Disturbance

While walking on the island recently, I saw a change in the vegetation this year. During the renovation we brought in new soil, drove around, made new ruts, and stirred up the seed bank below. This disturbance altered the landscape enormously, and it will take years to transform back to what it was, if ever.

Annuals

Partridge pea, not usually found on the island, is colonizing happily there after our renovation.

The first thing I noticed is how many more annual plant species there are on the island. Some are weeds – like velvet leaf, Abutilon therophrasti – and some are native species, though they may be unwelcome spreaders, like annual sunflower. These either arrived with the new soil, or were churned up to the surface while driving with heavy equipment. When annuals appear suddenly in a bare patch of an otherwise mature and established prairie, with a little help they will disappear just as quickly. We cut the seed heads off to stop them from returning next year, and soon they will be outcompeted by the perennials and grasses.

But I do hope some annuals stick around! Partridge pea, a favorite of mine and host to Sulphur butterflies, has appeared on the island once again, and I’d like to see more of it seed out. This plant loves tough, disturbed areas, so it is no surprise it showed up here.

New Animal Activity

Pointed stump left by a beaver on our island

We have noticed our aspen trees falling one by one, and see the sharp points of their chiseled trunks. We have a beaver on our island! While we have never caught sight of it, it is obviously enjoying our grounds immensely. With the aspens mostly gone from the center of the island, the views have changed. Visibility is better to the east and it is sunnier in the sitting area.

Beavers are shapers of entire ecosystems, and they are integral to rivers and streams. And while I love the idea of having a beaver around, our pond is in fact not a natural water way, and too many of our memorial trees are at risk from our industrious friend. But he sure has caused his share of disturbance around here! The shrubs growing beneath the aspens appreciate the increased sunlight, I am sure. We successfully lived-trapped one of the two beavers, and relocated it to a new pond with the permission of the property owner.

It was no easy task, but we relocated this beaver to a stream that needs its services more than our own.

Who Are You?

There have even been a few perennials popping up that are new to me. These might have been in the soil for years, but sprouting only when given open soil and right conditions. One of these is narrow leaf golden aster. A lovely little plant making its debut right along the edge of the gravel path. There is also a large, very conspicuous patch of Rudbeckia subtomentosa that I didn’t know we had on the grounds. Just when I think I have seen every inch of our grounds, it is nice to be surprised by these new flower faces!

Rudbeckia subtomentosa, also known as sweet henry or sweet coneflower. Several large clumps are just finished blooming on the edges of the island.
Heterotheca stenophylla, narrow leaf golden aster, growing happily on the rocky edges of the island path.

Please DO Disturb

Prairies, even tiny ones on the island or in our residential gardens, are meant to change. Nothing is static in nature, and when we humans want it all to stay orderly, predictable and exactly the same year after year, we are playing a losing game. It’s much better to embrace the changes in our gardens and landscapes, and even encourage them.

Some perennials will live fifty years, while others may only live five. Everything has its expected lifespan, so when those bare spots appear in your garden, consider throwing out some native annual seed like Coreopsis tinctoria or partridge pea. These will fill the gap, provide lovely blooms, then fade away once your other plants cover the soil. After all, prairie landscapes evolved to be disturbed, either by fire, flood, or the thundering of bison hooves. Each of these creates open soil for new plants to grow and compete with the existing grasses and forbs.

Are you looking to create a dynamic, ever-changing prairie habitat of your own? Visit FloraKansas Native Plant Days next week and ask staff what native plants will work best in your landscape.

Horticulture and Grounds Management Internship

Summer 2022 marks our first official Horticulture and Grounds Management Internship. While we often have student employees working and learning on our grounds, I saw a need for a more formal arrangement. Something to attract college students in the horticulture or biology field. Something that would provide them with specific learning metrics so their time here could lead right into a job in the green industry. I also hoped for students who wanted to be here, not just had to be here for a paycheck. To get through a day in this tough job, you have to really love the outdoors! Work doesn’t feel like work if you are fascinated by bird calls, insect identification, and scat.

We have had interns in the past, but never through an official program of our own. Most of our interns came from universities that had an experiential learning requirement they needed to fulfill, or they needed volunteer hours or simply wanted to know more about this potential career. These ambitious folks approached us, and largely designed their own goals while here. Here are just a few of them:

A Unique Place, Unique Opportunity

In dreaming up this position, I thought about what I wish I had known before I was hired, and the skills I have learned along the way. These are the hands-on experiences I wanted to build into this internship. This includes proper tree trimming and felling, small engine basics and mower maintenance, planting and mulching, sustainable chemical use, sound greenhouse practices and so on. While there are lots of places to learn basic landscape care, our methods here at the Arboretum are different: we are ecosystem and sustainability focused. We use few chemicals, and always design gardens with a balance between aesthetics and function for wildlife.

Our Intern: Alex

Thanks to our creative staff, supportive board, and donors who made payment possible, the Dyck Arboretum HGM Internship was born! We had several applicants, but ultimately chose Alex Mendoza as the best fit this year.

Hello everyone!  My name is Alex Mendoza, and I am the 2022 Summer Horticulture and Grounds Management Intern at the Dyke Arboretum!  I am originally from a small town in Colorado called Parachute.  I have always enjoyed learning about nature, and I am excited to learn more about prairies as I have spent my whole life in the mountains.  

Besides being outdoors, I enjoy reading and trying new food.  A good taco is always appreciated.  I will be a sophomore at Bethel College this fall.  I am studying Biology, with a minor in English.  Feel free to stop and chat with me about any of these subjects if you see me working at the arboretum! 

Alex getting ready to do some string trimming!

Alex has been an incredible asset to the Arboretum this summer. And on a personal note, after a very tumultuous and busy season for me, it has been a dream come true to work with Alex and hand off some day to day tasks. She is a diligent waterer, a wizard with a shovel, and an eager learner. I am already dreading the day she will leave us!

We are already looking forward to next summer and seeing what wonderful student will come to us next. If someone you know would be a good fit for our internship program, please share this post with them and direct them to our internship page. The application season for 2023 will open in January. If you are passionate about hands-on education and the future of sustainable horticulture, consider donating to our next internship season. Contact our office for details or email arboretum@hesston.edu

Flower Form and Function

Who doesn’t love a perfectly round peony or a deep red rose? While humans are mostly concerned with the aesthetic qualities of flowers, that’s only half the story. The shape, size and color of a flower are less about fashion and more about function, changing over millions of years to be recognized and pollinated by certain methods. Understanding a bit about flower form can help you shop smart when you are trying to create pollinator friendly landscaping.

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Flowers are complicated and variable structures. Knowing a bit about them ensures you are planting flowers that actually fit with our native pollinators. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Coevolution

Coevolution is the concept that living things in close proximity to each other affect the characteristics they develop over time. For instance, the length of moth and bee tongues and the length of some tube-shaped flowers in their geographic area are closely related; as one grows or shrinks over thousands of years, so does the other since their positive interactions impact what traits are passed to the next generation. Our prairie plants in the midwest are no different. Liatris, compass plants, sunflowers and grasses all have complex, dependent relationships with native insects and animals. Flowering plants are still changing today, sometimes naturally and other times with a little push by humans.

Keeping Your Form

Flower form often determines its function in the environment. Each different flower shape is related to its pollinator mechanism. As mentioned above, tube flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds and long-tongued insects because their mouth physiology matches the shape. With hundreds of variations in shape and arrangement, you can spend years studying them all! As new horticultural varieties of native plants are introduced into the garden center, it is important to know what the original form and function of the flower was to be sure it is still serving that purpose even after hybridization.

Breeders hope to make more native plants commercially accessible to the public and to create reliable performers in the garden. But sometimes the changes they make (either through seedling selection or via hybridization) can be detrimental to flower form or leaf palatability, which decreases its usefulness in the ecosystem.

There are many patented varieties of Eupatorium dubium that focus on curtailing the height of the plant, which at a gangly six feet is unsuitable for most garden spaces. Anecdotally, we have found that pollinators flock just as much to the dwarf varieties like “Little Joe” as to the wild type, since the flower shape and color has not changed significantly between the types.

Hybridization

In plants, natural hybridization leads to new characteristics and creates genetic diversity. Humans can hybridize plants by transferring pollen from a plant of interest (say, an especially delicious tomato) with another plant of interest (perhaps a tomato with exceptional vigor). The seeds produced from that cross would be a new, genetically unique plant that hopefully has both of the aforementioned traits. This is not new, and has been happening since Gregor Mendel’s time!

Man-made crosses can lead to higher yields or increased drought tolerance, but they also have their downsides. Cultivars (cultivated varieties) can solve many tricky garden problems but sometimes have decreased ecosystem functionality. Try to shop for plants closely resembling their parent plant in the important categories: flower shape, color, and leaf color. Early research suggests that selections with increased drought tolerance, plant height, and other factors aren’t as influential to pollinators as the flower and leaf changes.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting orange flowers on strong stems. While we all love these colorful Echinacea varieties, and pollinators seem to as well, they are not nearly as long lived as the less vibrant native species. We don’t know yet how the color change affects the foraging behavior of our native insects, so more research is needed. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How to keep it all straight?

You don’t have to be a botany expert to make good choices. When buying some of the commercially available cultivars/varieties/hybrids, simply try to choose ones closest to their wild parent in appearance. If the flowers are doubled, or a wildly different color than is naturally occurring, that should be a red flag. We can all keep educating ourselves about the pros and cons of cultivars while still enjoying manageable and well-planned native gardens. Planting native trees, shrubs and perennials in your landscape increases the genetic diversity and ecosystem function of your neighborhood. It is worth the extra work, and learning along the way will make the native garden experience even more rewarding!

Spring Ephemerals: Don’t wait!

Because of the tendency for some spring ephemerals to go dormant in hot weather, there are a handful of plants we only offer at the spring Florakansas event. Shooting star, liverleaf, and jack-in-the-pulpit are all beautiful woodland species and that show off in spring then disappear for the rest of the year. If you wait until fall to buy these beauties, you likely won’t find them on our greenhouse benches! Though Florakansas is over, we still have some of these plants in stock, and I will be happy to chat with you via email if you’d like to purchase them.

Hepatica americana

Hepatica blooms very early in spring, sometimes even through the snow.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as liverleaf, this petite plant puts on small star shaped flowers and is very hardy. Great in moist to medium-dry shade, it will perform in the garden without any fuss. The flowers can be white, or even a light blue or pink at times. Blooms close up at night and open on rainy days, a charming movement in the early spring garden. The leaves hug the ground at only 2-3″ tall, so it fits well near edging or walkways.

Dodecatheon media

Shooting star comes in pink and white. Whichever color you choose, they are sure to delight as they spring up in April on leafless stems. With a flower unlike any other, this native oddity is a conversation starter and always a welcome harbinger of warmer days to come. Plant in a part shady spot where the soil won’t become waterlogged, as they may rot. Once finished blooming in May, the plant disappears completely only to surprise you again next spring!

Arisaema triphyllum

Photo by Fanmartin via Wikimedia Commons
Native range of A. triyphyllum according to the USDA plants database

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a fascinating plant that looks more like it belongs in the tropics than in Kansas. Native to eastern Kansas and much of the mid to upper east coast, this plant spreads slowly underground to form lush colonies of lobed leaves and spathe blooms. The blooms are green externally, but often turn burgundy red inside, eventually giving way to interesting red fruits in fall. But take care, though they may look delicious, these fruits are not edible!

Other spring ephemerals that go dormant during summer and are only offered in spring are Mertensia virginica (bluebells) and Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple). Though Florakansas has ended and the shopping hours are over, if you still need a few plants please email arboretum@hesston.edu to reach a staff member and we will be happy to help.

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!

All About Asters

Spring hasn’t even started and I am already looking forward to fall. Why? Asters. They are hardy, long-blooming, and attract tons of pollinators. Planning ahead and planting asters now will ensure you have lots of color through October and even into November. If not now, then by the time they are blooming and you remember how much you like them… it will be too late!

There are lots of great asters available at our biannual Florakansas fundraisers. Sun-loving, shade-tolerant, and a myriad of colors to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide on a variety. Check out Scott’s previous blog on asters to learn about a great variety of native asters. Here I will cover only those not included in that blog, as well as new varieties available at our upcoming FloraKansas event.

Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady In Black’

‘Lady In Black’ is quite showy with dark foliage and masses of bright flowers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Calico aster is a lesser known species, but has a lot of garden potential. The ‘Lady in Black’ variety has dark foliage and white to blush colored flowers with pink centers. It looks great planted in masses, paired with sturdy grasses around it for support like Panicum ‘Northwind’ or ‘Purple Tears’. Its arching stems are graceful, and add a lot of energy and movement to a prairie garden or meadow planting.

Aster sericeus

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Aster sericeus has a light purple flower, slightly cupped foliage and wire stems. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By: peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my personal favorites, it is often overlooked for flashier species. Silky aster is diminutive but tough as nails, and its wiry stems offer nice contrast to its light green, hairy leaves. It has a silver tint to it, especially from a distance, so it adds a wonderful cool tone to any hot, sunny place in the garden. It has a somewhat prostrate habit, so it benefits from sturdy plants around it for support. I’d pair this with Schizachyrium ‘Jazz’ or even some old fashioned lambs ear as both would bring out the blueish-silver tone of the foliage.

Silky aster is native throughout the Flint Hills and mixed grass prairie areas.
Map from USDA plants data base.

Aster novae-angliae ‘Grape Crush’

New England asters are known for their late blooms and towering height. As much as they are loved by pollinators, gardeners have come to curse them for becoming too tall and floppy. ‘Grape Crush’ is a shorter, denser variety. It keeps a much tidier habit and has a deep purple color. We will also have ‘Purple Dome’ New England type, which is very similar but perhaps with a slightly earlier bloom time. We are excited to try planting some ‘Grape Crush’ around our grounds this season!

Also available this spring…

  • Aster nova-belgii ‘Anton Kippenberg’ (a New York type that doesn’t flop, blue flowers in early fall)
  • Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ (less than 6″ tall, full sun/dry soil, toughest plant around)
  • Aster leavis ‘Bluebird’ (full sun, tall and floriferous!)
  • Aster divaracatus (white flowers, good in shade)
  • Aster cordifolus (white to bluish flowers, taller than A. divaricatus, good in dry shade)
  • Aster dumosus ‘Woods Blue’ and ‘Woods Purple’ (very short and compact)

Name Change

Note that many aster species have formally changed their taxonomic name to Symphyotrichum. Due to modern research and genetic study, botanists have found that not all asters belong in the same group, so Symphyotrichum is a new genus name that will help us better understand this huge family of plants. In our native plant guide you will find this name change already in action.

The New Kansas

Compared to the average human lifespan, Kansas is old. 160 years old to be exact. But before it was a state, it was just one unbounded part of a vast Great Plains grassland landscape. It was home to millions of bison, nomadic and agrarian Indigenous people, and lots of grass. Before European settlement in this area, Kansas was dominated by grasses. Woody species had little chance of surviving the dry weather patterns and frequent fires. But times have changed. Cities, towns and homesteads come with lots of tree planting and a cessation of the much needed fires that keep the grasslands grassy. Our modern neighborhoods don’t resemble these ancient landscapes. So how can we truly plant native species if much of our garden space doesn’t have prairie conditions anymore?

View from the observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

Understand Your Microclimate

Microclimate is all about the conditions in a very specific area. A microclimate might include your entire yard, or just that one spot on the side of your house. Factors like windbreaks, ambient heat from foundations, or compacted soil from foot traffic mean that your garden spot is completely unique. You may have built-in irrigation, or get extra run-off from your neighbor’s roof, or have a leaky water faucet that saturates the soil around your garden. All this adds up to a very different set of conditions from the historically treeless, windy, dry prairies of early Kansas. Your ‘prairie garden’ might not be right for all true prairie plants.

This graphic is from the great guide, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook available from Island Press. In the book it is used to show the prairie continuum as it moves from prairie to oak savannah habitats. I like to use it as an artistic illustration of time as well. Each box can represent our state at a different time period: at the top is a relatively treeless Kansas with mostly open grassland. In the middle we see early settlement and homesteading with trees planted and less fires, and at the bottom is a depiction of our state today with much more tree cover in our cities, towns, and cleared pasturelands.

Native vs Near Native

Hearing your yard isn’t compatible with plants native to your county or region is a real bummer. But perhaps your garden is just perfect for, say, Ozark native plants. In a medium-to-dry shaded yard with root competition from mature trees, the forest flowers of the Ozarks will perform much better than prairie plants, even though they are not native to your county. Considering how species have shifted to and fro over millennia, these neighboring species are still water-wise and beneficial for wildlife. Maybe your yard is sandy/rockier than expected. Try far western Kansas or Colorado species. Plants in that region love extremely fast drainage and dry conditions. Unless you are a professional conservationist intentionally restoring wild area as closely as possible to its original species population, it doesn’t pay to be too pedantic in the garden.

Packera obovata is native to eastern Kansas, but is more commonly found in the open woods of Missouri and Arkansas.   

Crank up the Chainsaw

If you want to plant prairie species, you need open space and sun. Cutting down trees can make this a reality! It sounds scary, but removing trees from your yard is okay. We have been led to believe, via international tree planting campaigns, that all trees are sacred. But that’s not the case in our area. We should absolutely preserve heavily forested ecosystems that host wildlife dependent on trees. Think: Congo Basin, Amazon, Taiga, etc. But the Great Plains grass-dominated ecosystem functions best with fewer trees.

Our wildlife thrives in a relatively tree-less environment. If you have non-native, unnecessary trees in your yard, consider removing them to create more sunny space for your prairie perennials. Down with invasive ornamental pears and Siberian elms. Yes, even some native Eastern red cedars should be ousted. Unchecked, they are a huge problem for prairies. If this seems too extreme, you can simply limb up your trees to allow more light through.

Good land stewardship sometimes means taking down trees. If those trees are invasive species, diseased, or taking up space where native prairie plants could be thriving, then down they go!

The Right Plants for the Right Place

Folks often ask why we don’t only offer Kansas natives. They also ask why we sell plants with special horticultural varieties as well as the straight native species. Because most of our customers are homeowners aiming to feed birds and provide pollinator habitat, we offer options that will perform well in the reality of residential environments. This might mean their yard isn’t right for what is truly native to a 50 mile radius. Or perhaps the space is better suited to less aggressive, taller/shorter, or seedless horticultural variety that fits their garden dimensions.

We hope to help everyone, regardless of their garden situation, to find beneficial plants that create habitat and bring joy. Offering plants to the whole plant-loving spectrum, from the newcomer planting their first wildflower to the experienced native plant purist looking for local eco-types, we are here to educate and assist.

Little Bluestem Varieties

Schizachyrium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is the official state grass of Kansas. And for good reason! It is found in every county of Kansas, produces an incredible amount of biomass per acre, and is host to nine species of skipper butterflies. No fertilizer or fuss required, it will grow well in harsh conditions and poor soil. Little bluestem is a great grass to add to your landscape if you want something ecologically beneficial, water-wise, and colorful.

Variety vs Species

Because it is such an impressive plant, little bluestem has gotten a lot of attention from the horticultural industry. Professional breeders have selected and cultivated many new varieties. Humans have been selecting and breeding desirable traits into plants for thousands of years, so we are getting quite good at it by now. Customers looking to buy little bluestem have a lot of options to choose from in terms of height, habit, and color palette. While they are all still S. scoparium, they all offer something different that might benefit a certain landscape use. Below is a comparison of several options and their traits to help you decide.

Little bluestem is known for its fine foliage and multitude of colors.

S. scoparium

The straight species, as we say, is the regular old wild type. S. scoparium that’s propagated by seed is genetically diverse from every other little bluestem growing around it. In contrast, most cultivated (named) varieties are propagated by division, meaning they are exact genetic copies of each other. This ensures the same coloration and habit. But if you don’t need that kind of aesthetic assurance, the classic little bluestem is a great option. You’d find this growing in prairies, pastures, and field edges. Pros: genetic diversity, great for restorations, wildlife areas or pastures, usually cheaper than branded varieties. Cons: floppy, not as colorful as other options, height is less predictable.

‘Jazz’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 1.5 to 2 ft
Total with bloom: 2.5 ft
One of the main differences between bluestem cultivars is height. ‘Jazz’ is a great solution for folks who want bluestem, but need it to be shorter than the regular species. A variety brought to market by Intrinsic Perennials, ‘Jazz’ usually stays under 24 inches and has a very bushy, upright habit. Pros: short, full and fluffy, upright. Cons: not as colorful as other options

Here you see two types of little bluestem in winter. ‘Jazz’ on the right, is shorter and fuller than the ‘Twilight Zone’ next to it. They also have subtle differences in color.

‘Twilight Zone’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 4 ft
Known for its incredible coloration, ‘Twilight Zone’ is a fan favorite. Year after year we sell out of this one, and even our suppliers can’t keep it in stock. It has a powder blue coloration on the grass blades, followed by deep purple tips in fall. Mid-height, it is not as tidy and compact as Jazz but still stands up well with minimal floppiness given the right conditions. Pros: unbeatable blue color. Cons: too tall for some applications, may flop if partially shaded or in rich soil.

Adding lots of cool tones to the garden, ‘Twilight Zone’ works well with companion plants in purple, blue and yellow, such as Russian sage, gayfeather, golden Alexanders, and alliums. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

‘Blaze’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 3 ft
If you like red, ‘Blaze’ is the choice. This variety is lush and green all summer, then packs a punch in fall with its deep red/orange/pink tones that delight all winter. ‘Blaze’ was actually bred as a high-yield pasture grass in the 1960s, but has been lauded for landscape use because of its beauty. ‘Blaze’ is especially nice in mass plantings. Pros: red fall and winter color, vigorous growth. Cons: flops easily if soil is too rich

The deep red stems of ‘Blaze’ provide high contrast to the fluffy white seeds. Photo by Emily Weaver

I could go on and on about other favorites like ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Prairie Blues’ and ‘Carousel’. No matter which little bluestem you choose, it will be a great low maintenance plant providing habitat and beauty all year long.

Island Renovation: Part I

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.

Rock Steady

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.

Adding Soil

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.

The red line shows the wooden retaining wall. This was the original bank, and it has now been restored with rock and a layer of soil on top. By adding rock on the outside of that, we are able to strengthen it even more and hopefully create a useable substrate to hold future aquatic plantings.

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!