Roots of Native Plants

The prairie is a unique ecosystem with great diversity of plants. This diversity is extremely important because there are so many niches within the prairie. These are created by differing rainfall averages across the expanse of the landscape from west to east, different soil types and different depths of soil for plants to grow. This adaptability and resiliency of plants is correlated in part to the root systems associated with many native plants.

Photo used by permission from Nature Education-1995 Conservation Research Institute, Heidi Natura.

Plants grow in community

For so long, we have thought that the deep roots of many of these native plants translated to their ability to withstand drought and extreme temperatures. However, more research is pointing to the fact that most of the water absorption occurs in the top two to four feet of the soil profile. As it turns out, plants grow in community with each other and each above ground layer (groundcover, seasonal theme, and structure) draws moisture from different zones within those few feet of soil. This allows them to grow harmoniously together and not in competition with each other. This is the matrix planting concept, which mimics what happens naturally within a prairie. 

Narrowleaf Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Why are deep root systems important?

What we see above ground is typically only a third of the overall plant.  Roots exist out of sight and can reach anywhere from 8 to 14 feet into the soil.  Yes, these extensive roots do absorb moisture and nutrients but they do so much more.  They play an important role in helping a plant grow, thrive and improve the environment around them.

These hidden roots also:

  • Anchor the plant in the soil as plants try to reach for sunlight
  • Store excess food for future needs underground
  • Nourish the soil by dying and regrowing new roots each year, which builds top soil 
  • Fix nitrogen in the soil (legumes)
  • Increase bio productivity, by absorbing and holding toxins and heavy metals, carbon sequestration
  • Prevent erosion – fibrous roots hold the soil and absorb more runoff (as in a rain garden)
Butterfly Milkweed

I believe that native plant roots make these prairie plants resilient in the landscape. They are adapted to our local soils, rainfall and nutrients. In the 2011 and 2012 drought years, we observed native plants blooming in the fall, even after enduring 50+ days of 100 degree temperatures. This could not have happened without a healthy, sustaining root system. 

So while we learn more about the root systems of native plants and the sustaining role they play within the life of a prairie, we know that bringing native plants back into our environments continues to have so many positive benefits. Let’s work at getting more native plants into our landscapes and let them flourish.

Saturated Soils and Wilting Plants

This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”

Saturated Soils

The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.

Will the wilting plants recover?

A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.

Liatris wilting

Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.

If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.

This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.

Yellow Leaves

Echinacea turning yellow from too much water

Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.

I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.

To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.

If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.

The first year: Getting native plants established

Originally published on May 27, 2020

The prairie communities we see are diverse and complex.  Plants, intricately woven together, crowd out weeds and harmoniously coexist.  When you look at a prairie, you only see about 1/3 of the plant.  The root systems that sustain these native plants make up the remainder, because they reach deep into the soil.  The first year is so critical to the whole process of getting native plants established. Developing these root systems properly is vitally important and the establishment period takes time.  Here are a few steps I take to get my new native plants started. 

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

I like to lay out the entire area by placing the plants where they are supposed to be planted.  This does a couple things: first, it helps with proper spacing of the plants and second, it helps to visualize the final outcome.  Think about mature size, rather than what the plants looks like in its infant state. 

Now that we have the plants laid out, we can start putting them in the soil.  It is critical to not plant them too deep.  In our heavy clay soils, it is best to plant them level or slightly higher (1/8 to ¼ inch) than the soil line, especially in heavier clay soil.  This keeps the crown drier, which is important for disease control.  Over time, these natives will develop at the depth they prefer to grow in. 

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

Now that the plants are in the ground, they need frequent watering until they get established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered daily until they begin to root and connect with the soil around them. Keep in mind that improper watering is the most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period. 

For me, I water each new area by hand rather than with a sprinkler. It helps me control the amount of water each plant receives and directs it to the intended plant.  I water every day for the first two weeks depending on the weather.  After that first two weeks, you should start to see new growth. 

For the next few weeks, I water every other day or every third day as needed, monitoring the planting each day for signs of stress/wilting. 

Even after this month long process of establishment, each plant must be monitored and watered through the following summer, fall, winter and spring.  Native plants are not established until the second summer. 

Remember, it takes a few years for those roots to fully develop.  If your plants are properly sited, you will not need to water much after the first full year.  However, if you must water your area during a dry period, natives will appreciate deep and infrequent watering. 

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

People ask me all the time about fertilizing native plants.  As a general rule, I don’t fertilize our native plants especially during that first year. Think about those small plants in the ground and what will happen to them if they are fertilized. They will have tremendous top growth that is not sustainable by the small root system. This will put the plant under stress and slow its progress. 

Natives are resilient and adaptive. The deep roots most often will find the nutrients and moisture each plant needs.

Mulch

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants. There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds. 

These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

If you decide to mulch your display beds initially, only place one to two inches of mulch down and keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established. As they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch.  Something to think about is whether you have seen mulch in the prairie?  No, the plants eventually co-mingle and intertwine to push out weeds.     

Creating a native landscape takes time.  With each new plant established comes an expectation of a brighter future. Often, we garden and landscape our yards with the anticipation of what we will get rather than what we are giving back.  By adding native plants to our gardens, we will help make our gardens not only beautiful, but also productive and full of life.

Pine Diseases Changing Landscapes Forever

The Arboretum continues to change. If you visited the Arboretum in the early years, you would have seen many different types of pine trees and other evergreens planted in groves. These pine trees initially flourished, even though they are not native to Kansas. However, over the past 20 years, the Arboretum has lost many of those original pine trees.

This is not an isolated problem. Whole shelterbelts, specimen trees and screens have been decimated by diseases exclusive to pines. What are the most common pine diseases and what can be done to control their spread? That is a question I’m often asked and there are no easy answers. I do suggest Kansas State Extension and online resources for more information.

Pine Wilt

Pine Wilt threatens to remove several pines permanently from the landscape. Discovered in Missouri in 1979, pine wilt is most serious on Scotch Pines but can infect Austrian and White Pines. Since that initial report, it has continued to move westward and has completely decimated all of the Scotch pines in the Arboretum.

Symptoms for Pine Wilt usually appear from August through December and cause the trees to wilt and die rapidly in a month or two. Trees may survive for more than one year but the result is always fatal. The needles turn from bluish-gray to yellow/brown and remain attached to the tree.

Several organisms play a role in the death of a tree. The pinewood nematode is transmitted from pine to pine by a bark beetle, the pine sawyer. Once inside the trunk, the microscopic worms feed on the blue stained fungi that live in the wood but also on the living plant cells surrounding the resin canals and water-conducting passages, essentially choking the tree. There are no highly effective management tactics. Dead pines should be promptly cut and destroyed before warm weather of spring. If this is not done, beetles can continue to emerge from the logs and infect more trees.

Austrian Pine dead from disease that will be removed this spring in the Arboretum

Other Pine Diseases

Foliar diseases such as Sphaeropsis Tip Blight (STB), Dothistroma Neddle Blight (DNB), and Brown Spot of Pines (BSoP) are caused by types of fungi that can infect both the new and old growth. Some of the species affected by these diseases include Austrian, Mugo, Scots, and Ponderosa Pines. The symptoms of STB appear on the current year’s shoots. As the new shoots emerge in the spring, they are susceptible to infection by the fungus. Any damaged area provides the spores a way into the tree. The spores are dispersed by water and require high humidity for germination and penetration of the host tissue. Both DNB and BSoP cause spotting of the needles and eventually premature defoliation. Transmission is again by water and moisture. In a year with many spring rains, the moisture can spread the spores like wildfire and many treatments are needed to keep them in check.

Treatment Options

These three foliar diseases can be treated with multiple applications of copper fungicides and Bordeaux mixtures in the spring and early summer. Treatments are costly and high pressure equipment is needed to project the spray to the top of the trees. It has been my experience that control of these diseases is difficult. Spray timing is critical, densely planted trees are highly susceptible, and infection occurs during excessive rainfall. Thinning trees and removing dead or diseased branches will prolong the life of the tree, but the best defense is to keep the trees healthy by providing adequate moisture and fertility.

Diversity is the Key

One of the key lessons we have learned from this experience is that diversity is vital to a successful landscape. Whether pine trees, deciduous tree, perennials or shrubs, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Establish a variety of plants adapted to your landscape rather than just one or two species. The truth is that you can do everything right and still lose an evergreen tree. Replant with a diverse variety of species so your whole landscape will not be open to widespread devastation again. There will be other diseases that come, but diversity will give you the edge.

Other Evergreens

New evergreen species are being trialed for adaptability in Kansas, but at this time there are not many viable alternatives other than our eastern red cedar with cultivars such as ‘Taylor’ and ‘Canaertii’. Southwestern White Pine (Pinus strobiformis), Arizona Cypress (Cupresses arizonica), Black Hills Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata) and Pinyon Pine (Pinus edulis) are also viable options. Full descriptions of these trees can be researched on the internet or you can come to the Arboretum and view them in person.

Pines like Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), Austrian (Pinus nigra) and Scotch (Pinus sylvestris) have been taken off the recommended tree list because they are so prone to disease. I would highly encourage you to visit the Kansas Forestry Service website at www.kansasforests.org . Once there, choose your region to view a full list of recommended trees for your area along with other informative publications.

Southwestern White Pine
Southwestern White Pine
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress scale-like needles

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

We encounter many enthusiastic new gardeners at FloraKansas who have heard about the importance of planting native plants, but don’t yet have the knowledge base needed to establish a successful planting. If you’re dreaming of a flourishing prairie pollinator garden, let me unpack the why behind the what of a few more horticultural terms for you.

Host Plants

Often, the focus for our gardens is on blooms and succession of blooms, more so than host plants.  Beautiful gardens in full bloom are what we see in catalogs, magazine and books. It is natural to gravitate toward these flourishing gardens that nectar-seeking butterflies need to sustain themselves. However, host plants (food for butterfly caterpillars) will keep them coming back to your landscape for years to come.    

It’s important to plan for the entire life cycle of a pollinator. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs.  Think of host plants as the baby nurseries of the garden. Female butterflies will flit and flutter through your garden looking for the right plant to lay their eggs. Some will lay their eggs on stems, or on the underside of leaves, hidden from predators. If you have a variety of host plants, you will attract a variety of butterflies. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Ultimately, the goal of any habitat garden is to provide everything those butterfly species need to complete their life cycle. Food for all stages of their life cycle, protection, and water are needed at different times throughout the year. The tiny larvae (caterpillars) will emerge and begin eating on the host plant. As they eat, they grow until they leave the plant and form a chrysalis. It is a fascinating process that you can watch unfold in your own garden. 

Here are a few host plants and the pollinator they attract:

  • Wild Lupine – Karner Blue butterfly
  • Golden alexander – Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • New Jersey Tea – Spring Azure butterfly
  • Columbine – Columbine Duskywing
  • Smooth Blue Aster – Crescent Butterflies
  • Little Bluestem – Leonard’s Skipper
  • Prairie Violet – Fritillary Butterflies
  • Pearly Everlasting – American Lady
  • Milkweeds – Monarchs
  • Paw Paw – Zebra Swallowtail butterfly
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly on Pawpaw tree at the Arboretum, photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Resource: Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe, and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press, 2014.

Sunlight Defined

Knowing how much light you have within your landscape is an important piece to a sound design. By simply watching sun patterns throughout the year, you will be able to determine how much sunlight your garden receives. Industry standards and labeling can then be used to assist in selecting the right plants for your landscape conditions. Here are some terms worth knowing since all plants require sunlight to grow, but differ in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. 

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day

Full Sun

Not surprisingly, this type of light describes what most prairie plants need. They enjoy open, bright sunny locations with direct sunlight for most of the day. This could also be morning shade/afternoon sun or vice versa, as long as there is at least 6 hours of continuous sunlight. Most of these plants have deeper root systems or adaptations that help them endure this light intensity for the growing season. 

Let experience be your guide when situating plants. Yes, some plants can handle full sun, but need protection for the hot afternoon sun. Or they can handle full sun with consistent moisture. This is the other reason to understand your site, including soil moisture, soil type, root competition and drainage.  All these factors directly affect plants too.  

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

These light definitions are quite a bit different than plants for full sun.  Plants for part sun and part shade obviously require less light, more importantly, the light intensity is a key factor for their endurance and success.  Filtered sun for most of the day or morning sun afternoon shade fit the bill for situating plants.  Too much direct sunlight for too long a period will stunt plants needing part sun or part shade. 

There is often a fine line between getting too much sun that the plants suffer and getting too little light that the plants don’t bloom. For either group, providing direct morning sun is often the best choice.

Full Shade

Most shade plants require anything from the dappled shade found under deciduous trees, indirect light found on the north side of the house or deeper shade found under evergreens. In our area, growing shade plants can be a challenge because we are trying to grow shade plants in what was once a prairie environment with intense full sun. True shade plants often perish because they get too much sun, too much hot dry wind and/or too little moisture.

To successfully grow shade plants in our area, they need protection and consistent moisture. Any shade gardens must mimic the woodland environment. Loamy soils with leaf litter, consistent moisture – but not too much! – and protection from drying winds. It can be a challenge, but shade gardens can be carefully created with the proper light conditions, too.

Dyck Arboretum woodland garden with columbine, woodland phlox, white woodland aster and solomon’s seal

Defining Common Horticultural Terms

There are many horticultural terms that get tossed around in casual conversation. We hear these words or phrases in presentations, and read them in books and seed catalogs. Presenters often assume that everyone knows what they mean without much explanation. Here are a just a few words I use from time to time that I would like to define for you.

Xeriscape

Denver Water coined the term xeriscape in 1981 by combining landscape with the Greek prefix xero-, from (xēros), meaning ‘dry’. Xeriscaping = water-conserving landscapes. This landscaping concept focuses on several water conserving measures such as:

  • Planning and design that matches plants to the site
  • Water-efficient plant materials, especially native plants
  • Efficient irrigation systems including drip irrigation
  • Use of water-conserving mulch or densely planted gardens
  • Soil preparation only if necessary
  • Appropriate turf since it can be very water consuming

Something to remember: a xeric garden can still be a beautiful garden. It will just require less water over time so it’s a win, win situation.

Xeric garden at the Arboretum

Habitat

A habitat garden is a garden that mimics the natural landscape while also providing food, shelter and potentially water for wildlife, including pollinators. A habitat garden has layers of plants and a succession of blooms. It is a very intentional way of landscaping focused more on giving back rather than taking something from your landscape. Don’t get me wrong, a habitat garden can still be beautiful, but it will certainly give you much more enjoyment as you attract a host of pollinator, birds and other wildlife to your yard.

Stratification

One of the most interesting processes I learned when I first started working at the Arboretum was the process of stratification. It intrigued me that I could collect seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse simply by simulating the chilling and warming that seeds would endure if left outdoors for the winter in their native climate. This chilling and warming that seeds are exposed to breaks down natural germination inhibitors until they are ready and able to germinate the next year.

This process is so important for plants and their survival because it keeps seeds from germinating the same year of development. They must go through a cold period such as winter before they are able to germinate. This does two important things: keeps seeds from germinating in the fall and allows the seeds to be worked into the soil over the winter with the natural freeze/thaw of the soil so they can germinate in spring.

If a seed would germinate in the fall, that tiny plant would not have enough time to develop a sustaining root system. The tiny seeding would not survive the winter. The natural process allows a seed to lay dormant all winter and germinated in the spring when conditions are more favorable for survival, it would have the entire growing season to develop a healthy root system.

This process of stratification is why we encourage people to scatter prairie wildflowers and grass seed in November and December. It allows time for this process to occur so the seeds will germinate the following year.

Hopefully, this is helpful. I will discuss some other terms in upcoming blogs.

2005 seed mix of wildflowers and grasses scattered on the Prairie Window Project at the Arboretum

Beyond Milkweed: More Plants for Monarchs

I recently read an interesting article about monarch butterflies and their migration needs. The foundation of any successful monarch migration rests on a sufficient supply of native milkweeds, as these are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat. However, there is ongoing research that suggests nectar plants besides milkweeds should receive more attention, since many milkweeds are done blooming when monarchs return to Mexico in the fall.        

Adult monarchs are generalist feeders, and they need varied nectar sources. This is why succession of bloom within your garden is so important.  A variety of beautiful wildflowers provide food for monarchs throughout the year, but also support many other butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife. Yes, milkweeds are still critical to include in your design since they are both a host plant and a nectar source. But here are some other plants that will assist monarchs as they migrate:

Trees and Shrubs

  • Ceanothus americanus/herbaceous (New Jersey Tea) – Attractive clusters of white flowers in spring and early summer. 
  • Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush) – Interesting white flowers May-September and beautiful fall color. Likes moisture and is great for heavy clay soils.
  • Prunus serotina  (Black Cherry) – Long clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring.  Large tree with fruit for birds later in the season.
  • Rhus spp. (sumac) – Shrubs or small trees with useful flowers for pollinators, fruit for other wildlife and good fall color. 
  • Heptacodium miconioides (Seven-son Flower) – Small ornamental tree with flowers in September.  Monarchs have flocked to our trees while in bloom. 
  • Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry) – Creamy white flowers in the summer atop this large wetland shrub.
  • Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) – Yellow-green flowers in the early spring.  Shrub with fragrant foliage and nice yellow fall color.    
  • Ribes odoratum (Clove Currant) – Bright yellow spicy scented flowers in April-May, followed by delicious black berries. It makes a nice understory shrub.
Monarchs on Seven Son Flower by Gerry Epp

Perennials other than Milkweeds

  • Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster) – Purple, pink and lavender blooms September and October are extremely important nectar sources for adult monarchs.
  • Other Aster species: Aromatic Aster, Sky blue Aster, and Heath Aster
  • Solidago sp. (Goldenrod sp.) – Bright yellow blooms in the late summer through early fall. 
  • Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’ (Ironweed) – Deep purple blooms in August and September.
  • Liatris sp. (Blazing Star) – Purple blooms on these diverse native perennials are a favorite of pollinators.
  • Echinacea sp. (Coneflowers) – These summer blooming wildflowers provide a perfect landing pad for monarchs and pollinators of all sorts. The seeds are eaten by birds through the winter. 
  • Pycnanthemum sp. Mountain Mint – These spreading wildflowers are usually covered with pollinators of all kinds when they bloom in the summer. Give them room in the garden because they do roam. 
  • Monarda sp. (Beebalm) – Fragrant foliage and bright pinkish blooms attract a host of pollinators. 
Monarch on New England Aster
Monarch on late blooming Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Barbara Beesley

Fuel for the Flight

Again, monarchs need milkweeds. These plants are vital to their reproductive processes. However, they need other nectar-rich wildflowers too. This is one of the weak points in their return migration journey.  As they migrate south in the fall, they are not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter. There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

It is so important to provide fuel and sustenance for Monarchs and other pollinators. Available milkweeds, nectar plants, along with water, trees or other protection at night for roosting and connected habitats will help them all along the way – south to north and back again.

Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.

Site Analysis to Guide Planting Decisions

While preparing for my “Site Analysis to Guide Planting Decisions” class last week, I came across the snippet below. I believe it is worth sharing because it helped me visualize the details needed to create a good design. As I was reading it through, I could see this landscape and my own landscape before me. They were laid out as a blank canvas to be explored and understood at a deep level.  I hope it helps you like it helped me.      

In our present power-happy and schedule-conscious era, this vitally important aspect of developing a simpatico feeling for the land and the total project site is too often overlooked. And too often our completed work gives tragic evidence of our haste and neglect.

In Japan, historically, this keen awareness of the site has been of great significance in landscape planning. Each structure has seemed a natural outgrowth of its site, preserving and accentuating its best features.

Studying in Japan, the author was struck by this consistent quality and once asked an architect how he achieved it in his work. “Quite simply,” said the architect. “If designing, say, a residence, I go each day to the piece of land on which it is to be constructed. Sometimes for long hours with a mat and tea. Sometimes in the quiet of evening when the shadows are long. Sometimes in the busy part of the day when the streets are abustle and the sun is clear and bright. Sometimes in the snow and even in the rain, for much can be learned of a piece of ground by watching the rainfall play across it and the runoff take its course in rivulets along the natural drainageways.

“Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment” by John Ormsbee Simonds

Illustrations from Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment by John Ormsbee Simonds.

The Poetry of Site Analysis — Seattle's Favorite Garden Store Since 1924 -  Swansons Nursery
The Poetry of Site Analysis — Seattle's Favorite Garden Store Since 1924 -  Swansons Nursery

I go to the land, and stay, until I have come to know it. I learn to know its bad features—the jangling friction of the passing street, the awkward angles of a windblown pine, an unpleasant sector of the mountain view, the lack of moisture in the soil, the nearness of a neighbor’s house to an angle of the property.

I learn to know its good features—a glorious clump of maple trees, a broad ledge perching high in space above a gushing waterfall that spills into the deep ravine below. I come to know the cool and pleasant summer airs that rise from the falls and move across an open draw of the land. I sense perhaps the deliciously pungent fragrance of the deeply layered cedar fronds as the warm sun plays across them. This patch I know must be left undisturbed.

I know where the sun will appear in the early morning, when its warmth will be most welcome. I have learned which areas will be struck by its harshly blinding light as it burns hot and penetrating in the late afternoon, and from which spots the sunset seems to glow the richest in the dusky peace of evening. I have marveled at the changing dappled light and soft, fresh colors of the bamboo thicket and watched for hours the lemon-crested warblers that have built their nests and feed there.

I come to sense with great pleasure the subtle relationship of a jutting granite boulder to the jutting granite profile of the mountainside across the way. Little things, one may think, but they tell one, ‘Here is the essence of this fragment of land; here is its very spirit. Preserve this spirit, and it will pervade your gardens, your home, and your every day.

And so I come to understand this bit of land, its moods, its limitations, its possibilities. Only now can I take my ink and brush in hand and start to draw my plans. But in my mind the structure by now is fully visualized. It has taken its form and character from the site and the passing street and the fragment of rock and the wafting breeze and the arching sun and the sound of the falls and the distant view.

Knowing the owner and his family and the things they like, I have found for them here a living environment that brings them into the best relationship with the landscape that surrounds them. This structure, this house that I have conceived, is no more than an arrangement of spaces, open and closed, accommodating and expressing in stone, timber, tile, and rice paper a delightful, fulfilling way of life. How else can one come to design the best home for this site?

There can be no other way! This, in Japan as elsewhere, is in simplest terms the planning process—for the home, the community, the city, the highway, or the national park.”

“Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment” by John Ormsbee Simonds

These few paragraphs resonated with me. I know we don’t have many waterfalls or granite mountains, but the idea is to identify elements worth keeping. What views do you want to frame or create? Although much has changed in landscaping over the decades since this was first published in 1961, the basic principles are the same. And there are consequences of a careless design. Landscapes that you appreciate the most don’t just happen by accident. Connecting with the land, “your piece of land”, is invaluable toward creating a sensitive, seamless design.

Combination of Butterfly weed with switchgrass

Watering Winter Landscapes

One key to successfully establishing plants in the fall is to periodically check them through the winter months. It has been an extremely dry fall and early winter in our area and for much of Kansas. More than likely, these new established plants are dry and would benefit from a deep soaking. Now is the time to check your plants if you have not already.

Trees and shrubs

Newly planted trees and shrubs are still growing as long as the ground is not frozen and will benefit from up to five gallons of water. Larger trees may need more water. If you have properly planted them with a small basin around the trunk, you can fill it with water and let the water percolate into the soil. This basin concentrates most of the moisture around the original root ball and those fresh new roots. I would even water trees and shrubs you planted within the last few years, because they have not fully developed sustaining root systems. Keep in mind that evergreen trees are always losing and using moisture. They are the most susceptible to desiccation during winter.

American Elm with soil basin for easy watering

Perennials

Hopefully, you were able to get your grasses and perennials established properly last fall. As part of the establishment process, roots attached to the damp soil and they were able to take up moisture on their own. As that soil has dried over the past few months, the perennials are at risk of drying out since they don’t have a deep fully developed root system. Check around the plants and water if the top couple of inches of soil is dry. Native grasses are not actively growing now since the soil temperature is below 60 degrees. But even grasses would absorb a little water this time of year, as well.

Summer and fall planted perennials and grasses, if dry, will benefit from a winter watering.

Watering options

  • Soaker hoses: Use pressure compensating soaker hoses for foundation plantings or shelterbelts
  • Overhead Sprinkler: Best for large areas of newly planted fescue or turf with competitive tree roots.
  • Five gallon bucket: Drill a small hole in the bottom of the bucket and let water slowly drain out over time.
  • Watering wand: Helps water specific plants and not overwater others that like it dryer.
  • Garden hose: Place at base of trees or shrubs and let trickle until soil is deeply soaked.

Frequency

Water every few weeks or every time the top couple inches of soil is dry. I go out and physically dig down in the soil to inspect moisture content. If I water this time of year, I make sure to drain any hoses and sprinklers when I am finished to prevent freeze damage.

It may seem like plants are fine since they are not actively growing this time of year, but it has been extremely dry. A quick inspection of the soil will tell you if you need to water or not. Be proactive and water during the winter months as needed. If you have already put the effort into planting them, why not help them along through this drought? Your plants will benefit from your diligence by producing blooms and habitat for you and wildlife next season.

Dividing Perennials

A perennial border is evolution on fast-forward, a watercolor in the rain, changing weekly as various species segue in and out of bloom – and yearly as its constituents dominate or yield, flourish or succumb, according to their natures.

John Friel from Friel World in Green Profit

Friel perfectly describes a native perennial border. Each plant grows according to its nature. Some are spreaders while some stay put or fade with competition. To keep all these plants happy and harmoniously growing together, a few plants may need to be thinned from time to time – divided so that they don’t dominate too much.

Front entrance sign will be updated with division of plants, especially grasses and asters.

When to Divide Your Perennials

As we move into spring, March and April is the best time to begin dividing perennials. You can divide in August and September, but excess growth and heat may hinder success. Dividing perennials can be stressful on the plants so dividing during times with cool, moist conditions will reduce shock. Another thing to keep in mind is that native grasses will not start to actively grow until soil temperatures reach at least 60 degrees. Grasses are often the last plants I divide in the spring. It’s good to wait until they are starting to show signs of life.       

Which Plants to Divide

  • Yarrow
  • Asters
  • Coral bells
  • Joe Pye weed
  • Liatirs
  • Monarda
  • Rudbeckia
  • Coreopsis
  • Spiderwort
  • Sneezeweed
  • Goldenrod
  • Echinacea purpurea varieties
  • Vernonia
  • Sunflowers
Black-eyed Susan is one of the easiest perennials to divide. (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Native grasses often form a “donut” – the center dies back with active growth on the outer edges. 

  • Panicum
  • Little Bluestem
  • Big Bluestem
  • Indiangrass
  • Sideoats
  • Blue Grama
Grass that would benefit from being divided

How to Divide Perennials

  • Dig the Clump

After you have identified the plants that need to be divided, the next step is to dig the entire clump out of the ground.  If the soil is dry, it is beneficial to water the area a few days ahead to soften the soil.  With well-established grasses this may be a challenge, but it is important to work at it until it is removed. Grasses are resilient and can take much abuse in this division process. I have even worked at removal with a pick axe. Remove the clump/clumps from the hole and set it aside. Brush off excess soil to reveal the growing points.   

  • Separate the growing points/crowns and replant   

Some plants are easier to pull apart than others. For instance, asters are easier to pull apart than switchgrass. Usually, I break these clumps in to 1/16th, 1/8th or ¼ pieces. Each clump needs to have a few leaves or healthy growing points and roots in order to grow. Then, replant the divisions as soon as possible so the roots don’t dry out. I put them back into the same hole from which they were removed. Plant at the same depth as before and water well. Cover any bare soil with mulch to help conserve moisture while your new divisions become established. Left over plants can be shared with friends or composted. 

  • Water well

Reestablish these divisions as you would any newly planted perennial. Water daily depending on the weather for the first two weeks. Once you see new growth, reduce water frequency to every other day or every three days. You have removed much of the supporting root system so it will take at least a season to get that back. Also, I would not fertilize the new transplants, because it will encourage top growth that is not sustainable with the new root system.

Which Plants to NOT Divide

While most perennials benefit from being divided every few years, there are a few perennials with deep taproots that are better left alone. You will be more successful planting new seedlings than trying to dig these plants out of the ground. In my experience, it is easier to start with a plant than to remove these plants. Too much damage is inflicted on the taproot. Avoid dividing these varieties:

  • Baptisia
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
  • Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea paradoxa)

We have divided and transplanted hundreds of plants over the years and I don’t believe I’ve ever lost one. Native perennials are resilient and recover from being transplanted in about a week. They may look rough the first year, but they will really come to life the next year. Go out in the next few weeks and identify a few plants that would benefit from a fresh start.

Looking forward to spring! (Photo by Brad Guhr)