Gardens of France: Monet at Giverny

The famous painter Claude Monet transformed his acreage in Giverny into his own private paradise. It is the complete opposite of the other gardens we have discussed in this series. Gone are trimmed topiaries and carefully pruned perennials, and there are no great lawns on which to have military marches. Instead it is naturalistic, flowing, and whimsical. With it’s famous lily pond and Japanese bridge, we felt as if we were walking right into a famous painting! We saw some great landscaping principles here that you can apply to your own landscape, even if you don’t have an artist’s eye for design.

This lily pond was the subject of hundreds of paintings by Monet. I can see why he never tired of looking at it!

An Artist’s Garden

Monet was a preimminent painter of impressionism, a style placing emphasis on color, movement and light rather than intricate detail. Impressionist painters used broad strokes of color, and paintings in this style can seem blurry or unfinished. Understanding the impressionist style of painting helped me appreciate the garden design as well. The beds are tightly packed and verge on overgrown, and fine details are mostly lost, but the colors and textures shine through the chaos. Each area transitioned effortlessly into the next as we walked, flowing and natural. The garden was very much like an impressionist composition: seen too closely, it seems unintelligible but step back to see the whole and you are rewarded with a beautiful view!

Color Story

The garden of an artist would, of course, include a careful study of color, and Monet’s estate does not disappoint. Each densely planted row clearly had a plan. Yellows and whites are planted next to an entire row of blues and purples, which visually melt into burgundies and reds. Around every corner were fascinating flower species in row upon row, but always in monochrome or a two color maximum. Consequently, the busy landscape appeared organized and very relaxing.

Wildness Contained

Dozens of narrow paths lead you through the estates gardens. At times you can scarcely see around the corner or over the hedge. With no idea where we were headed, we just enjoyed the walk and didn’t worry about what’s next. Perhaps that the was the artists plan all along! It can feel like a wild place but in fact, from an aerial view, the estate is laid out in neat rows and squares. The staff keep the paths well maintained and very tidy. This helps to carefully frame all that wildness, giving viewers an easier time viewing, interpreting, and enjoying the space. As the garden of an artist, it makes sense to strive for visual balance. This principle of good planning and framing is one we encourage in all of our landscaping classes.

Japanese Influences

Claude Monet devant le bassin aux nymphéas de Giverny
(Monet in front of the water lily pond)

Monet was a collector of Japanese prints, which are on still on display in his home today. His love for this art form inspired him to include classic Japanese elements in his garden. Water lilies are an important motif in Asian art, as well as arched bridges. Accordingly, Monet renovated his countryside property to include these elements, which have become the most recognized subjects of his work. Japanese woodblock art is known for clean lines and flat, unshaded color. Monet mixing Japanese stylistic elements into his garden is a great reminder for us all: don’t shy away from trying new garden styles you like, as great design can be made from unexpected combonations!

Monet’s garden was a much needed break from all the formal, stuffy gardens of French nobility. It was a family estate, and the place felt much more loved and lived in. The artist’s influence was very much still present on the grounds in its naturalistic style and rambling paths. I am reminded that great garden design should be a reflection of your personal style, and can inspire great art…or vice versa!

Celebrating and Protecting our Native Birds

In the late 19th century, the rising fashion of feather plumes on hats and an appetite for wild game had taken a steep toll on native bird populations in the United States. By 1900 more than fifty North American bird species were on the brink of extinction, among them the Great Egret. 

Great Egret at the Dyck Arboretum in March of 2022. Photo by Gerald Leinbach.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Alarmed, citizens joined with scientists and lawmakers to take action to protect birds. Among them were Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway, who initiated a boycott of feathered hats, and ornithologist Frank Chapman, who proposed counting birds on Christmas Day. Thus began the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), marking the beginning of the longest running citizen science project in U.S. history. 

Christmas Bird Count in Connecticut

From that first count day in 1900, growing numbers across the country joined in. Among them were the Ruth Sisters and Dwight Platt, who initiated the Halstead-Newton (KS) CBC in 1949. Like their counterparts across the continent, local birders have, for the past 75 years, fanned out across local rural and urban landscapes each Christmas season, to count and record birds that are seen and heard. Their reports, combined with CBC reports from across the nation, have contributed to a rich and growing database of information – information that helps us understand the status of North American birds.

Harris’ Sparrow at Dyck Arboretum in March of 2023. Photo by Dick Zerger.

Declining Native Bird Populations

Despite century-old laws that protect native birds, in 2019, the first-ever comprehensive assessment of net population changes in the U.S. and Canada showed staggering across-the-board declines. All told, the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding birds in every biome – that amounts to 1 in 4 birds lost. Grasslands showed the steepest declines of all. Habitat loss is a major reason for these losses in the 20th century.  

2.9 Billion birds gone. Graphic by Jillian Ditner.

Making a Difference for Native Birds

Yet, not all the news out of this assessment is dire. Some groups of birds are doing well, and for good reason—governments, societies and citizens have invested in saving them. Wetlands conservation efforts and dedicated conservation funding like the Duck Stamp have paid off with healthy waterfowl populations. Raptors benefited from conservation policies, like Endangered Species legislation and the banning of harmful pesticides such as DDT. The gains among game birds like the Wild Turkey are due to dedicated conservation funding and efforts of hunting groups. People can bring back our birds! 


Want to know how YOU can help save native birds? Here are seven simple steps!

  1. Make windows safer, night and day. Up to a billion birds die each year colliding into windows. Screens, lines, or films break reflectivity during the day, and turning off lights at night during migration prevents birds from getting disoriented. 
  2. Keep cats indoors and work to reduce feral cat populations. Up to 2.6 billion birds are killed annually by cats, the #1 human-caused reason for loss of birds aside from habitat loss.
  3. Reduce lawn and plant natives. Replacing 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. with native plants offers huge opportunities to provide food, shelter and nesting areas that sustain birds.
  4. Avoid Pesticides. Pesticides can be toxic to birds directly, or contaminate the seeds and insects they eat. Good for you and the birds!
  5. Drink coffee that is good for the birds. Shade-grown coffee preserves forest canopy in tropical and subtropical regions of the world where migratory birds like orioles survive in winter. 
  6. Protect our planet from plastic. Waste plastic pollutes our oceans, harming sea-going birds. By reducing use of plastics, avoiding single-use plastics, and recycling, you are protecting our birds. 
  7. Become a community scientist! Watch birds and share what you see. Hundreds of thousands of people are reporting what they are seeing in backyards, neighborhoods, and natural places around the world. Join a project such as eBirdProject FeederWatchChristmas Bird Count, or the Breeding Bird Survey. Your contributions will provide valuable information to show where birds are thriving—and where they need our help. 

Have a happy holiday season with the birds! And be sure to visit the Kauffman Museum’s special travelling exhibit A Day with the Birds: Community Science and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, on display January through August 2024.

Northern Cardinal at Dyck Arboretum in February of 2015. Photo by Dave Osborne.


Learning About Leaves

Every year I learn more and more about how important leaves are for the ecosystem. We have several blogs about leaves already, (including Scott’s best management practices and my sustainable leaf-raking tips) but this information often needs updating and augmenting. The more we know, the better we can do! And that applies to us too here at Dyck Arboretum. Here are some new ideas I am implementing around the grounds to a-leave-iate our leaf problems.

My dog Rosie loves leaves, and so do I! Raking (and playing in) leaf piles was a staple activity of my childhood that I still enjoy with my family today.

Leave them when you can…

I know it is not always possible, but the easiest and best practice is leave leaves were they fall. Here at the Arboretum we let leaves freely accumulate in hedgerows, shrub borders, and garden beds, even though it might not look traditionally ‘tidy’. Many insects use leaf litter for shelter and breeding, and insects are the linchpin to our ecosystem! As E.O. Wilson said, they are the little things that run the world. Their populations are in serious decline across many species, especially the leaf-loving firefly.

Allowing leaf litter to stay undisturbed through fall and winter is an easy way to improve insect habitat. While you might be worried about all those ‘bugs’ snoozing in your landscape, don’t be. Just remember to keep the leaf layer only a few inches thick and not piled high directly up against the foundations of your home.

Fall colors on the west side of the Arboretum. Stunning, but short lived! Soon these leaves will be swirling around the sidewalks and piling up on paths.

Don’t Shred

A light sprinkling of leaves will not harm your lawn, but they can cause damage when too thick, matted, and wet over the winter, so you may have to remove them. Many folks rush to the mower and shredder for this task. We have a large mulching mower that I once happily raced across all the Arboretum lawns with.

BUT – I’ve learned now that many insects have already laid eggs or cozied up for dormancy in these leaves. So shredding likely kills all those beautiful and beneficial insects we are hoping to attract. I am attempting a 60/40 rule this year: remove the bulk of the leaves by raking, shoveling, or blowing, and only mow that last forty percent in particularly important/sensitive lawn area. For an acreage this large it is impractical to do much by hand, but I am hoping my small effort will make a positive difference for the insects that call the Arboretum home.

Thanks to volunteers we are able to rake and redistribute some leaves. Without their help, much more would have to be shred with a mower to save time.


After the wonderful workout of raking leaves, it is time to put them…where? If you have a compost pile, that’s a great start. Or layer them over your vegetable garden. Pile them under cedar trees or in weedy spots you want to smother.

Dyck Arboretum is not accepting community leaf donations this year as our leaf house is deconstructed at the moment, but many cities (including Hesston) have a free drop off leaf compost area for their citizens. For extra sustainability, skip the plastic bags and move your leaves loose with just a tarp and a truck bed. If you must use bags, don’t tie them up so they can be easily dumped and reused next year when the leaves fall again.

Our parking lots accumulate leaves quickly, and they begin to compost as they pile up in the curb. We use a grain shovel to scoop them out, rake them up, and toss them around the trees and shrubs as good mulch and fertilizer.

This time of year I see piles and piles of bagged leaves on the curbs of our neighborhoods and cities. We can certainly do better now that we know what a gold mine of habitat and nutrients these leaves really are. So get out there and jump in those leaves, spend a day in the fall sunshine, and do your part to help those “little things” keep running the world!

Gardens of France: Versailles

Another post in my series on some of the gardens I visited while in France, today we are talking about the famous gardens of Versailles. At one time the palace and grounds were the symbol of a nation: wealthy, powerful, and not to be trifled with. The gardens are dizzying in their scope and meticulously manicured. It is so large, in fact, we rented a golf cart on our visit and still barely covered a fraction of the grounds. While times and tastes have changed, many of the common horticultural practices of that by-gone era are still with us in modern times. But should they be?

A Famous Palace

The Hall of Mirrors offers a spectacular view of the gardens. The thousand reflections behind you only amplify the effect. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Versailles palace started as a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIII in the early 1600s, but grew exponentially under his son, Louis XIV. The palace and gardens expanded and gained their grandeur under his reign. Known for his stylish flare and a love of luxury, he spared no expense. He hired famous landscape architects and kept a close eye on every detail. But why is a garden important to a king?

Just a sliver of the palace is seen here. With 2,300 rooms it is very difficult to try to capture the whole palace in one frame, so I gave up!

A Garden’s Purpose

More than just a pretty place to take a walk, the gardens were an expression of culture, national pride, and the absolute power of the king. Politically, it is savvy to have an impossibly huge and cushy estate to share with your courtiers, to ensure they can never dream of turning on you. And to have spacious and glittering gardens such as these might have been a jab at Italy, France’s direct competitor for all things culture and luxury. The gardens are not only designed with military symbolism, but also with real strategic overlooks. A large open plane with view from above is a strong position, metaphorically and literally. While on his land, nothing escapes the eye of the king!


Topiaries (700 in total!) shorn into unnatural geometric shapes. Hedges squared off at right angles. Lawns carved into patterns that look like a green tapestry from above. This style is very much about control. A show of man’s power over nature, and the ability to tame wilderness into our idea of aesthetically pleasing order. There is even an Orangerie at Versailles where hundreds of tropical trees (oranges, olive, palm, pomegranates, etc.) are housed, moved in or out depending upon conducive weather. And while this may seem like an overdone, classical style from the past, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Modern horticulture in neighborhoods and parks still priorities tidy, unnatural shapes, short cropped lawns, and a total replacement of the natural landscape. We continue to import exotic plants that take a painstaking amount of work to keep alive. It seems we still like the feeling of control.

Let’s Talk Lawn

Lawn was a relatively new fad of that time period. Short-cropped expanses of grass were showing up at all the fashionable chateaus and manor houses of northern Europe. Lawns of the period were maintained either with sheep, or a small army of servants and gardeners. To have a lawn meant you also had money and status. The lawns of Versailles are vast and stunning, but interestingly they were not weed free. Even now, the gardens of Versailles have clover, dandelions, and various other broadleaf intruders – so go easy on yourself! True monoculture is so unnatural and hard to achieve that even the most famous garden in the world can’t manage it.

What practical lessons can we learn from Versailles?

  • Purpose. Are you trying to stave off a coup or intimidate a foreign diplomat? Not likely. But how about enhance curb appeal, deal with poor drainage, or create pollinator habitat? Identifying your purpose helps you make wise design choices.
  • Relax. Our desire to control every leaf of every plant is a thing of the past and totally at odds with nature. But we know now how to design aesthetically pleasing landscapes that work with nature instead of against it, meaning less work and more enjoyment.
  • Traditional ≠ Beautiful. Americans would do well to stop aiming for that impossible lawn standard set by aristocratic Europe (saving money and pollution along the way), and leave these outdated landscape principles behind as we move toward more sustainable practices.

All that said, of course the gardens of Versailles are a wonderful place to visit. The fountains, the mazes, the statues, it’s a feast for the eyes! And though I don’t think these horticultural principles should be emulated today, we can certainly enjoy their amazing historical restoration and learn from these innovative designs of the past.

The Importance of Diversifying Landscapes

When you look at a virgin prairie (one that has never been tilled), you quickly discover a tremendous diversity of plants. Each square foot has many different species vying for sunlight, moisture, and space. Species change throughout the prairie as well from high to low, wet to dry, sun to shade, and vary even with soils. This diversity contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of the prairie landscape.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017. Photo by Brad Guhr.

One of the keys to successfully creating a prairie garden is including a diversity of plants suited to your site. Time of bloom and aesthetics are often considered first, but including variety is an essential element in the process too. It’s also important to think about diversifying trees and shrubs. Let’s look at some reasons why diversifying our home landscapes to include more species is so relevant.    

A Diverse Landscape is a Resilient Landscape

While each landscape is different, they all face an array of environmental pressures, such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases. A diverse landscape is more adaptable and resilient, able to endure these environmental hazards.  We have all seen shelter belts and monocultures decimated by drought, pests or disease-leaving large holes in the landscape.  If you think about it, single species or similar species landscapes are vulnerable to eradication in ways that diverse landscapes are not. 

A Diverse Landscape Attracts Diverse Wildlife

Building season long blooms benefits wildlife. Plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom mimics the prairie ecosystem. If you watch any prairie throughout the year, there are always a new set of plants blooming every few weeks throughout the growing season. Beyond building resilience, a diversity of plants attracts a diversity of pollinators and wildlife allowing them to complete their lifecycles. This is so crucial for their survival.  Patchwork prairies can serve as harbors, offering food and shelter to a broad range of wildlife. 

Butterflyweed with pale purple coneflowers and common milkweed

A Diverse Landscape is Visually Interesting

As I said earlier, often our first consideration when choosing plants is aesthetics or ornamental characteristics. I don’t want to downplay this step in the process, but I do want to encourage you to try many different types of plant species. By varying plant species, you provide visual interest, which adds character to your landscape. Some of the most inviting spaces have diverse colors, shapes, blooms, textures, layers, and heights of plants.   

A Diverse Landscape is a Dynamic Plant Community

A diverse plant palette suited for your site can look formal, but it generally requires more effort on our part to keep it looking kempt. However, an informal planting can be just as attractive. It depends on your maintenance style and preference. No matter how you want your landscape to look over time, we must prioritize the careful selection and planting of diverse prairie species.

It can’t be overstated – diversifying landscapes in the urban setting is so important. Diversity in the plants you include in your landscape attracts diversity to your landscape. This thoughtful approach to design not only enhances the beauty of our gardens but also strengthens their resilience in the face of environmental challenges.  It also promotes sustainability, conservation of natural resources, and enriches our experiences with nature.