can begin to help raise awareness about conserving any remaining prairie remnants.  Hopefully, we will no longer take for granted the prairies around us and work toward managing and conserving this landscape that is quickly vanishing.

Aquilegia canadensis, columbine

You may ask yourself, “Can a backyard prairie garden really make an impact?  How do I increase the value of my prairie garden?”  The value of a small prairie garden seems minuscule compared to the large prairie tracts that are being lost each year. 

Here are a few things you can do to maximize the impact of your small patchwork prairie garden and further your backyard conservation efforts.

Plant a diverse prairie garden

As you design your garden, look to include as many different species as possible.  It is important to have a succession of bloom from spring through fall.  Include some of the native grasses to provide vertical elements and alternative textures. These elements will support and frame some of the native wildflowers.  Your garden can become a conversation starter within your neighborhood.  Your neighbors’ perspective may shift as your intentionally “wild” and slightly “messy” garden creates habitat for wildlife and pollinators.  People will notice the difference. Your garden, along with many other prairie gardens throughout neighborhoods, will add value to the environment and broaden the conversations we can have.

Fall Blooming Asters with Little bluestem

Connect with where you live

For many of us, we take for granted the prairies around us.  Even though we have some of the largest tracts of prairie like the Flint Hills at our doorsteps, we often don’t see the peril they face.  So in light of these difficulties, it is imperative that we use native species from our region.  Create a sense of place by incorporating as many plants of a local eco-type as possible.  These plants are adapted to your climate and soil.  Cultivated varieties and hybrids give us consistent characteristics and qualities. However, they often lack the same landscape value to pollinators as the true species and are most likely not from your region.  Choose your plants wisely to maximize the impact they have to the garden aesthetic and the wildlife that need them.    

Create an immersive experience

Layers of plants from different perspectives or vantage points will offer you the most enjoyment from your garden.  As you are drawn through the landscape, surrounded by lush plantings, you can enjoy the changes from season to season.  Sunlight, texture, color, and varying heights combine to provide unique encounters with your landscape.  The value of these experiences for your body and soul cannot be measured.  Quiet reflection can calm you after a hard day or bring you some perspective in your life.

Early summer in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Most gardens will never be as perfect as we want them to be, but they still have value for us and our environment. They are valuable to wildlife and pollinators. Valuable for the broader conversation about stewardship of the land.  Valuable to us as we become more aware of the role we can play in conservation and as we develop a relationship with the land. 

Don’t sell short the importance of the prairie, no matter how big or how small. Every step taken, every wildflower or grass propagated, every patchwork prairie garden planted has value.

The Imperfect Garden

In our Prairie Notes blog, we have talked extensively about the need to utilize native plants in the landscape.  The benefits of having native plants are obvious and many.  We have shown you pretty pictures with nicely spaced plants and beautiful combinations of wildflowers and grasses.  Often, you get the sense that in order to have an attractive garden it has to be perfect. 

Perfect gardens are maintained by perfect people or by horticulturists who do this sort of thing for a living.  I don’t know of too many perfect people.  In reality, perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Our gardens are a reflection of who we are and how much time we are able and willing to spend tending these landscapes.  In fact, there is a growing trend (pun intended) that focuses less on maintenance and more on the natural order we see in nature.

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

Perfection can be a mess

The randomness of the prairie is easy to see and it flourishes effortlessly.  Plants are intertwined and touching each other.  There is not much space between plants. Instead, a matrix of lush, densely organized plants grow harmoniously together.  To some, this looks messy and unkempt, but this natural collection of plants has a beauty and resiliency that is also healthy and productive.

Designing your imperfect garden

The thought of an imperfect garden is counter cultural.  The idea that we would purposely design and then establish plants in our landscapes that mimic the prairie goes against just about every landscaping principle we have ever learned.  However, more and more people are embracing the natural landscaping trend. We are creating a sense of place.  These newly developed gardens incorporate a network of plants by grouping them together with similar growth requirements, and different textures and heights to completely cover the soil. All of these plants crowd out weeds and create layers that look natural in their setting.  This idea takes the pressure out of growing the perfect garden and instead allows you to enjoy the process.

Maintenance of an imperfect garden

Imperfect gardens are not zero maintenance gardens.  Some level of maintenance is still important, but being tied to your garden will be a thing of the past.  Again, you may have to let some things go and work toward being comfortable having less control of the natural processes.  A few dandelions and clover in the lawn can be overlooked.  Letting some plants naturally seed and spread along with uneven rows and random plants that have moved from last year can now be tolerated.  For us who want to control everything in the garden, we now have permission to back off a little and see what happens.  We still need to pull some weeds, especially at first, but as time passes weeds will become less of a problem. 

Giving the prairie a haircut in late winter

If you plant it, they will come.

An imperfect garden will attract visitors.  Pollinators, birds, and other wildlife will be drawn to your intentional prairie garden.  A functional garden will be used, and sometimes abused, by pollinators.  Your landscape is providing just what wildlife needs.  A few eaten leaves and damaged flowers is a small price to pay for helping complete the life cycle of a few thousand pollinators and other wildlife.  Even some unwanted pests may visit from time to time.  This is a perfect time to watch your imperfect garden take care of itself.  Keep the chemicals in the shed and watch the natural predators find these pests and work to eliminate them. Should we really care if they are not all gone?  You have my permission to step back and let the little critters work it out amongst themselves.

Your garden is a reflection of you.  You are already having a bigger impact than you might imagine.  Don’t be shamed into thinking that you have to have everything in its place.  Sometimes the most aesthetically pleasing garden is sterile and void of plants that actually help the environment.  By gardening, you are already an ecologist.  You may not have the official title, but you are a good gardener. 

RELAX, step back and enjoy the process.  Don’t stress about the sad little plant in the corner of you garden.  If it’s not happy, move it.  Learn about what your plants need. Most of us don’t garden for a living, so give yourself a little grace.  A perfect garden is one that gives you not stress, but joy.  

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