The first year: Getting native plants established

Originally published on May 27, 2020

The prairie communities we see are diverse and complex.  Plants, intricately woven together, crowd out weeds and harmoniously coexist.  When you look at a prairie, you only see about 1/3 of the plant.  The root systems that sustain these native plants make up the remainder, because they reach deep into the soil.  The first year is so critical to the whole process of getting native plants established. Developing these root systems properly is vitally important and the establishment period takes time.  Here are a few steps I take to get my new native plants started. 

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

I like to lay out the entire area by placing the plants where they are supposed to be planted.  This does a couple things: first, it helps with proper spacing of the plants and second, it helps to visualize the final outcome.  Think about mature size, rather than what the plants looks like in its infant state. 

Now that we have the plants laid out, we can start putting them in the soil.  It is critical to not plant them too deep.  In our heavy clay soils, it is best to plant them level or slightly higher (1/8 to ¼ inch) than the soil line, especially in heavier clay soil.  This keeps the crown drier, which is important for disease control.  Over time, these natives will develop at the depth they prefer to grow in. 

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

Now that the plants are in the ground, they need frequent watering until they get established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered daily until they begin to root and connect with the soil around them. Keep in mind that improper watering is the most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period. 

For me, I water each new area by hand rather than with a sprinkler. It helps me control the amount of water each plant receives and directs it to the intended plant.  I water every day for the first two weeks depending on the weather.  After that first two weeks, you should start to see new growth. 

For the next few weeks, I water every other day or every third day as needed, monitoring the planting each day for signs of stress/wilting. 

Even after this month long process of establishment, each plant must be monitored and watered through the following summer, fall, winter and spring.  Native plants are not established until the second summer. 

Remember, it takes a few years for those roots to fully develop.  If your plants are properly sited, you will not need to water much after the first full year.  However, if you must water your area during a dry period, natives will appreciate deep and infrequent watering. 

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

People ask me all the time about fertilizing native plants.  As a general rule, I don’t fertilize our native plants especially during that first year. Think about those small plants in the ground and what will happen to them if they are fertilized. They will have tremendous top growth that is not sustainable by the small root system. This will put the plant under stress and slow its progress. 

Natives are resilient and adaptive. The deep roots most often will find the nutrients and moisture each plant needs.

Mulch

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants. There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds. 

These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

If you decide to mulch your display beds initially, only place one to two inches of mulch down and keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established. As they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch.  Something to think about is whether you have seen mulch in the prairie?  No, the plants eventually co-mingle and intertwine to push out weeds.     

Creating a native landscape takes time.  With each new plant established comes an expectation of a brighter future. Often, we garden and landscape our yards with the anticipation of what we will get rather than what we are giving back.  By adding native plants to our gardens, we will help make our gardens not only beautiful, but also productive and full of life.

FloraKansas FAQs

For long-time members and newbies alike, FloraKansas is an exciting time. The thrill of finding the perfect plant, the joy of meeting like-minded gardeners, the rush of fear that we might sell out of your favorite species; it can all be a lot to take in! Though we make small tweaks each year, there are a few things you can plan ahead for.

Our greenhouse gets quite full during the plant sale, and we are happy to see these plants go to new homes!

Member Day

The Thursday of Florakansas is always member day. This means ONLY members can purchase plants that day. If you are not a member and would like to come on that day, you are welcome to purchase a membership at the same time as your plants.
FAQS:

  • “Can I bring a friend who is not a member?” Yes, if you are a member or planning to become one, you may bring a guest.
  • “How do I know if my membership is current?” There are 3 ways to find out: Search your email for a renewal receipt, find the date on your membership card, or contact our office.
  • “Do I need to bring my membership card?” No, but it sure is helpful for our staff!
Member day is a busy time. It is a great time to mingle with plant experts and enthusiasts as well as first-timers. Staff and volunteers are always nearby to help!

Organization

So much to see, so little time! Grasses, trees, shrubs and vines are in the gravel area outside the greenhouse while the herbaceous plants are inside the greenhouse. Each aisle in the greenhouse is labeled by category, and a full explanation of each category is available here. We have a shade aisle for native and non-native plants that prefer 7 hours or less of direct sun, an adaptable aisle full of non-native garden favorites that grow well in our region, and a Natives for Sun aisle jam packed with true natives from Kansas and our bordering states. Using our native plant guide will help you find what category, and therefore what aisle, your desired plant will likely be found. And of course, staff and volunteers are always happy to help!
FAQs:

  • “Why include plants native to other states?” Over thousands of years, native species ranges have shifted and continue to do so based on the changing climate. Plants don’t care about state lines, so we do our best to offer a diverse set of plants from the Great Plains and Ozark regions that work well in many microclimates and garden types while still adding to a healthy ecosystem.
  • “Why do you carry non-natives at all?” There are many plants not native to our area that still perform well in our climate and add great beauty and habitat to the garden. Offering these adaptable plants, as we call them, ensures our customers can continue to purchase familiar and reliable garden favorites along with lesser known natives as they expand their gardening knowledge. Since FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, offering a wide selection of plants allows us to absorb the higher cost of growing and purchasing those hard to find natives.

Pre-Order and Pick Up

This is a map from our 2020 plant sale procedures, but it remains fairly accurate. While we don’t need 5 pick up spots now that the pandemic lockdowns have lifted, we still ask that folks who are picking up follow this flow of traffic and stop near the greenhouse for staff to assist.

Members get the added benefit of pre-order service (closed as of April 11). This means you can send us your order before the sale via our online order form and staff will box up your plants for pick up. No shopping or waiting in line! You may pick up your plants as soon as you receive the invoice via email, or you may come to the sale in person. If you decide to shop the sale in addition to pre-ordering, please keep your new purchases and your pre-order separate. This cuts down on confusion at the cash register. FAQs:

  • “How do I know my order has been received?” Once you fill out the form on our website, you will see a prompt that thanks you for your order. This is the only confirmation you will receive until your order is processed.
  • “How do I know when my order is ready?” When you order is processed and ready for pick up, you will receive an email. This is an invoice, with directions for pick up times and procedure. Once you see this in your inbox, your plants are ready for you!
  • “Can I order plants for someone else who is not a member?” As long as a current member is the one filling out the form and paying for the plants, yes. This is a great time to encourage your friends to become members as well!

BYO?

Boxes: We provide cardboard boxes to shoppers, but you are welcome to bring you own! Volunteers spend weeks helping us collect discarded boxes from local grocery stores. If you bring your own, we can cut down on our collection time.

Pots: Do you have pots from last year you would like us to reuse? If so, bring them with you! We will happily accept OUR POTS ONLY, since they match our pricing and storage systems.

Consider bringing these other items to help your FloraKansas shopping trip go smoothly: your membership card, measurements and pictures of your landscape site to show a staff person, a wagon or cart for your plants. Wagons will be provided, but we occasionally run out during busy times!

FloraKansas is as exciting for staff as it is for our patrons. We get to see our longtime friends and meet new faces. Staff can hear about the progress of gardens we helped design, and smile at the stories of wildlife enjoying the habitat these plants create. We can’t wait to see you all there!

FloraKansas Greenhouse Guide

When you visit the greenhouse during our FloraKansas fundraisers, you may notice some signage hanging over the aisles: Shade, Adaptables, Natives for Sun. This post will help you make sense of how we organize the species so you can find exactly what you want and start planting!

Use the aisle markers to help you navigate the greenhouse. You may also find it helpful to bring your Native Plant Guide with you,
helping you remember the names and attributes of the plants you are interested in. Photo by Amy Sharp Photography.

Shade

In the north aisle you will find shade plants, both native and adaptable. These plants will appreciate all day dappled sun or less than 6 hours of direct sun per day. By nature, many of these plants like a bit more water than their sun loving counterparts. There are lots of great options for dry shade, however, which is common in Kansas’ suburban neighborhoods. Use your native plant guide or the placard over each species to know which plants like it dry or moist, and help you select the right plants for your site.

Shade Garden
The native columbine Aquilegia canadensis thrives in the Arboretum shade garden.
This is one of many shade-tolerant species you can find at FloraKansas.
Geranium maculatum ‘Crane Dance’ is a hybrid of two parent G. maculatum types. This plant can tolerate droughty shade and has excellent fall color. Photo courtesy Walter’s Gardens

Adaptables

Heptacodium, also known as Seven Son Flower, is a shrub from northern Asia. While it is not native here, our butterflies sure do love it!
Hardy and drought tolerant, it has become one of our favorite adaptable shrubs.
Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

The center aisle is for Adaptables. This is our catch-all term for non-natives that still deserve to be included in our sale. Maybe it is because they are a well-known garden classic, like peonies or hibiscus. Perhaps they are new and unique, appealing to the adventurous gardeners in our customer base. No matter the reason they initially caught our eye, we consider the following before we add them to our inventory:

  • do they reliably preform well in our area?
  • are they known to be non-invasive?
  • do they still benefit our local pollinators and birds?
  • are they particularly water-wise or hardy?

We research every plant that goes into this aisle to make sure these species deserve a spot at our sale, and have something special to offer our shoppers.

Natives for Sun

Lastly the Natives for Sun aisle is by far the most jam packed and diverse of the three, alphabetized by latin name for all those botany nerds out there. These plants are native to KS and our bordering states. We research the historical ranges for these plants. We also research which horticultural varieties we carry are naturally occurring or intentionally hybridized by breeders. Information is always changing on this topic! When considering whether it is ‘native enough’ for this aisle we also consider factors like how the flower form and leaf color has potentially been changed by humans, which can affect its function in the ecosystem.

Ratibida columnifera is a native prairie plant you would find in our Natives for Sun aisle.
It loves hot summer days and open spaces! Photo by Emily Weaver.

Our greenhouse was built in 2008, and has changed the way we operate our fundraiser in a big way. Before we had a greenhouse, Florakansas was held in the parking lot! I am so glad those days are gone and that our greenhouse is the permanent home for Florakansas, a center of activity for volunteers, and a warm place to escape to in late winter. We hope to see lots of you enjoying the greenhouse at our spring sale!