Several years ago, I noticed something disturbing was happening to our prairie reconstruction. Small little trees were popping up throughout the original prairie planting. I could not figure out where they were coming from, but they looked like pear tree saplings. It wasn’t until I saw a large white blooming tree in the spring that it all came together.
Although the flower clusters are beginning to fade, Callery pear’s white blooms are most obvious in the spring. We planted them for their explosion of spring blooms and nice fall color, but this ornamental tree has become highly invasive. It threatens native wildlife habitat and has become a nuisance for private and public landowners.
This once favorite tree was planted extensively throughout the U.S. The Callery pear – also referred to as Bradford pear – formed a nice pyramid to rounded shape. The vertical limbs made it a nice median and street tree as well, ultimately reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and 20 -30 feet in spread. This Chinese native was a harbinger of spring for decades with its prolific white blooms. An added bonus was its reddish-purple fall color.
Despite all those positives, these trees have become problematic. This non-native, flowering tree was assumed to be sterile, but it is not. It now cross-pollinates with other cultivars of Callery pear to produce hybrid offspring. The fruit is ingested by wildlife and birds that spread the seeds across the countryside and into your yards. It is aggressively displacing native vegetation, causing economic and environmental damage.
The message to property owners is to remove the trees now while you can easily identify them in bloom. We need to keep them from spreading to native areas. It doesn’t hurt my feelings to see them go, because they are a weak-wooded, thorny mess.
Native alternatives to Callery Pear:
Eastern Rudbud (Cercis canadensis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’)
American Plum (Prunus americana)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
We have cut down the culprit, but still have a bunch more saplings to remove this summer. There is one more larger tree to cut down near the Visitor Center. We will continue to eradicate these unwanted invaders in our prairies. It will take time but I believe we can get the upper hand. I would encourage you to remove them in your landscape as well and replace them with native trees. Callery pear has no place in the landscape anymore.
Over the past five years, we have seen some interesting things happen regarding native plants. People are learning about native plants and matching plants up with their local conditions. More and more people are seeking them out to include in their landscapes. Here are a few of the emerging garden trends regarding native plants:
I keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good. Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but of equal importance is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything. It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape. Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore. Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping. Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and landscapes to provide additional benefits. Our gardens must now not only look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attract birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.
It has taken a while, but native plants are finally getting the attention they deserve. They are viable alternatives to many of the overused plants you see in so many landscapes. There are literally hundreds of plants that will fit into your landscape design. Whether it is a true native species or “nativar” (a hybrid or new selection of a native plant), these plants offer qualities that will beautify the landscape and attract pollinators, too. For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native plants for granted. Yet these plants, with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.
We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions. Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little, if any, supplemental water is an achievable result. A few changes like adding some native plants can make a big difference.
It seems to me that these trends for 2019 have something obviously in common – native plants. Native plants are not the “be all” and “end all” solution, but they provide a good starting point to solving some problems you encounter in the landscape. With so much to consider when designing or redesigning your landscapes, don’t overlook native plants. You will be rewarded time and again by their unique beauty and deep roots.
Over the past several months, as I have been working on landscape designs for homeowners, I have been noticing a few trends.
First, homeowners are increasingly interested in native plants. They understand the benefits of utilizing native plants both to the environment and the wildlife they are trying to attract. The advantages of native plants have been noted in previous blog posts.
Secondly, they want something interesting happening/blooming in their landscape throughout the year.
To help fill these needs, I have come up with a list of my favorite plants for the landscape that I try to work into most designs. If you need help with your landscape or have questions about using native plants, give us a call or come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. We would be happy to visit with you.
As you know, each landscape is unique and only a handful of these plants will work in specific yards, but they are all hardy and easy to maintain. These sun loving perennials have beauty and landscape value too. Here are some of my favorite native or adaptable plants to use for a sunny landscape in South Central Kansas:
Switchgrass (Panicum ‘Northwind’)
This grass is incredible! Do you need a vertical element in the landscape? Then this is the grass for you. The upright clumps have wide steel blue leaves that turn a golden yellow in the fall. The unique flower panicles emerge in September and are held towards the middle of the clump close to the foliage. Ultimately, it reaches four to five feet tall. I love this grass because it will not fall over.
Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)
This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that make it stand out from other wildflowers. In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems. The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance. Other forms worth considering are Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’ and Amsonia ‘Butterscotch’
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide. It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough. It is so tough they are planted en masse in street medians. The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape. Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall. The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest. It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting, or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials. I like to mix it with short heath asters, purple poppy mallow, evening primrose or Missouri black-eyed susan.
Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
Some like it hot, but these like it really hot. The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought. These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato. (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.) The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer. I like to interplant them with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods. The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.
Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)
I love this penstemon in the perennial border. The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads. It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year. Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.
Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma. This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties also exist. Garden-worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (one foot tall with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers) and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep, coarse, fibrous root system. Flowers vary in color from deep orange-red in the eastern part of its range to lighter orange and finally yellow farther west and south in Kansas. Unlike the numerous other milkweeds found in Kansas, butterfly milkweed does not exude a white milky sap when the stem is cut or a leaf is removed.
Do your garden a favor and include some butterfly milkweed. Its many ornamental and functional assets, plus its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come. Plus, you will be rewarded as pollinators such as Monarchs seek out this beautiful native wildflower.
Plant placement, proportions and scale – these three elements of a successful design are really straight forward, but often overlooked. They hinge on a certain level of understanding regarding plant height and spread at maturity. These design principles also require you to incorporate clusters, sweeps and groupings of plants that look natural together with a succession of bloom all through the year.
When I start a design, I think about where the bed is going to be viewed. Is it from the street? Is it from the living room? Will I want to view it from different vantage points? This helps me frame the landscape. For instance, if you have a foundation planting, you would obviously put the taller plants in the back working down in layers to the smaller plants along the border/edge of the bed. If you were designing an island planting that would be viewed from both sides, I would plant the taller plants in the center with shorter plants spaced around the central focal point. It seems obvious, but we don’t always think about sight lines.
Another element of effective plant placement is bloom time. With native plants, you need to think about succession of bloom. You want to have plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year. Don’t plant two spring blooming plants next to each other, but rather plant a spring blooming wildflower next to a grass or later season blooming wildflower. By incorporating plants that have color at varying times, you have something interesting happening year-round.
Proportion and Scale
I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late. The beds you design and the plants you include should look appropriate with the size of your home or the size of the flower bed. As a general rule, I include plants that are no larger than half the bed width. For instance, if your area is eight feet wide, try to find plants that are no taller than four feet. Sometimes, smaller beds are all we have to work with, such as the small area between a sidewalk and your home. Maybe it is only three feet wide. Don’t try to put plants that are four to five feet all in that space. It will flop onto the sidewalk and look out of place.
If you are starting from scratch, lay out a garden hose away from your foundation. Take note of the gentle curve around your home. I like to have at least four to six feet of width to work with. That gives you so many more plants to choose and include in your design. On the corners, I like to give myself a little more room of maybe up to 10-12 feet. This allows larger plants to be combined to soften the corner. You probably have a picture in your mind of what you want to frame the views and keep it simple. A garden that is too busy and out of proportion detracts from your home rather than complementing it.
Again, it is important to know how tall and wide each of the plants will grow. I like to include plants that will fill in the spaces available to them. Really think about the plants you want to have near sidewalks, windows, patios, and porches. You don’t want to be continually cutting them back when they have outgrown the space.
It sounds so simple, but these are the design principles I struggle with the most. There is so much to consider with each design, from site analysis, plant habit and bloom times, textural elements, and so much more. We can’t have it all, but a basic understanding of scale, proportions and plant placement will help you create a successful design. Now is the time to get started. If you need help, we will be happy to work with you during our remaining Native Plant School classes or at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.
A native plant design is a highly subjective project. The plants you like may not be the ones I would choose and vice versa. Your garden area is unique to you. Sun, soil, moisture conditions can vary as well. The canvas you are painting on will look distinctly different than my artistic design. As we strive to create a sense of place in our landscapes, our medium is the land. Even though each garden is one-of-a-kind, there are a few design principles that we all should follow. Over the coming weeks, we will discuss some of these design principles.
Today, we will be tackle lines within the garden.
Lines should be used to draw people in and through the
garden. They appeal to the senses. They lead you through the garden and help
frame views we see or don’t want seen.
Long, straight rows of plants can be rather formal. They are structural, often symmetrical and lead the eye directly to the focal point like the front door. Straight lines can be boring if you don’t cluster plants and repeat patterns. The strong straight line of a fence can be softened with a sweeping curved edge or accentuated with parallel plantings that run the length of the fence.
These lines move you up and down in the landscape. Taller trees, larger structural features such as an arbor should make your eyes go upward. They make the space feel larger and help enclose the space.
Just like vertical lines lead your eye skyward, horizontal lines lead your eye along the ground plane. These low lines help define the space and work to tie everything together. Rock walls, edging with plants or stone, hedges, or a clean line between turf and plants are examples that create these intentional low lines.
Curved lines look intentional and informal. Gently bending lines can be used to lead people slowly around a corner to an architectural feature or element such as a bench, garden shed, arbor or vegetable garden, which adds mystery and intrigue to your garden space. Curved lines can help dissolve rigid straight lines of a walkway, fence, house or other structural feature. Curved lines fit better in a natural asymmetrical design using native plants. I like to place a garden hose on the ground to help me visualize these meandering lines. As you step back to look, you are able to move the hose to create the effect that is most appealing before you break ground on your new garden.
Be intentional in grouping plants.
No matter the lines you use in your landscape, plants
obviously play a key role. Formal and
informal looks can be achieved with the use of certain plants grouped together
or spread apart. Cluster plants together
for more visual appeal. Repeat
structural plants like native grasses and incorporate filler plants throughout
the design that bloom at different times during the year to draw you into the
garden and through the garden. Plants
that spill over onto the straight lines of a walkway soften the edge. The
possibilities are endless because there are so many plants to choose. How you use lines will distinguish your design
from others. Really think about this
important design principle and what lines you want to use.
Next time, we will talk about plant placement, proportions
As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on. If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.
“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”
– adapted from an English nursery rhyme
That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:
Add a variety of plants
Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.
Plants out of bloom
It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.
Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.
Do your home work
It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.
It’s not easy being brown
Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden.
Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden. Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away. I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window. The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too. I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.
Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office. It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed. I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time. Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed.
Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come. Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.
Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape – a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection. The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs. Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.
A Living Prairie Museum
“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself. The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”
“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.” (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)
A New Mission for a Lasting Vision
“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”. Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming. Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.
I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings. With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape. We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden.
An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie. Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level. Their vision seems to have come full circle.
Prairie gardens have become increasingly popular over the past ten years as homeowners and businesses seek to directly reverse the trend of prairie degradation. Using prairie plants in the landscape is one way you can implement small-scale conservation and stewardship practices and become a part of a growing patchwork of prairie gardens in the Great Plains region.
These patchwork prairies will not replace what has already been lost, but can begin to help raise awareness about conserving any remaining prairie remnants. Hopefully, we will no longer take for granted the prairies around us and work toward managing and conserving this landscape that is quickly vanishing.
You may ask yourself, “Can a backyard prairie garden really make an impact? How do I increase the value of my prairie garden?” The value of a small prairie garden seems minuscule compared to the large prairie tracts that are being lost each year.
Here are a few things you can do to maximize the impact of your small patchwork prairie garden and further your backyard conservation efforts.
Plant a diverse prairie garden
As you design your garden, look to include as many different species as possible. It is important to have a succession of bloom from spring through fall. Include some of the native grasses to provide vertical elements and alternative textures. These elements will support and frame some of the native wildflowers. Your garden can become a conversation starter within your neighborhood. Your neighbors’ perspective may shift as your intentionally “wild” and slightly “messy” garden creates habitat for wildlife and pollinators. People will notice the difference. Your garden, along with many other prairie gardens throughout neighborhoods, will add value to the environment and broaden the conversations we can have.
Connect with where you live
For many of us, we take for granted the prairies around us. Even though we have some of the largest tracts of prairie like the Flint Hills at our doorsteps, we often don’t see the peril they face. So in light of these difficulties, it is imperative that we use native species from our region. Create a sense of place by incorporating as many plants of a local eco-type as possible. These plants are adapted to your climate and soil. Cultivated varieties and hybrids give us consistent characteristics and qualities. However, they often lack the same landscape value to pollinators as the true species and are most likely not from your region. Choose your plants wisely to maximize the impact they have to the garden aesthetic and the wildlife that need them.
Create an immersive experience
Layers of plants from different perspectives or vantage points will offer you the most enjoyment from your garden. As you are drawn through the landscape, surrounded by lush plantings, you can enjoy the changes from season to season. Sunlight, texture, color, and varying heights combine to provide unique encounters with your landscape. The value of these experiences for your body and soul cannot be measured. Quiet reflection can calm you after a hard day or bring you some perspective in your life.
Most gardens will never be as perfect as we want them to be, but they still have value for us and our environment. They are valuable to wildlife and pollinators. Valuable for the broader conversation about stewardship of the land. Valuable to us as we become more aware of the role we can play in conservation and as we develop a relationship with the land.
Don’t sell short the importance of the prairie, no matter how big or how small. Every step taken, every wildflower or grass propagated, every patchwork prairie garden planted has value.
In our Prairie Notes blog, we have talked extensively about the need to utilize native plants in the landscape. The benefits of having native plants are obvious and many. We have shown you pretty pictures with nicely spaced plants and beautiful combinations of wildflowers and grasses. Often, you get the sense that in order to have an attractive garden it has to be perfect.
Perfect gardens are maintained by perfect people or by horticulturists who do this sort of thing for a living. I don’t know of too many perfect people. In reality, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Our gardens are a reflection of who we are and how much time we are able and willing to spend tending these landscapes. In fact, there is a growing trend (pun intended) that focuses less on maintenance and more on the natural order we see in nature.
Perfection can be a mess
The randomness of the prairie is easy to see and it flourishes effortlessly. Plants are intertwined and touching each other. There is not much space between plants. Instead, a matrix of lush, densely organized plants grow harmoniously together. To some, this looks messy and unkempt, but this natural collection of plants has a beauty and resiliency that is also healthy and productive.
Designing your imperfect garden
The thought of an imperfect garden is counter cultural. The idea that we would purposely design and then establish plants in our landscapes that mimic the prairie goes against just about every landscaping principle we have ever learned. However, more and more people are embracing the natural landscaping trend. We are creating a sense of place. These newly developed gardens incorporate a network of plants by grouping them together with similar growth requirements, and different textures and heights to completely cover the soil. All of these plants crowd out weeds and create layers that look natural in their setting. This idea takes the pressure out of growing the perfect garden and instead allows you to enjoy the process.
Maintenance of an imperfect garden
Imperfect gardens are not zero maintenance gardens. Some level of maintenance is still important, but being tied to your garden will be a thing of the past. Again, you may have to let some things go and work toward being comfortable having less control of the natural processes. A few dandelions and clover in the lawn can be overlooked. Letting some plants naturally seed and spread along with uneven rows and random plants that have moved from last year can now be tolerated. For us who want to control everything in the garden, we now have permission to back off a little and see what happens. We still need to pull some weeds, especially at first, but as time passes weeds will become less of a problem.
If you plant it, they will come.
An imperfect garden will attract visitors. Pollinators, birds, and other wildlife will be drawn to your intentional prairie garden. A functional garden will be used, and sometimes abused, by pollinators. Your landscape is providing just what wildlife needs. A few eaten leaves and damaged flowers is a small price to pay for helping complete the life cycle of a few thousand pollinators and other wildlife. Even some unwanted pests may visit from time to time. This is a perfect time to watch your imperfect garden take care of itself. Keep the chemicals in the shed and watch the natural predators find these pests and work to eliminate them. Should we really care if they are not all gone? You have my permission to step back and let the little critters work it out amongst themselves.
Your garden is a reflection of you. You are already having a bigger impact than you might imagine. Don’t be shamed into thinking that you have to have everything in its place. Sometimes the most aesthetically pleasing garden is sterile and void of plants that actually help the environment. By gardening, you are already an ecologist. You may not have the official title, but you are a good gardener.
RELAX, step back and enjoy the process. Don’t stress about the sad little plant in the corner of you garden. If it’s not happy, move it. Learn about what your plants need. Most of us don’t garden for a living, so give yourself a little grace. A perfect garden is one that gives you not stress, but joy.
Many people ask for prairie plants that bloom continually from spring through fall. There are no such plants growing in the prairie. Prairies rather have seasons; each time you look at them, something has changed. If you think about it, there are always plants coming into bloom and others going out of bloom throughout the year. “Petunias” don’t exist in the prairie, so to integrate wildflowers into the landscape, you must mix bloom times and plant heights.
Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a popular landscape plant with large yellow flowers from May-June and maybe again later in September atop waxy green foliage. It stands 8-10 inches and likes a sunny location. Dwarf blue false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) can be found in pastures and prairie remnants throughout the state. It is usually less than 24 inches tall and its beautiful light blue to lavender flower spikes can be seen above the emerging prairie grasses in May and June. The foliage is unique with its waxy blue green leaves which eventually dries to an intriguing black color in fall. Dwarf blue false indigo thrives in full sun, tolerates clay heavy soil,and needs little supplemental watering throughout the summer months. Other spring wildflowers include purple poppy mallow, penstemon, amsonia, shooting star, yarrows and golden alexanders.
Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) can be seen throughout the state during the early summer months. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet. Whether it be the true species or one of the many new cultivars, purple coneflowers cannot be beat for their adaptability to sun or light shade, and the mid to late summer color they provide. Purple coneflowers prefer moist, but well drained soil. Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) can be seen throughout the Flint Hills and tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas. Growing to three feet tall, pale coneflower is a drought tolerant and heat resistant addition to the garden. Make sure it gets full sun in a well-drained soil. The slender pale purple ray flowers (hence the name) in June and early July are sure to brighten up any perennial garden. Narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is shorter than pale coneflower. It averages 16 inches to 18 inches with short, wide, pink ray petals that bloom in late May and early June in south-central Kansas. Its range is the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the central Great Plains.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is perhaps the most recognizable prairie plant. Its adaptability, vibrant colors and the lure of pollinating insects make it an excellent choice. Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep fibrous root system. Flowers range in color from the deepest reds in eastern Kansas to orange and even yellows further west in Kansas. It prefers full sun and good drainage and it will tolerate light shade. Once established, it is very drought tolerant. Several cultivated varieties have been developed including ‘Gay Butterflies’ and ‘Hello Yellow’.
Gayfeathers/BlazingStars (Liatris sp.) are true symbols of the prairie. There are seven species that are native to the state, all bloom during the late summer and early fall. Their upright spikes crowed with rose-purple flower heads add a vertical dimension to the last season landscape. Thickspike gayfeather, (Liatris pycnostachya) the past Kansas Native Plant Society wildflower of the year,found in the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas is the tallest ultimately reaching up to five feet. Rough gayfeather (L. aspera) is generally only about three feet tall and occurs in dry, rocky, tallgrass prairies and open woods in the eastern half of Kansas. Several other worth mentioning are L. muconata, L. ligulystylis, L. spicata, L. squarossa. Liatris spicata is the most common blazing star in the nursery trade but all would make a nice addition to any garden. Other summer bloomers are black-eyed susan, purple prairie clover, and other milkweeds.
Asters fill the gap between the relentless heat of summer and the frosty chills of autumn. They complete the cycle of bloom in the prairie. There are more than 30 different asters represented in the Great Plains. One of the showiest of the asters is New England aster (Aster novae-angliae). It reaches up to 6 feet in height and has pinkish purple or lavender ray flowers. It is found blooming in September and October in medium to moist tallgrass prairies. Other asters such as Aromatic asters ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’ are wonderful late season bloomers. Another nice low growing aster is heath aster ‘Snow Flurry’. Include some goldenrod and Iron plants to add color options to the autumn garden.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of the many prairie grasses that add winter interest to the landscape. Taller grasses like and big bluestem, swithgrass, indiangrass will provide texture and movement in the garden. These grasses are drought tolerant with deep roots systems that sustain them even through the harshest conditions. Look for switchgrass cultivars like ‘Cheyenne Sky’, ‘Northwind’ and ‘Totem Pole’
This is one of several design principles that are key to the success of any prairie garden. It is one of the easier design elements to incorporate. To learn more about using native plants in your landscape, join us for one or all of our native plant school classes in the new year.