A review of “Bicycling with Butterflies”

I’m a part of the Nature Book Club through the Dyck Arboretum. One of the books we read this last month was Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201 mile journey following the Monarch Migration by Sara Dykman.

I loved this book and we had a great discussion on it. A young woman rides her bike from the monarch refuges in Mexico, up through the United States and into Canada, and back to Mexico again. She follows the same path as the monarchs, gives school programs and talks to anyone who will listen about the importance of the Monarch, the importance of growing milkweed as their food, and supporting them any way that we can.

I’d like to share a few of the most poignant excerpts from this wonderful book.

Dykman writes about the value in riding a bike rather than driving because… “blurred by the pace of human velocity is a whole world crunching, crawling, wriggling, slithering, budding, branching, mating, living, dying, and migrating through a realm most of us look at but rarely see…Milkweed is the sole food source of the monarch caterpillar. There are more than 100 species of milkweed, seventy native to the U.S.”

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Photo by Brad Guhr.

“Most of us learn the basics of this transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly in grade school, but as adults, we stop truly looking, assuming there is nothing new to see. It is when I really look, with all my senses, at the feat of an egg becoming a butterfly that I find God”…“I can’t imagine the amount of ice cream I would need to eat to grow from 150 pounds to 300,000 pounds in just two weeks. We often overlook the grandness of small things.”

She also talks about being a native Kansan.

In my home state, once a galaxy of grass, the tallgrass prairie now barely clings to its soil. Once present from Canada through Texas, now just 1 percent of the historic tallgrass prairie remains, making it one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world…

Sara Dykman

She discusses the interconnectedness of all life forms and the impact of our actions.

“Each of the 2 million tagged monarchs forms a connection to humanity. Every milkweed planted in the 28,210 way stations connects a gardener to the earth. With action comes solution. With action comes connections – connections to a team that is growing bigger every year, and to a migration that is growing smaller but that we will not give up on… You can’t protect just one aspect of a traveler’s journey; to protect the traveler, you must protect their every step, every wing beat. Migrating animals need safe habitat from here to there, in the summer, spring, winter, and fall…

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in late August. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

“Current farming practices don’t leave room for native plants like they once did…Monarchs require milkweed. Without milkweed, there can be no monarchs. We have to change how we farm…There were once billions of monarchs.. now there are millions. There had been millions of Eskimo curlews, billions of passenger pigeons, and trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts–now there are zero…

I began to see the monarch as a symbol of compassion…we recognize the monarch’s struggle. We rally, fight, cry, get angry, and do something.

Sara Dykman

“We are told that manicured lawns are beautiful, that we must control nature in order to live with it, but that is a lie. Beauty is the give and take between plants and animals. Beauty is milkweed ripe with exploding purple blooms, feeding the shaggy maned tussock moths and bees and monarchs. How can we possibly judge so much life as unworthy?”

Landscaping with Plant Communities in Mind

This blog post is updated and republished. Previously published as “The Social Network for Plants” in September 2017.

One of the landscaping concepts I touched upon in my recent Matrix Planting class is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them. More importantly we begin to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

Remembering Our 2014 Prairie Garden Weddings

As Arboretum Rentals Manager I am privileged to work with our couples and families who choose this prairie garden as the location for their wedding celebrations. This year I have been particularly amazed at the ways in which each couple, with the help of talented friends and family members, dressed up the gardens and buildings to personalize their big day.




As we draw close to the end of a great year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, I wanted to thank all of the couples who made this prairie garden their own for a day.  I also want to highlight some of my favorite ideas and decoration themes from the past year.  May all of these couples and families have a wonderful holiday season, remembering the loveliness of their special day and making new memories during this wonderful time of year!

For those of you planning or dreaming of a prairie garden wedding in the future, find more ideas and photos from real weddings at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, visit our Facebook and Pinterest pages, or take advantage of the vast wedding planning resources available at weddingwire.com and mywedding.com.



Ashli & Tim • 5.24.14

  • Colors and theme: mint, peach/coral, white roses, baby’s breath, old books and sheet music, burlap
  • Decoration idea: Drapery hung with command strips along the full wall of windows in the Prairie Pavilion gave an elegant, at home feeling to the reception hall.
  • Favorite vendor: Sweet B. Revival out of Wichita did the flowers, including an arch hung from the willow branch at the ceremony site.  We Love This Vendor! So easy to work with and her arrangements are spot on!





Lena & Anthony • 5.31.14

  • Colors and theme: Lavender and white with orange accents, lavender, baby’s breath, gaillardia, lace and lavender tulle
  • Decoration idea: Hang string lights across the center of the ceiling to create a “canopy” effect and add a little drama to the reception hall.

 May31.2014 Lena&Anthony (12) Adjusted

May31.2014 Lena&Anthony (8) Adjusted



Andrea & Matthew • 6.7.14

  • Colors and theme: Royal blue, white and lavender, floating candles in mason jars with submerged flowers
  • Decoration idea: Throw lavender buds instead of rice or birdseed. It fits perfectly with the prairie garden setting and is an organic material that requires no clean-up.




Erika & Joe • 6.14.14

  • Colors and theme: Blue, green and cream, “Love Birds” theme
  • Decoration idea: This couple really chose and theme and stuck with it – birds as the cake topper, birdcage for collecting cards, feathers in the decorations and birds nests in the centerpiece displays.
  • Favorite vendor again: Sweet B. Revival!!


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Christa & Ryan • 8.16.14

  • Colors and theme: Black, white with pink accents, rustic, aged-wood accents
  • Decoration idea: To create an altar at the outdoor ceremony site, this couple made a platform from old pallet wood and placed potted plants on pedestals on either side of the platform.  In addition, they used a pallet for a sign at the entrance to the seating area to direct guests.
  • Highlight: This couple was also engaged at the arboretum on the previous Christmas Eve! They marked the proposal site with a sign to share their story with guests.






Lindsay & Ryan • 9.20.14

  • Colors and theme: Eclectic fall color theme using natural elements including coffee, kernel corn, rust and orange colored berries with foliage
  • Decoration idea: Have an artistic friend paint an old, unwanted headboard for signage
  • Highlight: If you have a gifted carpenter in the family, like the father of this groom, homemade garden benches to be sold or given away as gifts really add a fall tone to the outdoor ceremony seating


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Nicole & Daniel • 11.1.14

  • Colors and theme: Bright orange, blue, yellow, rust; burlap and iconic Kansas accents of yarrow, wheat and milo
  • Decoration idea: We saw mason jars all year long, but they fit ESPECIALLY well with this fall wedding decoration theme, wrapped in burlap and blue raffia and filled with wheat, milo and some pops of yellow from purchased flowers. GREAT DIY centerpieces!




Cheers to a wonderful new year of weddings in 2015!


Holiday Greetings from the staff at Dyck Arboretum!

Holiday Greetings from Brad, Brett, Janelle and Scott

2014 has been good to us here at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.  As we take a rest from our labors over our winter break (Holiday Hours: the grounds are always open from dawn until dusk – the Visitor Center is closed December 24 to January 4), we sincerely wish for all of our members, supporters and visitors happiness, health and quality time with family and friends in all of your festivities.  And may you all have full and vibrant native plant gardens in the New Year!

Arb Staff Holiday 2014

Photo by Larry Bartel