Finding Value in the Undesirables

It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.

In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.

In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:

  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!

What Do Pollinators Need?

One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom.   This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).  It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies.  They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant.  It was fun to watch and listen.

That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations.  With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators? 

It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size.  This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators.  Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.     

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Skipper butterfly on Tall Boneset Eupatorium altissimum

3. Create Habitat in your Yard

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl crescent butterflies meet at the watering hole – Photo by Dave Osborne

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their life cycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

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.

What will all this rain do to my native plants?

The spring of 2019 has been an unusually cool and wet spring here in Kansas. I don’t like to complain about rain, because I know at some point it will quit.  Conditions will get hotter and dryer through the summer.  I don’t know what normal is anymore. For many of us, a short reprieve from the rain would be welcome.  It would give us a chance to catch up and let our basements dry out. 

All this rain made me think about what it does to plants.  Many of you have newly-planted gardens or established flower beds and you, too, may be asking yourself – what will all this rain do to my native plants?

Native Pink Columbine

Excessive growth

Rain obviously causes the plants to grow.  One of the downfalls of excessive growth so early in the season is that it will need to maintain that growth the rest of the year.  Certainly, native plants are adapted to our prairie conditions and have root systems that can sustain the plants.  It makes the placement of plants even more critical and important as we work to match the plants with our sites.  If the plants are properly situated, it should not be a problem. 

Use this season as an opportunity to observe your plants. If you see some wilting over the next few weeks, it may be an indication that the roots have been damaged or that the plants are not happy where they are planted. 

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

Plant diseases

All this rain has created perfect conditions for plant diseases like bacteria and fungi to flourish.  There hasn’t been much time for plants to dry out in between rains.  Prolonged periods of leaf wetness and excess moisture around the plant root zone can damage leaves and the crowns of plants.  A few days of sunlight will help, but we need to make sure these plants are not smothered by mulch and the crowns of the plants have a chance to dry. Many plants, including trees and shrubs, have been slow to leaf out. Excessive rainfall and overcast skies has slowed the plant’s growth and can affect the timing and intensity of the blooms for the rest of the season. With rainfall like we have had, it makes us more aware of drainage issues, air circulation, plant selection and planting depth within our landscapes.  

Nutrient leaching

Native plants don’t typically need to be fertilized.  Their extensive root systems tap into nutrients that most plants can’t reach. 

Your plants may have a yellow cast to them, but that doesn’t mean you should fertilize them.  It is a result of lack of sunlight and too much water.  Let them develop new roots and they will begin to green up on their own.  By adding fertilizer, native plants have a tendency to flop and outgrow their root systems. Resist the temptation to fertilize your plants. While heavy rains have leached nutrients out of the soil, affecting the plant growth, these conditions will usually only cause temporary nutrient deficiency.  

Bank of Amsonia

Plants are resilient and quite adaptable.  They should recover over time.  The long term effects of all this rain may not be fully known until later this year or even next year, but a majority of them will be fine.  One reward is that we haven’t had to water much.  We established some plants here at the Arboretum and never had to water them other than the first watering.  That is very rare in Kansas.  I love the sunshine today.  All the lush plants are loving it too.       

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. 

A few plants for your sunny spot

Over the past several months, as I have been working on landscape designs for homeowners, I have been noticing a few trends. 

  • First, homeowners are increasingly interested in native plants.  They understand the benefits of utilizing native plants both to the environment and the wildlife they are trying to attract.  The advantages of native plants have been noted in previous blog posts.
  • Secondly, they want something interesting happening/blooming in their landscape throughout the year
  • Thirdly, they want native grasses incorporated into the design. 

To help fill these needs, I have come up with a list of my favorite plants for the landscape that I try to work into most designs. If you need help with your landscape or have questions about using native plants, give us a call or come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. We would be happy to visit with you.

As you know, each landscape is unique and only a handful of these plants will work in specific yards, but they are all hardy and easy to maintain.  These sun loving perennials have beauty and landscape value too.   Here are some of my favorite native or adaptable plants to use for a sunny landscape in South Central Kansas:

Switchgrass (Panicum ‘Northwind’)

This grass is incredible! Do you need a vertical element in the landscape? Then this is the grass for you. The upright clumps have wide steel blue leaves that turn a golden yellow in the fall. The unique flower panicles emerge in September and are held towards the middle of the clump close to the foliage.  Ultimately, it reaches four to five feet tall.  I love this grass because it will not fall over. 

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)

This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that make it stand out from other 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.  Other forms worth considering are Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’ and Amsonia ‘Butterscotch’

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide.  It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough they are planted en masse in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting, or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.  I like to mix it with short heath asters, purple poppy mallow, evening primrose or Missouri black-eyed susan. 

Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)

Some like it hot, but these like it really hot.  The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought.  These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato.  (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.)  The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer.  I like to interplant them with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods.  The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)

I love this penstemon in the perennial border.  The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads.   It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year.  Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma.  This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties also exist.  Garden-worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (one foot tall with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in full bloom

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep, coarse, fibrous root system.  Flowers vary in color from deep orange-red in the eastern part of its range to lighter orange and finally yellow farther west and south in Kansas.  Unlike the numerous other milkweeds found in Kansas, butterfly milkweed does not exude a white milky sap when the stem is cut or a leaf is removed.

Do your garden a favor and include some butterfly milkweed.  Its many ornamental and functional assets, plus its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come.  Plus, you will be rewarded as pollinators such as Monarchs seek out this beautiful native wildflower.

I could choose many more garden worthy perennials, but I only have so much space. You can find these and many other native plants at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant FestivalCLICK HERE for the 2019 Native Plant Guide.  These garden worthy perennials would be at home in any sunny spot in your yard.  Why not give them a try?

Landscape Design Principles: Plant Placement, Proportions and Scale

Plant placement, proportions and scale – these three elements of a successful design are really straight forward, but often overlooked.  They hinge on a certain level of understanding regarding plant height and spread at maturity.  These design principles also require you to incorporate clusters, sweeps and groupings of plants that look natural together with a succession of bloom all through the year. 

Plant Placement

When I start a design, I think about where the bed is going to be viewed.  Is it from the street?  Is it from the living room?  Will I want to view it from different vantage points?  This helps me frame the landscape.  For instance, if you have a foundation planting, you would obviously put the taller plants in the back working down in layers to the smaller plants along the border/edge of the bed.  If you were designing an island planting that would be viewed from both sides, I would plant the taller plants in the center with shorter plants spaced around the central focal point.  It seems obvious, but we don’t always think about sight lines. 

Another element of effective plant placement is bloom time.  With native plants, you need to think about succession of bloom.  You want to have plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Don’t plant two spring blooming plants next to each other, but rather plant a spring blooming wildflower next to a grass or later season blooming wildflower.  By incorporating plants that have color at varying times, you have something interesting happening year-round. 

Proportion and Scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late.  The beds you design and the plants you include should look appropriate with the size of your home or the size of the flower bed.  As a general rule, I include plants that are no larger than half the bed width.  For instance, if your area is eight feet wide, try to find plants that are no taller than four feet.  Sometimes, smaller beds are all we have to work with, such as the small area between a sidewalk and your home.  Maybe it is only three feet wide.  Don’t try to put plants that are four to five feet all in that space.  It will flop onto the sidewalk and look out of place. 

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

If you are starting from scratch, lay out a garden hose away from your foundation.  Take note of the gentle curve around your home.  I like to have at least four to six feet of width to work with.  That gives you so many more plants to choose and include in your design.   On the corners, I like to give myself a little more room of maybe up to 10-12 feet.  This allows larger plants to be combined to soften the corner.  You probably have a picture in your mind of what you want to frame the views and keep it simple.  A garden that is too busy and out of proportion detracts from your home rather than complementing it. 

Again, it is important to know how tall and wide each of the plants will grow.  I like to include plants that will fill in the spaces available to them.  Really think about the plants you want to have near sidewalks, windows, patios, and porches.  You don’t want to be continually cutting them back when they have outgrown the space. 

It sounds so simple, but these are the design principles I struggle with the most.  There is so much to consider with each design, from site analysis, plant habit and bloom times, textural elements, and so much more.  We can’t have it all, but a basic understanding of scale, proportions and plant placement will help you create a successful design.  Now is the time to get started.  If you need help, we will be happy to work with you during our remaining Native Plant School classes or at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Preparing for FloraKansas

The Arboretum greenhouse is warm and alive this time of year, beginning to fill up with stock for FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, and takes a lot of prep work. Luckily, I relish my time spent time in the greenhouse, so it is a welcome change of pace from the snow-shoveling and office work of winter. Here is a behind the scenes look at how it all comes together in just a few short months.

Each spring we receive about 15,000 plants. Many plants come to us as plugs — pre-grown plants that are transplanted into sale-size pots. This is an economical and user-friendly way for us to plant thousands of plants without the risk associated with caring for tiny seedlings. We order plugs from lots of native plant nurseries around the country and around the state to ensure a nice variety for our customers.

Plugs are small and have fragile foliage, but also have well formed root systems.
Photo of a small plant, a newly transplanted plug.
Plug plants arrive with very few leaves on. With a few days of sun and moisture, they begin to leaf out and grow quickly.

Sometimes we seed our own plants with seed we have collected or purchased from a trusted source. Though this is very tedious and time consuming, it is so rewarding to see those little sprouts poking through the soil! We then use a fork to tease apart the tiny roots and plant them into individual pots.

Tiny seedlings are so sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, so I try not to seed more than I can take care of! In previous years, Scott and Brad seeded much more of the nursery stock than we do today.

We heat the greenhouse with industrial heaters during the cold nights of February and March and vent with large fans during the day. Keeping plants at optimal growing temperature helps them green up in time for the sale. Surprisingly, during a sunny day in spring, temperatures in the greenhouse can reach 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit quickly, even though it is cold outside!

Our director, Scott, waters mature shade plants in our greenhouse. Too much water can mean mold and rot for our plants, but too little can also be deadly!
Photo of greenhouse in bloom, mature plants after many weeks of growing and care.
After many weeks of care and worry, my little plant babies are all grown up!

FloraKansas would not be possible without volunteers. They transplant, water, sweep greenhouse isles, load and unload trucks, and so much more. I couldn’t possibly do all of those tasks by myself! And that doesn’t even include the many volunteers who help us on the days of the event, cashiering and helping customers to their cars. FloraKansas is a great time to be an Arboretum employee — surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers who support our mission, it makes the job easy. If you would like to volunteer at FloraKansas or otherwise, click here for more information.

I hope to see lots of our blog readers at the spring sale! It is a wonderful time to talk face to face with our members and supporters. Come see us soon, and pick up a few native plants while you are at it.

A Four-Season Garden

As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on.  If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”

– adapted from an English nursery rhyme

That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:

Add a variety of plants

Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.

Summer Prairie Garden

Plants out of bloom

It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.

Coneflower seed heads and little bluestem

Create layers

Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.

Summer border. Photo by Brad Guhr

Do your home work

It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.

It’s not easy being brown

Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden. 

Switchgrass with snow

Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden.  Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away.  I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window.  The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too.  I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.

A Look at the Past, A Glimpse of the Future

Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office.  It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed.  I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time.  Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed. 

Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come.  Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.

The Vision

Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape –  a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection.  The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs.  Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.

First Tree (Bur Oak) planted on October 10, 1981
Aerial view of the Arboretum and the walking path around the pond , early 1980s
Picture of the island , early 1980s
Bald cypress near the bird watch area, early 1980s
Kansas Wildflower Exhibit and Prairie Shelter, 1990s
Island Planting in summer, 1990s
Harold and Elva Mae Dyck, early 2000s

A Living Prairie Museum

“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself.  The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”

“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.”  (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)


A New Mission for a Lasting Vision

“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”.  Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming.  Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, 2014
Insect sweeping activity, Samplemania 2012

I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings.  With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape.  We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden. 

An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie.  Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level.  Their vision seems to have come full circle.