Welcoming the Year Ahead

As 2022 comes to a close, we reflect back on all the wonderful things we accomplished with your help in the past twelve months – completed our island renovation project, replaced our greenhouse roof with a more wind-hardy solution, watched the plants persevere through a very wet spring and an extremely dry summer and fall, and installed a new welcome sign! And now we dream of what 2023 will bring for our prairie garden.

In this period of rest and dormancy, we invite you to join us in welcoming all of the possibilities that the coming year holds for you and for the land that you steward.

From left to right: Scott Vogt, Executive Director; Katie Schmidt, Horticulturist/Grounds Manager; Brad Guhr, Prairie Restoration/Education/Concert Series Coordinator; Janelle Flory Schrock, Public Engagement Coordinator

Songs of the Solstice

When the weather is cold and the days are short, I just want to curl up on the couch and rest. And according to prairie plants, that’s exactly what I should be doing! As much as it pains us to see our favorite plants dry up and freeze in the fall, cold weather is an essential pause in the growth cycle for some plant species. Dormancy, vernalization, and cycles of freezing and thawing are an important part of their development.

A winter sunset dips below the horizon behind a bur oak tree and a snowy landscape.
Photo by Gerry Epp

Baby It’s Cold Outside

Contrary to how we feel about it, cold weather is a very good thing for plants in our region. In fact, there are many species of plants that cannot bloom without a prolonged cold period. Apple trees cannot form proper buds without 500 to 1,000 “chilling hours”. Tulips will not bloom without 12 to 16 weeks of cold soil temperatures. And even the historically finicky peach tree will not set fruit without a proper cold spell during the winter months. This cold period for plants is called ‘vernalization’. It all has to do with needing some rest — after a strenuous growing season, many plants use the signal of dark days and cold temperatures to go into their dormant phase, an energy-saving adaptation that allows them to jump back into full blossom in the spring. Why fight the harsh winter conditions when you can just sleep through it?

On Dormancy, or Rest Ye Merry Gentle(Plants)

Dormancy is not death, it is more like a long, deep sleep. In preparation for winter, plants stop actively growing and begin to transport their sugar reserves into their roots. This means the foliage may look shriveled and dried, but the roots are more alive than ever, packed with energy to get through the winter. When they go dormant, all the internal chemical processes of the plant slow down. Isn’t that good advice for us too? Slow down, give up trying to keep up all those lush, green appearances and just focus on your roots and energy reserves! Remember to give your plants a bit of water of the winter if things get abnormally dry; they are resting, but still need moisture to stay alive until spring!

The dormant trees of the Arboretum take the spotlight during our Prairie Lights event. The lights accentuate their form and help us to appreciate them even in the off season. Photo by Amy Sharp Photography.

Let It Snow

Native prairie seeds are especially in need of cold, moist winters. These seeds have incredibly hard seed coats, called testas. The outer shell of the seed is hard for many reasons: to protect it from the elements, to prevent it from germinating too soon when conditions are unfavorable, or to survive the inside of a stomach once it is eaten and, – *ahem* – expelled. But this hard seed coat does finally break open after many freezes and thaws in a Kansas winter. Moisture works its way into the seed and helps the process along. Without deep cold, seeds would not germinate as well or at the correct time.

Seeds take many shapes and forms. Line drawing by Lorna Harder, can be found on our “Prairie Restoration” informational sign on the Arb grounds.

Winter can be a beautiful season if you know where to look. Prairie plants provide interesting textures and colors even through the darkest days of December and January. And more than being aesthetically pleasing, leaving gardens standing through winter provides the necessary habitat and shelter for wildlife to survive cold temperatures. As you enjoy your own kind of dormancy this winter solstice, I hope you find some comfort in the natural cycles of waking and rest happening all around you!

A Few Favorite Plants

It looks like winter is settling in as the forecast seems to be turning colder in the coming days. It is a perfect time to reflect on the past year in the garden. 

It has been a tough year to grow just about everything, due to the monsoon rains in spring followed by the desert dry months of summer and fall.  In spite of the high and lows, wet and dry, there are a handful of plants that stood out in the landscape – plants that flourished rather than floundered. 

Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Butterscotch’

A favorite plant of mine has been Amsonia.  I like just about all of them including, ‘Sting Theory’, ‘Storm Cloud’, ‘Blue Ice’,  Amsonia illustris and Amsonia hubrichtii.  However, I have really enjoyed the cultivar, Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Butterscotch’.  It has narrow leaves that don’t turn brown on the ends.  The pale blue flower clusters in the spring are a perfect topper to these sturdy plants.  The real show is in fall when the entire plants turns a golden orangish-brown.  The plants will get fuller over time with more and more wands of clean attractive foliage. 

Amsonia hubrishtii ‘Butterscotch’ with Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite

Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

We have carried Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ for many years at our plant sales.  It continues to be a “favorite” of many customers and I can see why.  In the late fall, the entire plant is covered with dark lavender blooms that pollinators love.  It extends the bloom time in the garden into late October.  The plants are tidy and don’t become leggy like some of the New England asters with their dry leaves on the bottom of the stems.  It does slowly spread but can be divided, shared with your neighbor or planted somewhere else in the garden.  Drought tolerant and tough, it is a plant I have come to admire. 

Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’

One of Katie’s top performers in her home garden has been Scutellaria resinosa. Resinous skullcap is a compact little beauty of the short grass prairie.  The bright blue/purple flowers in summer stand out in the front of a dry sunny border.  It is drought tolerant, durable, and unique.  The neat little mounds with mouse ear grey-green leaves are charming.  It needs well-drained soil.  Plant them with Perky Sue, evening primrose or prairie zinnia.

Scutellaria resinosa Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’

I have really come to appreciate grasses in the garden.  The movement and texture in the garden is nice especially through the winter. There is so much diversity and heights of grasses to mix and match in your landscape.  A beautiful little bluestem that has performed well for us has been Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’.  This is not your typical little bluestem.  It displays beautiful steely-blue foliage with flower spikes of varying purple shades. It seems to be constantly changing through the seasons, slowly shifting to bright purple during autumn.  It is a taller grass that will grow 4 to 5 feet in height and reach a spread of about 2 to 3 feet.  The beautiful foliage will transition to reddish-orange in the fall.  As you know, little bluestems are favorite overwintering homes for insects and pollinators.  The seeds are winter foods for a many types of birds.

Little Bluestem Twilight Zone Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Diervilla lonicera x ‘Kodiak Orange’

This spring I needed some shrubs to go around the deck in my backyard.  I planted a Viburnum ‘Blue Muffin’ along with a cross-pollinators Viburnum ‘Little Joe’ to make sure they produced fruit.  There was a silky dogwood called ‘Red Rover’ along with a native bush honeysuckle Diervilla lonicera ‘Kodiak Orange’.  I have been impressed with the honeysuckle.  It never wilted compared to the viburnum and dogwood.  It developed tiny yellow honeysuckle-like flowers throughout the summer that attracted butterflies and other pollinators.  The orange-green leaves have turned yellow-orange this fall which is a bonus.  It is quite adaptable to dry soil once established.  My yard is quite shady except mid-afternoon and they thrived.  There are many non-native and invasive honeysuckles including Morrow’s honeysuckle, Tatarian honeysuckle, Amur honeysuckle, and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.).  Although somewhat similar in appearance Diervilla are native and not invasive.  One thing I have learned about invasive honeysuckles is that they have hollow stems.  Native honeysuckles have solid stems. 

Fall color of Kodiak Orange

I hope you have been able to think back through this year and reminisce about your garden successes.  We often put so much time and effort into our gardens that we don’t step back and take in the scenery.  Also, remember that a beautiful landscape that we enjoy has ties to ecology, creating habitat and helping wildlife too.

Garden Spotlight: A Berlin Community Garden

This past summer I had the opportunity to spend several weeks visiting friends and familiar places in Germany. Having lived there for three years in my twenties, this visit provided a much-needed cure for my Wanderlust.

Turns out that when you wait so long to return to a favorite place, you see it with fresh eyes. In my twenties, I knew nothing about plants, ecosystems or public gardens. I didn’t observe my surroundings with an incessant need to identify the wildflowers growing on the hillsides or alongside the railroad tracks. It would never have occurred to me to wonder if the flowers planted in people’s gardens originated from local ecotype seed, or were imported from North America or Asia. And I was much more interested in etymology than entomology.

Though I have learned so very much in my time working at the Arboretum, I realized on this trip that I have so many questions regarding the world of plants and gardening, and I lean heavily on my colleagues for the answers. (Thank you, Scott, Brad, Katie and Lorna!) Nevertheless, I’d like to share with you some of the gardens that I saw this summer, and the questions they caused me to ask.

In this post, I’d like to tell you a little about the “Sonnenschein” Kleingartenanlage, a 96 year old community garden on the outskirts of eastern Berlin.

Kleingartenanlagen (Small Garden Allotments)

Founded in 1926, the “Sunshine” Garden includes 130 garden plots, averaging around 4,000 square feet, each equipped with electricity and water. A clubhouse and playground, added in the 1950s, sit at the center of the gardens. One edge of the gardens opens directly onto the Orankesee, a lake and nature reserve.

The original gate from 1926

These types of community garden complexes became popular in Germany, as well as in other European countries, in the late 1800s. In former East Germany, they are called simply “Kleingartenanlagen”, or small garden allotments. In former West Germany, they are called “Schrebergaerten”, named after Moritz Schreber, a psychologist who, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, encouraged parents to get children outside and into nature to improve their health. It is estimated that there are currently 1.5 million of these community gardens throughout Germany.

As I meandered through the streets of the gardens, I was struck by how much I take for granted – the access I have living here on the prairie to open, green spaces. During times of war, these garden plots often became a source of survival for city-dwelling families who otherwise had little access to fresh produce. In recent decades, it seems they have been viewed by some as being rather kitschy and old-fashioned, but in the aftermath of the pandemic-induced gardening revival, perhaps they will see a rise in popularity.

Translation: Weeds for Sale. Due to high demand, you pick only.

Oddly enough, I felt connected to these gardeners, having never met them. But in observing how they chose to tend their small gardens, how they expressed themselves through their land stewarding choices, it was like they were introducing themselves to me, gardener to gardener. And I was appreciative of their hospitality, toward me and toward the other creatures who visit their gardens.

I took many, many pictures that day, and so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites. May they bring you a sense of connectedness, joy and gratitude, as they do for me. Happy gardening!