Garden Trends in 2019

Over the past five years, we have seen some interesting things happen regarding native plants.  People are learning about native plants and matching plants up with their local conditions.  More and more people are seeking them out to include in their landscapes.  Here are a few of the emerging garden trends regarding native plants:

Wildlife-friendly plants

I keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but of equal importance is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.  It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and landscapes to provide additional benefits. Our gardens must now not only look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attract birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

New England Aster with Monarch

Pollinator gardens

It has taken a while, but native plants are finally getting the attention they deserve.  They are viable alternatives to many of the overused plants you see in so many landscapes.  There are literally hundreds of plants that will fit into your landscape design.  Whether it is a true native species or “nativar” (a hybrid or new selection of a native plant), these plants offer qualities that will beautify the landscape and attract pollinators, too.  For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native plants for granted. Yet these plants, with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Pale Coneflower

Water-wise plants

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 like adding some native plants can make a big difference.

Kansas gayfeather with tiger swallowtail butterfly
Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

It seems to me that these trends for 2019 have something obviously in common – native plants.  Native plants are not the “be all” and “end all” solution, but they provide a good starting point to solving some problems you encounter in the landscape.  With so much to consider when designing or redesigning your landscapes, don’t overlook native plants.  You will be rewarded time and again by their unique beauty and deep roots. 

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.






The Trade-off Plants Make to Survive

Gardening is a learning process.  I have been working at the Arboretum for nearly 25 years and I am still learning new things.

Wildflowers and grasses, as it turns out, live in communities. They grow best surrounded by plants that coexist well and rely on each other. My designs have focused on individual plants grouped together for dramatic effect, but they would be much happier bunched with native grasses like little bluestem.  It is a subtle change in design approach, but can make a tremendous difference in the overall success of the planting and give plantings a much richer sense of place.

Another epiphany has come with the realization of the trade-off that plants make in the landscape. We tend to automatically believe that just because we put a plant in the landscape it will be happy. I have killed my share of plants by making this assumption. We manipulate the soil and install irrigation with the hopes of keeping the plants chosen for the site alive and thriving. Instead, we should be searching for the right plants for the landscape that do not have to be coaxed to grow. Although there are thousands of plants available, only a select few will grow freely under these specific conditions.

This is the trade-off. Plants cannot move and are bound to where they are planted. They have to survive in the soil, light, nutrients, water, pH and temperature of that particular site. They have to tolerate these conditions to grow and reproduce. If any of these resources is lacking in any way, the plant will give up something to continue to grow. The leaves will curl, plant growth will be stunted, flowers will be smaller or if it needs more light, the stems will be elongated. The plant is not growing as it should because it lacks one or all of these important resources or conditions.

Our natural response as gardeners has been to supply these resources by changing the conditions, which keeps these plants on life support. I have come to realize there is an alternative. The importance of matching plants up with the site is vital to the success of the landscape design. There are plants that thrive in our gumbo clay soils here in Kansas without organic matter amendments. For centuries, plants with deep roots that can punch through the dense soil for extra moisture have prospered without supplemental help.

Think of the landscapes and gardens we love. They seem to thrive effortlessly. They have constraints and can be harsh, but they are lush and beautiful too. They create a sense of place and thrive regardless of the conditions.  Stress on plants helps define what will grow in a particular landscape. It makes us choose wisely the plants that we incorporate into our designs.

 

As you plan for spring and begin to choose plants, be conscious of the land. Ask yourself what plants will thrive in this garden? What plants were not happy last year? Make a concerted effort to understand the plants you specify for your landscape. As I have said time and again, match the plants up to your site. I just have to take my own advice. If you are looking for a few plants for your area, find them at the 2018 FloraKansas Plant Sale.






A Garden-Worthy Perennial: Threadleaf Bluestar

Amsonia hubrichtii, the threadleaf bluestar, is one of my favorite plants.  It was not well known among gardeners until the Perennial Plant Association named it the 2011 Plant of the Year.  The species was discovered in 1942 by Leslie Hubricht growing in the Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas.  The species was later named in her honor.

Picture1

Each plant has ornamental qualities that make it stand out from other perennial wildflowers.   In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems.  The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance.

The real show develops in September when the foliage turns a butter yellow fading to a golden brown by October.  One specimen plant is spectacular in each season of the year, but a group of ten or more massed together and strategically located are quite stunning.  Individual plants can reach up to 48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and an average garden soil.

Picture2

This summer I have only watered them 3 times, so they are tough.  At the arboretum, they are planted along the east border paths.  Amsonia hubrichtii is a dynamic perennial that deserves a place in your garden.

Other Amsonia are just as ornamental, but offer different textural elements and sizes for just about any sunny to partial shade landscape setting.  They are Amsonia illustris, Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Amsonia cilliata and Amsonia rigida.

Find amsonia hubrichtii and other garden-worthy perennials on our Plant List 2015 and visit us at our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale, April 24-27, 2015.






Five Grasses You Should Be Using In Your Landscape

I am always in search of the tough, resilient plants that stand out in any challenging landscape.  Certainly, ornamental grasses fit into this category.

They are increasing in popularity because of their texture, form/structure and interesting seed heads.  Another reason their popularity continues to grow is that they require minimal care and provide year-round interest.

Ornamental grasses are a diverse group of perennials that expand the plant palette of any design, but many of them get too tall for a typical landscape application.

This week, I wanted to make note of some of the dwarf grasses in our gardens.  As you know, fall is the best time of the year for most grasses.  They are showing off their attractive plumage and the beautiful fall colors are beginning to develop.  These five grasses have worked for me, and can be found next week at our Fall FloraKansas Plant Sale:

 


Blue Grama-Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’         

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids.  I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers.  They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest.   This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salmon of High Country Gardens.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition

 


Little Bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting this Little Bluestem.  Carousel remains stiffly upright even through the winter.  The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion.  The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall.  It truly has a carousel of color.  It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape.   Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’

Carousel

 


Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country.  To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green.  In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn.   With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories.  It requires almost no maintenance once established.  Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings.  A shorter form of Prairie Dropseed worth trying is the variety ‘Tara’.

Prairie Dropseed

 


Switchgrass-Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’

WOW! This grass is spectacular this year.  They are totally saturated in reds and purples.  Most switchgrass varieties get four to five feet tall, but not ‘Cheyenne Sky’.  It forms an upright three foot clump.  The vibrant red color hues begin to develop in early summer followed by reddish flower clusters in August and September.  The leaves rustle with the slightest breeze and sway in the wind adding movement to the garden.  I use it in containers, groupings or as a specimen plant by itself.  It is a very versatile and beautiful grass.

Cheyenne Sky

 


Fountain Grass-Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’

We have been thrilled with this miniature fountain grass.  It puts on a show during the summer when the tiny cream seed heads pop up over the cascading green leaves.  The seed heads resemble little bunny tails, hence the name.  We have found it to be a reliable performer in the perennial borders and  when planted in mass.  If you have limited with space, then this grass would be a great choice.

Little Bunny

Questions: Which of these grasses have you tried in your landscape?  What steps do you need to take to integrate more grasses into your garden?