The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Many of our readers and webinar participants have asked for an update on my native front yard project, and I am happy to oblige! As with every native garden, it had it’s ‘ugly duckling’ phase wherein it was more mulch than garden. This is normal, and patience is key to getting past this phase. Given the right conditions and enough time to mature, native plants will thrive and thrill you.

An Earth-Friendly Garden

Would you believe that not all gardens are ‘green’? I wanted to avoid the use of too many exotics, which take a lot of extra irrigation and often do not provide food for wildlife and insects. My goal two years ago was to decrease the amount of lawn in my landscape and increase quality habitat in my area. Since then I have been pleased to host buckeye, skipper, and monarch caterpillars. I have seen many species of birds swooping over my garden to eat the flies and moths that hang around. With very low water needs, this landscape helps keep my household water consumption low.

Grey Santolina and purple skullcap anchor the front of my low-growing native landscape.
Limestone edging along the curb stops my mulch from sliding away in heavy rains. I also found a few interesting boulders to serve as substrate for hen and chicks. They make a nice focal point, and add structure.

The Best Laid Plants

While we talk a lot about careful planning and design as keys to success with a native garden, a dash of spontaneity keeps the garden fun and fresh. After initial planting, I continued to add plants and deviate from my written plan. That’s okay! Adding lambs ear from my grandmother’s house, and strawberry mint from my parent’s greenhouse made the garden more personal and functional. I continue to fill in gaps here and there as I see them appear. I have learned an important lesson from all of this: if a certain plant doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you failed or that you aren’t a good gardener. It might just mean it wasn’t in the right spot! Fill that space with something else you like and try again.

White flowers of thyme spill onto my sidewalk, contrasted with the silvers of lambs ear
and the chartreuse leaves of bluebeard and sumac.

Plant Selection

I mixed natives and non-natives to create a landscape that speaks to me; a space that is visually pleasing and ecologically friendly. Here are some of my favorites that are all growing well together:

  • lamb’s ear (Stachys bizantina)
  • fame flower (Talinum calycinum)
  • bluebeard (Caryopteris sp.)
  • skullcap (Scuttelaria resinosa ‘Smokey Hills’)
  • ornamental onion (Allium spp. )
  • Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuisimma)
  • prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  • grey lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
  • sand cherry (Prunus besseyii ‘Pawnee Buttes’)
  • perky sue (Hymenoxys scaposa)
  • horsetail milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • dwarf false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor)
  • thyme, oregano, and lavender

Stay tuned for future updates as this planting matures and continues to change. We have had such great enthusiasm around our Native Front Yard classes, making me hopeful that many of you are on the journey to more sustainable front yards as well!

How to Plant Your Garden Kit

There is no “one way” to landscape with native plants. One person’s dream landscape design might be someone else’s nightmare. Native gardens can be wild and wistful, or organized and formal. As long as the plant species being used are beneficial to wildlife and water conscious, you are on the right track! But it can be overwhelming when you have lots of great plants to choose from, but no guidance on how or where to install them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Planting can be daunting for beginners.

Our garden kits are so popular at FloraKansas because they take the guess work out of plant selection. Looking to fill in your shade garden? Our shade garden kit has a mix of spreaders and specimens to keep your interest through the season. Hoping to host caterpillars? The host plant medley we put together is a buffet for monarchs, fritillaries, swallowtails, and more. But after buying the kit, the real work begins!

Mountain mint is a plant included in our Monarch Special kit. A magnet for pollinators, it has a long bloom period and should be placed toward the middle or back of your garden area because of its height.
This is a very simple example schematic you could draft for yourself, depending on your circumstances. Use X’s to show each plant’s future placement and be sure to include existing structures like fences, driveways, sidewalks, or trees.

Keep It Simple

Our basic guidance is simple: cluster plants and design by height. This means keeping some color blocks together. For example, if the species are small like Viola pedata in our host plant kit, consider placing them in close proximity. When they bloom, it will make a much bigger impact and will draw more attention than just one plant here and there. Also keep an eye on height, planting so that one species doesn’t overshadow others. Place tall species at the back or middle of your viewing area, and shorter species toward the front or around the border. These two guidelines alone will help make your garden kit look planned and intentional, and can also help you stay organized when it comes time to weed. Use this simple design as an example, and make your own adjustments based on the kit you purchased.

Plants out in their natural prairie settings have no organization or man-made pattern, which is beautiful and awe inspiring at large scale. In our small home gardens however, careful design and clustering of color is a more manageable and visually pleasing approach. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Let the Plants Be Your Guide

If you purchased a garden kit with taller grasses like switch grass, those can serve as a backdrop for the color of flowers in front. If your kit included little bluestem, consider mixing those into a mid-height section as added structure for Liatris or milkweeds. As for how close to plant, we usually suggest no more than one plant per 2.5 to 3 square feet to accommodate the vigorous growth that is sure to come.

So grab some scratch paper and make a few sketches before you start digging holes. Or don’t! As I said before, there is no right way. You can plan down to the very last inch or throw them in willy-nilly. As long as you are having fun and planting native, you can’t go wrong.

From Lawn To Lush

Lawn alternatives are more than just a passing craze. They are a great way to reduce your carbon-footprint and increase pollinator habitat. I am excited to present a class this week on this very topic, and thought it might be nice to preview it here on the blog.

I replaced a large section of lawn at my own home, and instead planted with bluebeard, perky sue, sedum, prairie drop seed, Mexican feather grass, horsetail milkweed, and lavender. The violets came up on their own, and in hordes! But I leave them there because they are host plants for fritillary butterflies.

Cost over the ‘Lawn’ Haul

Traditional lawns of cool season grasses such as fescue and Kentucky blue grass have a wonderful place in my heart. They are great for entertaining, playing family games of badminton or throwing a Frisbee for the dog. But all that green space adds up: Kansas alone has 157,000 acres of turf and lawn, according to data from 2006 released by the KSDA. In that year, it cost Kansans an average of $1,541 per acre to maintain the turf grass in our state. So we end up with lots of grass, lots of money spent, but little to show in terms of habitat, soil health, or carbon sequestration.

Volunteers helped us plant our Sundial bed near the Visitor Center. The planting is dense and diverse, but is balanced well by the solid green of the fescue lawns around it and the tidy limestone edging.

Lawn Alternatives Bring Balance

Rather than villainizing turf grass and framing it as the epitome of all native landscaping evils, a symbol of a Eurocentric society ,obsessed with outward displays of status that date back to palaces and aristocratic practices of a bygone era….I choose to focus on balance. We must balance our love of flat, green, monoculture lawns with the urgent need for diverse native plantings. By converting some areas of your lawn to forbs, shrubs, native grasses and groundcovers, you gain interest and beauty and ecological benefits.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways/hardscape. The sidewalks keep it looking organized and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

If you want to learn more about planting lawn alternatives, what species to choose and maintenance tips, be sure to sign up for our Native Plant School Series and catch my class tomorrow night!



New Native Plants: Part II

This is the second post in a two part series exploring new plants available at the spring fundraiser. After 22 years of Florakansas, we are still finding new garden-worthy natives to offer our community, and the commercial horticulture industry is always introducing new plant varieties to try.

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Ornamental onion is a landscaping favorite because of its tidy habit and pollinator-friendly blooms. We will have the native species A. cernuum and A. stellatum available, but when you need a bit more purple punch ‘Lavender Bubbles’ is the way to go. This variety blooms later in the summer than the well-loved ‘Millennium’, and has darker blooms.

Ephedra regliana

Ephedra regalia, known as joint fir, is a diminutive ancient plant that adds some evergreen whimsy to a rock garden or border planting. Photo by I, James Roberts, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tolerant of alkaline soils and extreme drought, this plant can be found growing wild from Kyrgyzstan to China. A relative of ancient conifers, its showy red fruits develop in late summer. It absolutely demands good drainage, poor soil, and full sun. It would fit right in with a cactus garden or desert aesthetic.

Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’

Variegated foliage of Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’. Photo courtesty of Bluebird Nursery Inc.

Eupatorium altissimum is a native Kansas plant that does not get the credit it deserves. It is seen as a tall, gangly plant with small, unimpressive white blooms. I have begun to appreciate it more and more as a drought tolerant back drop plant; something to grow at the back of the garden to add height and greenery. I call the flowers ‘baby’s breath of the prairie’ because they are so useful in bouquets. The ‘Prairie Jewel’ variety has striking leaf coloration that keeps it interesting, even when not in bloom.

Calamintha nepeta var. nepeta

Calmintha nepeta var. nepeta blends into many garden styles and makes a lovely addition to the perennial garden. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a plant I am very excited to try out in my own garden. Its white blooms and puffy habit make for great filler in weed-prone spaces that would benefit from dense cover and competition. Native to Europe, this mint family member carries its well-known pros and cons: it can be aggressive if left to spread unchecked, but it is beloved by pollinators.

Remember, members get first pick of the plants through pre-order services and our special Members-only Day on April 22. If you see some new plants here you just can’t live without, consider joining our growing membership of nature lovers! These plants and many more will be available to non-members April 23-26.

New Plants: Part I

There are no new plants; they aren’t flying in on a spaceship from a galaxy far, far away. But when it comes to Florakansas Native Plant Festival we try to keep the inventory fresh by always adding new offerings in our inventory. While we always offer the tried and true natives and adaptable we have come to love, we also want to offer a little something *new to you* every year. Sometimes this means finding a source of more obscure natives, or seeding them ourselves. We also work to get our hands on new commercial varieties of garden favorites.

And while February and March can seem long and cold, they also signal that FloraKansas is right around the corner! There is no better time to peruse the Native Plant Guide and get up to speed on all the goodies available.

Here are a few of the stand-outs (part II coming soon):

Geranium ‘Crane Dance’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Plant breeders cultivate most commercial varieties of Geranium from Geranium pratense, a species native to Europe and Asia. But this one, selected for its brilliant red fall foliage, is derived from the native G. maculatum. The blooms are an electric shade of blue.

Buddleia ‘Grand Cascade’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Easy to grow, with a thousand and one varieties, butterfly bush is a long-time garden favorite. ‘Grand Cascade’ boasts the largest blooms of any variety, with some 14″ long and as thick as my arm. It is not native to North America, meaning it is likely useless as a host plant for our invertebrates. But Buddleia is an undeniable favorite nectar source for many pollinators.

Plant your Buddleia near a window or patio to enjoy their sweet scent, and be sure to install true Kansas native plants nearby to complete the ecological garden trifecta: host plants for larval food, nectar for adults, and habitat to shelter and rest.

Thermopsis villosa

Photo by Bob Gutowski, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Better known as Carolina lupine, Thermopsis villosa is native to woodland clearings in the southern Appalachian mountains. Surprisingly drought tolerant once established, this plant will grace your garden with lemon yellow blooms reminiscent of Baptisia. Because its native range is the eastern US, we can assume it takes a bit more water than our dry, upland prairie species. Place this one in full to part sun, in an area that gets semi-regular watering.

Antennaria dioica ‘Rubra’

Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pussytoes are ubiquitous, native all over the North American continent. In Kansas we most often see Antennaria neglecta, field pussytoes. They are short statured and white-flowered, a favorite for pollinators and a good groundcover, but not a showy garden flower. A. dioica ‘Rubra’ is a nice change of pace — it sports a bright pink bloom that you can’t help but love. Native to Alaska, this species is very cold hardy.

All of these plants and many more will be available at our spring sale. Peruse our Native Plant Guide to get inspired and make your plant list. Dyck Arboretum members may pre-order plants once the 2021 Native Plant Guide is made available. (Later in February.)

The second part of this blog post, New Plants: Part II is coming soon!

Feeling Edgy

Every good piece of art deserves a good frame. The same goes for gardens! A well-designed, ecologically friendly landscape needs to have borders and edging keeping it in bounds, not only physically, but visually. Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan makes this point better than anyone in her text ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’.

Novel landscape designs that improve ecological quality may not be appreciated or maintained if recognizable landscape language that communicates human intention is not part of the landscape.

Nassauer, 2007

In layman’s terms, no matter how wonderfully water-wise and pollinator-friendly your garden is, if it looks messy, all the neighbors will hate it.

Proper edging can make a garden look tidier and more intentional. For prairie gardens that may be prone to look unruly, framing and clean lines are very important. Photo from Our Mother’s Garden entrance.

Beauty Standards

Messy, in this usage, is a unique idea borne from our Eurocentric culture. These traditional gardens and landscapes need to be constantly in order, with straight lines, perfect symmetry, short lawns and hedges trimmed into unnatural shapes. Those standards of beauty and acceptability come from the aristocracy of Western Europe; castles and manors with hedge mazes, rose gardens, and endless formal lawns.

In our prairie home, these ideas do more harm than good. Trying to maintain those landscapes of the old country is costly, labor intensive, and destructive. Kansas is hot, dry, and extreme in her fluctuations, unlike the place of my ancestors from Europe – cooler, moist, and temperate. And trying to make the natural world bend to my ideas of perfect order is an uphill battle and a waste of resources. But we can achieve an orderly, formal aesthetic by using proper edging in native landscapes.

Steel edging makes a strong statement. It lends a degree of formality and tidiness, even if the plants inside the edging are aggressive natives!
To install this stone edging, volunteers helped me dig a shallow trench against the sidewalk. We situated them an inch or so below the sidewalk, to make sure they sit tightly together and aren’t moved by heavy rains.

Choosing the Right Edging

Plastic. Metal. Wood. Stone. What is right for your space? This may depend on the design of your house, or the structure a garden is nearest to. It may also depend on the plants. For instance, species with vigorous underground spreaders that need control may require deep steel edging. My personal favorite is stone. If installed properly, stone never has to be replaced. Steel edging is becoming quite popular for its modern, industrial quality, but can be expensive for large spaces.

You can see here my own unfinished edging project. One side looks neat and tidy, and is holding its mulch and soil. The other side sans edging routinely erodes after rain events, sending my mulch and good garden soil into the gutter.
Steel edging is installed by hammering the sections into the soil, then joining them with clips at corners or joints. Mulch or gravel is then added around the edging according to the style you are trying to achieve.

If you are concerned about how your pollinator garden or native landscaping may be perceived by passersby, consider edging it. Edging adds an easily recognizable human element. Onlookers will see this space is purposeful, cared for, and important. And it just might convince someone to create a prairie garden of their own.

Silver and Gold

Even when the mercury drops and the snow flies, I am still thinking about gardening! Winter is the best time to sketch and plan; to dream up additions to your landscape so you are ready to install when spring arrives. Of course, at Christmas time my mind is always drawn to plants with silver and gold tones. Here is a little sample of some of my favorite holiday-colored landscape picks that can bring joy all year.

Short-Toothed Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum muticum

Mountain mint is easy to grow and tolerant of a wide variety of conditions. The leaves develop a silver, dusty look that adds great texture to the landscape. Photo by SB Johnny via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that I am a fan of mountain mints. There are several species that grow well in our area, and I have planted them all! I appreciate its low maintenance habit, long lasting blooms, its usefulness in floral arrangements, and have I mentioned it is a pollinator magnet? Insects go absolutely bonkers for the hundreds of tiny white blooms that cluster at the top of the plant. P. muticum is a special favorite because of its wider, silvery leaves. A strong silver tone brings a coolness to the garden in summer, and nods to the first frosts of fall.

Gray Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus

Just outside our Visitor Center is a lovely gray santolina specimen. The jewel of our xeric garden year round, it is especially eye-catching when it blooms.

A Mediterranean native, this drought-loving plant is a fabulous ground cover. Plant in full sun and well drained soil, and forget about it! It needs no fuss, and rewards you with yellow, button-like blooms in early summer. The silver foliage stays attractive all year in our area, and has a powerful, sage-y fragrance.

I could also include the well known garden plants like Russian sage and Lamb’s ear in this list — both grow very well in Kansas and add that touch of silver compliments contemporary and cottage gardens alike.

Goldenrod – Solidago sp.

Goldenrods are, of course, a great way to add gold tones into your landscape. Toward the end of the growing season, when the sun streams in at a lower angle, these beauties come into bloom. Their golden flowers are not only beautiful, but they are a vital source of nectar for migrating monarchs. My favorite cultivated variety is S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’, but there are many good ones to choose from.

Switchgrass – Panicum virgatum

Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg
Switchgrass and big bluestem play well together, especially in dormancy when their bronze and red tones add some holiday cheer to the garden.

While I enjoy the lustrous green of switchgrass in summer, I really prefer how it looks in November and December: golden bronze arching leaves and fluffy seed heads holding a bit of morning frost. The gold tones of dormant switchgrass make it useful for decorating your Christmas tree (try slipping in few seed heads and watch the lights make them twinkle!) or for making dried wreaths and bouquets. Birds also love to nibble on the grass seed through the winter, so be sure to leave some standing to provide that critical habitat.

So go ahead, dream of spring! Anytime of year is a good time to make plans for improving your garden and landscape. Each season offers a new perspective on what colors, shapes and textures work well together. If you are lucky, perhaps someone will get you a Dyck Arboretum Membership or an eGift card to use at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for Christmas to help make your native garden dreams a reality!

Will Work for Lights: How We Prepare for Luminary Walk

It is that time of year again! Volunteers and staff are preparing for our annual Winter Luminary Walk event. This means stringing hundreds of extension cords and thousands of Christmas lights throughout the Arboretum. It may seem ridiculously early, but we often start this process the day after Halloween. (Do you think a Monster Mash/White Christmas remix would ever be a radio hit?)

Putting up lights is only half the work — fixing them is the real trial!

Where to Start?

Many folks wonder how we begin when there is so much area to cover. I like to start every year by stringing lights around the pond. This is an easy job that gets me mentally warmed up to spend the next few weeks working with lights and wires. Because we have been doing this for so many years, we have a pretty good idea of how many strands it takes to get around the pond (31) or tied onto the leaf house (3) or draped in the small prairie near the Visitor Center (18). We have some lights labeled for specific areas. Others are stored on spools so they can easily be unrolled and installed.

Style

Many public gardens throughout the US put on holiday light shows, and each is dazzling in their own way. Here at Dyck Arboretum we have a unique approach: we aim to highlight the natural landscape rather than cover it with colorful, flashy displays. We keep our style simple and classic. For example, we use only warm white Christmas lights, under-mounted spotlights, and thematically relevant features. Foregoing busy, strobe-like displays or loud music, we invite visitors to appreciate the forms and shapes of native trees in the quiet of a prairie night. You may hear an owl hooting as you stroll, or the sound of water trickling into the stream.

White swans float on the pond among reflections of our large footbridge and stately bald cypress tree. Photo from 2017 by Lowell Flory

Features

Over the years we have trialed many new features to keep Luminary Walk feeling fresh, even to repeat visitors. Some years we have lighted ‘swans’ floating on the pond and ‘bison’ grazing in our prairie. Other years we installed shooting stars high above our lawns and have created arbors, tunnels, and pendulous hanging ornaments. The only way to know what we are up to this year? Come and see for yourself!

In 2018 my father and I created a life-size wire bison to be strung with lights and displayed in the Prairie Window Project. We started by drawing a properly scaled silhouette of a bison and bent the flat steel into shape with pipe wrenches.

We hope this event can be a fun and festive time to meet with family and friends at a socially distant, outdoor venue. Visit the event page for ticketing and for information about how this event will be COVID-conscious, specifically:

  • adding event hours to reduce crowding
  • capping ticket sales per half hour
  • closing our facilities to indoor traffic
  • reducing the need for volunteer set up and take down
  • requiring face masks for all attendees
I focus on outdoor decorations, but the rest of the staff and volunteers have the job of beautifying our indoor facilities. Reminder: Indoor facilities will be closed this year.

Enjoy our holiday event Thanksgiving Weekend November 27-29 or Closing Weekend December 4-6.

Don’t Bug My Plants

I get a lot of calls and emails that start with “something is eating my plants!” Either frustrated or panicked, most view this development as a bad thing. To their surprise, I usually say “Congratulations!”. A bug can be a great thing.

The fact is, plants are meant to be eaten. Plants provide food for the rest of the living world, especially for the world’s insects. It is normal for the native animals of our area to nibble, chew, and sometimes completely defoliate plants. Humans forget this, much to the detriment of the biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Bugs are essential to life on earth, so we should be excited about feeding them!

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

I like to say Congratulations, not to be flippant, but to help people reframe the situation. I explain that it is very possible they are hosting a native butterfly, moth or beetle larvae. Holes in your Hibiscus can be a good thing! By investigating what exactly is lunching on your leaves, you begin to engage deeper with your garden and with the ecosystem at large. Look carefully before you spray a pesticide; you may find an interesting little friend. You may even be able to precisely identify the bug based on what plant it is eating.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eat milkweed seeds. They cause no harm to the plant, and are actually a good friend of the gardener looking to keep their milkweed population under control.

A Funky (plant) Baseline

Plants are at the base of the food chain. They convert the most primitive form of energy – sunlight – into tangible, edible growth. This conversion of sunlight to green leaves allows everything in the food chain to function — bugs, rabbits, and deer eat the leaves, songbirds eat the bugs, snakes eat the bird eggs, coyotes or hawks eat the snake, and so on.

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, and native plants are especially important. According to a 2018 study, “in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plant biomass, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.”

Insects in our area have evolved to feed on and coexist with our native plants, and these insects feed everything above them in the food chain. If you find a bug eating your favorite plant, consider how important that little fella might be in terms of feeding the other animals in our ecosystem.

Sulphur caterpillars are voracious, defoliating their host plant in a matter of days.
But it always recovers nicely ones they pupate and move on.

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

The main concern is: will my plant recover? And, most of the time, the answer is yes. Remember, plants are meant to be eaten. They have evolved all sorts of clever ways to survive, and many can survive being eaten completely to the ground. Our Senna and partridge pea plants at the Arboretum become completely defoliated by Sulphur butterfly caterpillars every year. And yet, often they have enough energy to bloom and set seed by the end of the season. Checkerspot larvae absolutely shred the leaves of our coneflowers, but up they come next year, blooming happily.

Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) munched my violets this spring, but never ate enough at once to hurt the plant. Watching them grow and pupate was worth the holey leaves!

Whatever you find eating your garden plants, remember to do your homework before taking action. Leave the pesticide on the shelf, and do some investigation instead! If you have aphids or spider mites in an infestation large enough to damage your plant, consider Safer Soap for a gentle approach. If you find a caterpillar, inch worm, or other larvae, it is likely not a cause for major concern or treatment.