Garden Resolutions: Going Green in the New Year

In honor of the new year, you may be promising yourself to eat better, exercise more or take that dream vacation you deserve. But what about your garden? Here are 5 garden resolutions to make your yard the best it can be this year – for you and the environment!

Skip the Tilling

For gardeners, starting up the rotor tiller is part of the spring routine.
But it might not be helping the soil as much as you think!

By Griffith and Turner Company.; Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection. [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tilling is old news – skip the hassle this year!

Tilling thrashes through weeds for the short term, but turning the soil exposes dormant weed seeds to air and light, priming them to germinate.

Also, it can disturb earthworms and
soil bacteria that help to keep your soil aerated and healthy. Try planning out a garden that has specific foot traffic areas and beds that are easy to reach from all sides, minimizing soil compaction and the need for tilling. If you have the hardest-of-hard Kansas clay in your garden and simply must til, try working up only the rows/areas you are going to plant immediately, leaving the soil undisturbed elsewhere.

Save Water!

This year, make a resolution to lower your water bill and your environmental impact. The EPA estimates outdoor water use to be 30 percent of total household consumption. You can cut this figure by irrigating smarter and less often. If you have a sprinkler system, consider only watering in the morning hours to save water from the evaporative effects of afternoon wind and sun. You can conserve even more water by choosing a drought tolerant species of grass for your lawn – for example, a buffalo grass (Bouteloua sp.) lawn works well in Kansas and needs very little irrigation once established, even in the hottest summer months.

Collect Rainwater for Landscape Irrigation

Another way to lower your water consumption is to collect rainwater from your roof for outdoor use. Rain barrels or cisterns are simple to install and can collect run-off that would otherwise cause erosion and burden public drainage systems. There are many affordable, DIY rain collection systems that will lower your irrigation costs in the coming year. Make installation plans now so you can capture all the free water from those summer thunderstorms ahead.

Make Your Own Compost


Compost is good for the earth and fun to play in. Image from

If you haven’t been composting, make it happen this year! Compost is a great addition to hard clay soils, keeps soil organisms thriving and can serve as an alternative to chemical plant foods. The best part? It’s free! Save yourself the time of hauling away yard clippings and leaves, throw them in your compost pile instead. If you want to compost on a smaller scale, then try a compost tumbler. Some great resources regarding composting information and tumblers can be found here. You can purchase one, or make your own! 

Plant Native Species

Perhaps best way to be earth conscious in the new year is to plant your garden with native species. Ultimately, native species can give you all the benefits of the practices mentioned above: break up the soil with their deep root systems, conserve water with drought adaptations, and help balance the natural microbial activity of the soil. Of course, the Flora Kansas Spring Plant Sale April 21- 25 here at the Dyck Arboretum is the perfect place to find all the native species you need for your garden this year. 

While you are making big plans for the coming year, plan to green up your garden with some of these tips. Make it a priority this year to save time, money, and the planet!

Winter Solstice: Enjoying the Dark

Today is the Winter Solstice. I enjoy this time of dark mornings and evenings, appreciate seeing sunsets through my office window, and savor the slower pace that seems to be more prevalent this time of the year.


I used to endure this time of year. December 21 marked a dark-to-light turning point that was celebrated, because FINALLY the days were getting longer. As I get older though and long more for that ever-fleeting “down time,” when time is more my own, I increasingly cherish the dark time surrounding the Winter Solstice. The pace at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a bit slower now and the prairie is mostly dormant. I also enjoy more time with my immediate and extended families over the holidays. So, maybe my mood is aligning ever closer to these things that are very important to me.


Eleven years ago today, perhaps around the time I started enjoying the dark more, I sat down and wrote the following:

“The Winter Solstice reminds us that our lives revolve around an immense but simple cycle . . . a cycle that can easily be identified by light and dark and warmth and cold . . . a cycle that dwarfs our human existence. We identify much with Christmas at this time of the year, but the celebration of Christmas and our total human existence will only be a small speck on a timeline marked by the number of times the earth revolves around the sun.

Outdoors, Winter Solstice marks the core of a time represented by cold . . . cold means dormancy for some plants and animals and death for others . . . cold helps open the locks that plants place on seeds . . . cold helps us see more clearly by freeing up our view through the trees, and brightening our view of the night sky . . . cold sucks color out of the landscape and reminds us of the importance of shape and structure . . . cold means enjoying sunsets through the silhouettes of trees . . . cold causes tense muscles and keeps you on the move . . . cold makes you feel independent and liberated the longer you stay out in it . . . cold brings the wonderful gift of snow.

Indoors, Winter Solstice is the depth of a time marked by long underwear, cold hands and feet, eating soup, imbibing hot drinks, conversations with friends and family around the dining table, reading, and seeing movies and the magical oasis created by a bed piled high with blankets.

Winter Solstice is the heart of a time that causes rest, recharging, reflection, and renewal. It marks a time when life shifts from yawning itself to sleep to stretching and beginning to wake itself up. It brings light. It brings hope. It is one of the most important transitions of the year.”

I love all the activities that keep me busier during lighter times of the year, and do enjoy the transition back to longer days. But I appreciate them even more because of the dark.


Five Ways Native Plants Enrich the Environment

One of the traits of being a horticulturist is a heightened awareness of plants.  The good, the bad, the ugly, the sad, and the beautiful are all critiqued.  My family is used to it, but they still roll their eyes from time to time as I stop to look at various landscapes.

Over the past few days as I shop for gifts for Christmas, I have noticed several sad landscaping attempts outside the stores.  Creativity is at a minimum and most displays add nothing to the beauty of the place.  Granted, it is a parking lot or store front, but the plants I have seen do nothing to enrich the environment.

I don’t have all the answers for these areas, but I think native plants could really bring some life to these tough spaces and our own landscapes.  Here are five ways I believe native plants enrich the environment.

Native plants increase biodiversity.

A healthy ecosystem includes a variety of plants that are in bloom throughout the year, attracting a host of pollinators.  We don’t need to give up beauty for function.  Simply put, native plants make things happen in the landscape.

Flying Flowers of Kansas

Native plants enrich the soil.

It goes without saying, but a diverse collection of native plants with deep roots benefits any soil type.  Native plant roots can grow up to 10 to 15 feet deep depending on the species.  Their roots break up heavy clay soils and allow water to thoroughly permeate the soil profile.

A good example would be Big Bluestem.  What we see above ground is only 1/3 of the entire plant.  The roots are 2/3 of the plant and 1/3 of those roots die each year, adding organic matter to the soil and opening pores so water can percolate into the soil.  Legumes such as purple prairie clover or wild indigos fix nitrogen from the air and deposit it into the soil as well.  The extensive root systems of native plants help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.  Wow, so many soil benefits!

Native Plants Slider

Native plants reduce inputs.

Native plants do not need pesticides or fertilizers to promote growth.  They are able to use nutrients already in the soil to actively grow.  A healthy plant that is not under stress is able to fend off pests more easily.  Native plants are drought tolerant and require little – if any – supplemental water to survive.  If the right plant is matched to the site, that native plant will grow with minimal care after it is properly established.

ArbFlowers 263

Native plants provide habitat.

Native plants increase habitat used by wildlife, particularly songbirds. With songbird populations in decline, native plants provide the food and shelter they need for survival.  Even a small garden display can have a positive impact.

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.


Native plants provide a “sense of place”.

Native plants thrive in the Great Plains.  They are adapted to its unique environmental conditions and require no special care to survive. Native plants growing in your area convey an understanding of the special place where we live.  Let’s look at the particular plants that are native to the land and embrace our “sense of place”.


A Year in the Life of the Dyck Arboretum

For me, December is often a natural time to look back at what I’ve accomplished over the past year and what I am dreaming about doing in the coming year. It’s an annual practice, loosely based off of the “Daily Examen“. It’s not unlike something I saw on Pinterest – decorating a jar or vessel on New Year’s Eve that you then fill throughout the year with things that bring you joy. As a way of reflecting on the year, you can reopen and read your notes at the next New Year’s Eve gathering.

As we approach the end of this calendar year, I wanted to remind myself (and you!) of all the things we experienced here at the Dyck Arboretum in 2015 – what happened on the grounds, who we met, what we accomplished and how we fulfilled our mission.

Please enjoy this photo journey through the year.



With the calm cold of winter, the activities of wildlife move to the center of our attention. Dave Osborne sent us this photo of a cardinal searching for food and shelter at the arboretum last February.

Cardinal at Dyck Arboretum

Cardinal in February 2015. Photo by Dave Osborne.

Early Spring

Winter and early spring are often good seasons to make improvements to the hardscaping here at the arboretum. Here, a crew from Preferred Builders repaved a segment of the path near the birdwatch area.

Repaving the path at Dyck Arboretum 2015

Repaving the path – March 2015


Early spring is also the best time to focus our attention on prairie maintenance. Each year, we mow one section of the Prairie Window Project, we leave fallow a second section and we burn the third section. Brad Guhr, our prairie restoration expert, is meticulous in his planning and safe execution of these prescribed burns.

March 2015 prescribed burn at Dyck Arboretum

“Ecological restoration also involves restoring our relatedness to the wild.” – Dwight Platt

Prescribed burn in March 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

Prescribed burn in March 2015.


With the dreariness of late winter and early spring, I often flee to the greenhouse, where thousands of native and adaptable species grow in February, March and April. By late March, some species like false indigo and bleeding heart start to bloom, transforming the greenhouse into a colorful, ever-changing refuge from the outside.

Bleeding Heart in the Greenhouse at Dyck Arboretum

Bleeding heart in the greenhouse in March 2015


We were sad to see the big weeping willow become diseased and weak over the past few years. This tree has been a fixture of the Dyck Arboretum landscape for three decades as the site of many wedding ceremonies and a fun place for children to play. Founder Evie Dyck also liked to sit on the hill above the willow for quiet reflection. Finally this past March, for the safety of our visitors, our grounds manager Brett tackled the big task of cutting it down.

Willow tree at Dyck Arboretum

Removal of the big willow tree in March 2015


If there is a single event that best shares our mission with our immediate community as well as further into the corners of south central Kansas, it is the FloraKansas Plant Sale. Every year, members and visitors purchase roughly 15,000 native and adaptable plants for their home and professional landscapes. Though one of the busiest times of the year, FloraKansas is my favorite part of what we do here at the Dyck Arboretum. It has been a joy for us to see the enthusiasm for native plants in Kansas grow over the past few years!

Children at FloraKansas in April 2015

Two sisters from McPherson at the spring 2015 FloraKansas plant sale, excited to go plant their native and adaptable plants


To support the educational work of the arboretum, we also rent our facilities for families and businesses. Working with our wedding renters is a wonderful part of my job during the summer – we are always excited to see the ways in which families bring their own personal style to our garden venue, both indoors and outdoors.

June 2015 wedding at Dyck Arboretum

June 2015 wedding reception in the Prairie Pavilion at the Dyck Arboretum


Our most successful mission-driven educational program is the Earth Partnership for Schools institute for Kansas teachers. The week-long summer institute in June has been praised by its past participants as one of the most fulfilling and impactful continuing education experience of their teaching career. Likewise, our staff and volunteers finish this week in early June with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts – for the passion for education displayed by our Kansas teachers and for the opportunity to provide tools for them to pass this enthusiasm on to their students. If you haven’t heard about this program yet, learn more here!

Botany bouquet June 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

Teachers examine the grass family during the “botany bouquet” exercise.

Earth Partnership for Schools 2015 Dyck Arboretum

The 2015 Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools cohort


Our annual Summer Soirée dinner and silent auction in June has grown to become a wonderful time of connecting with our members and supporters. This year’s program included music from the Tallgrass Express String Band and presentation by Michael Haddock, co-author of Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds, which was published in March 2015 by University of Kansas Press.

Summer Soirée June 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

Arboretum members and supporters chat over appetizers and bid on silent auction items.


Autumn brought several big changes and large projects for the Arboretum staff. In late August, our new grounds manager/horticulturist Katie Schmidt came on board and promptly infused our offices and grounds with enthusiasm and whimsy. Here she is taking a selfie with her new friend, Crayfish.

Grounds Manager at Dyck Arboretum

Katie Schmidt, new Arboretum Grounds Manager and Horticulturist in September 2015


During the late summer and fall, we also spent many hours developing content for ten new educational signs, which you can expect to see being installed around the grounds this winter. We are excited about the additional learning opportunities these signs will give our visitors.

Educational Signage at Dyck Arboretum 2015

Staff examine a life-size mock-up of the Butterfly Garden sign, created by Flint Hills Design.


A major highlight in September was witnessing an increased number of monarch butterflies during their migration through Kansas. On September 23, staff happened to be in the amphitheater when several hundred monarchs were taking cover from a light rain. The photo below, taken by Brad Guhr, even made it on the Wichita evening news!

Monarch migration through Kansas, September 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

Approximately thirty monarchs rest on a single branch in the amphitheater during migration in September 2015.


Of course the capstone of our events calendar here at the arboretum is the Winter Luminary Walk. We thank all the volunteers, staff and board members who made this event happen this year! And we especially thank our members and visitors for supporting our mission through your participation in our programs and your presence here on our grounds throughout the year!

Winter Luminary Walk 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

Winter Luminary Walk 2015 at Dyck Arboretum

We hope you enjoyed 2015 as much as we did! We look forward to seeing what 2016 will bring!

Pine Cone Botany For Beginners

The start of December means the start of “pre-Christmas”: the time of year when gifting stress sets in and your friends keep posting pinterest-worthy photos of their DIY holiday decorations. Who has time to hot-glue homemade ornaments and make garlands out of twine? It can induce a crippling case of craft-envy for people who have full time jobs and/or lack artistic prowess of their own.

For weeks I have been collecting pine cones from the Arboretum grounds, wishfully thinking I will find time to incorporate them into a hip holiday craft. The crafting is still on hold, but in the meantime I have become inspired by the cone itself! As the symbol of winter and the star of holiday decorating, we owe it to the humble pine cone to learn a bit about its fascinating botany before we dry it, paint it, wrap it in ribbon and hang it from the door knocker.

Pine Cones 101

Pine cones (and all true cones) are produced by a group of plants called gymnosperms. Pronounced just as it is spelled (gym-no-sperm) and originating from the Greek language, it translates to mean “naked seed”. The seed doesn’t get this label because of exhibitionist behavior, but because, unlike seeds of flowering plants, it develops outside of an ovary.

Public domain image from wikimedia commons -

Don’t be intimidated by botany lingo, it’s actually pretty simple: embryo sac (nucellus) and dividing cell (megasporocyte or “mama cell”) make up the seed, which in non-flowering plants (gymnosperms) is unprotected by fleshy layers. Image from wikimedia commons


Since gymnosperms do not flower, they do not form a fruit as an ovary for their seed. Their cone is a rigid vessel for the developing seed which rests on the top of a scale. When the cone is mature and dries out the scales will open, dropping seeds.

pine cone edit


Male pollen cones do not make great holiday decorations

Male pollen cones, bad for decorating.


Seed bearing cones are female, while pollen filled cones are male. Both sexes of cones grow on the same tree,  but male cones grow on lower branches so that the wind can blow pollen up to the female cones. Likely all the cones you will collect for decorating are lady cones, since male cones are significantly smaller, softer and less conspicuous.




Pine Cone Diversity

Pines, cedars, and spruce trees are examples of common gymnosperms, but baldcypress, ginkgos and cycads are all unexpected members of this group as well. Cones from pine and spruce trees are my favorite to decorate with because of their classic Christmas charm and uniform scales, but you may want to hunt down some more exotic cones for yourself! The Arboretum grounds are home to many mature evergreens currently bearing cones, each with their own charisma.

Cones of the Arb

From left to right: Norway Spruce, Pinion Pine, Austrian Pine, Austrian Pine (Opened), Ponderosa Pine, White Pine, Black Hills Spruce.

Lesser-known Cones

Alder flowers look like tiny cones!

Alder flowers look like tiny cones.

I must note that some of my favorite cones are not true cones at all!  The alder tree on the east border of the Arboretum makes adorable little cones as big as your thumb tip, yet this species is not a gymnosperm.

These cones are actually flowers that resemble their cone-bearing ancestors; flowering plants evolved from gymnosperms, yet alder trees have retained some characteristic reproductive structures.

If you can’t impress your friends with precision gluing and glitter technique this holiday season, impress them with your botanical knowledge! They may wish they had spent less time slathering peanut butter on pine cones  and more time learning about them.