Arboretum Pond FAQ

Spring is a beautiful time to visit the Arboretum, the flowers are blooming and everything is lush and green. Unfortunately, our pond has turned green as well! The warming temperatures make perfect growing conditions for the unsightly algae and aquatic plants. Pond maintenance has become a regular part of our work week. We have been doing some quality staff bonding in the water, brainstorming together different control methods, and we have gotten many questions from passersby concerning our pond maintenance routines.

What exactly is that scummy green goop?

From left to right: moss in a Scotland bog, Spirogyra algae on a Romanian pond and an aquatic plant in an aquarium.

From left to right: moss in a Scotland bog, Spirogyra algae on a Romanian pond and an aquatic plant in an aquarium.

There seems to be much confusion when distinguishing between moss, algae and aquatic plant. Let’s set the record straight with some semi-scientific definitions:

Moss – lives mostly on land in moist/shady locations, limited vascular system to carry water and nutrients internally, which is why it is commonly small and low growing. Flowerless, seedless.

Algae – a general term encompassing many different life forms that are not all related (from single celled phytoplankton to huge clusters of seaweed/giant kelp). General definitions mention that algae lives aquatically in salt and freshwater, has

Me, sporting a wetsuit and some Ceratophyllum demersum

Me, sporting a wetsuit and some Ceratophyllum demersum.

varying photosynthetic pigments (red-brown algae, green-blue algae) and does not have true root systems, stems or leaves. Flowerless, seedless. 

Aquatic plant – usually has a more complex vascular system than algae or moss, lives on the surface of or suspended in water, can have prominent flowers and seeds.

Let the mystery be solved! Floating on the surface of our pond is filamentous green algae. Without taking the time to examine single cells under the microscope we can’t know the exact species, but it is likely a mixture of some of the most common North American freshwater green algae – Spirogyra, Mougeotia, and Zygnema. Just below the surface grows a thick mat of coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum), which is a free-floating aquatic plant. Stringy and clingy, it makes walking the pond a tangly chore.

What do you do about it?

Our usual method is to walk the pond with a floating board, pushing the algae and piling it up for chemical treatment. This can be a slow process and it results in large patches of smelly, rotting algae. Last week we experimented with looping the pond using a metal cable and a tractor, pulling the material to the west low-water bridge. It worked quite well, but left us with the chore of raking the globby, stringy, water-laden stuff onto the bridge to be hauled away. While it was a good staff bonding exercise, it left our backs pretty sore! Hopefully our concerted effort this spring will prevent a massive bloom later in the season, and our future maintenance will be less involved. I hope to continue a treatment regimen that is a compromise between chemical use and tiring rake work.

Is it good for anything?

While we see green growth in the pond as a nuisance, there are a few ecological benefits. Coontail plant provides habitat for perch and bass and can help settle sediment in the water. Waterfowl feed on the shoots and seeds. Free floating planktonic algae is the base of the aquatic food chain and it also can help oxygenate the water. But we just had way too much! An over growth of coontail can cause water stagnation and stunting of fish growth, and surface algae is smelly, unsightly, and shades out the habitat beneath it.

The water that supplies our pond comes from city runoff, which can unfortunately contain pollutants and unwanted nutrients from the streets and freshly fertilized yards of Hesston. An overdose of nutrients flowing into the pond, such as nitrates and phosphates, is often partially responsible for an algae bloom. As our pond ages, we will encounter new maintenance challenges: there will always be undesirable pollutants flowing in, there will always be some pesky aquatic plant to deal with. The best we can do is try to educate ourselves and attempt to be more aggressive than the algae growth!

I’ll be keeping my wetsuit hanging on the line, ready for more pond action this summer.

For more detailed information about pond ecology, life cycle and systems, click here.

Photos attributed to:
Moss By Rosser1954 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Aquatic plant By Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0,, Algae CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Day on the Prairie is Good Medicine

Well, it happened again!  I spent another beautiful day in the Flint Hills.  After several weeks of busyness, I needed some quiet and solitude – time away from the office to refocus my thoughts and recharge my batteries.  I knew just the place to go.

Deep in the heart of the Flint Hills there is a secluded pond that is stocked with Largemouth bass.  It is rare that you don’t catch a fish and this particular day was no exception.  The fish were biting, but more importantly the sun was shining, the breeze was light and the spring wildflowers were in bloom.  It was a picture perfect day.

We who live in Kansas often get criticized for the lack of beauty in the state.  While it is true that we don’t have mountains and we don’t have large forests and we don’t have beautiful sand beaches, what we do have is open prairie. We have an unobstructed, open view of the blue sky.  We have some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world, with colors and hues that change from one minute to the next and reach from west to east.  I am amazed each and every time I pause to appreciate the beginning and the end of the day.  They are truly works of art and a gift to be appreciated.


Quivira Wildlife Refuge at dusk. Photo by Brad Guhr.


Quivira Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Guhr.

This particular day my senses were heightened.  The Flint Hills prairie was spectacular.  I was keenly aware of the various sights and sounds all around me.  I noticed the Meadowlarks singing on the fence posts and the various birds in the Cottonwood trees near the pond.  The scissor-tailed flycatcher was doing his thing over the grasses and I could hear the call of a pheasant in the distance.  The prairie was alive with activity.


Chase State Fishing Lake. Photo Courtesy of Bob Regier

I walked through the prairie noticing all the spring wildflowers blooming.  There was tremendous diversity from tiny violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) to yellow grooved flax (Linum sulcatum) to Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.) to larger wildflowers like Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) and Green Antelopehorn Milkweed (Asclepias virids).   The prairie I was walking through had been burned this spring, so individual wildflowers stood out amongst the dark green grass blades.

I believe people from other states and landscapes would change their minds about Kansas if they could have been with me that day.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

In my opinion, we take the Kansas landscape for granted, with its striking beauty, its stunning complexity and diversity and its open expanse stretching to the horizon.   It is a landscape worthy of appreciation and admiration.

If you have a chance, take a drive and spend a day on the prairie.  Why not this week?  It may be just what you need.  It certainly helped me to reconnect and left me refreshed.  It was good medicine.

Try these links to set your prairie itinerary.  Natural Kansas , Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve , Cimarron National Grasslands , Konza Prairie , Maxwell Wildlife Refuge , The Nature Conservancy of Kansas .


Big Brown Bats in My House

I have big brown bats in my house. Hooray! Well, that is what I said a couple of years ago in July of 2014 when I first discovered that bats had taken up residence in the bat house that had hung on the south side of my house for nearly a decade. For many of those years, this mammal motel only served as a roost for robins or mourning doves on which to build their nests. But the pile of small-mammal droppings (think mouse turds) or “guano” observed that summer on the driveway beneath prompted my brother and me to scale a ladder and investigate further. I’m happy to report that they have lived there ever since.



I think this species is the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus). This is only an educated guess based on the fact that Newton, KS is within its range, it is the most common bat species in Kansas, it is large in flight (fitting the descriptions I’ve read), and online photos of big brown bats resemble the crude photo I took above.


Big Brown Bat Occurrence Map in Kansas (from the Fort Hays State University Kansas Mammal Atlas)

Historically in this prairie state, big brown bats would have only been found in areas where they could roost in Eastern Kansas forest trees, and further west in trees along major river corridors, under rock cliffs, and in caves. Today, even though no records are yet recorded in Harvey County according to the Kansas Mammal Atlas, they are widespread across the state thanks to human-made structures found throughout. I haven’t been able to see over the last couple of years if the bats in my house have produced the expected 1-2 pups per year that are born late May to mid-June, but I will watch more closely this year. In fact I’m thinking of mounting a trail camera (hint to hunting friends with this kind of technology) from a nearby eave so that I can see them exit or enter the house, which I’ve never been able to observe.

I see them flying around the yard on many evenings around dusk. On occasion, I also have seen at least four at a time feeding over Sand Creek, which is located one block from our house. They eat approximately a third of their weight in insects each night while in flight and prefer beetles (e.g., May beetles, June beetles, fireflies, etc.) and moths. They probably eat mosquitoes too, but would understandably prefer the larger, higher calorie insects when available. I’ve yet to analyze their guano under a dissecting scope to identify wing structures and try to determine the contents of their diet, like my geeky wildlife biologist friends would do, but don’t assume I won’t.

I know they have hibernated in my bat house for the last two years and the guano pile under their house usually starts to form sometime in March when they wake up and become active. Their loud, quite audible “squeaking” in the house can often be heard on cold mornings and evenings during that time. I wonder if that has anything to do with trying to stay warm, but really have no idea.

Thankfully (with tongue fully inserted in cheek), these bats have not fallen into any of the misconceptions I’ve heard about and 1) given anybody rabies, 2) gotten stuck in anybody’s hair, or 3) followed their vampire bat cousins and tried to suck anybody’s blood. As I try to expand the biological diversity in my home landscape, I am simply thrilled to have these little furry friends join the fold.

As far as bat house installation goes, the guidelines I remembered following were being at least 10 feet off the ground, mounting on a south-facing side of the house to get as much sunlight as possible (possibly under an eave in Kansas where mid summer temps are high), and being within a 1/4 mile of a stream or water body where optimal insect foraging can take place. Search the internet for “tips for hanging a bat house” and you will be able to sift through loads of recommendations to hang your own bat house.

For more information about the big brown bat in Kansas, check out the following websites: Great Plains Nature Center, Fort Hays State University Kansas Mammal Atlas, or Kansas University Mammals of Kansas.

Plant Profile: My Run-in With A Texas Buckeye

There are some experiences we will always remember and others we need to be reminded of from time to time.  One of those experiences happened for me with the Texas Buckeye near the Arboretum parking lot.  Each spring when it blooms, I am reminded of the time I about killed that tree.


Texas Buckeye Blooms

It was one of the first years I was working as the horticulturist/grounds manager.  I was mowing close to that tree, which had been planted the year before.  It was supported with wires from the trunk to stakes in the ground.  I turned the mower and WACK!  The top of the tree hit me on the head.

Have you ever had the sudden realization that something isn’t right?  Have you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach to not turn around?  I turned around to see that the back of my mower had caught one of the wires and pulled the tree over, breaking the trunk about two feet off the ground.  I wanted to crawl in a hole.

The Texas Buckeye (Aescules glabra var. arguta) tree, which was now laying horizontal, had been sought diligently for this specific spot.  In one second, I had killed it.

Have you ever had thoughts of hiding something you did wrong?   That thought flashed into my mind.  Will anyone notice? I was in a jam.  So, I decided to take my lumps.

I walked into Larry Vickerman’s office, who was the director at that time, and told him the bad news.  To his credit he didn’t yell at me, but I certainly would have deserved it.  He took a look at it and we decided to try to set it upright again.  We gently unhooked it from the mower and made it vertical and then wrapped the place where it bent over with tree wrap.  We crossed our fingers that it would survive.  It did survive the rest of that year and bloomed the next year.  It has continued to bloom each year since and each spring I am reminded of the time I was hit upside the head.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned in this story.  Maybe I need to be hit upside the head from time to time.


Anyway, if you look close, the scar is still visible, but it has fully healed.  This beautiful small tree has palmately compound leaves that will turn yellow-orange in the fall.  The real show in is May when the creamy, yellow flower panicles emerge.  The blooms are spectacular and very eye catching, because they appear at the ends of the branches.  It is an understory tree, which becomes most visible when in bloom.  The leathery seed pods develop later in the year and contain tannish-brown, shiny seeds that look like “buck (deer) eyes” .  The seeds are known to be poisonous along with all parts of the plant as well. If the tree becomes really drought stressed, it will prematurely drop its leaves.  Ultimately reaching 20-25 feet tall and 15-20 wide, it is a wonderful small tree for the landscape.

This is a great native small tree that deserves more use.  Each year, I get a renewed sense of relief, because I know what I did to it, yet is still thrives.  If this Texas Buckeye can survive being toppled by a mower, it can survive anything you throw at it.