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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!
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?)
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.
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Caryopteris, also known as bluebeard, is a family of shrubs native to Mongolia and northern Asia. When I first started working in the nursery trade, I regarded bluebeard as just another in a long line of fast and convenient non-native landscape shrubs. Boring and over-planted, I didn’t think it was anything to sing about. Now that I have planted it and cared for it myself, I have changed my tune!
Bluebeard may be non-native, but it still attracts a myriad of pollinators. Within a just few minutes of observation, I saw a silver spotted skipper, some orange skippers, carpenter bee, digger wasp (Scolia dubia) and many types of flies nectaring on a Caryopteris bush. It can be a nice addition to a pollinator garden, as long as that garden also includes some host plant natives as well.
When blooming in late summer and early fall, bluebeard is very showy. The dusty blue-violet blooms are stacked one on top of the other. But even without flowers, this shrub holds its own — the foliage comes in dark green or a light chartreuse, a huge benefit when trying to create a spectrum of greens in the garden. My favorite is ‘Sunshine Blue II’ with its light foliage and darker blooms. To create an eye popping contrast, plant them with dark-leaf shrubs like Ginger Wine ninebark. Or, mirror their neon hue elsewhere in the garden with a Tiger Eye sumac.
Caryopteris is perfect for the lazy gardener. It stays under 3 feet tall and takes minimal trimming and very little water. In our zone it tends to die back over the winter, so cutting a bit of the twiggy wood off the top before spring growth begins is all you need to do. I see why people love it now; convenient and easy makes for a great landscape addition!
There are lots of perfect places for bluebeard — in your home’s foundation plantings, out by your mailbox at the curb, or tucked into your prairie garden. Luckily, fall is a great time to plant! Find this and many more great picks at FloraKansas, our native plant festival and fundraiser.
Every plant sale I find myself enthusiastically telling customers, “This is my favorite plant!” And every plant sale, that plant changes. Lets be honest, every DAY that plant changes! I am always finding new favorite plants that excite and inspire in the landscape. I have been especially impressed with the new shrubs and perennials in my home landscape. With little care and sporadic watering, they have beat the odds and survived in my laissez-faire landscape. Here are a few of my new favorite plants.
I found a few of these growing in the gravel under the benches in the Arboretum greenhouse and couldn’t bear to throw them away. I planted them in my native flower bed at home. A few tiny succulent leaves and a thin, hair-like root has turned into a huge, wonderful plant! Fameflower has never been a big seller, and it never caught my eye until now. These flowers bloom for weeks and weeks, the flowers opening and closing every day. Because they are succulent, they thrive in hot, full sun areas and require little water.
This shrub has been a favorite for a long time, but I had never planted one for myself. In the same genus as lead plant, it shares those lovely, pollinator-attracting purple spikes in late spring to early summer. The leaves are delicate and pea-like, and they are a favorite food of the silver spotted skipper caterpillar. I planted two of these shrubs in a low spot near the edge of my yard where water often collects after rain. They are thriving! To keep them from getting leggy, I plan to trim them back every spring.
No, this is not that terrible invader purple loosestrife taking over US wetlands. This is it’s well behaved native cousin. Wing-loosestrife has been a wonderful addition to our tiny rain garden area, and has come back from the brink of death multiple times when I have forgotten to water. That’s my kind of plant! Hummingbirds, long tongued bees, and skippers are all known to nectar on winged loosestrife.
More favorite plants to come….
This fall I hope to make a few additions to my beds. I need to add some filler and texture to my side yard, so I will plant mountain mint. A long blooming, drought tolerant favorite of pollinators, the white flowers will help blend the colors of the bed into a cohesive look. Pair that with the airy-ness of sand love grass and the charisma of cat claw sensitive briar, and I think the garden will shape up nicely!
All of these plants and many more soon-to-be favorites are available for purchase at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 10-13. Check our website for information about our member-only day, curbside pick up procedures, and Covid19 updates relevant to the sale.
As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!
Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:
Increases my scientific understanding of the world
Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!
Step One: Photograph
Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.
Insect or other?
Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.
If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.
Step Two: Where is it?
Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.
When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.
Step Three: Ask and Post
If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.
And the bug is…
A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.
Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.
Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!
In our greenhouse and nursery, I work very hard to create a hospitable environment for pollinators and wildlife. This means limited use of pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, greenhouse pests flourish when uncontrolled and can lead to devastating crop losses. They affect the appearance of our plants, which in turn affects how well they sell. This year, to minimize my use of insecticidal soap spray, I tried using Mantises as greenhouse predators instead.
Finding and Identifying Egg Cases
While cleaning garden beds this spring, I found many mantis ootheca (egg cases) hanging on branches of shrubs and trees. The egg cases can easily be spotted in areas of dense vegetation that stay standing through the fall and winter. Non-native mantis ootheca are round and bulbous, but native North American mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) have a long, flat egg case resembling a tiny trillobite.
I carefully cut the cases away from the parent plant, leaving the egg sac attached to its branch. I then placed those egg sacs in our unheated greenhouse, sticking the end of their twig into potted plants that often get pest problems in early spring.
For two months, nothing happened. But in mid April when the days were consistently sunny and warm, they finally hatched out in a giant wriggling mass!
They were fun to watch, and they dispersed themselves all across the greenhouse. But when it comes to aphid control, they were not voracious enough. In the past I used lady bugs and parasitic wasps as predators, both of which preyed on more aphids and at a faster rate than the mantises.
Do Not Order or Buy Mantises
I would not recommend ordering mantises from any garden center or organic pest control website — often they send the non-native type that are more likely to cause problems than solve them. Mantises are indiscriminate, and eat beneficial insects like bees, caterpillars, and even prey on hummingbirds.
I had fun experimenting with them because they were readily available to me on our grounds, but I would otherwise be cautious of using a nonnative insect for pest control. The best pest control method for residential gardens is a diverse planting that attract lots of pollinators and predators. These insects will find a balance amongst themselves!
One of the best parts about my job is working in the greenhouse. Yes, it is usually hot and humid in there, and yes my feet are always wet. But none of that seems to matter when I am surrounded by butterflies! With little wind and lots of native blooms, the greenhouse attracts butterflies of all shapes and sizes.
In the greenhouse and in the garden, Agastache (aka anise hyssop or hummingbird mint) is a fan favorite for butterflies, bees and wasps. Sometimes they are so full of pollinators I don’t want to water and disturb them! ‘Blue Boa’ is a great garden variety, and grows best in hot sun and well drained soil. Agastache foeniculum is better for less formal spaces, as it tends to spread readily by seed.
Will Sweat for Butterflies
While working in the greenhouse during the summer months, it isn’t hard to break a sweat. Butterflies will occasionally land on my skin and get a taste of the water-soluble minerals in my perspiration, giving me a great opportunity for up-close viewing and sometimes even a photo. Remember to avoid touching their wings when handling butterflies; this can damage the delicate scales and structures that allow them to fly.
Do you remember a time, in summers past, when your porch light was covered in moths? Or maybe you remember moth carnage left on your windshield after a drive at night? With moth populations in steep decline, those sights are harder to come by.
Moths, like most insects, are not faring well in an increasingly human-dominated world full of pesticides, mono-culture crops, and urban sprawl. Especially troublesome for moths is artificial light at night.
True darkness has important implications for biological processes in humans and animals. For millions of years, life evolved with the sun, moon and stars as the only light source (with an occasional fire here and there). Within the last two hundred years, artificial, electric light has forever changed the night sky and the way we interact with darkness.
Start by keeping the outside of your house as dark as possible. Consider turning off outdoor lights after a certain hour. Then install native plants to feed your moth friends! Like butterflies, most moths drink flower nectar. Some are active by day, others prefer to feed at night. White or pale flowers are attractive to night feeding moths because they are visible in low light. Moths are also attracted to heavily scented flowers, and those that open late in the afternoon or evening.
Any garden designed for pollinators will support moths as well. Plants like Liatris spicata, Asclepias tuberosa, and Aster leavis are perfect for attracting all types of pollinators to the garden. But consider adding more white flowers to hopefully spur some moth activity. Native options available to order for no-contact pickup at FloraKansas include:
For patio containers, consider Gardenia or Datura.
Moths are fascinating creatures. Some are as large as hummingbirds, others as tiny as your pinky nail. Some moths evolved so closely with the plants they pollinate that they have become completely co-dependent! They have a special ecological role in our biome, and deserve our attention and conservation.