Lessons from my small shade garden

I have two large pin oak trees in my back yard.  They are one of the reasons I purchased the house.  They are healthy – for the most part – and don’t suffer the blight of most pin oak trees in south central Kansas, Iron Chlorosis.  I appreciate the shade they give my house, especially in the late afternoon.  Each of them is about 50 years old. I have long been envisioning a shade garden underneath them.

Last spring, I finally got around to planting a few shade plants in a small space I had developed long ago under one of these trees.  I was determined to find some plants that would grow in the shadow of this tree.  Root competition is a problem as well.  Honestly, I have struggled to grow anything under their shade. 

Woodland Phlox

Here are a few of the plants that survived in my shade garden, with a few even already blooming this spring.

  • Woodland Phlox
  • Barren Strawberry
  • American Columbine
  • Yellow Columbine
  • Bluebird Columbine
  • Variegated Solomon’s Seal
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Elm-leaf Goldenrod
  • White Woodland Aster
  • Mayapple
  • Liverleaf
  • Golden Ragwort
  • Herman’s Pride Yellow Archangel
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Rose Sedge
  • Evergold Sedge
  • Plantain Sedge
  • Pennsylania Sedge
  • June Hosta
Rose Sedge
Plantain Sedge

Watering

As you can see, I had quite a few plants survive these adverse conditions.  One of the biggest lessons was to regularly water the area.  I spent the first three weeks after planting hand watering each plant.  Once I noticed that the plants were starting to put on new growth, I backed off the watering and just watered as needed.  I would frequently check the top inch or two of soil for moisture.  If it seemed dry, I would hand water again.  I followed this regimen throughout the remainder of the growing season.  Keep in mind that you are trying to grow shade plants in an area that was once predominately prairie.  Supplemental moisture is required for those plants to survive. 

Sweet Woodruff

Leaves

Essentially, I left the leaves as they fell from the tree to a depth of one to three inches.  These leaves are good insulation and eventually break down to release nutrients.  Of course, too many leaves can be a problem too.  Gently remove excess leaves that blow in from other areas.

Barren Strawberry

Disappearance

I had some plants disappear last summer.  Some of the Solomon ’s seal faded into the soil.  Remarkably they are coming back to life this spring.  I kept watering them even though they went dormant.  A spring ephemeral like mayapple is supposed to go dormant, so I was certain it would return. However, the solomon’s seal made me wonder about their survivability.  Shade plants are resilient.  They surprised me with their return this spring. 

Mayapple
Solomon’s Seal

A few additions

Bolstered by my success, here are a few plants I plan to add to this new shade garden.

  • Geranium maculatum ‘Crane Dance’
  • Celandine Poppy
  • Crested Iris
  • Jack in the pulpit
  • Bluestem Goldenrod
  • Early Meadow Rue

I have been reluctant to start converting my dark and barren patch of ground into a shade garden.  It has been really rewarding to see this garden come to life this spring.  It took a little forethought and tenacity to make this garden take shape.  It is not perfect, but I have a better handle on how to enhance it and help it through our Kansas summers.

Native Grasses for Color, Movement and Structure

Many people have a love/hate relationship with ornamental grasses.  They know they need them in the landscape, but the loose, naturalistic look of grasses makes the garden seem untidy or a little too “wild”.  However, these attitudes are beginning to change, especially as people notice how landscape designers like Piet Oudolf incorporate native grasses throughout their designs.  Unkempt gardens are suddenly becoming vogue.    

Native grasses can be wonderful assets, bringing color, structure and varying textures to the garden. In the autumn and winter, grasses harmonize and soften the landscape providing movement with the gentlest breeze. More and more, I have been blending grasses into designs.  Grasses anchor a landscape and they are tough and resilient, too. Drifts of grasses all through the design along with mixing and matching grasses with wildflowers for structure and contrast looks more prairie-esque. 

There are new varieties of ornamental grasses to choose from every year.  Native grasses with their deep roots are suited to dry and sunny conditions, some even can thrive in wetter soils.  The following list of grasses we use here at the Arboretum in sunny borders and intermingled with wildflowers. They will be available at the spring FloraKansas: Native Plant Festival.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep.  It perseveres in tallgrass prairies. The vertical stems stand firmly, sway with only a slight breeze, and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange.  The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”.  Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil. ‘Blackhawks’, ‘Red October’ or ‘Rain Dance’ are nice varieties to use in the landscape. 

Big Bluestem/Turkey foot grass

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement. For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil. It is very drought tolerant. Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’- consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’- red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’- tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Northwind Switchgrass
Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

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Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies. I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings.  Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top. It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun. Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.

Indiangrass Seedhead Plumes

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’)      

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids. I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers. They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest. This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens.


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting Little Bluestem. for the most part it remains upright even through the winter. The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion. The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall. It truly has a carousel of color. It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed Susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape. Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’.

Blue Heaven’ Little Bluestem


Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country. To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green. In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn. With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories. It requires almost no maintenance once established. Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings. 

Prairie Dropseed with Giant Blackeyed Susan and Yellow Coneflowers

There’s really nothing like tall grasses waving in the breeze. The colors and textures change with the seasons. Don’t forget, they also provide a crucial habitat for birds and pollinators. They are in more and more of my designs because they add so much to the landscape. They don’t necessarily bloom in the same way that wildflowers do, but native ornamental grasses are both functional and visually appealing throughout the growing season and into the winter.


Landscaping to Attract Pollinators

This time of year, we are all evaluating our yards and landscapes as we prepare for spring.  If you are like me, you want your landscape to do so much more.  I want beautiful plants and season-long bloom.  I want to choose plants that require less water.  I want to provide a setting that attracts pollinators and wildlife of all forms.  For those focused on gardening to attract pollinators, here is a checklist to follow to welcome more wildlife into your landscape. 

Meet their basic needs

Generally, pollinators need three things: food (nectar and pollen), water and shelter.  Native plants are more attractive to different pollinators than exotic (non-native) plants.  These native pollinators have adapted to the life cycles of the native wildflowers and seek them out. 

Photo by Dave Osborne

Choose location wisely

Native plants generally require less water and thrive with minimal attention if properly sited and established.  Take the time to do your homework and choose plants that grow best in your soil and site conditions.  Look for a sunny area (6+ hours of direct sunlight) with areas of shelter on the peripheries from strong winds.  Design your landscape to include a water source.  A simple bird bath with a stone inside so pollinators can land will suffice. 

Design in clusters

A cluster of wildflowers of one species in bloom will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered throughout the landscape.  I like to plant in odd number groups such as three, five, or seven and include plants with purple, yellow, white, blue or violet. 

Provide diverse nectar sources

Wildflowers come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  This diversity is attractive to pollinators, too.  There are over four thousand species of bees in North America.  They are different in size, shape and they feed on different shaped flowers.  Having a diversity of plants means more pollinators can benefit. 

Succession of bloom

Wildflowers should be coming into and out of bloom throughout the growing season.  With several plant species flowering at once, and a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer and fall, you will sustain a range of pollinator species that fly at different times of the year. 

Plant milkweeds

Monarch Watch encourages the planting of milkweed species because monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds.  Milkweeds are so important to the life cycle of monarchs.  For our area, they recommend common, swamp, butterfly, spider, and Sullivant milkweeds.  We will have these milkweeds at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Native Plant Guide
Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

Identify your motivation

Is it important to provide habitat for bees and butterflies?  Is it important to conserve water?  Do you want more from your landscape than sporadic blooms and a haphazard design?  Are conservation and stewardship efforts important to you? 

Monarch populations have been dwindling.  Bees are threatened by the environment, disease, pesticides, herbicides, and beehive decline. According to Monarch Watch, the United States consume habitat for monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres a day, or 2.2 million acres per year.  We could help offset these losses by creating a landscape that welcomes birds, pollinators and other wildlife. 

If you have questions about landscaping with native plants, the Arboretum staff or volunteers can help you plan and design a landscape that will attract pollinators AND meets your expectations.  Check with us during the spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.  We offer species and varieties that pollinators love.  No amount of effort is too small to have a positive impact.

Succession of Bloom

Every gardener strives to have a continuous symphony of flowers in their gardens from spring through fall.  However, most gardens, including some of mine, seem patchy in appearance with sporadic blooms from time to time.  Although a continuous floral bloom is the goal, it is often not achieved unless a method called succession planting has been implemented. 

Succession of bloom is used to describe a diverse set of plants in a flower border that will always have interest. At any given time during the growing season there are plants coming into bloom and fading out of bloom.  This consistent bloom is important in a design, especially when using native plants.   

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie. If you visit a prairie landscape like the Konza Prairie every two to three weeks throughout the year, you will observe plants beginning to bloom, in full bloom or going out of bloom. That is how you need to design your native landscape. Include plants that bloom in every season of the year and then strategically add grasses for movement and texture in the winter months.

In my opinion, succession of bloom is one of the most important concepts in native plant design, right after site considerations and matching plants up to your site. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know, the easier it will be to seamlessly incorporate them into your design. Succession of bloom always provides something of interest in the garden, but it also provides season-long food for pollinators and other wildlife.   

Starting a List

Put together a list of plants that bloom at different seasons and will grow well in your area.  Include early season bloomers, midseason bloomers, and late season bloomers. Select a set of grasses that combine well with those wildflowers or provide backdrop for other perennials in front of them. 

Native Plant Guide
Working on a landscape design for one of our members.

Begin the Design

As you layout your plants in your design, think about heights and layer of plants. Typically, there are only three or four layers of plants.  Plants 4-18 inches tall in the front, middle layers of 18-24 inches and 24-48 and then taller perennials at 48+ inches tall.  These tiers guide how I combine the plants and layout the design. 

Initial planting next to the Prairie Pavilion.
Needs more grasses and wildflowers to fill the gaps and cover the mulch.

Layout

Always think about foliage and flowers. In matrix planting, made popular by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, every square inches is covered with plant material.  From the groundcover layer through the seasonal interest layer and on up through the structural layer, plants crowd out weeds and mimic the prairie community.  Keep in mind, blooms will fade, so foliage is important too. Seed heads can be supported and highlighted with grasses. A striking example is the dark seed heads of coneflowers later in the season with little bluestem.

Little Bluestem and Pale Coneflower seedheads

Plant in smaller groups

I prefer to plant is smaller groups such as five, seven or nine individual plants. Often, I will mix in some native grasses with the wildflowers. A larger swath of something out of bloom leaves a large void in the design, especially if it blooms in the spring. Plant closely enough so that foliage intermingles. If plants are spaced too far apart that there is more mulch or soil than plants, this void will draw your eye to the plant that is out of condition. By planting densely, you will hardly notice a plant out of bloom. 

The example below is simplistic, but the concept is the same. Succession planting combines specific plants for your garden that all look good together and bloom at different seasons. Try to avoid planting two different groups of plants next to each other that bloom at the same time. Those groups will leave a larger hole in the landscape.   

Example: nine coneflowers (pink) with five little bluestem ‘Twilight Zone’ (blue) planted next to seven Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ (yellow) which is planted next to three Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite (purple).

Your pattern can be continued or another set of seasonal plants can be incorporated into the design. This is also a tier in the overall design. They are all about the same heights. Plant something taller behind and shorter in front of these perennials.

Succession planting is very rewarding, and these simple techniques should guide the process. Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know the easier it will be to combine them according to bloom time. Succession planting is something that we all respond to, and brings the garden together visually.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web: Part 3 – Shrubs

Over the past few weeks, we have been listing native wildflowers that support the food web. Because many species of insects have suffered significant declines, any help we can give them will make a real difference in their life cycles. Our goal should be to provide habitat for the largest possible number of insects, pollinators and other wildlife. On that theme, here is a list of native shrubs to aid the food web.

Prunus

This diverse genus includes: sandhill plum, dwarf sand cherry, chokecherry, plum, and wild plum. These spring blooming shrubs attract many species of insects, and their fruit later in the season is a favorite of wildlife, including birds. 

These plants support over 450 Lepidoptera species, including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Coral Hairstreak, Striped Hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple, Cecropia moth, Promethea moth, and Hummingbird Clearwing. 

Sandhill plum-Prunus angustifolia Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Not all of these shrubs are garden worthy because of their spreading/suckering root systems and size. My preference would be to relegate many of these to the outskirts of my property so they can comingle with each other and form a nice thicket. 

Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’s is a nice small shrub with excellent characteristics.

Side note: The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a 35-45 foot tree with fragrant, pendulous flowers that burst open in spring, resulting in loads of fruit cherished by wildlife.  This is one of the top choices among woody trees for its exceptional support of wildlife. 

Dogwoods

Dogwoods support specialist bees, generalist bees and over 100 caterpillars. This too is a diverse genus of varying heights, forms and textures. These spring/summer blooming shrubs or small trees attract aphids, beetles, flies, grasshoppers, sawflies and wasps. The fruit are eaten by birds. Many species form thickets or have dense branching that provides shelter as well. 

Of the native species, the Redtwig Dogwood is the most common.  Its red and yellow stems stand out in the winter landscape. Cultivars include ‘Cardinal’, ‘Arctic Fire’, Arctic Fire Yellow’, and ‘Winer Flame‘. 

Other dogwoods worth mentioning are Cornus amomum ‘Red Rover’, Cornus drummundii (rough-leaf dogwood), and Cornus racemosa

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is difficult to grow in our area because most cultivars need acidic soil. They are more common in southeast Kansas and into the Ozarks. If you are lucky enough to see these bloom in the wild you will be awestruck. They are one of the most conspicuous and attractive flowering trees in our area. 

Rough-leaf dogwood bloom

Viburnum

Kansas is home to two viburnums, Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum  prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum). They can be found in the wild, east of Wichita and into southeast Kansas. The creamy-white blooms in the spring attract all sorts of pollinators. Fruit in the late summer into fall is the first choice of birds. These are large shrubs or small trees that ultimately reach 10-12 feet tall and each has attractive fall color. 

There are hundreds if not thousands of viburnums and viburnum cultivars. A couple others worth mentioning are ‘Allegheny’ which has semi-evergreen foliage and Viburnum dentatum cultivars (Blue Mufffin, All that Glitters, and All that Glows) with their abundant fruit displays. 

Blackhaw Viburnum fruit-Viburnum prunifolium

Other shrubs to consider:

  • New Jersey Tea – Ceanothus americanus
  • black chokeberry – Aronia melanocarpa
  • Willows, Salix sp. – (#1 plant supporting bees)
  • Pussy Willow – Salix discolor
  • buttonbush – Cephalanthus occidentalis
  • elderberry – Sambucus canadensis
  • eastern ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius
  • St. Johnswort – Hypericum densiflorum
  • spicebush Lindera benzoin
  • swamp rose – Rosa palustris
  • winterberry – Ilex verticillata
  • Witch-hazel - Hamamelis virginiana
  • Inkberry – Ilex glabra
  • Deciduous holly –Ilex decidua
  • Winterberry – Ilex verticillata
  • red chokeberry - Aronia arbutifolia
  • Fragrant Sumac – Rhus aromatica
  • Eastern Ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius
  • Fringetree – Chionanthus virginicus
New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus

Among woody plants, these shrubs will add much diversity to your landscape and attract a diverse set of wildlife. By offering abundant food sources to insect and wildlife throughout the growing season, you will naturally expand what you see in your garden. We must consciously consider plants that fit both the insects’ needs and our longing for garden beauty. We can have the best of both worlds. 

Side note: Of all plants studied by Doug Tallamy, he found that oaks support the most caterpillars. Obviously, these are not shrubs, but rather large trees. Oaks must be one of your first choices when considering shade trees for your landscape. Recommended trees of south-central Kansas.

Mighty Burr Oak ready for spring and all those caterpillars.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web, Part 2

A couple weeks ago, we laid the ground work for enhancing the food web by listing some of the keystone species gardeners should include in their landscapes. When choosing plants to support insects, the foundation of the food web in our gardens, we want to make the most of our space. 

Insects are typically not picky when it comes to food sources, but they do have their preferences.  Here is an extension of that original list to give you more options to diversify your plantings and support a more robust food web in your habitat garden.

Grasses

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

This native bunchgrass can be found throughout the Great Plains. It reaches two to three feet tall and prefers a medium to dry well-drained soil. Give it plenty of sunlight for best growth. It is the larval host for many species of butterflies including Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, and Cobweb Skipper. 

‘Twilight Zone’ is a nice cultivar with purple green foliage during the growing season and good fall color.

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem. Photo courtesy Walter Gardens

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Blue grama forms dense clumps and is extremely drought tolerant. Use in a sunny spot as a ground cover or mix with buffalograss for an easy-care lawn substitute.  The flowers look like tannish eyelashes that are attractive well into winter. There are over 10 butterfly larvae that feed on blue grama, including many skippers, Ottoe, Leonards, and Uncas; but also Mead’s wood nymph and the garita skipperling.  

My favorite cultivar of blue grama is ‘Blonde Ambition’. Several birds have been noted feeding on blue grama seed, including grassland sparrows, wrens and wild turkeys.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition
Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’

Wildflowers

Beardtongue (Penstemon sp.)

To see huge bumble bees crawling into these tubular flowers in the spring is fun to watch. The longer lower lip of the flower makes a perfect landing pad. Many of the species have distinct lines leading to the back of the flower known as nectar guides. These lines act like runway lights, leading pollinators to the back of the flower where the nectar is located. 

Penstemons are a diverse species, but some of our native Kansas species like Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon grandiflorus, Penstemon tubaeflorus and Penstemon digitalis put on quite a show in the spring. My favorite penstemon variety is ‘Dark Towers’.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.)

Black-eyed Susan is one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Its bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity.  Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on their nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter. 

Missouri blackeyed susan and Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ are garden worthy perennials. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.)

There are so many choices when it comes to coneflowers. Oranges, yellows, reds, greens, pinks and every shade imaginable. The options are endless, but I always try to include some of the true native coneflowers in my designs. Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea paradoxa and Echinacea purpurea are all pollinator magnets. Be sure to avoid any coneflowers with double blooms. They may look cool, but they do nothing for pollinators, because they either don’t produce nectar or pollen or, because of their double-decker nature, don’t allow bees access to it.

Native bees (bumble bees, sweat, mining and sunflower bees) along with honey bees and butterflies (monarchs, swallowtails, sulfurs, fritillaries and many others) glom onto these summer blooming (May-August) perennials.  Coneflowers can be quite adaptable, but most appreciate at least 6 hours of direct sun. 

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

The unique globelike blossoms of rattlesnake master attract many types of small native bees and syrphid (hover) flies.  I have seen the tan hollow stems used by overwintering tunnel-nesting bees. Rattlesnake master is the host plant for rattlesnake master borer moth.

Rattlesnake master in full bloom

Narrow-leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

As a member of the mint family, narrow-leaf mountain mint has a tendency to spread, but it is a garden worthy wildflower because of the diverse pollinators it attracts.  Bees, wasps, moths, ants, flies, beetles and many types of butterflies including Ladies and smaller Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Blues, Common Buckeyes seek out this plant’s frosty white blooms.  It also attracts beneficial insects for biological control of pests.

A few others worth considering

  • Campanula         Bellflower          
  • Cirsium                 Thistle  
  • Claytonia             Spring-beauty  
  • Erythronium       Trout-lily             
  • Geranium            Cranesbill           
  • Helenium            Sneezeweed     
  • Heuchera            Coral Bells          
  • Hibiscus                Rose-mallow     
  • Monarda             Bee Balm
  • Oenothra            Evening Primrose
  • Packera                Groundsel
  • Polemonium      Jacob’s-ladder
  • Pontederia         Pickerel Weed
  • Potentilla             Cinquefoil
  • Uvularia               Bellwort
  • Verbena              Vervain
  • Viola                      Violet
  • Zizia                       Golden Alexanders

Solution gardening works to solve a problem with your landscape.  These lists of plants should be considered first to curb the decline of threatened specialist insects. Our goal should be to provide habitat for the largest possible number of insect species and to support a healthy food web. Having most or all of these keystone species in your landscape will make your landscape part of the solution to reversing drastic declines of pollinators in recent years.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web

Last week during my Native Plant School class, I had an interesting question posed to me and it made me pause to think.  The question was “Do you have a list of keystone native perennials for a healthy food web?”  The person obviously had been reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.

The food web includes, plants, insects, pollinators, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and mammals, from rodents up through bears.  Each is reliant on the other for their survival. Tallamy focuses much attention on trees that support the food web such as oaks, cherry, cottonwood, willow, and birch.  However, there are many native perennials that are also key components of this food web. To provide a solid foundation for a healthy food web in your garden, start with this list of native wildflowers to include in your landscape:

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

These summer blooming wildflowers with bright yellow flowers can be striking in the landscape. However, they have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time. The plant is insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar.  In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia.  It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod with red switchgrass

Asters

A diverse genus that supports 112 species of insects, asters are a valuable late-season (September – November) source of pollen for bees and nectar for bees and butterflies. During the summer, the asters are host plants to the caterpillars of some of the crescent and checkerspot butterflies. As summer wanes, asters start blooming with colors of white, purple, and pink depending on the species.  Fall provides a unique challenge for pollinators and asters help with both migration and overwintering butterflies and bees. 

A few of my recommended forms are Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’, Aster novae-angliae varieties, Aster laevis and Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ for sun.  In a shady area, try Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’, Aster cordifolius, and Aster macrophyllus.

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)

There are eleven species of sunflower recorded in Kansas. These wildflowers are not usually fit for a formal garden setting, because they spread vigorously by seeding and rhizomes.  They have a tendency to push out other desirable plants.  However, they support 73 species of insects, so we maybe need to find a place for them. 

I’m not referring to the large-headed annual cultivars you see growing in a field, but rather the true native perennials with bright yellow flowers seen growing along the roadside in the late summer and early fall.  Plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. I would encourage you to try a few sunflowers in the peripheral areas of your yard where they can spread out and have room to roam. 

Maximillian Sunflower and Big Bluestem

Milkweeds

Monarchs are in peril. Milkweeds are one of the answers to reversing their plight. By planting more milkweeds, monarch will find these larval food sources more readily. Milkweeds are larval host plants for Monarch and Queen Butterflies and the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Many bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles visit milkweed flowers for the nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar that it is replenished overnight. Nocturnal moths feast at night and other pollinators flock to these important plants during the day. 

Choose butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or green antelope horn milkweed for your formal garden and common, Sullivant’s, or whorled milkweeds for the outskirts of your property. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.

Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.)

Liatris are very important wildflowers. The vibrant purple blooms in summer support many great insect species. They are quite adaptive with different species growing in dry to moist soil conditions. There is literally a blazing star for just about every garden setting. 

I prefer Liatris pycnostachya and Liatris aspera, but many others, including Liatris ligulistylis and Liatris punctata, are nice too.    

Liatris pycnostachya

There is a growing body of research that touts the benefits of keystone species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses to the food web. According to Doug Tallamy, landscapes without keystone plants will support 70–75% fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone plants, even though it may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area.

Planting just natives is not enough. Garden designs and plant communities must contain at least some keystone plants to positively impact the food web. This is the start of a list, but there are certainly more plants to choose from.  Look for more suggestions in the coming weeks. 

Garden Inspiration for 2021

In this season of overwhelming change and uncertainty, one of the places that has brought me solace is my home and landscape. I don’t believe I am alone in seeking garden inspiration these days.

Many people are discovering the peace that comes from gardening and adding plants to their lives. We have been stuck at home so it gave us the opportunity to focus on the immediate space around us. There’s something satisfying about planting something, tending it and then watching it grow.  It is also very satisfying to create a diverse habitat that brings wildlife to your yard.

In 2021, engaging in gardening activities will continue to be a very important and necessary part of our lives.  Here are a few bits of garden inspiration for this season of change: 

Garden as Teacher

More people than ever got back into their gardens last year. That trend will continue in 2021. Gardening can help us in so many ways and even gardening failures hold important lessons to be learned. New or experienced gardeners will embrace getting their hands dirty while growing their own food, creating a habitat garden, learning gardening basics or creating a landscape design. Many people are turning to their gardens for a place to escape, relax and unwind. 

Natives First

Sustainability has become more important to gardeners.  Gardeners are looking for information about how they can make their gardens more environmentally friendly.  Choosing native perennials that grow best in our region should be the starting point for any new landscape design. Their deep roots and adaptability will conserve natural resources.  It is crucial that you match plants to your site. For example, put plants that need more water in spots where the soil stays moist. Use our Native Plant Guide or the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to identify plants suited for your area.

Enhancing Nature

We are no longer gardening just for our own enjoyment, but also for the restorative effect our gardens can have on nature. Our gardens can become havens for birds, bees, and other pollinators.

Our staff recently heard a presentation from entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. He shared his vision of transforming 20 million acres of North American lawns into a “homegrown national park”.

“…each of the acres we have developed for specific human goals is an opportunity to add to Homegrown National Park. We already are actively managing nearly all of our privately owned lands and much of the public spaces in the United States. We simply need to include ecological function in our management plans to keep the sixth mass extinction at bay.”

Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard

Our gardens, no matter the size, can have an impact in sustaining wildlife and reversing the perilous trends that are endangering nature’s delicate balance.

Growing Food at Home

In this pandemic, growing your own food is both therapeutic and reassuring. Foods of all kinds have been grown is all sorts of spaces: in containers on a balcony, in raised beds, or large garden plots, homeowners are more interested than ever in growing their own food. If you want to learn more about growing your own mushrooms, join our Mushrooms in Kansas Symposium

Going Online for Garden Inspiration

This trend is not going away anytime soon. There is a wealth of information at the click of a button online. Searches can reveal more than you ever wanted to know about perennials, trees and shrubs. With limited in-person learning opportunities such as our Native Plant School classes, you can now learn just about anything from the comfort of your own home.

However, it is important that you be discerning in what you try out in your own prairie-based landscape. Take recommendations with a grain of salt, become familiar with your own piece of land and read critically. Just because it looks beautiful in Virginia doesn’t mean it should be planted in Kansas.

Curbside (Greenhouse-side?) Pickup

It is so convenient to put in an order online and pick it up two hours later at the grocery store. This trend is obviously happening at garden centers and plant sales as well.  We will again be taking orders online for our Spring
FloraKansas Native Plant Festival
. We are committed to providing a safe process for Kansas gardeners to get the gardening plants and supplies they need for their landscape spaces.     

Styles and trends come and go. There are plenty of trends to use in your garden, this year and every year after that. Ultimately, you will embrace the trends that mean the most to you. Hopefully, your garden will deeply inspire and impact you and the natural world in a positive way in 2021. 

Defining Sun Requirements for Native Plants

Knowing how much light a plant needs to thrive should be a simple question, but it is often easily misunderstood. There are so many different descriptions for sun requirements or exposure found on plant labels, but they don’t provide all the information you may need to make the right selection for your yard. Are these descriptions for Kansas or Virginia? Can a plant survive in full sun with 30 inches of average rainfall or does it need 50 inches?  Does it need full sun with protection from the hot afternoon sun? 

Plant labeling has been getting better and more consistent, so understanding a few key terms will assist in selecting the right plant for your landscape conditions. Let’s take a closer look.

Terminology

Every plant in the landscape needs sunlight to grow.  Even shade plants with their adaptations need a certain amount of light to grow and prosper. Plant labels identify the amount of sun a plant requires as full sun, part sun, part shade full shade, or dense shade:

  • 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
  • Dense shade – No direct sunlight and little indirect light reaches the ground.

A Closer Look at the Terms

Full Sun

Most prairie plants fall into this category of sunlight exposure. This light is bright, sunny for most of the day like in open areas and backyards. These spaces get at least six hours of direct sunlight and need to be planted with full sun plants. Their deep roots and natural adaptations for direct sunlight will help them thrive in this harsh environment. Silver or gray leaves, pubescent leaves, or leaf orientation are adaptations that help them prosper in these sunny areas. 

There are other plants that appreciate some protection from the hottest part of the days, but they still need at least six hours of direct light. Keep in mind that full sun in the Smoky Mountains and full sun in Texas are different.  So, think critically about your local site, because some experimentation may still be needed.

Kansas Gayfeather in full sun

Part Sun and Part Shade

When I think about part sun and part shade, savannah plants come to mind. They are tucked up close to the margins of the forest. They transition from prairie plants to woodland plants. Some will get sunlight for most of the day, but not often. It is not the hottest direct sun. 

Part sun and part shade are very similar, but there are subtle differences. These two terms can be understood quite differently. Most plants requiring either part sun or part shade do well in filtered light for most of the day. In Kansas, a plant requiring part sun or part shade needs to be protected from the more intense afternoon sun. Give it morning sun to keep it happy.

Plants requiring part shade can be quite sensitive to too much direct sun, particularly in the afternoon, and will need shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Plants requiring part sun can usually tolerate more light and need a minimum amount of direct sun to thrive. These plants may bloom poorly if given too little sun.

For either group, providing a few hours of direct morning sun is a good choice.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea-Purple coneflower appreciates partial sun conditions
photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Full Shade

Plants requiring full shade are the most challenging in Kansas. Essentially, we are trying to grow shade plants in a prairie environment with lots of sun and inconsistent moisture. Shaded areas typically stay dry and need supplemental moisture to grow full shade plants. Full shade plants require anything less than three hours of direct light such as morning sun and late evening sunlight. Protection from the hot midday sun is very important.  Filtered light, such as that found beneath a tree canopy, is a good setting for full shade plants. This type of light is referred to as dappled shade and offers many gardening opportunities.

Native columbine thriving in the shade of an elm tree

Dense Shade

Dense shade may occur under a dense evergreen tree against a fence, or the north side of your house protected by a deck. These areas get little if any sunlight throughout the day. These problem areas are usually dark and can stay very wet or very dry. There is not much you can do under these conditions, but maybe a ground cover or decorative yard element would be a good choice. Plants need some light and you are fighting nature by trying to grow something without much light. Rather focus on the areas that do have some light to draw your eyes away from this area. 

It is best to become familiar with sun exposure in your landscape by checking on light conditions throughout the day and over the course of a full growing season. Growing plants in Kansas can be a test of your will, so match plants up to your landscape based on light conditions in your landscape. I have found that if you get this requirement right, some of the other elements like soil, water and fertility will sort themselves out on their own.

Bagworms: Pest Spotlight

Bagworms have done tremendous damage this year.  Here at the Arboretum, we made multiple applications to our junipers and spruce to get them under control.  Thankfully, we have not had to manage bagworms the past five years too much. However, across the countryside this year, juniper shelter belts are covered with thousands of brown bags dangling from the branches.  These are not very festive and don’t bode well for 2021.  

Bagworm Life Cycle

Here is a glimpse into the various bagworm life cycle stages throughout the year:

In late May through early June, the eggs deposited in the bags the previous fall begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, the larva spins a silk strand that hangs down. These larva begin eating immediately or wind transports them to nearby plants.

Once the larva finds a host, it starts to make a new protective bag around itself. It remains inside this bag, sticking only its head out to eat from the host. If large populations exist on the same plant, they can do tremendous damage as they continue to mature.    

The larva continues feeding until it matures by the end of August. It then attaches the bag they are in to a branch with a strand of silk and starts developing into a pupa.

Adult male worms appear in September. These are tiny, grayish, moth-like insects with fur on their body and transparent wings. Adult bagworm females are wingless. They never leave the protective bag.

Mature male and female worms mate with each other to produce offspring. Strikingly, these pests die after mating. Male moths die outside the bag while females die inside the bag and get mummified around the mass of up to 1000 eggs in her case.  The eggs hatch in end-May or beginning of June the following year. 

Only one generation of bagworm eggs are produced every year.

Bagworm Hosts

Bagworms feed on a wide variety of trees and shrubs, but is primarily a pest on evergreens such as arborvitae and Eastern red cedar, cypress, and spruce. Bagworms are quite adaptive. In the absence of these preferred hosts, bagworm will eat the foliage of just about any tree: fir, pine, hemlock, sweetgum, sycamore, honey locust, black locust, willow. Adult moths do not feed, living just long enough to mate. I have even seen them hanging off brick foundations, signs, and houses.  They use the paint flecks to camouflage themselves.

Natural Controls

Each year, bagworm populations vary widely.  Parasitic wasps, diseases, low winter temperatures, bird predation affect population size.  Sometimes large populations are shortlived and let’s hope that is the case this year.  With large populations existing this year, we are set for another bagworm problem in 2021 if some of these other controls don’t happen.

Manual Controls 

Because bagworms are so conspicuous, overwintering bags and the eggs they contain can be picked from small trees and shrubs now and then destroyed. This is a viable option on small areas and smaller trees.  You must discard, the bags completely because any surviving eggs will hatch and disperse larvae to re-infest trees.

Spraying for Bagworms

It is critical that you monitor your trees in June for bagworms.  The most effective time to control them with spraying is when the bags are less than ¼ inch in length. We use DiPel® DF biological insecticide dry flowable on the bagworms. This proven insecticide is derived from a soil bacterium that selectively targets destructive caterpillars and worms. This product is highly selective and will not harm beneficial insects. It contains Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that the larvae ingest, giving them a terminal stomach ache. It usually requires several applications with a high pressure sprayer to get the spray to the tops of the tree but it is very effective and safe. 

The biological control we have been using to control bagworms

There are other labeled, registered insecticides available to use as an alternative means of control against small bagworm larvae in spring or early summer. These are usually not the best option because these chemicals not only kill the bagworms but other beneficial insects. We encourage you to use these as a last resort.  When larvae are more than 1/2 inch (13 mm) long, it is nearly impossible to kill them using insecticide. It is often at this time or later when bagworm infestations and associated defoliation become apparent and it is too late.

With everything else going on this year, why wouldn’t we have a bagworm problem?  It seems rather fitting.  Hopefully, this information will help you plan for 2021 to keep bagworms in check.