Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Something interesting is happening to our front yards.  They are slowly shrinking.  The typical large expanse of green lawn is being replaced with low-maintenance, drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses.   Homeowners are realizing that this alternative to a mowed lawn has its advantages.  Certainly, this new paradigm will require less water over time, but it can be functional and beautiful as well.  The potential environmental impacts of making this change can be significant.

Shady area at Arboretum converted from fescue turf to columbine, bluestar and other perennials and shrubs.

Lawn grasses such as fescue and bluegrass require more mowing and watering than native landscapes.  Here are some facts about lawns and their impact on the environment:

  • There are some 80 million home lawns across the country
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually
  • Nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • Approximately $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

If you are tired of the traditional front yard and wish to reduce your lawn, a simple landscape design focused on native plants can make a real difference.  With their deep roots, native plants can adapt to the regional climate and ecological conditions, while also addiing diversity, reducing maintenance and attracting a host of wildlife and pollinators.  Use these simple steps as a guide to develop a native front yard.

Step 1: Plan your design, start small

I prefer to lay out a garden hose to get the curves and flow that I want.  It is a great way to “fiddle” with the design before tearing anything up.  Start small by removing a section of lawn that you can manage.  You can convert other areas over the next few years.

Step 2: Investigate plant types

Think about the type of plants that will grow in your area.  I group shrubs, perennials and grasses to add impact in the landscape.  Strategically locating small trees such as redbuds and disease resistant crabapples will give height and take up space in the design. Are there some evergreen trees and shrubs that will give some splashes of green especially in winter?

Investigate the types of plants you wish to include in your yard.  Plan your garden for a succession of bloom to guarantee there are always a few plants flowering throughout the year. These native plants provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  A few plants such as milkweed can provide food for larvae and fruits and seeds will feed the birds.  A monoculture of lawn can be transformed into a landscape alive with diversity and activity.

Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and mixed prairie plantings

Step 3: Find your plants

Find the plants you need for your design by checking with local nurseries, or you can use our Native Plant Guide 2017.  Steal ideas from nature or visit the Arboretum to gather ideas of combinations and groupings that grow well together.  Then purchase the plants you want at our sale in April or September and get them in the ground.

Earth Partnership for Schools Prairie Planting along walkway to school

It will be great to see your front yard transformed into an oasis for pollinators and birds.  You will be able to look out your front window at a diverse and functional landscape that has a positive impact on the environment.  It will be a landscape that fuels pollinators and supports all sorts of birds and other wildlife.  It will be a landscape that is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, but maybe just a smaller place than in the past.*  It is not a bad thing to replace some of our lawn areas with beautiful and attractive trees, shrubs and other perennials.  Just think about the possibilities.

*If you like a larger expanse of lawn, but wish to consider drought-tolerant alternatives, consider buffalograss as an option.

 

 

Spring Native Planting Guide

As winter fades and the warm moist winds of spring begin to blow, or have been blowing, those of us who love gardening are eager to get our hands dirty planting something in the ground.  We long to see something green, to see something in bloom, and to see pollinators and birds foraging in our yards.  There are so many wonderful aspects to look forward to in the garden.  As you anticipate spring and put together your plant shopping list, here are a few tips that will be a helpful guide as you plan your landscape.

Investigate

Learn about the plants you want to include in your overall landscape plan.  The web is a valuable source of information along with our Native Plant Guide 2017.  I like to read several websites from various places to determine how plants have performed in other gardens.  Plant labels can be deceiving, because they give a broad perspective of the plant, with little or no specific information on how the plant will perform in your area.  Rarely do plants grow as large or as full as the label describes.

Watch the weather

As much as I want to put something in the ground, native plants – particularly native grasses – need warm soil to get them started.  If soil temperatures are below 60⁰, they will not root or begin to grow.  It is better to wait until the soil is warm than to plant too early.  Resist the urge to plant too soon.

Dormant Panicum ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass trimmed and ready for warmer days.

 

Observe your site

I have said this many times, but it bears repeating – the most important step in planning and designing a native garden is to match the plant up with your site.  Take time to observe your area.  Is it sunny or shady?  Does it stay wet or dry?  Is your soil sandy, clay, like concrete, or some other mixture?  Does it get morning sun and afternoon shade or vice versa?  What is your hardiness zone?  Can plants withstand a cold winter?  Choosing the right plant for your landscape will save you time, energy and resources in the long run, because these newly established plants will need less care throughout the growing season.

Sun Guide

“Full sun” means an area receives at least six full hours of direct sunlight each day.  Most wildflowers and grasses, including buffalograss, grow best under these conditions.  A south or west exposure is most common.  These plants can endure sun through the hottest part of the day.

“Part sun” means four to six hours of sun each day.

“Part shade” means four to six hours each day.  Most plants that need protection from the hot afternoon sun fit into this category.  East or northeast exposure is most common.

“Full shade” means less than four hours of sun per day.  Spring ephemerals and woodland species require this type of setting.

Grouping plants

One of the design principles that I remember most from college was that plants grouped in odd numbers are more appealing to the eye.  Plant three, five, or seven of the same wildflower or grass.  They will stand out in the garden, be easier for pollinators to find and look better together than one single plant blooming by itself.  It may cost a little more, but the visual impact will be that much greater.  Also, plan your garden so wildflowers are blooming throughout the year, spring, summer and fall.

From left to right: yellow coneflower (spring), butterfly weed (summer), button blazing star (fall) and little bluestem (fall/winter)

Plant spacing and scale

Give each plant the room it needs.  Think of the mature height, width and scale of the plants you are establishing.  Is it too large for your area?  To keep plants in scale means choosing plants that don’t grow larger than half the bed width (for a 6 ft. wide bed, choose plants that are no more than 3 ft. tall, not a compass plant that gets 10 ft. tall).  Some wildflowers look good individually, such as asters, while others look better grouped together, such as coneflowers or blazing stars.  Also, you might consider using taller wildflowers or grasses as specimen plants to frame other perennials.

Compass plant is a beautiful tall wildflower, but not for a small garden. It needs plenty of space since it can grow ten feet tall.

If you purchase plants early, carefully tend them until you can get them in the ground.  Watch the weather and move them into shelter when freezing temperatures are in the forecast. Don’t over water them, but keep soil moist until they are planted. Here is our watering guide that provides step by step instructions to successfully get your new plants established.

Now is the time to prepare your area for plants so you are ready when conditions are right. Typically, I wait until after April 15 (average last frost date) before I plant. Even then it is no guarantee that cold weather will not return. Good luck and enjoy the spring.

Growing Berries in the Backyard

Berries are my favorite addition to the production garden – they are the perfect topping for ice cream and yogurt and make delicious pies! But they can be expensive to source from the grocery store and certain types are nearly impossible to find. Why not grow your own? Many types of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants are adaptable to Kansas, flourishing under the right conditions. If you don’t have space to create a vegetable garden, no worries – berry plants can mix into the perennial borders and become a productive (and delicious!) part of your landscape for you and for the wildlife.

Raspberries

Rubus idaeus, red raspberries, got their initialized name from Mt. Ida in Turkey, where the citizens of ancient Troy dined on them. Since that time they have spread throughout the world because of their sweetness and adaptability. These delicious little morsels do not naturally flourish in the harsh Kansas climate, but with a little human attention they can produce a summer full of fruit for you.

Wild red raspberries. Photo by mako from Kangasala, Suomi (Finland) (wild raspberries) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant your canes in a spot with full sun (some shade acceptable during the hot hours) and good drainage. Protection from the hot south wind will ensure it doesn’t scorch in our blistering summer. ‘Heritage’ variety red raspberry has a reputation for bountiful crops and first year success. It is everbearing, meaning that it produces two crops – one in mid-July and another in September. ‘Fall Gold’ yellow raspberry also bears two harvests: in fall and then the following spring on the same canes. Gardeners love its unique color and light flavor. Some raspberries are self-supporting, but most benefit from some type of staking.

Currants and Gooseberries

Currants and gooseberries are part of the Ribes genus, some of which are native to Kansas. Ribes ordoratum (golden currant) is commonly found in thickets and near streams, bearing delicious wild fruit great for canning. These wild types can be grown in the landscape for their berries, wildlife appeal and ornamental value. I discovered cultivated red currants while traveling in France; they are a staple of a French breakfast table, irresistible in jams and sauces. ‘Red Lake’ is a type that grows well here in Kansas, with bountiful bunches of marble-sized red berries. Plant in neutral pH soil and don’t keep their feet wet for extended periods of time.

Red currants ripe for the piking! Photo by Idalia Skalska (http://idalia.pl/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The greenish-pink gooseberries sport characteristic veins/stripes and a sour taste. Photo by Nadiatalent (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gooseberries are very hardy, long-lived and have a bramble-type habit. Thorny and thick, they make a great border plant. The berries have light colored ‘veins’ showing through their translucent skin. With a tart, rubarb-esque flavor they go well as a crumble topping or baked into pies and meat sauces.

Strawberries

Everybody’s favorite mid-summer treat, strawberries, are easy to establish and spread via runners to increase yields year after year. A raised bed is a common way to grow strawberries, helping with weed management and containment. A layer of straw or mulch around new plants will aide in retaining soil moisture. If you have no room for a raised bed area, don’t fret! Strawberries are happy to live in the perennial garden and crawl around the bases of taller plants – they will behave as a ground cover (suppressing weeds!) and benefit from the light shade cast by the flowers above them. Some varieties are bred specifically to grow in a patio pot and produce vigorously. ‘Tristan’ and ‘Ruby Ann’ are examples of this type. They always provide me with a midday snack in the greenhouse!

Serviceberry (left) and Elderberry (right) in bloom. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sambucus_nigra-Busch.jpg and By peganum from Small Dole, England (Amelanchier x grandiflora Cole’s Select) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elderberries, Chokeberries, Serviceberries

Lesser known or wild-type berries are just as nutritious, but require less maintenance. These berries all taste best after some type of processing (cooking, freezing, juicing, etc). All three of the following berry-producers bear stunning white blooms and produce fruit with high nutritional content for your table or for the birds to enjoy!

  • Consider planting elderberry (Sambucus) shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they will absorb excess water and create a wall of blooms in late spring.  Raw elderberries are bitter, but perform well in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a versatile and attractive shrub that bears high-antioxidant blackish berries in late summer. The berries have an astringent quality that makes the mouth pucker with that ‘dry wine’ feeling. Berries can be made into syrups and jams, or used in muffins. Five to six feet tall at maturity, they make a great screen or windbreak. Aronia ‘Viking’ is a nice variety that produces well and has high ornamental value. ‘Low Scape’ and ‘Hedger’ types for smaller spaces display blooms and attractive fall foliage but do not produce much fruit.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is native to the eastern-most regions of Kansas and can reach 20 feet tall in some locations. It makes an excellent specimen tree and produces fruit that taste much like blueberries. The berries ripen in mid-summer, earlier than most other berries. They can be eaten right off the tree, baked into pies or dried like raisins for preserving.

Growing berries can be fun and easy! Consider planting some edibles in your landscape as a part of your hedge or as a perennial ground cover. They will look great and taste even better. If you don’t have time to pick them for yourself, the wildlife will thank you for the extra sweet treat!

Five Garden Trends for 2017

Garden Retreats

We live in a connected, fast paced digital world.  We need places to disconnect and unwind.  Green spaces surrounded by nature have been shown to calm the anxiety of a stressful life.  Outdoor activities such as playing in the garden or sitting around a fire pit sipping on your favorite drink are growing in popularity.  With less connection to the natural world and longer work hours, relaxing places to land at the end of the day are really inviting.

Pollinator Gardens

This trend isn’t a new one, but a continuation from the past few years as we try to address the plight of pollinators.  Whether planting milkweeds for Monarchs or stunning wildflowers for bees and butterflies, your garden can be a part of the solution.  Pollinator gardens don’t have to be limited to native plants. Other herbs or vegetables can be grown as well.  Every garden, no matter the size, can make a difference.  Not only will you be rewarded with the beauty of the wildflowers, but pollinators and other wildlife will thank you with their presence in the garden.  If you plant for them, they will come.

Strategic Lawn Areas

It has long been the American dream to have a large, beautiful, green lawn, a show piece of how we can manipulate the landscape.  However, perceptions are changing.  There is a realization about the potential environmental impacts of a traditional lawn and a renewed sense of stewardship and conservation.   Native grasses such as Buffalograss and Blue Grama are great alternatives to fescue and bluegrass for sunny areas.  The deep roots of these grasses make them less dependent on water.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, maybe just a smaller place than in the past.  It is not a bad thing to shrink the lawn with encroaching trees, shrubs and other perennials.

Edible Gardens

Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it is raised.  They are concerned about chemical use, the environment and food waste among other things.  This awareness has caused more and more people to plant gardens in backyards where they can control all aspects of how their food is grown.  These gardens are easy to start and can be as simple as a small raised bed or a few containers on your deck.

Valuing Native Plants

This trend fits the mission of the Arboretum quite well.  The prairie landscape can be brought home to your garden by matching the right plant with your site.  This landscape trend mimics the natural world around us.  It gives your garden a sense of place.  Let native plants be the anchor for your native design.  Incorporate native grasses (another garden trend) such as ‘Northwind’ Switch as backdrops for other wildflowers which bloom at different times throughout the year.  The true value of native plants is worth the experience whether they are viewed up close in your own garden or atop a windswept hill in the Flint Hills.

The Bees’ Needs: Garden Tips for Creating Habitat

Last month the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bumble bee use to roam the vast grasslands of the Midwest, sipping on endless nectar supplies of prairie wildflowers. But the land has changed, and with it a way of life for this little critter.

There are many factors contributing to population decline of this bumble bee and many other native bees – healthy prairies are harder and harder to find, urbanization gobbles up grassland nesting sites, agriculture employs potentially harmful pesticides and land management practices, and pathogens/fungal disease prey on their already weakened populations. What a nightmare for our flying friends!

Though these problems sound insurmountable, there are many things gardeners can do to help save these important insects from extinction.

Rusty patched bumble bee queen (Bombus affinis) – who couldn’t love that face?  Photo By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The namesake of the bee, a distinctive dark, rusty ‘patch’ on the its back. Queens do not have this marking. By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Flower Choice

When planning your garden, be sure to choose flowers that are useful and nutritious to bees. In this regard, all flowers are not equal and some are even deadly! Rhododendrons produce toxic nectar. Some exotic tropical plants (such as Heliconia, “false bird-of-paradise” or “lobster claw”) can be lethal to our North American bees as well.

Hybrid flowers can also pose a problem – they are bred for beauty and not nectar production, resulting in little usable nectar for visiting bees. If the flower has been so hybridized that its shape has been altered it may be impossible for a bee to reach the nectar. For example, ‘double flowers’ that do not occur naturally make it impossible for a bee’s tongue to reach past the inner petals. Be wary of using too many hybrids in your garden without doing some pollinator researching.

Click here for a list of native plants that are pollinator favorites. This link will allow you to choose your region and see native plants best for your area.

Plant for the Long Season

The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the first to break dormancy in spring and last to hibernate, which means we need to provide nectar sources for the sparse times. While there are many popular flowers blooming in mid-summer, the earliest parts of spring and latest parts of fall can be difficult times for bees to find nectar. Incorporating early blooming spring flowers as well as lingering fall bloomers will ensure the bees have food when they need it most.

Early Spring Bloomers: Baptisia australis, Dodecatheon meadia, Hammamelis virginica, Pulsatilla patens, Mertensia virginica, Lupinus perennis, Hellebores

Late Fall Bloomers: Salvia sp., Rudbeckia triloba, Echinacea, Aster novea-anglea, Aster oblongifolius, Solidago sp. 

To enhance the mid-summer buzz in your garden, consider Monarda fistulosa, Silphium perfoliatum, and Liatris spicata/Liatris punctata.

Many of these plants are available at our spring and fall FloraKansas native plant sales here at the Arboretum. If you don’t have a perennial garden, here is a list of popular annual plants that bees love!

Bumblebee (probably Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen from Senecio elegans flower. Wellington, New Zealand. I, Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nesting Habitat

Bumble bees need safe places to nest and overwinter. Skip the fall raking and mowing in a part of the yard to provide protected area close to the ground. Leave your grasses and flower stems standing all winter to provide protected hollows and nooks for bees to hibernate in. Many types of bumble bee like to nest underground in abandoned rodent dens or other areas of undisturbed soil, so be sure to leave an area of the garden untilled.

The Midwest is no longer a giant grassland pollinator paradise, and the bees need our help to ensure that they get the food and shelter they need to carry on. Every garden counts!

Click here for more information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what you can do to help save the rusty patched bumble bee!

 

Are Native Plants Really Drought-Tolerant?

I love prairie plants and I encourage people to use them in their landscapes.  Native plants have so many excellent qualities.  I see their benefits in the plantings we have throughout the Arboretum. They attract pollinators and other wildlife and they are beautiful in flower and form.  Native plants have become all the rage now, and rightfully so. However, as their popularity continues to grow, some misunderstandings about them are being advanced.

Myth: Native plants are always drought-tolerant in the landscape.

Even I have touted this myth from time to time that native plants are always drought-tolerant, maybe even more drought-tolerant than similar exotic plants.  Our expectation that these plants will naturally grow on their own and survive under any circumstances is not true.  The reality is that there are a set of plants that are well-suited for our particular landscape.

New Jersey Tea

What is true? Native plants can be drought-tolerant in the right conditions.

We know about the extensive root systems these plants develop and assume that means they will never need watering in our contrived landscapes.  In their prairie homes, they are drought-tolerant.  They are perfectly matched to the prairie habitat they prefer.  They are content because all aspects they require to grow are being met, from soil, moisture and sun to even prairie companions.

Brown-eyed Susan

What is false? All native plants will grow happily in your landscape.

Often, our landscapes cannot perfectly match the preferred environments of these native plants.  Since they are not ideally situated, these plants will need some input from time to time to keep them happy and thriving.  This is the reason the selection process becomes the most important step in developing your native landscape.  It is vital that you match the right plant with the right place.  Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it will happily grow in your landscape, will tolerate drought or require little care once established.

Embrace the process of learning about individual plants.

This kind of plant knowledge can be hard to learn.  I have mistreated my share of native plants trying to get them to fit into my box, my “planned” native garden. What I should have been doing was familiarizing myself with where these plants grow, learning about their native ecosystems and trying to match plants as closely as possible to their new home.  Some of the best learning experiences I had came at the expense of losing a few plants.  I quickly learned that not every native plant will be happy all of the time, especially if it is not properly situated.

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

I like to use the example of a Missouri Evening Primrose and a swamp milkweed.  The primrose thrives in dry conditions while the swamp milkweed loves having its feet constantly wet.  The primrose will not be happy growing next to the pond with the swamp milkweed, just as the swamp milkweed will not be happy growing next to the primrose on a dry windswept hill.  Each is distinctly different, requiring unique conditions to prosper.  If these native wildflowers are not ideally located in the landscape, environmental conditions will need to be constantly manipulated to keep them growing.

Swamp Milkweed

Missouri Evening Primrose

I love native plants and will continue to promote their use.  Understanding this myth about native plants helps me be more selective in the plants I choose for my landscape.  With more knowledge comes a better understanding of what these native plants need.

Just like the diversity of the prairie, there are a host of plants that will fit into almost any landscape environment, including your corner of the world.  As you become more aware of plant types and match the right plant with your situation, you will be rewarded for your time and effort.

Interested in learning more about native plants and how to utilize them in your garden? The Arboretum will be offering landscaping classes this spring, one about landscaping for sunny areas and one for shady areas.

Needy Seeds: How to Germinate Prairie Species

January and February can be dull months for a gardener. When the north wind whips and the drizzle freezes, spring seems a lifetime away. But here at the Arboretum these cold months are a busy time for seed treatment. Seeds we’ve collected and ordered are prepared according to their species-specific needs.

Photo from Dyck Arb

Seeds collected for the Prairie Window project being cleaned and sorted

Stratification

There are many specific types of stratification: warm-moist, cold-dry, cold-moist, water-soak, etc. Many prairie wildflower species require a cold-moist stratification period, a sort of “man-made winter”. Seeds are amazingly self governing, with built-in mechanisms to prevent germination until conditions are suitable. For species that have spent thousands of years adapting to the Great Plains, this means reading and reacting to seasons: long, cold, moist winter gives way to spring. Aha, time to sprout! It is the stratifyer’s job to convince the seed that winter has come and gone.

Cold stratification involves

  • first, mixing the seeds with media (sterile soil, sand, sphagnum moss, vermiculite)
  • wetting it slightly (too much moisture and the seeds will rot, too dry and they won’t germinate)
  • then storing in a refrigerator for a specified length of time

Each species is a little different – some need 60 days of cold, some need 120, and some just 10. Be sure to look up the requirements of each species if you are stratifying your favorites at home.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds waiting to catch a breeze. 30 days of cold, moist stratification is all you need to germinate them for yourself.
Photo from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMilkweed-in-seed.jpg

Scarification

Scarification is any process that weakens the seed coat, purposely making it more permeable to gases and water that trigger germination. In the wild, these seeds would only sprout after many years of freezing and thawing, or perhaps after being passed through the digestive tract of a seed eating animal. If you want to germinate tough-coated seeds for your own garden (and you don’t have the digestive tract of a bird) then you will need to simulate nature’s scarification processes. This is done by nicking seeds with a knife or rubbing with sand paper. Seeds naturally activated by wildfire may need to be treated with nearly-boiling water. Some seeds perform best after an acid bath! Every seed is unique.

Line drawing of prairie seeds by Lorna Harder. This is the featured graphic on our “Prairie Restoration” informational sign on the Arboretum grounds.

Fall Sowing Alternative

Fall sowing is often less work intensive than manual seed treatment. Let mother nature do the work of breaking the seed coat by sowing your seeds in late fall. The cycles of freezing and thawing mixed with intermittent winter moisture will produce much the same effect as the previously mentioned methods. But be patient – some seeds may take several years to germinate this way.

If you are looking for high quality native seed, Prairie Moon Nursery is a good source.

To find species-specific information on seed treatment, check out Growing Native Wildflowers by Dwight Platt and Lorna Harder, available in our gift shop.

 

A Few Berry Plants for Birds

With the recent cold snap, I am amazed that anything can survive outside.  Snow and extreme temperatures make it a challenge for birds to get through the freezing nights.  Birds have to change their diets from insects to berries, fruit and seeds rich in fats and antioxidants to make it through winter.  They spend most of their time and energy trying to find food, water and shelter.  Fruits and berries can truly be a lifesaver for overwintering birds.  Here are a few trees and shrubs that will feed the birds during these long, cold months of the year.

Viburnum

This diverse collection of shrubs or small trees offers many great landscape plants.  Most have attractive foliage with amazing fall color, clusters of blooms that develop into groups of tasty fruit for overwintering birds to devour.  Some of the best varieties for our area have been Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).  These two species are native to Kansas and produce abundant fruit that birds love.  Other garden worthy forms are Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’) and Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’).

Blackhaw Viburnum drupes (fruit)

Possumhaw Deciduous Holly- (Ilex decidua)

This large shrub often goes unnoticed for much of the year until late fall when the bright red berries form along the branches.  Its shiny green leaves and light gray stems make it a desirable shrub for natural areas in your landscape.  Since only female plants bear fruit, you must have at least one male plant in close proximity for best berry production.  Usually after the first snow, birds will begin to eat the berries because the cold temperatures make them more palatable to wildlife. We have several forms of Possumhaw, such as ‘Council Fire’, ‘Red Cascade’, ‘Sentry’, and ‘Warren’s Red’.  Over time, it tends to produce suckers from the roots, forming a multi-trunk screen.

Deciduous Holly Berries

Crabapples-Malus spp.

These trees are highly ornamental.  The attractive spring blooms, interesting foliage, and bountiful fruit make them an ideal choice for nearly any landscape.  They are quite adaptable and drought tolerant.  Varieties with small fruit that hang on through the winter attract the most overwintering birds.  Choose forms that are highly disease resistant to cedar apple rust, mildew, scab and fire blight.  Some of the best are ‘Prairifire’, ‘Firebird’, ‘Royal Raindrops’, ‘Sargent’, ‘Callaway’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Pink Princess’, and ‘Robinson’.

Prairifire Crabapple fruit

Sumac-(Rhus glabra and typhina)

These fast-growing shrubs have ferny leaves and incredible fall color.  The blood red foliage in autumn is striking.  Typically, these shrubs spread by underground runners forming dense thickets, so find a spot where they can expand.  The red fruit clusters at the ends of the stems are harvested by a variety of birds during the winter.

Smooth Sumac fruit

Junipers-(Juniperus virginiana)

This tree is the only native evergreen to Kansas.  Junipers are extremely important to birds during the winter.  Not only do they offer protection from the cold, but the female forms produce large quantities of berries often eaten by birds after other food sources have been exhausted.  Two varieties we use in our landscapes are ‘Taylor’, a narrow form (4’ wide X 25’ tall) and ‘Canaertii’, a picturesque form (15’ wide x 35’ tall) with dense branches that look like arms.

Canaertii Juniper berries

Bonus: Native plants

Many wildflowers and grasses make great natural bird feeders.  Coneflowers, grass seed heads, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, aster and goldenrods will be used by birds for food.  The key is to not get too anxious to cut these plants down in the fall.  Leave them through the winter for birds to enjoy.  Cut them down next February or March in preparation for spring.

Coneflower seed head-A favorite of Goldfinches

Creating a landscape that is bird friendly takes planning.  Choose plants not only for their beauty, but also wildlife value.  Your yard can become a hub of bird activity as they fuel up to endure the winter.  A few well-chosen berry plants for birds will increase your enjoyment through the winter and throughout the year.  Happy Birding!

Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

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Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

Seeds for the Future

The words “seeds for the future” are easy to use in abstract terms when talking about carrying out Harold and Evie Dyck’s long-term vision for an arboretum (35 years old and counting), or doing education activities with K-12 kids through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. I use this phrase all the time.

But right now, I want to use those words in the literal sense.

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Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds.

It has been a bountiful year for seed production in South Central Kansas. Oaks have had a mast year. Native shrubs are laden with fruits. Prairie wildflowers and grasses are full with ripe seeds. Seed production helps these plants have a future presence.

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Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The ecological food web starts with plants as the producers. When this base plant layer of energy is healthy and diverse, the rest of the food web of wildlife it supports is more robust. Seeds are an important part of this food web. Insects are abundant this year. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are finding plenty of food as well. The following chart of rainfall totals from this summer (generated from Weather Underground data) shows why our native Kansas vegetation was so productive.

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Starting from Seed

A big focus of my first seven years at Dyck Arboretum was to reconstruct 12 acres of diverse prairie from seed as part of our Prairie Window Project. This process involved finding local remnant prairies, documenting their plant species, collecting and cataloging seed from April through November, cleaning seed, designing seed mixes, and planting. Developing this project engaged legions of volunteers, expanded our reputation as a prairie conservation resource, and diversified our educational outreach. We collected and planted a lot of seed during those years both mechanically and by hand. The resulting prairie is maturing nicely.

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Prairie wildflower and grass seed mix used for our first 2005 Prairie Window planting.

I often tout landscaping with native plants because of their year-round interest. They do offer aesthetically pleasing flowers during the growing season that appeal to the average gardener. But their interesting seed heads, dormant season vegetation, and myriad of changing colors and textures also provide habitat and landscaping value for wildlife and people through the fall and winter.

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Open pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

A year of abundant seed production helps a prairie build up its soil seed bank. This is especially important on a site like this one with a seed bank dominated by annuals and non-native species from decades of agricultural use. Enhancing the abundance of prairie seeds in that seed bank will help add resiliency to this prairie in future years when drought or disturbance occur.

 

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Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.

Seed Collection

I enjoy collecting seed. Walking a prairie with a rhythmic movement of hand to bag is therapeutic. I have never been a farmer, but, in a way, this process connects me to the harvest rituals of my ancestors who made their living in agriculture.

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Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis).

Time spent collecting prairie seed over the years and developing a mental image for certain targeted plants at different times of the year have helped me recognize many species in seed form almost easier than when they are in bloom.

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.

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Some plants like purple conflower (Echinacea angustifolia) may even have more value to us in seed form. Echinacea seeds (three visible in middle of seed head) and roots have medicinal value as a pain killer and immune system booster. Chewing on a few seeds has a temporary numbing effect on your teeth and tongue.

 

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Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.

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With a parachute-like pappus, Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds are ready for a breezy liftoff.

Evolution of Seed Dispersal

Plants evolve with all kinds of seed dispersal mechanisms. Woodland plants develop tasty fruits around their seeds, spring-loaded propellers, and Velcro-like hooks and barbs that latch onto fur. Plants of the open prairie sometimes employ these kinds of mechanisms, but most simply take advantage of the abundant wind by growing hairs/wings that allow them to take flight. By scattering their seeds to other locations, plants help insure their presence in the future.

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Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.