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.

Gardening for Bees to Celebrate National Pollinator Week

by Guest Blogger, Lorna Harder

National Pollinator Week celebrates the important role pollinators play in our lives. Bees, butterflies, beetles, bats and birds all support successful crop harvests, and healthy plant and wildlife communities.

So let’s talk about an often overlooked and endlessly intriguing group of pollinators – native bees! Nearly 4,000 species of all shapes and sizes are found in North America. Most live in underground burrows. Those that live above ground nest in tree cavities, hollowed out woody branches, or wildflower stalks. Since native bees have been around for millennia, it should come as no surprise that they are especially good at pollinating native wildflowers and many of our native fruit, nut, berry, and seed crops.

Why garden for bees?

Valuable as they are, native bee populations are in decline due to pesticides and habitat loss, but a resurgence in native plant gardening is making a difference for native bees around the nation. Your native prairie garden supports healthy native bee populations in Kansas.

As you plant your bee garden, think about flower shapes. Small bees, like sweat bees, prefer cone-shaped flowers like black-eyed Susan or Echinacea. Larger bees, like bumble bees, are able to crawl into tube-shaped flowers like penstemons and beebalm. This list identifies just some of the wildflowers and shrubs you can plant for a bee-friendly garden in Kansas!

Get acquainted with native bees. Look for these three easy-to-spot natives in your prairie garden.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leaf-cutter_Bee_(Megachile_sp.)_(18444923883).jpg

Leaf Cutter Bees

Leaf cutter bees (Megachile sp) are easy to identify because they carry pollen on the underside of the abdomen. These bees live alone, often nesting in hollowed out dead twigs. Leaf cutter bees cut semi-circles of leaves, which they use to line their nests.

https://pixabay.com/en/bumble-bee-bombus-bee-insect-2375031/

Bumble Bees

Bumble bees (Bombus sp) are buzz pollinators, because they grab onto a flower and buzz their wings so that the pollen vibrates out. Pollen is collected in pollen baskets on the hind legs. These familiar large bright yellow and black bees can nest underground, or in a variety of aboveground sites that provide winter protection. Six bumble bee species have been identified in Kansas.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/memotions/6158235259

Sweat Bees

If you work outside in summer, you have probably been visited by metallic green sweat bees (Agapostemon sp), so named because they lap up sweat with their tongues. These bees nest underground alone or communally. Pollen is collected on the hind legs.

So, as you garden for bees, celebrate these important, hard-working pollinators, get to know the natives, and BEE COUNTED!

Additional resources:

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