Five simple ways you can make a difference for wildlife

In the grand scheme of things, we have a tremendous capacity to impact our surroundings for good or bad.  A few changes in how we approach and look at our landscapes can make a real difference to the future of the wildlife we enjoy and care about.  Here are five ways you can positively impact wildlife and create something you enjoy too.

Increase vertical layering

Having tiers of plants from the largest trees to the lowest grass and everything in between is the perfect habitat for wildlife. Plants of varying heights and forms create interest in the garden, but more importantly these diverse plants provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for beneficial insects, birds, small mammals, and other wildlife. The use of native plants will only attract more wildlife.

Provide water

Water is an essential part of any diverse wildlife habitat. Just like us, wildlife need water for their survival. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A birdbath, small pond or bubbling fountain will be like a magnet for all sorts of wildlife. Besides, there is something soothing about the sound of water moving.  We may need it for our own healing.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Reduce your lawn

Invariably as we have done insect sweeps over lawns versus prairies, we always catch more insects and pollinators in the prairie. It makes perfect sense. The shortness of the lawn and lack of diversity of plants repel rather than attract more insects and birds to the areas that are more diverse.

Limit the use of chemicals

Obviously, chemicals were created to eradicate pests. However, chemicals adversely affect not just one pest but also many non-targeted species. In addition, the chemical residue can remain active for an extended period of time, lengthening the impact. Here at the Arboretum, we use chemicals sparingly and as a last resort. A diverse planting attracts a host of insects, including predator insects and birds that feed on the problem pest.  A pristine landscape with whole leaves and little insect activity is not natural. Some pests are inevitable and are usually controlled by other wildlife.  It is important to wait for the natural processes to take place.

Become a citizen scientist or naturalist. Be aware of wildlife and its needs.

The more you know about the wildlife in your landscape, the more you will understand what they need for their survival.  Knowledge is power. Monitor what is happening in your yard. Create habitat by establishing trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that attract a host of diverse wildlife.  The awe that many of these critters invoke naturally creates within us a desire to learn more about them.

The most important thing to remember is that you can make a difference. Even a few small steps over the next few years will have a positive impact. While it might not seem like your small space is that important, imagine your landscape connected to hundreds of other patchwork gardens throughout the town. These gardens will make a difference, over time, on the wildlife we seek to help. No small change is too trivial—so pick one of these ideas today and take action!

Plant Profile: Mountain Mint

Mountain mint plants are underused in the landscape. With dainty white blooms, a clumping habit and tons of genera to choose from, mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) can fit in any style of garden. P. tenuifolium, P. virginiana, P. flexuosum, and P. muticum are the species most often available for purchase at FloraKansas. I always wonder why they don’t fly off the greenhouse bench at our sales – it must be because people don’t know enough about them!

Virginia mountain mint is an attractive species, in the garden or out in the prairie!

Piqued for Pycnanthemum

All species in the Pycnanthemum (pick-nan-the-mum) genus are native to North America. They are in the mint family, so the leaves have that delicious, refreshing mint aroma when crushed. They spread via rhizomes and left unchecked can cover ground fast, though not quite as aggressively as other members of mint family. The blooms attract a wide array of pollinators. It is a special favorite among bees, flies and wasps, though swallowtails, grey hairstreaks, buckeyes and skippers often visit them as well. Ironically, mountain mints most often thrive in meadows and grassy prairies, not in alpine situations.

So Many Mints, So Little Time

There are lots of varieties of mountain mint out there, but the various species can be tricky to tell apart for the layperson. The blooms are all very similar: round and clustered, whitish to light purple, with spots. However, the leaves do have distinct shapes that vary between species. My favorites are the thin leaved species such as P. virginiana and P. tenuifolium. 

P. tenuifolium, narrowleaf mountain mint. Photo credit: Nelson DeBarros, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

P. muticum is easily recognized by its teardrop-shaped leaves, much wider than the other species. Found from Texas and Missouri all the way to Maine, this native grows in moist meadows and woodland areas. Like all mountain mints, it likes full sun to part sun and average soil moisture.

The short, stout leaves of P. muticum. I, SB Johnny [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

P. flexuosum is not native to Kansas, but still grows well here. This plant grows wild in the Carolinas, Florida, and west to  Mississippi and Alabama. Thick, lance-shaped leaves set it apart from the others. As New Moon Nursery describes it, “Pycnanthemum flexuosum is an aromatic perennial wildflower.  This mint relative bears oval toothed leaves on strong square stems.  In summer, plants are topped by dense frizzy ball-like clusters of tiny white to lavender tubular flowers.”

Appalachian mountain mint, P. flexuosum By Photo by David J. Stang [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

P. tenuifolium By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Slender Mountain Mint) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountain mints are easy to care for and will spread fast in the garden, filling in the gaps and looking lush all season long. The densely clustered flowers of this pollinator powerhouse will add beauty and wildlife value to your landscape. Be sure to ask for mountain mint at the next FloraKansas!

Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants

Spring-blooming prairie and woodland plants are among the first to take advantage of warmer soils and days with increasing sunshine. Even though it has been a cold and slowly developing spring, the green shoots of spring bloomers are emerging and starting to produce colorful flowers that feed early pollinators and brighten sunny to partially-shaded landscapes.

The following 16 species are some of my favorite spring prairie and open woodland plants that also serve as landscaping gems, flowering in April and May:

a. Baptisia australis var. major blue false indigo full sun
b. Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy mallow full sun
c. Clematis fremontii Fremont’s clematis full sun
d. Geum triflorum prairie smoke full sun
e. Koeleria cristata Junegrass full sun
f. Oenothera macrocarpa Missouri evening primrose full sun
g. Penstemon cobaea penstemon cobaea full sun
h. Penstemon digitalis foxglove beardtongue full sun
i. Pullsatilla patens pasque flower full sun
j. Tradescantia tharpii spiderwort full sun
k. Verbena canadensis rose verbena full sun
l. Amsonia tabernaemontana blue star part shade
m. Aquilegia canadensis columbine part shade
n. Heuchera richardsonii coral bells part shade
o. Senecio plattensis golden ragwort part shade
p. Zizia aurea golden alexander part shade

 

SpringFlowersBlogV2

There are so many benefits to be found in landscaping with native plants. They will greatly enhance the biological diversity and ecology of your yard by providing food for insect larvae and flower nectar for pollinators. Small mammals and birds feast on the abundance of available seeds. Predatory insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles will find food in the abundance of available insects. Even the smallest of native gardens can be a mini wildlife sanctuary.

 

Black swallowtail butterfly (male). Golden alexander is a host plant for the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Native plant gardens connect us to our natural and cultural history and give us a sense of place. Even if you don’t use your home landscape today as your grocery store, home improvement store, and pharmacy, Plains Indians and European settlers certainly did not too long ago. The plants and animals of the prairie were critically important to human survival.

The deep roots and unique traits of native plants make them very adaptable to our Kansas climate and provide sensible and sustainable landscaping. Once established, these plants need little to no supplemental water and require no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides if properly matched to the site.

Even if you are only interested in colorful garden eye candy, this list of spring flowering native plants will provide a beautiful array of flowers to brighten your spring landscape. You can find these plants at our FloraKansas Plant Festival!

 

Photo Credits

 

What is the Key to Native Plant Happiness?

One of the questions we get every year at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, is “why didn’t my ___ come back this year?” It is a great question. Every year at the Arboretum, we ask the same question with some of the plants we establish and want to grow. I wish there was a right answer for every situation and every scenario, but every landscape is unique. Here’s the hard truth that many gardeners don’t often want to hear: the key to native plant happiness lies in identifying this uniqueness and finding the right plants for your plot.

Coneflowers blooming in the lush prairie garden

Match Plants to Your Site

Your landscape is a micro-climate all its own. The soil, sun exposure, orientation to your house, root competition from trees, and many other factors make your garden special. Even your neighbor overwatering their lawn can impact what plants grow best in your scene.  There are hundreds of factors that relate to the happiness of your plants and whether or not they will thrive.

The most critical step when establishing your native plant garden is matching the plants with your site. Sometimes I want to try a certain plant in a certain spot that has no business being planted there. I have done it too many times to mention and the result is always the same. I am left holding the hand of a struggling plant that would be much happier someplace else. In the end, I either move it or lose it.

Summer blooms of Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Do Your Homework

If we are honest, I think we have all planted before preparing. The wilting plant in the flower bed is a constant reminder to me that I didn’t do my homework.  Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?

Become familiar with prairie plants that grow in similar situations and evaluate the elements that will impact their survival. Choose plants that will thrive in the micro-climate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. If your flower bed receives less than 6 hours of sun, look at more shade-loving natives.

A thriving landscape begins with matching plants to your one-of-a-kind area. For a lower-maintenance garden, choose plants that occur in the same or similar prairie climates.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort to keep alive.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a Missouri evening primrose in a bog will never work.

Butterfly milkweed on a well-drained slope

Learn From Your Mistakes

Good gardeners have lost their share of plants over the years, but what makes them good gardeners is that they learn from their mistakes. With lots of trial and error under their belts, they/we should make better choices…in theory at least.

Other design elements such as succession of bloom, patterns, year round interest, heights, and visual elements become less important when your plant is unhappy in its current location. You must get the right plants in the right place and the other elements will come much easier. A healthy garden begins with a connection to your landscape personally. As you watch and learn  what your landscape needs and what it can sustain, you will be able to link the appropriate plants to the location. This important step in the design process allows you to spend more time enjoying and less time “working” in your garden.  We all want that from our gardens.

Just one more thing…

Sometimes plants, through no fault of our own, defy all of the above-mentioned rules and simply don’t return. Even in the prairie, plants are ephemeral and rely on self-seeding to continue to grow in an area.  As you become more familiar with native plants (and I’m still learning too), you will be able to identify these species.  It is their nature to be short lived. True native coneflowers have this characteristic.  They are worth planting, but may need to be supplemented with new plants from time to time to keep the area full.

Pale coneflower

Using Natives in Floral Design

Even on cool days, our greenhouse is warm and humid and full of blooming plants! Unfortunately, they are blossoming much too soon to be enjoyed by our FloraKansas shoppers. I have been fastidiously clipping those flowers off in hopes it will boost leaf growth. With all these cut flowers at my disposal, I have been making floral arrangements for all my friends and family. You don’t have to be an artist or a professional florist to make gorgeous, natural looking arrangements with natives. You just have to know what plants to use and a few basic design principles.

Every grandma loves to get some unexpected flowers!

Design Basics

On my first cutting of early greenhouse flowers I found some ‘Violet and White’ columbine, ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ daisy fleabane and ‘Gold and Bronze’ coreopsis. I combined those flowers into a small, columnar arrangement and gave it to my grandma as a surprise. To create fast, no-fuss arrangements on the fly I follow a few simple design principles.

1. Tall elements go in the middle and back, short elements belong in front and sides
2. Use shades/variations of the same color and colors opposite each other on the color wheel
3. Use foliage or thicker blooms at the base of the arrangement as filler to hold things in place

This leaves lots to learn, but if you start with these rules you are sure to get fast, eye-catching results. Serendipitously, this fist cutting was the perfect combination of colors — dark purple columbine, light lilac columbine and daisy fleabane, along with yellow coreopsis, provided that pop of interest that only complementary colors can do so well.

Using Natives with Style

I have had the opportunity to do floral design for many of my close friends’ weddings. Some of them specifically requested the use of native plants, others wanted a touch of native, but mostly traditional choices. I am always amazed at how many beautiful stems, blooms and greenery I can find locally. I pluck these from my yard and the landscapes of friends and family as well as roadsides and pastures (always being careful not to trespass or over-harvest, depleting the future seed bank). By using what is on hand, I am avoiding the costly fresh-cut flower industry and the huge carbon footprint that goes into it. Here are a few examples, in order from ‘least native’ to ‘most native’ material used in the composition.

A friend of mine requested only green and white in her bridal bouquet, and wanted something very small and unassuming. I choose store-bought hydrangea blooms and baby’s breath, with varying shades/shapes of greens to keep it interesting – grey, stiff eucalyptus leaves, bright green huckleberry and fresh cut white pine tips, the only locally sourced element seen here. The huge round hydrangea was the centerpiece of the bouquet, so I used tall elements to create a fan effect.

This is a bridal bouquet I did for a church wedding. The bride specifically requested something rounded and traditional, but also incorporating her wedding colors (peach and navy blue). I purchased roses, eucalyptus leaves and baby’s breath (which I used floral spray paint to turn blue). In the road side I found dainty yellow blooms of native Coreopsis tinctoria, a perfect complementary splash against blues and greens. I also added some asparagus greenery from an old patch in my parent’s yard – airy and light, it adds nice movement and more green tones without bulking up the bouquet.

In Kansas, summer and fall are great times to get married if you want to incorporate native elements. This particular bride and groom requested wheat heads and lavender as must-haves, along with lots of yellow wildflowers. I bought light pink roses and baby’s breath, but everything else I found in the gardens of their family and friends, making the flowers just that much more meaningful. The Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia fulgida and Achillea ‘Sunny Seduction’ were from the grandparents of the groom, as well as the massive white hydrangeas I used at the base for filler.

Beyond the Bouquet

Photo by Rachel Rudeen

I created an alter decoration for that wedding, using fresh Russian sage (Perovskia) from the mother-of-the-bride’s garden and leftover baby’s breath. It smelled amazing and kept its shape even in the drying sun.

Boutineers are a tedious task, but oh so cute! I created an easily reproducible teardrop shape boutineer for the groom, with wheat as a vertical element. To match the bride’s bouquet, I included tiny cuttings of yarrow, lavender and baby’s breath. Knowing that boutineers will need to keep their vigor without water for many hours, flower choice is key – native wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is a white, stiff pearl shaped flower that mimicked the look and shape of the bride’s hydrangeas perfectly, which would have quickly wilted if used in a boutineer.

Winter Wonders

Don’t think the flower power has to end when the growing season does – with strong stems and seed-holding blooms, native plants are excellent specimens for dried arrangements.

Grasses such as Pancium provide airy but firm filler to work around, and the black, bulbous seed pods of Baptisia australis add interest. This arrangement is complementing the artwork of Leah Gaddert, available for purchase at the Arboretum Visitor Center.

The round seed heads of Eryngium yuccifolium and Echinacea species contrast well with the upright nature of Liatris pycnostachya. Chasmanthium grass (far left in vase), also known as fish-on-a-string, provides a whimsical note.

The best way to always have gorgeous arrangements is to have a great garden to cut them from. By planting native you can feed wildlife and pollinators, as well as your eye for design. Using natives and adaptables in your floral designs is cost effective, has a low-carbon impact and offers new options in every season. Come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival and pick up some native plants to get started on your own floral art!

Can One Garden Make a Difference?

One of the thoughts that I keep coming back to is this question of whether one garden can make a difference in the world.  This question makes me ask even more questions like: Can it slow habitat loss? Will it really attract pollinators? Can a conservation garden be beautiful and functional? Is encouraging biodiversity important? Can such a small garden mimic essential ecological processes? Will these pocket gardens connect people with nature? Even if only some of this is true, then conservation CAN indeed start at home.

 

Create Prairie Habitat at Home

Creating habitat gardens, prairie gardens, wildflower gardens or whatever we want to call them is now part of the conservation movement. Prairies as we knew them 200 years ago are never coming back to their original form. I would love to see large herds of bison meandering through vast expanses of prairie. We would stand in awe as we looked across the horizon on a rich and diverse landscape that moved with the gentlest breeze. But there remains only a handful of prairies that reflect this bygone era. Certainly, we must protect and try to enlarge these prairie tracts as much as possible, but encouraging the planting of thousands of small prairie gardens is equally important. We must begin at our homes by creating small vignettes that reflect our prairie heritage.

 

Give Back to Nature

It is through human intervention that these new landscapes can bring about change. Nature now relies on us to help more than ever. Conservation is like paddling upstream on a river. Progress happens as long as we keep paddling, but as soon as we stop the river pushes us backward. Incremental change or success is a result of our concerted efforts focused on moving us upstream. We can give nature back as much as it gives us. We rely on each other and we can no longer be separated from one another.

So to answer my question: Yes. Every garden is important in so many ways. To choose to restore, create or protect a habitat makes a difference. Each landscape/garden, no matter how small, can truly have a positive impact on the health of the environment. Imagine your garden habitat connected with hundreds of other prairie landscapes throughout each community, as shown through the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Pollinators and wildlife will benefit and we will feel good about the role we play as we care for nature.

 

Here are a few ways that incremental change can happen:

  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
  • Use native plants as much as possible, because wildlife prefers these plants.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that develop fruit and berries that birds need as they migrate or overwinter.
  • Design a garden that has a variety of plants blooming throughout the year.
  • Incorporate plants that adapt to your site, which makes them low maintenance.
  • Transition parts of your lawn to wildlife habitat.

 

Instead of looking at all the negative that surrounds us daily, let’s focus on the positive role we can have in our neighborhoods.  It is easy to be all doom and gloom, but really we should continue to paddle forward. I believe small, steady changes provide us with a unique opportunity to discover what it means to be a steward of creation.  Who knows? Maybe your garden will be an inspiration that others use to begin their own journey. One garden can make a tremendous difference.

If you live in Kansas and don’t know where to start in establishing a prairie habitat garden, we invite you to further explore our Prairie Notes blog and attend our upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

A New Way to Think About Spring Garden Clean Up

This time of year, we get excited about heading outside for some spring garden clean up. The warmer weather signals that spring in just around the corner. All of last year’s plants, including grasses, perennials and the mountains of leaves blown into the garden, have to be cut down and hauled away, or do they? There is so much to do, but before you clear cut the garden, look closely at what you are removing from your landscape.

Through winter, your garden has provided habitat for many different beneficial insects and wildlife. By removing everything above ground, you are removing nesting sites and the homes of the pollinators you have attracted to your yard. All the old stalks, stems and leaves have protected and sheltered these insects through the coldest weather. So how can you save them and still get your garden ready for spring? Here are some suggestions that will save most of the beneficial insects hibernating in your garden.

Coneflowers and Little Bluestem offer great winter cover for pollinators and beneficial insects.

Carefully remove old growth

Most native bees are solitary creatures that overwinter in the ground or in hollow stems of perennial and grasses. Because they make their winter homes in some of the stems of your plants, cutting these plants to the ground will remove their nesting habitat.

An alternative would be to cut them down to 18 inches now, remove the upper portion and spread it loosely along the edges of your garden or property. Then you can go back when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees and completely remove the rest down to the new growth at the base. By that time the bees and beneficial insects will have emerged from their winter slumber.

Another option would be to remove the stalks completely just like you have done in past years. I would then bundle the stems together loosely and hang them along the fence or tree line. From there, the insects can emerge and fly to your garden area.

I didn’t realize how many of these stems and stalks harbored the beneficial insects I want in my garden. It is important that we allow the life cycle of these insects to reach completion. I want to encourage you to be patient and careful when you cut down and remove the old growth from your garden. Either keep those plants up longer into the spring or keep them somewhere in your garden so the pollinators and beneficial insects can come out and stay in your neighborhood.

Strategically clean up leaves

We all have piles of leaves that have accumulated over the winter in our gardens. Just like the hollow stems of perennials, leaves protect beneficial insects, including ladybugs, damsel bugs, and butterflies like commas, morning cloaks and question marks through the winter. Other pollinators overwinter as eggs or pupae in leaves. Holding off leaf removal until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees will favor the hatching of a new brood of beneficial insects to begin their lives in your garden.

Solomon’s Seal surrounded by leaf litter that protects pollinators and insulates the plants for winter.

This simple and thoughtful approach to spring clean up will have a positive impact on the overall health of your garden. Instead of clearing your garden of beneficial insects, you will be connecting your garden with the complete life cycle of these pollinators. Your garden can have a positive impact on the plight of these endangered species. It will be a landscape that supports the pollinators and beneficial insects we enjoy and need so much.

Waking Up: The Exciting Life of Buds

The landscape may still be dominated by the browns and tans of winter, but inside the greenhouse is a different story -oodles of green buds bursting out of dormancy, waking up to warm, humid air! It’s refreshing to spend time around these green little beauties, and it is an indicator that plants outside will soon be doing the very same thing.

Buds excite us for many reasons. They portend flowers and color, and the lush greenness to come. But they also are a signal of life! Life after the cold winter months, life after dormancy – a breaking forth from a long sleep, part of the natural cycles of activity and inactivity that we all experience.

Beyond metaphor, their botany is just plain cool! Here are a few things to know about the buds emerging on your landscape plants at home.

Salix Mt. Asama is an early bloomer. It’s bright yellow and pink pollen clusters are showy, suspended on fuzzy, whimsical silks.

What is a Bud?

A pal? A friend? I certainly see them that way! But scientifically speaking, a bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. As I previously covered in my November post on pruning, there are lots of different types of buds: terminal buds (at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem, producing leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Confetti Cake’ hellebore has a pure white flowerbud, but when it opens will be spotted with dark purple.

Bud Beasties

Inspecting your buds is important to stopping a potential problem. The first thing to inspect for is aphids. Buds are succulent little treats for these pests, and have less waxy protective coating than mature leaves, making them an easy target. Often the buds won’t show much damage until you have a nasty infestation, so inspecting buds early is key. Be sure to look on the inner folds of the bud if possible, as aphids are quite good at hiding themselves.

Ogon spirea blooms earlier than other spirea, long before it has fully leafed out. The flowers are white with yellow centers and closely clustered together, making a nice effect in the spring landscape.

Health Check

Even if you see buds on your trees, shrubs and outdoor plants, that may not be an indication that everything is A-OK. All too often I see lots of buds on my potted shrubs only to find out that they are dead – by pressing gently on them, they easily break off and reveal dead wood at the wound. If you have any doubt about the hardiness of a shrub or perhaps neglected your winter watering schedule, take a close look at the buds. Buds that are soft and mushy or dry and brittle are a bad sign, and may indicate dead wood that needs trimming back this year. Firm buds that don’t break off at a light touch, be they green or still brown, usually mean they are alive and waiting to spring open.

I’m dismayed that FloraKansas Plant Festival is still months away – so many early blooming plants are at their best right now, budding out and coming alive! Come visit the Arboretum and enjoy all the buds (and bulbs!) that are waking up!

Inspiring Landscapers

This Saturday, February 24 at our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium, 10 inspiring landscapers will share their native plant gardening stories.

 

A common thread of these landscapers/gardeners (I use these words interchangeably) is that they have each uniquely contributed to my approach and style of landscaping over the years. I have been drawn to their passion for gardening and landscaping. They are botanists, ecologists, master gardeners, landscape artists, and inquisitive students of gardening. Most of them have had successful careers in areas other than landscaping. Yet each considers landscaping a labor of love and finds great joy in working with plants that shape the landscapes around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I look forward to hearing their brief prepared stories with photos all being told in a one day symposium format where they can also answer questions. While it is difficult to fit these individuals into specific landscaping categories, I have generally ordered them in speaking sequence from wild and ecological to horticultural and manicured.

I won’t have time to give them each the full and flowery introduction that they deserve. But I will say a bit about their styles and approaches that have influenced me over the last 25+ years.

The Speakers

 

Dwight Platt was my major professor at Bethel College where I studied biology and environmental studies in the early 90s. He introduced me to Lorna Harder, then curator for natural history at the Kauffman Museum. The two of them were responsible for developing the oldest prairie reconstruction in Kansas on the museum grounds, and I was able to serve as a prairie intern with them before graduating. My appreciation for the diverse ecology of the prairie and how prairie plants can be incorporated into landscaping started with them. They inspired me to pursue further education in ecological restoration and landscape architecture.

Kauffman Museum Prairie

Dwight and Lorna’s home landscapes utilize many native plants with a focus on attracting biological diversity to those landscapes. Bob Simmons carries a similar approach. His intimate knowledge of host plants and what butterflies they attract guides his approach to landscaping as well. All three of these folks are passionate knowledge seekers of the birds and butterflies around them. They are regular attendees of annual bird and butterfly counts in Harvey County that contribute to citizen science.

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

My work at Dyck Arboretum with the Earth Partnership for School (EPS) Program has opened my eyes to the power that native landscaping can have inspiring children. Developing prairie gardens on school grounds offers fun learning opportunities through hands-on, project-based learning. High school science teachers Jay Super (Maize) and Denise Scribner (Goddard) are award-winning educators that have displayed how prairie gardening offers a useful learning tool for their students.

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

Locally grown food is important to our health and well-being and I have long been intrigued by the mixing of vegetables and native plant gardens in our landscapes. The Sand Creek Community Garden in N. Newton has been an example for me in recent years of how growing vegetables and tending native prairie gardens are mutually beneficial. Attracting pollinators and insect predators can only help food plots and they certainly add interest to gardening experience as well. Duane Friesen was the main organizer of this community garden seen as one of the best in Kansas. And as my father-in-law, Duane has also taught me much of what I know about growing vegetables. Joanna Fenton Friesen has a real eye for designing beautiful gardens with native plants and has been an organizer for the perennial flower beds at the community garden. They each have inspiring home landscapes with vegetables and native plants as well.

Sand Creek Community Garden

Pam Paulsen, Reno County Horticulture Extension Agent, is one of the top education resources in Kansas and she has immense knowledge about vegetable gardening, pollinators, and natural pest management. She is also an avid student of the prairie and a great photographer.

Aesthetically arranging native plants in organized assemblages adds enjoyment to landscaping. It also makes native plant gardening, often seen as unkept and weedy, more palatable to the general public. My colleague, Scott Vogt, has a horticulture degree and has helped influence me in this regard by encouraging plantings in groupings. Duane and Joanna with their eyes for aesthetics and surrounding native gardens with edging and mulched trails have also been influential.

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

Two gardens that I have enjoyed visiting in recent years have been the home landscapes designed and tended by Laura Knight (Wichita) and Lenora Larson (Paola). Their displays of not only native plants, but adaptable perennials and annuals too have expanded my understanding and appreciation for sustainable landscaping. They also have an appreciation for art in the garden, beautiful walking paths, water features, and weeding – all elements that enhance the garden aesthetic experience. Lenora also pays close attention to choosing plants that offer either nectar or food for insects.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

I hope you will join us Saturday and experience even a fraction of the inspiration that I have received from these gardeners and landscapers.

Imposter Plants: What it Means to Be Native, Part II

This post is the second installment of the Imposter Plants series. In the first post I discussed the differences between native and adaptable, while also trying to clear up the confusing descriptor ‘naturalized’. Here I will dig into the details on what it means to be invasive, noxious, weedy, alien or exotic.

Garden Bullies

On February 3rd 1999, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that was meant to protect the US from imminent invasion – plant invasion! Non-native plants that become out of control can affect agriculture, ecology, endangered species and human health, and the President was right to be concerned.

There are many definitions for what an invasive plant is, and some are contradictory. Here is my simplified aggregation of the most prevalent ones on the web: a plant is invasive if it is non-native to the region and spreads aggressively enough to displace native plant populations. These plants are not only bullies in the home landscape, they can easily escape into the wild and begin reproducing. Harkening back to the previous post, non-native plants that reproduce on their own in the wild are ‘naturalized’, but the important distinction is that naturalized plants do not degrade habitat and cannot outcompete natives for nutrients, water or sunlight. Invasive plants certainly do, often causing damage to the local flora and fauna.

 

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive plant as well as a noxious weed. Brought here from Eurasia, it quickly adapted to the North American climate and is pervasive enough to choke out native plants and hinder agriculture.

 

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is a beautiful native species, but spreads aggressively and can take over your garden. Even so, this is not technically an invasive plant.

Weedy and Noxious

I truly despise the term ‘weedy’. Not only is it vague, it is completely subjective. One person’s weedy plant is another’s favorite flower! The true definition of a weed is merely ‘a plant out of place’; a weed can be any plant, native or non-native, that does not belong in its current place. We use this word to describe the behavior of the plant more than the plant itself. Does it pop up everywhere? Does it come back even after you pull it? Well, a gardener might call this plant a weed, even if they once planted it there themselves. But since it only describes the action of the plant and not the legal status or origins, this word doesn’t hold much weight with me.

Brad Guhr captured this delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan) enjoying the bloom of a native thistle, Cirsium altissimum. People often confuse these with non-native thistles classified as noxious weeds. Our native tall thistle is important to pollinators.

 

Regal fritillary on native tall thistle. You can identify native thistles from the noxious by their leaves – Cirsium altissimum leaves are green above white and woolly underneath. To learn all the details on native and non-native thistles from Brad Guhr, click here.

A noxious weed is a different story. Noxious is a legal term and its definition is closely tied to agriculture. Per the 1974 Federal Noxious Weed Act, “a plant that directly or indirectly injures crops, other useful plants, livestock, poultry or other interests of agriculture, or the fish or wildlife resources of the United States” is considered noxious. Confusingly, native plants can be noxious weeds. A noxious weed grows aggressively, multiplies quickly without natural controls (such as herbivory) and threatens agriculture. The USDA regulates these plants and monitors their populations.

Extraterrestrial and Just Plain Weird

Lastly, let’s tackle a few terms that arise occasionally to confuse and befuddle. Though we call some plants ‘alien’, this doesn’t mean they have invaded from Mars. We can use this term interchangeably with ‘non-native’; both mean that a given plant is not naturally found in the area. You may also hear a plant called ‘exotic’. What comes to mind might be tropical, rare, or expensive specimens, but in fact this is just another name for a non-native plant. An exotic plant has origins in another place, perhaps on another continent. Exotic and alien are often bundled together with other terminology – exotic introduced (a non-native plant brought to a new place), an alien invasive (a non-native plant that harms local ecosystems), an exotic naturalizer (a non-native that reproduces in the wild but doesn’t cause major problems) … and so on!

Tamarix is an exotic species native to Eurasia and Africa, but is now spreading aggressively over many parts of the US. So prevalent in some areas, it can lower the water table and deposit large amounts of salt in the soil.

Whether a plant is invasive or naturalizing, native or weedy, can often change based on who you are talking to. Some of these terms overlap in definition, leaving much to argue about. There is even scientific interest in finding a new way to classify these plants to help dispel the confusion. By educating yourself on correct classifications, you can help friends and neighbors understand why they shouldn’t plant invasives that ruin our wilderness. You can also help at our FloraKansas Plant Festival, teaching others that native plants are not just pretty ‘weeds’.