Discovering Host Plants

My phone is chock full of caterpillar photos. It seems I am constantly stooping down to examine another caterpillar, and to document what it is eating. I am a big fan of all insects, but especially these charismatic transformers. With their plump bodies and endless colors, it is not hard to see why people are becoming more interested in attracting them to the garden.

Viceroy caterpillars can be hard to spot. They disguise themselves as bird poo to appear less appetizing, and it works!
This one was spotted just off the sidewalk at the Arb eating willow leaves.

Host plants are a key part of that process. Caterpillars of all kinds often have a specific food plant or plant family that they need to survive. While I am familiar with monarchs on milkweed and swallowtails on parsley, there is a whole world of interesting host plants out there to utilize in the landscape.

Potluck

My house cats can be picky eaters, but caterpillars are even worse. Many of these little creatures can only feed on a handful of plant species. Their mothers may have to fly miles and miles to find the right plant to lay her eggs on. That is why it is so important to support the native insects of your area by gardening with the native plants they have evolved with for millennia.

Recently I added a few new host plants to my mental list of must-haves for caterpillar habitat.

  • Aspens and willows for viceroy butterflies
  • Primrose and lythrum for sphinx moths
  • Baptisia for broom moths
  • Sumac for spotted datanas
A group of white-lined sphinx moths devoured a primrose patch. They also like to chow down on winged lythrum (Lythrum alatum), a great native plant for wet areas.
Genista broom moth caterpillars (Uresiphita reversalis) are a cheery shade of yellow. They love Baptisia and can make the plants look quite ragged. But, by the time these caterpillars are feeding heavily in midsummer, the Baptisia has already bloomed and is done for the season anyway.
These spotted datana (Datana perspicua) caterpillars are gregarious feeders, meaning you usually find them in groups with their siblings. They munched away on this aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) for a few days, and tripled in size!

Appreciate, Don’t Hate

As my knowledge of host plants grows, so does my appreciation for native plants and the intricate ecosystem they support. I am so encouraged to hear more people calling them friends rather than foes, and wanting to identify and observe rather than squish and poison. It is always best practice to pause before sprinkling that pesticide – your garden will thank you, since most caterpillars do more good than harm. Changing our perspective about caterpillars, and all insects, is key to maintaining a functional, healthy food web. If you are interested in finding more caterpillars in your Kansas landscape, reach out to the staff at Dyck Arboretum for consultation, follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts for educational content, and mark your calendars for next spring’s FloraKansas fundraiser!

Army Worms

The Arboretum is under siege! An army has invaded, demanding we relinquish our lawns! Army worms, that is. These pesky creatures can cause major damage, and they unfortunately have a taste for fescue. Last week we came upon a sidewalk full of worms, crawling out of the lawn in search of more food. The grass was a sea of them, their tiny movements making it seem like the ground was alive.

Close up of a fall army worm Spodoptera frugiperda.
Army worms have a distinctive ‘Y’ marking on their heads
and are usually found feeding in groups.

To Spray or Not to Spray

I am always a big advocate of lassez-faire when it comes to controlling insect populations. After all, “plants are meant to be eaten”, right? And every insect has its place in the food web to keep our ecosystem thriving. I say this every time our members call asking about why their coneflowers have holes in the leaves, or why their Zizia has been defoliated. I tell them not to panic, that bugs are good to have in a garden, and that with enough good habitat natural predators will help keep the populations in check.

But when populations explode overnight, it can rightly cause concern. Native perennial flowers have deep tap roots that can reach 10 ft deep and beyond, which means they easily recover from a bit of nibbling. Fescue does not. The root zone is often less than 2ft, and in the heat of summer it can get even shorter. These little bugs can cause big damage! But luckily they rarely kill the grass. According to KSU Extension and Research, they don’t usually eat into the crown of the plant, rather move on to more tender greens. This means the plant can regrow and recover once they leave.

Fall armyworms seldom kill grass ---- rather, than nubbing a plant
down to the crown and growing point, larvae will select a more tender adjacent grass
blade to feed upon. Of course, under heavy feeding pressure, larvae may be forced to
feed deeper down on a plant, but usually, when the food supply becomes scarce or
"tough", the larvae will move "in mass" to adjacent areas where there is a "fresh stand"
of food to feed on.

- Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service
Army worm damage looks a lot like drought stress at first glance. The grass turns patchy and brown.
This lawn was green and lush 72 hours before this photo was taken, an example of how quickly these little worms can feed.
Fescue at the Dyck Arboretum, beginning to resprout on August 18, 3 to 4 days after the army worms have finished feeding.
Stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks.

Use a Targeted Pesticide

Insecticides containing acephate and spinosad are effective at killing caterpillars, but we opt for friendlier treatments since these are known to harm the bees, birds and butterflies that call the Arboretum home. To avoid unnecessary kill off of non-target insects, I use Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis. This is a biological pesticide that uses bacteria to infect the gut of the army worm. In the alkaline gut environment of insects, it turns toxic and gives them a terminal tummy ache. We also use this around the Arboretum to keep bagworm populations in check when they start to overwhelm our cedar trees. According to current research on Bt, it is non-toxic to humans, pets, birds, and fish. It also has a short life once sprayed, which means reapplication is necessary, but also ensures you aren’t killing more insects than you intended to.

Monoculture Dilema

This is the precisely the problem with monoculture lawns. They require consistent maintenance, chemical and physical, to achieve that uniform, western European ideal of ‘perfection’. As we consider seeding new grassy areas of the Arboretum, we may be looking to a fescue mix, or a seed mix that includes sedges and native grasses together. This means that if an infestation comes along, hopefully not all species in that mix will be palatable and leave some green behind while the rest of the species recover.

If you see a few army worms here and there, don’t panic. Only large populations require a chemical response. But to those of you who will encounter them by the millions this summer like I did, good luck!

Garden Retreat

As much as we love our work at the Arboretum, sometimes the staff need to get out and about! Once or twice a year we take a staff retreat, spending a day in leisure time together. We eat, laugh, and explore new places. We often visit other gardens or notable landscapes on these retreat days. Luckily, Wichita has two great locations to see beautiful gardens: Botanica and the Wichita Art Museum. Click here to learn more about how your Dyck Arboretum membership gives you free admission to these places.

Mi Garden et Su Garden

Visiting other gardens is always a treat for us plant nerds, and Botanica never disappoints. It has seventeen acres of sprawling gardens including the Chinese Friendship garden, a woodland glade, a prairie-inspired meadow, a butterfly house and a children’s garden. With interactive statues and countless water features, there is excitement around every corner. Although our mission and goals are very different from Botanica’s, we can still draw inspiration and fresh ideas from their exhibits. They have many vibrant annual plantings featuring coleus, begonias, cannas, and more. These would be unsustainable for our garden, given our smaller staff and water-conscious focus, but the color combinations and design principles could be implemented within our ethos of ecological native plantings.

Arb staff enjoying the children’s garden at Botanica.
Botanica does a fabulous job of seamlessly mixing classical garden designs and exotic, tropical plants with prairie favorites. While it is no doubt labor intensive to maintain, the effect is undeniably beautiful.
Their boardwalk and pond includes views of water lilies, lotus flowers, pickerel weed, and many other stunning aquatic plants.

What a WAMmy of a Retreat!

The Wichita Art Museum is full of priceless paintings and sculptures inside, but also has an 8-acre ‘art garden’ outside. The plantings feature prairie natives like coneflower, switchgrass, side-oats grama, alliums, and rattlesnake master. These familiar plants are growing in modern designs, grouped in masses to create large swathes of color and form. As a backdrop for sculptures and surrounded by interesting walkways, the prairie species look wild and yet orderly. They also provide great pollinator habitat in an otherwise urban, nectar-less area. Prairie plants require less water than traditional landscaping, making these gardens green in more than one way.

Mass plantings featuring fountain grass and catmint make a dramatic effect at the WAM. As we have learned here at the Arb, mass plantings are also easier to weed and maintain, especially for volunteers and staff who may be less familiar with the plant material.
The Wichita Art Museum has set their massive outdoor sculptures within several prairie-themed garden spaces. Brad is taking this photo while Scott and I chat about grass varieties and Janelle, the truly wise one among us, seeks shade to prevent a sunburn!
WAM infuses every space with a modern, clean-cut feel. The stepping stones cut an orderly path through a dense planting of grasses.

What a joy it was to take a day away from the Arboretum office, the greenhouse, and the ever-present crabgrass to explore other gardens and refresh our mindset. I returned to the Arboretum with renewed appreciation for what makes our garden unique and what our mission charges us to do, but with new inspiration for how we can do it better. If you are an Arboretum member, be sure to take advantage of that reciprocal membership. Visit these Wichita institutions and support them if you can.

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.