Sumac in the Garden

Sumac might not be what you imagine when you think of an outstanding garden plant. Native sumac often grows on roadsides or prairie draws, and would be unruly in the home landscape. But there are two cultivated varieties that are wonderful additions to the garden — Gro-Low Sumac and Tiger Eyes Sumac. With all the loveliness of native sumac, but much more manageable.

Rhus aromatica Gro-Low has leaves that look similar to poison ivy, but this plant is completely harmless.

Gro-Low sumac is perfect for that spot in your yard you don’t want to maintenance anymore. It grows only sixteen to eighteen inches tall but sprawls out six to eight feet. A shrubby groundcover, it needs no mowing or trimming, no fertilizing, no attention at all! Poor soil in full or part sun will do just fine, and is very drought tolerant once established. It produces small green flowers in the spring, well-loved by native bees, and a brilliant red-orange leaf color in fall. Plant it with Prunus besseyi, little bluestem grass, or even Raydon’s Favorite Aster for groundcover that dazzles.

The native Rhus aromatica bush has lovely fall color, and gets much taller than the Gro-Low variety. Photo by Emily Weaver

Tiger Eyes sumac has been become a landscape favorite for Arboretum staff. They seem to find a place in every landscape design and new garden bed. Chartreuse leaves turn orange in the fall, and they can tolerate lots of hot sun and drought. They can grow between four and six feet tall. Poor soil is no problem; they are highly adaptable. Fuzzy stems and interesting branching make this plant wonderful to observe anytime of the year. Plant it with Amsonia and Red October big bluestem for a memorable fall color show!

These Tiger Eyes Rhus in the Prairie Lakes edition of Showalter Villa are thriving in full sun. We are always happy when we see native plants in the landscapes of our neighboring organizations!

These sumac will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 5-8. Staff can help you find the right plants for your landscape, and your purchase supports the Arboretum’s mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

The Best Trees for Fall Color

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

– Chinese Proverb

 

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

Native Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

How do trees develop fall color?

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

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

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

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

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

White oak

My Favorite Trees for Fall Color

Shumard Red Oak (Quercus shumardii)

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

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

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

Table Rock Sugar Maple

Bald Cypress

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

Bald Cypress fall color

Others worth noting:

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

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

Sugar Maple






Roadside Beauty: What are you seeing?

Fall is the season of change. The verdant green of the prairie melts to lifeless, barren forms – a stark contrast to the landscape that once looked so alive. But for now, as change happens, we are blessed to partake in hues and colors of striking beauty. Trees explode with vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. Native grasses develop vivid colors and attractive blooms. Asters, goldenrods and sunflowers speckle the horizon.  It is the crescendo of the whole year.

Maybe you have noticed these dramatic changes happening, too. Plants that once blended into their surroundings are suddenly visible. It’s as if someone turned a light on them. Even the prairies and roadsides display beautiful shades of gold, purple, apricot, olive, and copper with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and curling, rustling grasses. Here are a few that I have seen lately along the roadsides of south-central Kansas.

Sumac

There is no other shrub that signals fall more than sumac. The blood red leaves and clusters of seeds are striking. They are like beacons along the roadsides. If only we could advertise with these shrubs, because they catch my eye every time.

Dogbane

This close relative of milkweed has so much going for it. Dogbane is host for many insects. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) ranks Dogbane’s value to pollinators as ‘very high’. Dogbane typically grows two to three feet tall and develops into larger colonies. Right now, they are a bright yellow, which makes them stand out even more. Even the common milkweeds have turned a nice golden color.

Big bluestem

The “King of Grasses” is big and bold. The reddish purple stems begin to change and set the landscape ablaze with their intense colors. Look for the distinctive “Turkey Foot” seed head, too.

“I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again.” -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Switchgrass

There are a number of outstanding native grasses that provide late season interest, but Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is one of the more common grasses in roadside ditches. It grows to a height of 3-6 feet and turns orange, yellow and fiery red-tipped shades in the fall. The persistent airy blooms and attractive fall colors make this an attractive grass in the landscape.

Osage orange

This tree is along many roadsides in south central Kansas. It is still incredible to see those huge hedge apples dangling from the branches and scattered on the road. The tough demeanor of this tree including its thorns made it ideal as a living fence. Many were planted during the Dust Bowl days as part of WPA projects to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states.

Heath aster

Asters are the grand finale to the prairie garden. Heath asters are one of the last asters to bloom. The diminutive white flowers cover the entire plant, making them look like snow mounds in the prairie. They are one of the last great feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators before they migrate or go dormant for the winter.

Although each season is different, autumn is a very special time. Life has come full circle, from spring through summer and ultimately ending in the fall. It is the perfect time to enjoy all that is changing around us. It is a time to take in sights, sounds and smells of the prairie and connect anew with the natural world.

Bonus Plant: Pink smartweed

Pink smartweed is prolific, growing wild in nearly every roadside ditch. The bright pink flowers and red stems are very striking. They thrive in damp or wet sites, but it is an annual. If you want some for your landscape, collect the seed after the pink flowers fade.






With a Voice of Thanksgiving

For each new morning with its light, for rest and shelter of the night, for health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, for flowers that bloom about our feet; for tender grass, so fresh, so sweet; for song of bird, and hum of bee; for all the things fair we hear or see, Father in heaven, we thank Thee! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Little Bluestem

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Cheyenne Sky

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

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Monarch on New England Aster

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Arkansas Bluestar Fall Color

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

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Native Blackhaw Viburnum

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Luminary Walk – Photo by Tom Sawin

 

May you all be blessed throughout this holiday season.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 






Six Elements of a Beautiful Fall Garden

I have said it before that fall is my favorite time of the year.  It means that the hottest days of summer will be replaced by autumn’s cool mornings and warm afternoons.  The landscape is transformed by subtle, incremental changes that are unique every year.  I have seen hints that these shifts are already happening, which is exciting.  As a gardener, I gain a deeper appreciation of autumn’s exquisite beauty each year.

Fall should be the crescendo of your garden.  The culmination of your time and effort with every element fitting harmoniously together.  So how do you set the stage to make a grand statement with your landscape in the fall?  Here some essential elements that I consider as I design a garden, especially if you want to create a show later in the season.

Textures and seedheads

When you look at a prairie in the fall, native grasses dominate the landscape.  They are in full bloom with interesting seedheads and colorful stems.  Grasses provide texture and movement in the garden, plus they are extremely hardy.  They move with the gentlest breeze and rustle as the north wind ushers in cooler weather.  I like to use grasses as backdrops for other perennials.  The dark brown coneflower seedheads really stand out in the slender red stems of little bluestem.  The red leaves of Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ look great with Panicum ‘Northwind’ switchgrass.  Mix and match grasses with perennials both tall and short.  You really can’t go wrong by taking advantage of different types of leaves and including native grasses in your design.

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Little Bluestem and Coneflower Seedhead Photo by Emily Weaver

Layers of Plants

Layering plants is the best way to mimic nature.  It is critical to have the canopy of trees stair stepped down to understory trees and shrubs extended outward with native wildflowers and grasses.  Each of these layers can have a diverse selection of plant material that adds form, structure, and beautiful fall colors.  Everything that wildlife needs for survival can be included in these layers as well.  Place maples and oaks in the back with dogwoods, viburnums, serviceberries and crabapples in the middle layer, and a host of wildflowers, grasses, and shorter shrubs such as sumac spreading into the sunlight away from the shadow of the trees.

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October Skies Aromatic Aster, Purple Dome New England Aster and Little Bluestem

Interesting Lines

I develop eye-catching lines and curves either through the use of plants or edging.  Curves can lead you through the garden or take you gently around a corner to reveal a piece of art or focal point.  Rather than straight lines, try undulating your borders.  It gives the illusion of extra space while drawing your eye along the border.  Also, curves relieve the linearity of most gardens.  I use ‘October Skies’ aromatic aster or shorter grasses such as Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’ or prairie dropseed along these borders for dramatic effect.

 

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Fall Color

You can enjoy a colorful fall garden through leaf color or blooms.  Maple trees like ‘John Pair’ or ‘Autumn Splendor’ develop beautiful fall color.  I love the blooms of Asters and goldenrods late in the season.  They extend the blooms well into September and October.  Native grasses are transformed from green to splendid shades of reds, oranges, and yellows.  Amsonia hubrichtii turns butter yellow and a large mass of them is quite stunning.  This is one of my favorite plants because it has multiple seasons of interest.

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Switchgrass and Rigid Goldenrod Photo by Emily Weaver

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Amsonia hubrichtii Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Use of light

The lower angle of the autumn sun can transform a garden.  Take advantage of its glow with bright fall colors and interesting forms. The late evening light illuminates native grasses in exquisite ways.  ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac with its chartreuse foliage that changes to oranges and yellows as the season progresses can brighten up a dark corner of your garden.

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Frame the Views

Look for areas in your garden worth highlighting such as an arbor, a bench or a piece of art.  You can leave a narrow swath of lawn with perennials and shrubs on either side that lead to this focal point.  Interesting lines and diverse plants will only add to the intrigue and beauty of this space.  It is another trick you can use to draw people into the garden.

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In fact, all these elements will draw you into the garden this fall.  They will help you transform your landscape into a beautiful and functional space.  By thinking about or adding just of few of these elements, you will be rewarded as your garden transitions from summer to fall.






Five Reasons to Love Kansas in Autumn

Last weekend, my family was invited to a get together out in a friend’s pasture.  It was away from any civilization, quiet and cool.  As we sat around the bonfire and visited, I was reminded why this is my favorite time of the year. Here are my reasons for loving Kansas in autumn, but I am sure there are more that you can add:

1. Cooler Weather

Yes, the weather is getting colder.  I love to go to work wearing a sweatshirt and then enjoy a warm late afternoon walk in my shorts and t-shirt. The sunlight is warm and bright, but there’s always a breeze to balance out the heat. It is usually not too hot or too cold, which is perfect in my opinion.

On the gardening front, fall’s cooler weather signals a reprieve from watering and the slowing of maintenance regimens.  This time of year allows me to step back and enjoy the fruits of our labor throughout the year.  I can spend quality time outside taking in the beauty and bounty of the landscape.  It is always good to reflect and appreciate all your energy and effort given during the year.  Otherwise, would it really be worth it?

Maximilian Sunflower

 

2. The Prairie’s Last Hurrah

Native grasses are at their best right now.  They are in full plumage.  They are changing color from green to bold reds, yellows, and oranges.  They have reached their full height and are spectacular.  If you combine these grasses with just a few fall blooming wildflowers like asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, blazing stars and blue sage, you have the makings for an incredible natural habitat.  I love the way our prairie garden goes a little wild this time of year, still teaming with all sorts of pollinators.

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3. Changing Trees

Nothing signals the switching seasons like the trees.  Sure, it is not like New England, but we can have some amazing fall color on our trees.  Have you noticed that one tree in your neighborhood that explodes into color each year?  Since those trees are so rare in this part of the world, we should appreciate them even more.

Table Rock Maple

 

4. Sunrises and Sunsets

The evening sky has been incredible lately.  Vibrant reds, blues, and purples highlight the sky.  WOW!  Sunrises have been equally spectacular.  So, step outside in the evening or take a morning walk and revel in the beautiful sky.

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5. The Smells of Autumn

A warm bonfire while you’re roasting a marshmallow to make a s’more. That first autumn rain after warm, dry weather called petrichor .  The smell of a cool crisp morning.  Pumpkin Pie cooking in the oven.  Anything pumpkin, for that matter.  A warm pot of soup, a freshly mown yard, the rich earth as you turn your garden.  The smell of old leaves on the ground, a freshly brewed cup of coffee, homemade bread cooling on the kitchen counter.  You get the point.

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Bonfire at Luminary Walk

 

Autumn is a great season of the year.  Take some time to appreciate the beauty of fall.  Enjoy moments with family and friends.  Take in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, and the tastes of autumn, because winter is coming all too fast.