Pathways in Your Garden

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

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

Rock Paths

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

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

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

Mulch Paths

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

Straw Paths

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

Semi-permeable pavement

Permeable interlocking concrete pavers

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

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

Semi-permeable Pavement

 

The Best Trees for Fall Color

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

– Chinese Proverb

 

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

Native Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

How do trees develop fall color?

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

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

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

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

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

White oak

My Favorite Trees for Fall Color

Shumard Red Oak (Quercus shumardii)

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

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

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

Table Rock Sugar Maple

Bald Cypress

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

Bald Cypress fall color

Others worth noting:

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

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

Sugar Maple

10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

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

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

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

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

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

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

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

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

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

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

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

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

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

5. Tell the Project Story

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

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

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

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

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

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

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

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

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

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

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

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

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

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

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

____________________

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

How to Beautify Your Home Habitat Garden This Fall

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

The “New Front Lawn”

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

 

 

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

Just a few additions

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

Blank slate

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

Photo by Brad Guhr

New garden ready for planting

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

Habitat creation – the ultimate goal of any home landscape!

Let’s Talk about Mulch

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

How much mulch is enough?

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

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

Nicely mulched new planting

What is the best way to mulch?

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

When is the best time to mulch?

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

What type of mulch is best?

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

Our mulch pile of chipped up trees

River rock as mulch with blackeyed susan and prairie dropseed

Can I use plants as mulch?

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

Lenora Larson’s Garden with dense plants that smother weeds

A few final thoughts:

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

Essential mulching tools: Silage fork and stiff leaf rake

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

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

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

Happy Mulching!

Five Water Saving Practices for your Landscape

Last week the Arboretum staff visited a flower farm near Lawrence.  It was interesting to see how they were growing their flowers to be used in arrangements and displays for special occasions. They focused on native plants, but also had some annuals, bulbs and shrubs, too.  During our tour, the topic of irrigation and water use were explored, because they are under severe drought conditions.  It made me think about our irrigation practices and ways to create a water-wise landscape.  Here are five water saving practices for you to implement in your garden.

Choose plants adapted to your site

One of the biggest mistakes I have made when establishing a new garden is choosing plants that I like rather than plants that like the area in which I am trying to establish them.  There is a big difference. It is critical to match plants to the site. The closer they are adapted to your landscape the less water they will need to survive.  Native plants are always a good choice, because they are already adapted to our climate.  Evaluate your landscape’s soil, sun exposure, and moisture content.  By understanding these aspects of your landscape, you will be able to make informed plant choices.  There is a palette of plants that will almost effortlessly grow in your garden.  Grouping plants with similar water needs that match your landscape conditions will ensure success.

 

Space Plantings Tightly

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

Use mulch around trees and shrubs

Mulches can be a blessing and a curse depending your mulching practices. We typically apply a two to three inch layer of mulch around a tree by simply mulching a tree a few inches away from the root flare and extending out to its drip line. Shrubs get the same treatment.  It is vital to keep mulch several inches away from the trunk or stem. Please, no mulch volcanoes!  Mulches prevent weeds, eliminate erosion, retain soil moisture, help moderate soil temperatures, provide a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems and increase the aesthetics of the overall landscape.  Too much mulch (over four inches) starves roots of oxygen by sealing off the ground suffocating the plants. Old mulch can matte up and restrict water infiltration, too.

Viburnum prunifolium in bloom

Irrigate efficiently

During times of prolonged drought, irrigation may be necessary.  Plants naturally go dormant, but in a display bed you can add supplemental water to keep them more vibrant and healthy.  We use pressure compensating drip irrigation tubing with emitters spaced 12 inch apart.  Drip irrigation puts water where it is needed for optimum efficiency in the root zone rather than on the leaves. If you irrigate with overhead sprinklers, start sprinklers early in the morning or later in the evening.  Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day to reduce evaporation and loss from wind.  You can also recycle rainfall and create a rain garden.

Pressure compensating 1/2 inch soaker hose

 

Reduce your lawn

Cool season grass lawns with roots that are maybe six to twelve inches deep are one of the most watered landscape plants. If you think strategically and replace part of a water-guzzling lawn with deep rooted wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees or even with native buffalograss, you will save water and increase wildlife diversity in your landscape.  You may like open spaces with lawn for play or leisure, but you can scale back the size of your lawn and still have the aesthetics you appreciate.  Mow your lawn at the highest height and water only as needed.  Turfgrass has its place in the landscape, but maybe not the most prominent place it currently does.

We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions.  Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little if any supplemental water is an achievable result.  A few changes can make a big difference.

Coneflowers: Native vs Hybrid

Echinacea, or coneflower, is possibly one of the most well known prairie flowers. Endemic to North American prairies, it is known around the world for its medicinal properties and its versatility as a cut flower. There are ten distinct species of naturally occurring echinacea, but the horticultural industry has created countless hybrids.
Though native echinacea only comes in purple, pale purple, or yellow, hybridized echinacea can be red, orange, pink, green or even multi-color. But what besides color make these new coneflowers different? And are there any downsides to using engineered plants over natives?

 

Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How They Are Made: Wilderness Vs Laboratory

Most newfangled varieties of Echinacea are from the species E. purpurea. Unassuming and bright, the ‘straight species’ of Echinacea purpurea has long lasting purple blooms that readily self seed in the garden. Insects pollinate these wild coneflowers by carrying pollen (i.e. genetic material) between whatever echinaceas are nearby, producing seeds with mixed traits and variable habits. However, hybrid varieties have much more protected DNA, developed by humans through hand pollinating of flowers with desirable qualities. It can take years to successfully select, cross, and stabilize a genetic line of new coneflowers for the garden market.

This variety of Echinacea called ‘ Cleopatra’ has eye catching yellow flowers. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Pros

Using hybrid echinacea gives you more options. If you like to make bold statements and thematic garden designs, a wider color pallette is always more fun. The hybrid types come in all different sizes as well, meaning customers can choose tall or dwarf types to fit multiple landscaping needs. Native coneflowers, like E. pallida or E. paradoxa, will always be between 1.5-3 ft tall when planted in optimal conditions. Beyond height, genetically modified coneflowers often have better branching and a more compact habit than the native type. They are usually less prone to flopping over, and some even have a longer bloom period. For gardens with limited space, hybrid coneflowers offer lots of color in a more manageable package.

E. angustifolia is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

 

‘Salsa’ Echinacea is from the Sombrero series of coneflowers offered by Walter’s Garden. All of the varieties shown in this post will be available at our fall plant sale!

Cons

Native coneflowers are excellent food sources for pollinators, but the jury is still out on whether hybrids are as beneficial. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggests some single flowered hybrids are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Additionally, some hybrid varieties are sterile and do not produce viable seeds to support seed eating birds. Humans reproduce most hybrid varieties through vegetative propagation, either by tissue culture or by cuttings and divisions. This means they are genetic clones of each other and do not contribute to genetic diversity within the Echinacea gene pool. Less genetic diversity transmitted to the next generation of plants leaves echinacea species’ at risk for disease and decay of their genetic line. Ecological considerations aside, some new varieties don’t seem to be as long lived as the true natives. 

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Whether or not you go with true natives or new varieties of coneflower depends on the purpose of your planting. If you want an ecological planting that increases biodiversity and improves habitat, then stick with Kansas natives. But to simply improve the aesthetics of your landscape and add a splash of color, new hybrid varieties will do the trick. Come to the FloraKansas fall plant sale and get your fill of coneflowers, native and otherwise!

Medicine Gardening

Plants are the pharmacy of the world, providing us with healing elixirs for all manner of ailments. We often associate medicinal plants with the tropics, but North American prairie natives have much to offer as well! Indigenous North American people made use of prairie plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Most modern day medicines are now synthesized in labs due to cost and the risk of overharvesting wild populations. However, creating a medicine garden in your landscape can still be a rewarding pursuit!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

 

What is a Medicine Garden?

A medicine garden is a collection of medicinally useful plants, usually organized in an aesthetically pleasing way. Instead of tromping across miles of prairie to find a certain plant, tend that species right at home instead. Medicine gardens can include herbaceous perennials, reseeding annuals, cooking herbs, and shrubs. This no new trend: many cultures throughout the world have tended medicine gardens far back into ancient times. Though plants are the basis of many healing compounds, never use a plant for medicinal purposes without checking first with your physician. Ancient peoples may have relied on herbal potions for healing, but the practice is fraught with pseudoscience and was often more harmful than helpful. Your medicine garden can be of practical use, or purely aesthetic, depending on your needs.

But with so many prairie plants, where do you start? Here are few staples to include that will bring cultural and historical significance to your garden.

Monarda fistulosa

Monarda, commonly called bee balm, is a well known medicinal plant. Not only is it beautiful and attractive to pollinators, but it is also low maintenance and drought tolerant. It keeps a clumping, upright habit and produces long lasting lavender tinted blooms early to mid summer. Native people of the Great Plains used this plant to treat all manner of ailments including colds, fevers, stomach pains and acne. You can use the fragrant leaves, with the aroma of Earl Grey tea, as dried potpourri to perfume clothing or linens. At the Arboretum, we have enjoyed using the leaves as a refreshing iced tea.

Monarda blooms profusely in this photo from Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses taken in Riley County, KS.

 

Echinacea angustifolia

Probably one of the best known medicinal plants in North America, purple coneflower is a must-have for any medicinal garden. According to Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, “Echinacea angustifolia was the most widely used medicinal plant of the Plains Indians”(Kindscher). It grows to be 2 ft tall with thin stems topped by light purple flowers. Native people and eventually the invading European settlers used the crushed root to treat snake bites and bee stings, and other infected skin wounds. Modern science has proven coneflower power against the growth of infectious bacterias. You can chew the seeds briefly to numb the mouth and gums, creating a tingling sensation. Echinacea tinctures, teas and creams are quite popular and commercially available. This means you can get your echinacea fix without digging up your gorgeous garden!

Purple coneflower is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

Allium canadense

Prairie onions offer delicate blooms and strappy foliage, a great addition to the front border of any garden. The bulb of wild onions was traditionally used to treat coughs (if drunk in a tea) and insects stings (when applied topically). Plains people used an infusion of the bulb to treat ear infections. Interestingly, combined with Monarda it was used to cool the skin around swellings or sores (Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie 1992). Several of toxic bulb plants look similar to alliums, so take caution when including these in your medicine garden.

There are too many garden-worthy botanicals to mention here, but hopefully I have piqued your curiosity. For more detailed information about the relationships between these plants and specific tribes and nations of indigenous people, come to our gift shop and grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s fascinating and well researched Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie or Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie. Our fall plant sale is just around the corner and expert staff will be there to help you pick out plants that will thrive in your landscape for years to come.

Can A Shade Garden Be Created In Kansas?

“I have shade in my yard, what can I grow?” We get this question every year at our FloraKansas Plant Festivals and I admit it is a challenge to come up with plants that will thrive in shade.  The difficulty with trying to grow shade plants in our area in not that we have shade, it’s that we have shade in an area that once grew sun loving deep rooted prairie plants.  Trees have been added to our landscapes out of necessity and the prairie has been pushed out due to lack of adequate sunlight.  The inconsistent rainfall and root competition of the trees are a real challenge to shade-loving perennials, shrubs and understory trees.

So what can we do to create a shade garden?

Start small

Choose drought tolerant shade loving plants. These new additions to your shade garden should be smaller and don’t require digging a deep hole and disturbing tree roots to get them in the ground.  Establish an area that can easily be managed and maintained the first couple of years.  Keep in mind that root competition and irregular rainfall will require consistent moisture from you the first year until the new plants can weave their roots through the tree roots and live in harmony together.

Be patient

This is not a quick fix. The roots of your shade plants develop slowly so you need to watch and wait to see what these plants need.  The first two years are vital to the success of your shade garden endeavor. You will need to water them regularly to encourage growth.  Work with the plants to create an environment in which they will thrive.  Your patience will be rewarded with new blooms several years into the future, but you have to start now to see this happen.

Forms and textures are important

Let face it, there are not as many showy flowering plants for the shade compared to the vast array of sun loving prairie plants.  So, we need to include plants with interesting forms and foliage.  A good example of this are the arching stems of Solomon’s seal. A group of these growing happily together are very striking. Incorporate plants that flower but don’t forget the architecture that give additional visual interest.  Great shade gardens have a balance of flowers and foliage.

Arching stems of Solomon’s Seal

Don’t fertilize

Leave the leaves as protection and organic matter.  As the leaves decompose, they will supply nutrients to the fledgling plants. The natural processes that make a woodland work effortlessly need to be replicated as closely as possible.  Woodland plant communities rely on the nutrients from the canopy and twigs that are slowly broken down and released back to the soil.  Too much fertilizer creates all kinds of problems, but the most obvious is too much growth with not enough sustainable roots.

CLICK HERE: For a list of shade loving perennials and shrubs.

Trees in Kansas are a blessing, not a curse.  We enjoy the shade, but often struggle to find the right plants for that barren shady spot under the trees.  Some properly chosen plants and some patience along with timely watering will make your woodland garden more natural and resilient over time.  The roots of the trees and roots of the shade plants co-mingle in our soil, sunlight and climate.  Even the most tranquil forest settings we have seen have complex processes and interactions taking place.  So, be patient and you will be rewarded with happy plants for years to come.

 

Living Fences

I recently read an article in the summer edition of National Wildlife Magazine that caught my attention. It was all about living fences – areas of dense plantings that form a barrier between two properties or areas. These spaces not only make your yard feel more private and cozy, but are great for attracting and sustaining wildlife.

Living fences can be big (like a hedgerow) or small (like a back garden border). They can enclose your yard, your patio, or even your driveway. By Brian Zinnel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

What’s it made of?

Living fences should be layered and lush. As the article suggested, it should have 3 layers in descending height. Plant the first layer in small to medium sized trees or shrubs. The second layer is mainly shrubbery, with some tall perennials. The last and lowest layer is herbaceous perennials. You should consider each plant for its wildlife attracting qualities: Does it have thorny branches to protect birds from predators? Does it have flowers for pollinators to visit? Is it dense enough for rabbits, opossums, bats or other small mammals to take refuge in? Are there caterpillar host plants included? Each of these factors increases valuable habitat on your property, making life easier for the animals we share space with.

Living fences are not a new idea. In the days of old, people would actually bend young trees to train their growth into a lattice pattern. By Johann Georg Krünitz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant Selection

Suckering or thicket forming trees such as pawpaw (Asimina triloba), dogwood (Cornus drummondii), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) and tall sumac (Rhus typhina) make excellent top layer specimens for our area. Thickets provide the dense cover that small birds need to build nests and feel safe.

The middle layer could be populated with New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or lead plant (Amorpha canescens). These shrubs reach from 3 to 7 feet tall and have ample blooms to feed pollinators. Beautyberry is also a favorite among berry eating birds.

The shortest layer should include a few host plants for caterpillars. Not only will it help insect populations, but even seed eating birds rely on caterpillar and insect protein to feed their young. Plant golden alexanders (swallowtail butterfly host plant), wild senna (sulphur butterfly host plant), and wild violets (Viola pedata, regal fritillary host plant) to see more butterflies and caterpillars in your yard as well as more happy momma birds hunting them.

 

American beautyberry is unique shrub with arching branches and bright purple/pink berries. By Forest and Kim Starr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Benefits

Planting a green living fence has lots of perks. Besides attracting wildlife and supporting healthy habitats…

  • green fences are constantly renewing themselves and need little maintenance once established. You’ll never have to  replace missing slates, reseal the wood or fix rusted gates.
  • the thick foliage and multiple layers help to block out road noise and unsightly neighbors
  • just looking at and being near landscapes that are dynamic, engaging and green can naturally enhance your mood and decrease stress.
  • established trees and good landscaping can increase the value of your home, and depending on if they shade/protect the house, can help you save on heating and cooling

The butterflies will thank you if you include buttonbush in your living fence. The globe shaped flowers are eye catching! By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

People all over the world, even in Cuba, have used green fences to enhance or disguise their traditional fences. By Arnoud Joris Maaswinkel (Arnoud Joris Maaswinkel) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are a myriad of good reasons to plant living fences – from the anthropocentric need for privacy and happiness-inducing green space to the environmental crusade to help wildlife thrive in an increasingly urban world. If you, like me, have a canine in your yard that needs a true fence, simply compromise –  a cheap chain link fence keeps Fido secure and thick shrubs of a living fence will grow through it enough to hide it from view.