Is Your Gumbo Soil Making You Sing the Blues?

Our soil here in Kansas is gumbo.  Not the delicious soup, but heavy clay.  It is clay all the time and all the time it is clay.  I have tried to describe it to others, but it needs to be experienced.  They may say they have something similar, but for us who endure it and garden in it and curse it, it is exasperating.  Unbelievable, really.

Clay soil is often too wet or too dry.  When wet, it sticks to your shoes and tools like a leach.  Every step you take makes you one inch taller.  When dry, it is like concrete, impenetrable, and cracks wide open.

Do you ever feel like you need one of these to work in your clay soil?

Do you ever feel like you need one of these to work in your clay soil?

I had a gentleman from Ohio work with me one spring.  Every morning with anticipation I awaited his next derogatory comment about our clay soils.  He really grew to dislike it and even questioned my sanity for trying to garden in it.  “I have never seen anything like it!” he said.  He was so ready to go back home to his beautiful Midwestern soil.

Our soil is amazing stuff – no doubt – and it presents challenges for growing plants. But let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of clay soil.

Positives of clay soils (Yes. There are a few.)

  • It holds water well – The fine particles are porous retaining water and holding it tightly.
  • It holds nutrients well – The tiny particles are negatively charged attracting many positive elements like phosphorus, potassium and other minor nutrients.

Negatives of clay soils

  • Low water infiltration rate (usually one inch per hour)
  • Shrinks and swells with moisture
  • Keeps root zone wet for prolonged periods, which is problematic for drought-tolerant native plants
  • Slow to warm in the spring
  • Compacts easily when worked wet
  • Often so tight that plant roots cannot grow

Tips for improving clay soils

So, do we have any hope of improving our clay soil? It can be done, but will require some work.

  • Organic matter, organic matter and more organic matter is what it will take to improve your soil.  Put down at least six to eight inches of organic matter on the entire area you want to enhance.  Organic matter can include shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings or aged manure.
  • Next, you must till the organic matter into the soil to a depth of at least six inches or deeper.  Keep in mind that the deeper you go the more benefit to the soil you will realize.
  • When complete, the bed will be built up several inches.  Not to worry, it will settle over time as the organic matter continues to break down and melt into the clay.  It will take several seasons to fully accomplish the desired result which is a soil that is manageable.
  • Add organic matter on an annual basis for a garden or initially when establishing a new display bed.
Planting Shrubs in our Prairie Window Project

Volunteers planting shrubs in our Prairie Window Project.

It is very difficult to improve an established bed.  Adding mulch will improve it over time as the mulch begins to decompose.  Any new plants that are established can benefit by digging a hole at least twice as big as needed and incorporating compost and existing soil together as you back fill around the root ball.  Don’t just put compost around the roots as you back fill, because it will discourage the plant from rooting out into your gumbo soil.  It is essentially like repotting the plant in the soil.  The roots will only grow in the loose compost.

You will be rewarded for your efforts.  Even a little compost mixed with your gumbo will improve your soil.  Mulch it with two to three inches of mulch and over time you will develop a soil where plants thrive.  Don’t let your soil get the best of you.



Five Benefits of Native Plants

The prairies of the Great Plains are diverse and complex.  They are often overlooked and taken for granted.  They are subtle in beauty, but resilient.  Because of the many benefits the prairie provides to us and the environment, it is an ecosystem worth saving.  Here are five benefits of native plants – though there are certainly more that we will experience as we begin to utilize these plants in our landscape:

  1. Low Maintenance

    There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Native plants still need some care, but compared to a traditional landscape with a lawn, tidy shrubs and a few trees surrounded by perennial beds, native plants are extremely low in maintenance. Native plants are adapted to our climate and can grow in the toughest environments. Once established, their deep roots take them through prolonged periods of drought.  It was great to see native plants blooming in the fall of 2012 after so many days of scorching heat.  The blue sage, heath aster, goldenrod, little bluestem, and switchgrass brightened up our prairie reconstruction.  It was a testament to their toughness. The slide below illustrates exactly why native plants are so much more resilient than the typical lawn – notice the difference in the root system of turf grass (far left) to many of the most common wildflowers and grasses of the prairie.

  1. Saves money

    There are obvious savings associated with a native landscape compared to maintaining a traditional landscape. A native landscape uses less water, little or no fertilizer and no chemicals or pesticides, which in turn saves you time. I am frugal and a native landscape is a low cost alternative to a traditional lawn-dominated landscape.  Conservation and stewardship are trends that help you and the environment.

  2. Water

    We have seen an increased interest in native plants because of the water they save once established. Many homeowners are decreasing their lawns as a way of saving water and money.  Most roots on a fescue or bluegrass lawn are only three to four inches deep compared to prairie wildflowers and grasses that develop extensive root systems several feet deep.  Big Bluestem grass for example establishes roots up to ten feet deep.  With a shallow root system, a typical lawn requires ten gallons of water per square foot through the summer to keep it looking green.  If you minimize your lawn, you will begin to diminish your dependence on water.  Click here for an example of a Waterwise Landscape Design.

  3. Beautiful plants

    If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place.

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

  1. Attract pollinators and wildlife

    Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have wildflowers you will have butterflies. There have been over 20 documented butterflies in the arboretum during the butterfly counts.  They seek out our wildflowers and utilize them throughout the year.  Monarch populations are declining.  They need milkweeds, and since we have milkweeds in the arboretum, they show up.  Read this article on how to encourage and sustain the monarch butterfly population by planting milkweed varieties.  Also, just like the Monarchs, songbird populations are declining.  They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.

ArbFlowers 342

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed


There are more reasons to grow native plants, but you get the idea.  Prairie is good, not only for you, but also for the environment.  The many benefits far outweigh negative perception.  When you plant native wildflowers and grasses, you will be rewarded time and again for your prairie habitat.  I don’t know how we got away from our regional identity of a prairie landscape, but it is essential to who we are and what grows best here.

Join us in re-establishing some prairie roots in your own yard, and then spread the word by sharing this information with your friends.


Fighting for Water

(Interested in Kansas water issues? Learn about our Kansas Water Symposium on Saturday, March 7 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains!)


“Whisky’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.” ~Mark Twain is often given credit for this quote

Kansans for decades have utilized a seemingly endless supply of water to drink, to bathe, wash clothes, manage sewage, generate power, irrigate lawns, and grow crops. We give it little thought, we turn on the tap and it is there – clean, plentiful and inexpensive. Most families pay much more per month for their smart phones than for water.

The law of supply and demand is certainly in effect here to keep our water cheap. We have developed a state infrastructure making the availability of water plentiful and we access it in two main ways. Kansas reservoirs capture an average precipitation of 30-40 inches for use across much of Eastern Kansas, and one of the world’s largest underground water tables, the High Plains or Ogallala Aquifer, supplies water for most of Western Kansas. In South Central Kansas, we benefit from both supplies.


Experts are telling us though (and common sense should too) that this unbridled use cannot last. Our Kansas population continues to grow along with our collective thirst for water, and our water supply is not increasing to keep pace. The Ogallala aquifer as a whole is declining in its level, and stream sedimentation is diminishing the capacity of reservoirs. A recent 2013 presentation by Tracy Streeter, Kansas Water Office Director, shows that, depending on the region of Kansas that one examines, the trend lines of decreasing supply and increasing demand are set to cross each other in coming decades and in some locations coming years.

The sobering unknown factor in this discussion of water supply and demand is weather. Over the last 50 years or so, we have been lucky to have above average rainfall and below average temperatures. The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) helps us track this information and is one of the most widely-used indices to measure drought in North America. The PDSI measures the intensity and duration of long-term drought using precipitation and temperature data to determine how much soil moisture is available compared to average conditions. In a 2012 presentation by Tony Layzell of the Kansas Geological Survey, he shares the following graph of PDSI data in South Central Kansas:

You can see that the two most recent significant drought events of 10-15 years in duration last happened in the Dust Bowl and the 1950s. For those of us that didn’t experience either of these drought events, the mini-drought of 2011 and 2012 gave us a little taste of relentless heat and drought, and it was distasteful enough. Here is the pending reality and problem – the law of averages is catching up with us and we are due for another drought event. Whether a little five-year event or a whopping multi-decade drought, it is coming.

We shouldn’t ignore this reality, hope that it never happens, and stick our heads in the proverbial sand in search of more prehistoric water that won’t be there or new reservoir storage, which is extremely expensive to create. Rather, we can proactively begin to appreciate how precious our water resources are and begin to use them more wisely. To survive, we will simply be forced to do so.


Center-pivot irrigation, a common sight in Southwestern Kansas (

Solutions are available. Agricultural irrigation uses 85% of our state’s water and efficiency improvements are being made there already, but a drought will certainly force us to shift away from corn towards more traditional dry-land crops. Fossil fuel power generation is water-intensive and may diminish during a drought, but renewable alternatives are also available to pick up the slack. How we landscape our yards, parks, golf courses, etc. could significantly curtail municipal water use by shifting away from thirsty cool season grasses and utilizing more native, warm-season vegetation. We could be recycling our cleaned sewage water into drinking water; The City of Wichita Falls, Texas has been forced to do so because of a 5-year drought and cut their water supply demands over that period in more than half. The fact that North Americans wash clothes, flush toilets, and irrigate lawns, gardens, and crops with drinking water is laughable to much of the world’s population (including some other developed nations too) where access to clean drinking water is not a laughing matter. Thankfully, Kansas is in the midst of developing A LONG-TERM VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF WATER SUPPLY IN KANSAS and is considering all of these conservation solutions in addition to looking at increasing supply.

There are so many more issues to consider when discussing this complex topic of water. We invite you to the Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Water Symposium on Saturday, March 7 and explore the above issues with eight experts speaking on a variety of water topics.