During December Scott and I have been working on renovating and restoring the edges of the pond island. This beloved spot is where children like to feed the ducks and turtles, where couples get engagement pictures taken, and where visitors can spend a quiet moment near the water. Over the past 40 years it has eroded away in many places. Thanks to a grant from the Central Kansas Community Foundation and a generous anonymous matching donation, we are able to strengthen the island banks and keep it in good shape for years to come.
The edges of the island were originally made of a redwood retaining wall, backfilled with rock and soil. While the redwood wall has stayed remarkably intact, the material behind it has eroded away. There was over a six foot gap in some places between where the bank used to be and where it is now! All that material has floated downstream during flood events and times of high flow. We are filling in these gaps with concrete and brick rubble.
On top of the rock goes 4-8 inches of soil. This area will be home to a continuation of the prairie grasses and forbs currently growing on the island. Switchgrass, dotted blazing star, and purple prairie clover are already growing well on the higher areas of the island. I hope prairie cordgrass, river oats and Kansas gayfeather will colonize lower portions of our new island edge in the coming years.
We will seed this area, as well as allow the neighboring plantings to spread naturally into it. Controlling invasive weeds here will be a high priority next spring and summer as this soil likely contains unfamiliar weed seeds, some of which may be noxious or highly invasive.
Out of Bounds
We are also dumping rubble on the outside of the redwood retaining board. This will help stop erosion, support the board in light of all the new weight being dumped behind it, and create a substrate for future aquatic plants. In spring that outer rock layer will become a substrate for planting new aquatic species. We hope to add hibiscus, lizards tail, equisetum, marsh marigold, pickerel weed, and other native pond plants.
Maintaining the grounds is a big job. The needed repairs never end, and it can get expensive. Donations, memberships, FloraKansas purchases, and all the other ways you support the Dyck Arboretum helps keep these acres safe and accessible to the community.
Thank you to all who gave to this pond renovation initiative. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates on the planting and growth of this new pond edge!
As the sun sets on another year, we want to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. We know this is an unusual holiday season and the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff wishes you health and happiness.
The Arboretum grounds will be open to the public during daylight hours, but the gift shop and office will be closed through January 2.
We cherish the friendships and relationships with each of you over the past year. The people who support and care for this place are at the heart of our mission statement: “cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.”
It is our goal for 2022 to further this mission and build resilient relationships with as many people as we can. This year has been a challenge, but serving each of you in various ways is always a highlight. We look with hope into the new year.
I am going to pull back the curtain for you regarding the potential development of some programming here at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This fall we have begun considering an initiative called Caring for Common Ground. Although we already promote in general the concept of “Caring for Common Ground” through much of our programming at Dyck Arboretum, we want to make the process with our membership more intentional.
Formalizing a Concept
The thoughts of the land conservationist, Aldo Leopold, have long been very influential to me and my work. In answering the question “What is a Land Ethic?” the Aldo Leopold Foundation offers the following:
“Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.”
Three years ago, we formalized a new mission statement: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land. The concept of and language surrounding Leopold’s Land Ethic was foundational to the development of this new mission statement.
Retreat to Wisconsin
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong helped conceive and for 30 years has run the Earth Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Subsequently, the Earth Partnership for Schools Program that Lorna Harder and I co-facilitate in Kansas comes from Cheryl and the Earth Partnership Program. So, when the revered Earth Partnership team of Cheryl, Claire Bjork, and Greg Armstrong, plus Amy Alstad at Holy Wisdom Monastery, invited us to a conference called Caring for Common Ground (CCG) that had been years in the making, we couldn’t resist attending.
Our Kansas team started by making a pilgrimage to The Shack, featured in the landmark book, A Sand County Almanac. This is the place where Aldo Leopold developed some of his thinking about The Land Ethic. We enjoyed visiting the place where many of his stories in the book took place. Walking prairie restored by the Leopold family and that is maintained today by staff at The Aldo Leopold Foundation. It felt like hallowed ground.
Conference at Holy Wisdom Monastery
We then drove 45 minutes south of The Shack to the Holy Wisdom Monastery where our conference would take place. The Benedictine sisters there are undertaking serious land stewardship on their grounds. Under the guidance of Greg Armstrong in past years and Amy Alstad in the present, volunteers are restoring many acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. These restoration project areas were our learning grounds for the CCG conference.
Our conference activities involved observation and assessment of the present conditions related to soils, vegetation and wildlife. We acknowledged the past removal of Indigenous Peoples from these ancestral lands. A local Ho-Chunk tribal member served as an advisor for CCG and joined us for a session. There was discussion about the processes of land degradation that have been part of the site’s history. We reviewed ecological restoration techniques, conducted planning charrettes, and participated in seed collection and planting exercises.
Spirituality of Stewardship
Spirituality is an individual’s search for sacred meaning in life and recognition of a sense that there is something greater than oneself. Being a land steward restores ecosystem functions for the greater good through meaningful rituals. As a result, it can add value to one’s life, build a sense of place, and be a spiritual process.
Land restoration is inherently filled with ethical and spiritual dimensions. People from all religious and faith traditions certainly can bring value to this CCG process.
The writings of Leopold and Braiding Sweetgrass author, Robin Wall Kimmerer are influential to CCG. Kimmerer challenges us with the following question in our relationship to the earth. Should we be living in deep communion with the land, or looking to subdue and dominate it? Above all, this is an important question for land stewards to ask ourselves.
Pilot Study in 2022
We at Dyck Arboretum want to to do a pilot study of Kansas Caring for Common Ground (KCCG) in 2022. The first test cohort will be our small group that went to Madison. Arboretum staff, board members, and anybody that would like to help us Beta test this new program are welcome.
We envision that this will be a year-long study from January through December with one meeting per month. Homework could include individual reading, research, study and preparation for the next session. Monthly gatherings might include sharing, dialogue, and an interactive seasonal land stewardship practice. Such practices might include seed collection, prescribed burning, seed propagation, plant identification, chain saw work, planting, etc. An alternative to the monthly format for a larger group might include a one-time, whole-weekend KCCG retreat.
Regardless of format, a consistent framework for KCCG would include 1) A review of the site’s history (soils, hydrology, vegetation, wildlife, presence of Indigenous People, etc.), 2) An assessment of how conditions have changed over the last century or more, and 3) A land restoration plan for the future. Oh, and good food/drink would also be an important part of every gathering!
Going Forward with Intention
Finally, I’ll leave you with an image of the table that I sat around with friends after every evening of the conference. One adorned the table with interesting wood pieces collected from Wisconsin and Kansas that had been hand-cut, polished, stained and artistically crafted as candle holders. Another supplied delicious, slow food that came with thoughtful planning, preparation and cooking. Another provided spirited drinks with hand-harvested ingredients. It was a space filled with intention, meaning, adoration, and gratitude. May the coming year in study, conversation, and practice with Caring for Common Ground in Kansas be filled with similar such things for each other and with the land.
This time of year our focus changes a bit as we transition to spending more time inside. You look longingly outside at your garden, anticipating warmer weather and the arrival of spring. We are not restless yet, but for those of us who garden and love to dig into the soil, it helps if we have something to look at through the kitchen window or sitting in our living room. Here are some plants to consider adding as you “look into” your winter garden.
Flowers fade into buttons, globes, plumes, spikes, daisies or umbels that can be emphasized with the play of light and motion. These expired flowers are attractive even after they are done blooming.
Coneflowers: These dark seed heads are attractive with native grasses and are favorites of overwintering birds.
Asters: Swaths of these fall blooming perennials provide structure and decent fall color.
Amsonia: Blue flowers in the spring and attractive color in the fall
Prairie Dropseed: This is one of my favorite grasses. Fine foliage, airy seedheads, and golden orange fall color that mixes well with many other shorter perennials.
This garden design element refers to the surface quality of the plant. Whether coarse or fine, textural plants combined with interesting forms are quite dramatic in the winter landscape.
Switchgrass: There are so many varieties to choose, from tall to short and from green to red leaved. You really can’t go wrong by adding some of these native grasses to your garden.
Rattlesnake master: This unusual native has attractive gray-green foliage and starry white blooms in the summer. As it transitions into the winter-the whole plant turns tawny gold.
Little bluestem: The fine stems of little bluestem add bright color to the stark winter garden.
This element in the garden is often overlooked or removed before the birds need them. For birds that take winter residence in your garden, the right mix of plants creates a habitat that is fun to watch.
Composite flowers like blackeyed susan, coneflower, blazing star, sunflowers, and goldenrods are vital food that birds seek out.
Crabapples: Most of ornamental trees have persistent fruit that are utilized later in the winter as other food becomes scarce.
Blackhaw Viburnum: This native produces abundant fruit that taste like miniature prunes. Birds and other wildlife love them.
Sumac: The reddish fruit atop these native shrubs are a favorite of Chickadee and Titmouse.
Stems are not noticed until everything is bare, but can provide something interesting and beautiful to look at in the winter.
Red/Yellow twig dogwoods: They explode with color especially with snow.
Big Bluestem: Forms with brilliant red fall color are the best with regards to standing out in the landscape.
Seven-Son Flower: Great exfoliating bark on this fall blooming small tree.
This can be a brush pile or evergreen of some type. Each provide shelter and safety for wildlife during the cold winter months.
Taylor Juniper: This upright form of our native evergreen also has fruit that the birds need.
Alleghany Viburnum: Tall semi-evergreen shrub with attractive fruit and leathery leaves.
Brush pile: Brush piles create shelter that conceals and protects wildlife from predators and weather. Situate the brush pile where you can enjoy wildlife viewing.
In the winter, there are fewer times of satisfaction from the garden. If you have only a few plants to watch in the winter landscape, make sure it’s enough to keep it interesting.
Here is a repost from a few years ago about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style!
This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!
Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:
“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)
“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)
Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.
Cedars are a ‘green’ choice
For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:
clearing/agricultural development of land
years of regular water input
pesticides to keep needles bug free
shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country
Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.
Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.