Encore Blog: Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Posted on August 8, 2019 by Scott Vogt

(Originally published on March 29, 2017)

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, blue star 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 2019.  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.

Landscape Design Principle: Lines

A native plant design is a highly subjective project.  The plants you like may not be the ones I would choose and vice versa.  Your garden area is unique to you.  Sun, soil, moisture conditions can vary as well.  The canvas you are painting on will look distinctly different than my artistic design.  As we strive to create a sense of place in our landscapes, our medium is the land.  Even though each garden is one-of-a-kind, there are a few design principles that we all should follow.  Over the coming weeks, we will discuss some of these design principles.

Today, we will be tackle lines within the garden. 

Lines should be used to draw people in and through the garden.  They appeal to the senses.  They lead you through the garden and help frame views we see or don’t want seen.

Straight lines

Long, straight rows of plants can be rather formal.  They are structural, often symmetrical and lead the eye directly to the focal point like the front door.  Straight lines can be boring if you don’t cluster plants and repeat patterns.  The strong straight line of a fence can be softened with a sweeping curved edge or accentuated with parallel plantings that run the length of the fence.

Vertical lines

These lines move you up and down in the landscape.  Taller trees, larger structural features such as an arbor should make your eyes go upward.  They make the space feel larger and help enclose the space. 

Horizontal lines

Just like vertical lines lead your eye skyward, horizontal lines lead your eye along the ground plane.  These low lines help define the space and work to tie everything together.  Rock walls, edging with plants or stone, hedges, or a clean line between turf and plants are examples that create these intentional low lines.

Curved lines

Curved lines look intentional and informal.  Gently bending lines can be used to lead people slowly around a corner to an architectural feature or element such as a bench, garden shed, arbor or vegetable garden, which adds mystery and intrigue to your garden space.  Curved lines can help dissolve rigid straight lines of a walkway, fence, house or other structural feature.  Curved lines fit better in a natural asymmetrical design using native plants.  I like to place a garden hose on the ground to help me visualize these meandering lines.  As you step back to look, you are able to move the hose to create the effect that is most appealing before you break ground on your new garden. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Be intentional in grouping plants.

No matter the lines you use in your landscape, plants obviously play a key role.  Formal and informal looks can be achieved with the use of certain plants grouped together or spread apart.  Cluster plants together for more visual appeal.  Repeat structural plants like native grasses and incorporate filler plants throughout the design that bloom at different times during the year to draw you into the garden and through the garden.  Plants that spill over onto the straight lines of a walkway soften the edge. The possibilities are endless because there are so many plants to choose.  How you use lines will distinguish your design from others.  Really think about this important design principle and what lines you want to use.        

Next time, we will talk about plant placement, proportions and scale.       

Design Essentials For Small Gardens

One of the takeaways from last Saturday’s Native Plant Symposium was that every garden is different. Each landscape takes on the unique vision of the owner. It is cared for with love or neglect and shaped into an oasis that reflects the passions of each gardener. Through plants, art, paths, benches and even ponds, they were, with a bit of effort, able to create their own little bit of heaven.

North Newton City Hall Prairie Planting

Some of the gardens were large, but many of them were smaller with challenges all their own. The tiniest landscapes tend to give gardeners the biggest headaches, but they can also give the most satisfaction if designed properly.  These small gardens provide opportunities to treasure and notice the beauty and details of the garden daily. Here are some design essentials for smaller spaces:

Know your space

How much area needs to be landscaped? Is it sunny or shady? What soil do you have and is it wet or dry? What are the boundaries made of (fence, trees, a house, a deck, or a stone wall)? What type of views do you have and do you like what you see?

What type of a garden are you trying to create?

Is it a wildlife sanctuary? Do you want a secluded place to sit and read a book? Is it a space to grow herbs and vegetables along with some beautiful plants? Will you be looking at your garden from within or outside the garden?

Soften the surroundings with plants

The borders of the garden are prominent features that can be enhanced with plants that grow vertically. Whether you have a fence or railing along the edge, plants help define the boundaries. These taller vertical layers will give your garden depth. They develop the illusion that your garden is larger. They also provide privacy and screen out bad views.

Leatherleaf Viburnum pruned as a hedge

Create garden rooms

Not every yard is large enough to create multiple outdoor rooms. If you have the space, however, paths leading to another more intimate area can really be fun. Vary your path, landscaping material and plants in each room so each garden area is unique. Only show a portion of the room to generate intrigue. Interesting lines of plants or edging leading you through the garden can direct you to that hidden sanctuary.

Landscape Layering

I think layering is the most important part of a landscape design. Layers of plants blend the garden together.  This will make the landscape feel cohesive and lush. Mix and match sizes and shapes of plants to create a tiered effect. Hopscotching down from largest in the back to shortest along the path edges with different textures, shapes, and repetition of forms that are in scale with your area will make the garden look full and larger than it really is. If you can pull this effect off, your small garden will be one of life’s simple pleasures.

I know this is not in Kansas but the principle is the same. Layering plants make an impact.

Choosing the right plant

Evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure and interest all year round. Perennials, shrubs and trees add seasonal interest from flowers, foliage, bark and berries. By varying plant types with different foliage such as grasses you add texture and movement in the garden. Scented plants near benches or close to the house waft fragrance through the garden with the gentlest breeze. Flowers that attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators can make a big difference. Trees and large shrubs such as Viburnums add height, privacy, interest from bark, foliage, fruit or flowers, as well as habitat for birds and insects.

Have a place where you can enjoy your creation.

What good is a garden that cannot be enjoyed? Include a bench, comfy chair, fire pit, stone wall or hammock to relax in your garden. Consider whether to build some seating into the plan using seat-height walls to contain flower beds with scented plants.

There is something special about a small garden done right. Landscapes take on the personality of the gardener, through special touches that make your garden special to you. Many people consider these small spaces difficult because they don’t have much to work with, but the key to success with intimate spaces is defining its purpose. That is the starting point. Inspiration is as wild and crazy as you want to be. Have fun with it and embrace the space.






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.






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






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.






Principles of a Sustainable Landscape Design

Through our work in promoting the use of native plants in landscaping, we have observed that homeowners and gardeners are becoming increasingly aware of the positive impacts they can have on the natural world.  At the same time, they are looking for ways they can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a weekly article I receive online, landscape architects were asked to rate the expected popularity of a variety of residential outdoor design elements in 2016.  Here are the top trends in landscape design, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA):

  • Rainwater/graywater harvesting-88%
  • Native plants-86%
  • Native/adapted drought tolerant plants-85%
  • Low maintenance landscapes-85%
  • Permeable paving-77%
  • Fire pits/fireplaces-75%
  • Food/vegetable gardens (including orchard, vineyards, etc.)-75%
  • Rain gardens-73%
  • Drip irrigation-72%
  • Reduced lawn area-72%

These trends highlight the importance homeowners place on a functional landscape – landscapes that reflect their values and life style, gardens that center on solutions to problems rather than creating additional problems.  Invest your time and energy in something that can make a significant difference.   Think about these four principles as your develop your own sustainable landscape design.

Principle #1 – Treat Water as a Valuable Resource

We have seen the dramatic results of the drought in the west.  Throughout 2011 and 2012, we endured our own drought here in Kansas.  Certainly, the extremes we faced were not as severe as in places like California or Texas, but the impact on our landscapes can still be seen.  Water demand was at an all-time high.  Our landscapes were losing water faster than it could be replaced.  In the aftermath, people began to ask tough questions about water use, irrigation practices, plant material and rainwater collection.

A sustainable design focuses on proper plant selection (i.e. native plants), drip irrigation if necessary and rain gardens or collection points to capture storm water.  This new approach to design keeps water in the proper perspective.

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Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ is a native, drought tolerant perennial

Principle #2 – Value Your Soil

Like water, soil is a finite resource.  There are choices we can make to improve our soil and to reduce or eliminate runoff and soil erosion in our landscape.

A sustainable design uses deep rooted perennials and grasses to hold the soil.  These plants can be combined in appealing combinations.  Beautiful blooms, textures and forms serve functional purposes in the design.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

“Twilight Zone” little bluestem                                                   Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Principle #3 – Choose Native Plants

In my opinion, your first choice in a landscape should always be native plants.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose for your landscape.  I know there are some amazing adaptable perennials too, but if you start with a base of natives, you will be rewarded year after year.

A sustainable design matches appropriate plants to the site.  Right plant, right place.

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Native planting at Sunset Elementary in Newton, KS

Principle #4 – Don’t Be Wasteful

Does your landscape add to the landfill?  How much waste does it produce each year?  Lawns are an important functional element in the landscape.  I need a space for my children and pets to roam.  They can also generate large quantities of yard waste, especially if you collect grass clippings.  Do we need a huge lawn or can it be reduced in size and replaced with beautiful wildflowers, grasses and ornamental trees and shrubs?

A sustainable design evaluates every aspect of the landscape with the goal to reduce your negative environmental impact, while including features that are beneficial to the natural world and beautiful at the same time.

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These homeowners chose to reduce lawn by replacing with wildflowers and shrubs.

It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.” – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

 

Still wanting more information? You may find some helpful hints on our “Landscaping with Native Plants” page. Or, you may wish to sign up for a Native Landscaping Class and/or visit with one of our staff at the FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, April 21-25.

 






Seven Steps to Planning Your Native Landscape

Interest in native landscaping is growing in popularity.  This time of year leading up to our spring plant sale, homeowners and businesses contemplate what they would like their landscape to look like.  They desire a garden that captures the essence of the prairie, a landscape that creates a sense of place.

Nature gives us such a good model to follow.  The diversity and resiliency of native wildflowers and grasses is amazing.  We can mimic the prairie and bring it home to our gardens.  Follow these seven steps as you develop a plan using native plants.

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1. Plants should match your site.

This is the most important element in developing a successful landscape. Take a critical look at the area you want to landscape with native plants.  Is it sunny?  It is shaded for part of the day?  What type of soil do you have?  Is there a microclimate?  Is it exposed to wind?  All these factors will guide you as you select plants for your site.  This step requires some research and time as you familiarize yourself with the qualities and environmental needs of native plants.

2. Succession of Bloom

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie. If you visit a prairie landscape like the Konza Prairie every two to three weeks throughout the year, you will observe plants beginning to bloom, in full bloom or going out of bloom.  That is how you need to design your native landscape.  Include plants that bloom in every season of the year and then strategically add grasses for movement and texture in the winter months.  Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses.

Succession of Bloom

 

3. Forms and Textures

A diversity of plants woven together artistically can create a dramatic effect. Pay attention to the various shapes, textures and colors present in the prairie. Notice how the plants look year-round, not just when they are in bloom. Highlight interesting plant characteristics such as seed heads, forms, and fall color.

4. Interesting Lines

Rock Edging or a clean line along your display bed and lawn can add visual interest.  It can also lead you through your garden.  Interesting lines lead our eyes and makes you want to see what is around the corner.

5. Complementary Colors

Plant the colors you like, but make them complement each other.  Use a color wheel to mix plants.  Example: Purples (Spiderwort) and yellows (Coreopsis) are attractive together because they are opposite on the color wheel while whites (Penstemon) harmonize/blend the landscape together.

Spiderwort and Coreopsis

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6. Intentional Plant Height

Are there areas that need screening?  Is there an opportunity to layer plants from shortest to tallest as a foundation planting?  Is it an island bed that has taller plants in the center with shorter wildflowers and grasses radiating to the edges?  Keep plants in scale by not planting wildflowers that are taller than half the bed width.  Example:  If your bed is six feet wide, only plants that are three feet tall will keep the display in scale.  You would not want to plant a compass plant is such a small bed.

7. Perennial and annual weed control

I have made this mistake too often. In a rush to plant, I don’t get problem weeds like bindweed and Bermudagrass under control before planting.  I am still fighting this issue to this day in some of these landscape settings.  However, when I take the time to properly eradicate these weeds, the overall success of the garden and work to maintain it long-term greatly increase.  A little work at the beginning will save you many headaches down the road.

 

If you have questions about native plants or need help choosing what plants will grow best in your area, visit our spring plant sale or choose from landscape designs on the website.  With proper planning and careful consideration, you can create a sustainable garden utilizing native plants adapted to your landscape environment.  Transform your landscape using native plants that are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.






How to Design a Native Plant Garden

One of the biggest criticisms of native plants is that they often look too wild, unkempt and messy.  Grasses dominate while wildflowers struggle to provide the visual impact desired in a landscape.  Wild is as wild does.

So how do we tame the wildness of the prairie? How do we design a native plant garden that doesn’t look so wild?  Is it even possible?  I believe it can be done.  You can have the beauty of the prairie and all the benefits of a native ecosystem with a properly designed native garden.

Consider these fundamentals as you design your native plant garden:

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Butterfly weed and ornamental native grass display

Match plants to your site. Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?  Evaluate these elements and choose plants that will thrive in the microclimate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. Otherwise look at more shade-loving natives.  A carefree landscape begins with matching plants with climate.  Choose plants that occur in the same or similar climate for a maintenance free garden.  It has been my experience that this is the most important element in developing a successful native garden.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a primrose in a bog will never work.

 

Native Columbine

Native Columbine

Design for succession of bloom. There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie or plants that bloom all season, so choose plants that will bloom in spring, summer and fall.  If you go to the prairie throughout the year, you will observe wildflowers coming into or out of bloom.  The prairie is constantly changing.  Design with those changes in mind.  Discover how native plants appear at different times of the year and highlight interesting elements such as seedheads for winter interest.  Grasses can be included for structure, winter texture and movement.   Little bluestem in fall accentuates the seedheads of the Missouri Black-eyed Susan beautifully.

 

Summer Prairie Garden

Summer Prairie Garden

Group similar plants together. Fifteen blazing stars blooming in the summer create a focal point in the landscape.  Place them next to a spring blooming wildflower and a fall blooming wildflower and you have organized the display for year round interest.  Use grasses sparingly to frame the garden or as a backdrop for some of your wildflowers.  This makes it easier to maintain, because you know what is planted in each area.  When weeding, you know everything else has to be removed because wildflowers will reseed.

 

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Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Keep your plants in scale. Choose plants that don’t grow taller than half the bed width.  So if your display bed is six feet wide choose plants that are no more than three feet tall.  A compass plant would be way too tall.

Define the space. A well-designed native garden can be enhanced with a border.  It can be edged with limestone, brick or some other natural material.  This element alone makes your native garden look clean, attractive, and intentional.  Even a clean-cut edge can really help define the garden’s borders.

Control Perennial Weeds. You will save yourself many headaches by eradicating problem weeds like bindweed and Bermuda grass before you plant.  It is better to wait until these weeds are eliminated before you establish your new garden, trust me!!!

It sounds so easy, but we all know that landscapes, no matter how well-designed, will take some input on our part.  Beautiful gardens don’t just happen. They are the result of planning, development, time and a little bit of effort.

I am still learning too.  My epiphany came several years ago after trying to grow dry, sun loving plants in a wet, sunny garden.  It took me three tries to realize the futility of my efforts.  Hopefully, you can learn from these basic principles and find success in your landscape.  If you need information about native plants, visit our plant library, landscape designs or give us a call.

 






Three Iconic Prairie Grasses to Add to Your Landscape

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.  They are spectacular.

I can’t imagine the view atop a rise looking over the expanse of the Great Plains in its unbroken state – a “sea of grass” as far as you could see.  It must have been awe inspiring. Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep.  It perseveres in tallgrass prairies.  The vertical stems stand firmly and sway with only a slight breeze and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange.  The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”.  Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil.

 

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

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Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies.  I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings.  Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top.   It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun.  Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.

Indian Grass

 

These native grasses are the backbone of the tallgrass prairie.  They are resilient because their roots go deep making them drought tolerant and tough.  They are garden-worthy and deserve a place in the landscape.  Give them a try.  You will be rewarded for many years to come.

Check out this article in Fine Gardening that I wrote several years ago for more information on other native grasses.