The Prairie Paradox

“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”

– Martin O’ Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.

When I first read this saying, I automatically changed it in my mind.  I changed it to “reversing prairie degradation and loss is complicated; planting a wildflower is simple“.  Granted, we appreciate trees in Kansas. But more than trees, we need to plant prairie to reverse the losses to our signature landscape.  Only one percent of the original prairie remains—99 percent of prairies are gone.  The rich prairie land is now used to produce crops and raise livestock.  Only a few pockets of prairie still survive in their original form, including the Flint Hills.

I grew up on a farm and learned so much from farm life.  I know the value of the land.  I understand how hard it is to eke out a living working the land.  There is a richness of the soil precisely because it was once prairie.  Conservation of the soil is vital to the success of any farm.  Stewardship of the land is understood.  We can’t take the land away from the farmers and landowners, but we also can’t let the prairie disappear forever either.  We need the food that this land produces and we need to save this almost extinct ecosystem.  It is complicated on so many levels.

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I believe the solution to the prairie paradox is to allow for and encourage individuals to make small steps, such as choosing to plant native wildflowers and grasses in our own yards and landscapes.  Just like remnant prairies that dot the landscape, our small gardens can have an impact.  This impact can be multiplied with each new wildflower and each new garden that is established.  By choosing to establish just a few native plants, we can begin the slow process of reclamation, rejuvenation and renewal of this lost landscape.  Large expanses of prairie are never coming back, but a patchwork landscape of our own native plants seems doable.

Larger prairie restorations are a challenge.  They can take years to get established and even then the results will almost always fall short of the original prairie.  I can remember looking at a prairie restoration in Wisconsin that had been seeded over 20 years earlier.  The guide noted that the prairie had just started looking like the original prairie.  It took that long to develop into something that resembled a true prairie.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t plant new prairie.  If anything, we should start now so the transformation can begin.  A “new prairie” does not develop overnight. It takes time and is complicated by so many different factors.  We should have realistic expectations and be patient.


Burning the Prairie Window Project-Spring 2016

Even our Prairie Window Project is continuing to mature.  It is now nearly 10 years old.  We have worked hard to keep the trees and yellow sweet clover out of the prairie.  We planted the prairie with good diversity of wildflowers and grasses but even that is no guarantee of success.  The impact of farming on the land, weed competition with new native seedlings, management regiments and many other influences can have detrimental effects on a prairie reconstruction slowing the transformation.  These examples demonstrate how complicated it can be to change a farm field to a prairie.  It is costly, time consuming and unpredictable.


Earth Partnership for Schools Native Planting

We should keep planting native plants because it is the right thing to do. Plant a prairie if you can.  Reclaim a prairie if you can.  The prairie ecosystem, unique to North America, is an important part of our natural heritage.  Native pollinators need these plants for their survival.  Native wildflowers and grasses create habitat for wildlife.  We should be aware of the many benefits of native plants.  Obviously, native plants are worth the effort.  Remember, planting a wildflower is simple –why not start today?


This is a landscape worth saving!

A Day on the Prairie is Good Medicine

Well, it happened again!  I spent another beautiful day in the Flint Hills.  After several weeks of busyness, I needed some quiet and solitude – time away from the office to refocus my thoughts and recharge my batteries.  I knew just the place to go.

Deep in the heart of the Flint Hills there is a secluded pond that is stocked with Largemouth bass.  It is rare that you don’t catch a fish and this particular day was no exception.  The fish were biting, but more importantly the sun was shining, the breeze was light and the spring wildflowers were in bloom.  It was a picture perfect day.

We who live in Kansas often get criticized for the lack of beauty in the state.  While it is true that we don’t have mountains and we don’t have large forests and we don’t have beautiful sand beaches, what we do have is open prairie. We have an unobstructed, open view of the blue sky.  We have some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world, with colors and hues that change from one minute to the next and reach from west to east.  I am amazed each and every time I pause to appreciate the beginning and the end of the day.  They are truly works of art and a gift to be appreciated.


Quivira Wildlife Refuge at dusk. Photo by Brad Guhr.


Quivira Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Guhr.

This particular day my senses were heightened.  The Flint Hills prairie was spectacular.  I was keenly aware of the various sights and sounds all around me.  I noticed the Meadowlarks singing on the fence posts and the various birds in the Cottonwood trees near the pond.  The scissor-tailed flycatcher was doing his thing over the grasses and I could hear the call of a pheasant in the distance.  The prairie was alive with activity.


Chase State Fishing Lake. Photo Courtesy of Bob Regier

I walked through the prairie noticing all the spring wildflowers blooming.  There was tremendous diversity from tiny violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) to yellow grooved flax (Linum sulcatum) to Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.) to larger wildflowers like Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) and Green Antelopehorn Milkweed (Asclepias virids).   The prairie I was walking through had been burned this spring, so individual wildflowers stood out amongst the dark green grass blades.

I believe people from other states and landscapes would change their minds about Kansas if they could have been with me that day.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

In my opinion, we take the Kansas landscape for granted, with its striking beauty, its stunning complexity and diversity and its open expanse stretching to the horizon.   It is a landscape worthy of appreciation and admiration.

If you have a chance, take a drive and spend a day on the prairie.  Why not this week?  It may be just what you need.  It certainly helped me to reconnect and left me refreshed.  It was good medicine.

Try these links to set your prairie itinerary.  Natural Kansas , Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve , Cimarron National Grasslands , Konza Prairie , Maxwell Wildlife Refuge , The Nature Conservancy of Kansas .


Plant Profile: My Run-in With A Texas Buckeye

There are some experiences we will always remember and others we need to be reminded of from time to time.  One of those experiences happened for me with the Texas Buckeye near the Arboretum parking lot.  Each spring when it blooms, I am reminded of the time I about killed that tree.


Texas Buckeye Blooms

It was one of the first years I was working as the horticulturist/grounds manager.  I was mowing close to that tree, which had been planted the year before.  It was supported with wires from the trunk to stakes in the ground.  I turned the mower and WACK!  The top of the tree hit me on the head.

Have you ever had the sudden realization that something isn’t right?  Have you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach to not turn around?  I turned around to see that the back of my mower had caught one of the wires and pulled the tree over, breaking the trunk about two feet off the ground.  I wanted to crawl in a hole.

The Texas Buckeye (Aescules glabra var. arguta) tree, which was now laying horizontal, had been sought diligently for this specific spot.  In one second, I had killed it.

Have you ever had thoughts of hiding something you did wrong?   That thought flashed into my mind.  Will anyone notice? I was in a jam.  So, I decided to take my lumps.

I walked into Larry Vickerman’s office, who was the director at that time, and told him the bad news.  To his credit he didn’t yell at me, but I certainly would have deserved it.  He took a look at it and we decided to try to set it upright again.  We gently unhooked it from the mower and made it vertical and then wrapped the place where it bent over with tree wrap.  We crossed our fingers that it would survive.  It did survive the rest of that year and bloomed the next year.  It has continued to bloom each year since and each spring I am reminded of the time I was hit upside the head.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned in this story.  Maybe I need to be hit upside the head from time to time.


Anyway, if you look close, the scar is still visible, but it has fully healed.  This beautiful small tree has palmately compound leaves that will turn yellow-orange in the fall.  The real show in is May when the creamy, yellow flower panicles emerge.  The blooms are spectacular and very eye catching, because they appear at the ends of the branches.  It is an understory tree, which becomes most visible when in bloom.  The leathery seed pods develop later in the year and contain tannish-brown, shiny seeds that look like “buck (deer) eyes” .  The seeds are known to be poisonous along with all parts of the plant as well. If the tree becomes really drought stressed, it will prematurely drop its leaves.  Ultimately reaching 20-25 feet tall and 15-20 wide, it is a wonderful small tree for the landscape.

This is a great native small tree that deserves more use.  Each year, I get a renewed sense of relief, because I know what I did to it, yet is still thrives.  If this Texas Buckeye can survive being toppled by a mower, it can survive anything you throw at it.

Native Plant Combinations for the Landscape

Many people who visit our FloraKansas Plant Sale are very interested in converting their gardens to using native plants, but they often are unsure of which plants to put together and in what configurations. Here are a few tried and true combinations that I have enjoyed, both in our plantings at the Arboretum, and at my home. I hope these suggestions start to get your creativity flowing.

(In addition, you may want to check out these other resources: Landscaping Recipe Card, Establishing Native Plants, and Other Native Plant Landscape Designs)

Perennial Gardens Using Natives

Use these native plant combinations in either a foundation or island planting. Each garden can be modified to fit your space. These plant combinations have been carefully selected to provide year around interest with minimal maintenance required, and will attract a diverse group of pollinators.


  • Five Panicum ‘Northwind’ and five Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’ in the back row, alternating
  • Seven Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, middle back row
  • Seven Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’,  middle front row
  • Seven Solidago ‘Little Lemon’ and seven Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ in the front row, alternating


PERENNIAL BORDER-SUN Less than 36 inches tall

  • Seven Panicum virgatum Cheyenne Sky’ in the back row
  • Seven Agastache ‘Summer Love’  in the middle back
  • Five Echinacea paradoxa and five Schizachryium ‘Standing Ovation’, alternating in the middle front
  • Five Aster ‘Snow Flurry’, five Callirhoe involucrata and five Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition alternating in the front row

Purple Poppy Mallow and Blue Grama


  • Three Cephalanthus ‘Sugar Shack’ (Center)
  • Five Schizachyrium ‘Blue Paradise’, five Liatris spicata ‘Alba’, three Butterfly weed, alternating in the middle row back
  • Five Aster ‘October Skies’’ and three butterfly weed middle row front
  • Seven Oenothera macrocarpa and seven Prairie Dropseed, alternating front row

Butterfly weed and Shasta Daisy


  • Three Oakleaf Hydrangea, back row
  • Five Solidago caesia, middle row back
  • Five Aquilegia canadensis and five Polygonatum biflorum, middle row front, alternating
  • Nine Carex eburnea, front row

Landscaping class recipe cards-2005

Plants for containers

These combinations will provide interesting colors, textures and blooms throughout the growing season. Each list of plants are for larger pots that are at least 12-18 inches in diameter. Place center plants in pot first, then arrange other perennials evenly around the rim of the container.  I really enjoyed my potted native plants last year.  It was amazing to watch the pollinators come up to my back deck.  It was like having a front row seat.


Three Coreopsis ‘Cosmic Eye’
Two Heuchera
One Gaura ‘Rosyjane’
One Schizachyrium ‘Twilight Zone’ (Center)


Three Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer’
One Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Center)
Three Monarda ‘Grape Gumball’


One Physocaprus ‘Tiny Wine’
Three Agastache ‘Kudos Yellow’
Three Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’


Three Heuchera ‘Autumn Leaves’
Three Carex appalachica
One Solidago odora (Center)


Three Native Ferns
Two Wild Ginger
One Aruncus ‘Misty Lace’ (Center)


One Rhus ‘Tiger Eyes’ (Center)
Two Heuchera ‘Obsidian’
Two Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’



These are do it yourself native plant combinations that will work well, if matched to your landscape.  They will provide easy care, attract a wide variety of wildlife, while providing beauty for your garden.  Just choose a set of plants that fit your area or pot.

As the saying goes, “…if you build it they will come” or in this case “…if you plant it they will come.”  Have fun in your garden this year.


Gardening as Entertainment

For me, there’s something fun, exciting, and even entertaining about gardening.  It is an adventure every year. I love the journey of taking a plant, any plant, and making it grow.  To see a plant transformed into something that produces a crop for me to use or a flower for me to enjoy is extremely gratifying.  It’s a very personal journey, because of the time you spend and the choices you make.  Actively gardening appeals to the senses.  I don’t want to get all sappy, but to touch, see, hear, and watch the landscape change with a little input and time from me is very fulfilling.

How do we make gardening landscaping more enjoyable? I have thought quite a bit about this question – particularly about making landscaping with native plants more appealing to the general public.  What would motivate someone to spend time and energy developing a native landscape?  Ultimately, it is their choice, but if it were viewed as entertainment, we couldn’t produce enough plants to meet the demand.

So let’s look at gardening as entertainment.  We all want to be entertained. At least I do.  So here are some ways tending a landscape can entertain you.


Changes throughout the year.

Where else can you go and get year-round beauty?  If you go to the Konza Prairie near Manhattan, you can experience the natural beauty that occurs as the seasons progress.  Every couple of weeks you will see something new. Subtle changes to the landscape provide surprising beauty.  It is no different in our own landscapes.  If you have just three to four plants in bloom during each season of the year, combined with some native grasses, you can mimic that larger landscape on a much smaller scale.  Think of your landscape as a canvas with constantly changing colors, shapes, patterns and textures.  Sounds very attractive, doesn’t it?

ArbFlowers 043


To watch a monarch butterfly flit from flower to flower is amazing.  To see a hummingbird sipping the nectar from a tubular flower can be mesmerizing.  Blazing stars (Liatris aspera) covered with ten different pollinators at the same time captures your attention.  Just think about the many benefits of native plants.  One of the most important benefits to pollinators is the symbiotic relationship plants and wildlife have with each other.  If you enjoy live entertainment, watching wildlife in your garden can captivate your attention.

TigerSwallowtail on liatris


We are all living increasingly busy lives.  We don’t have enough time to step back and unwind.  Gardens give us the space to relax.  Plant a garden that is manageable.  If you are really busy focus, on a small area you will use the most or see the most from your home.  For me, my garden is entertainment. An oasis from a hectic life.  A chance to get my hands in the soil.  The smell of freshly turned soil is soothing.  My garden draws me away from personalities, stress, and performance and brings me back to my roots.  Gardening is about touching things that are real and alive, engaging the senses, and enjoying the journey year after year.

Gardening is a choice worth making.  Your landscape can touch your senses, give you a place to go and get the recovery you need and entertain you.  A choice to garden and create a landscape for your enjoyment is never unwise.  Embrace the journey!


How Do You Learn About Native Plants?

This weekend, I did some reflecting on the past 19 years I have spent at the arboretum.  I thought I knew so much when I was hired as the horticulturist. After all, I had just graduated from Kansas State University with a horticulture degree.  There wasn’t anything I didn’t know. But after the first week, I was in over my head.

It was July in Kansas. Need I say more?

One of the first things I quickly realized was that I knew virtually nothing about native plants.  I had learned about a few native trees and shrubs in my college classes, but I couldn’t identify more than five wildflowers.  My learning curve was steep those first few years.  I was going to sink or swim at this new job by how much I knew about native plants.  So I set out to learn all I could about the plants that grow on the prairie.


Bison-Photo by Craig Freeman


Finney County KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

The most formative experiences that I had were the many seed collecting field trips we made throughout the state.  It was so enlightening to see the plants growing in their natural environment.  Those memories guide how I design gardens today.  I became familiar with the plants, but more importantly I learned where they like to grow and who they like to grow with.  Just like us, plants need to be in communities that are vibrant, healthy and sustaining.   Native plants rely on each other.  High quality prairies and even gardens have communities of plants that live harmoniously together.


Logan County, KS-Photo by Craig Freeman


Chalk Formations-Photo by Craig Freeman

Collecting seeds forced me to learn the scientific names of the plants.  Each seed had a specific set of conditions that it must be subjected to in order for germination to occur.  This too was a fascinating process that required me to learn.  It was extremely rewarding to take some seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse and ultimately place a new plant for the seed we collected into the arboretum for others to enjoy.


Cimarron National Grassland-Photo by Craig Freeman


Rocktown Natural Area-Russel County-Photo by Craig Freeman

I read catalogs and books about native plants.  I grew, planted and killed several native plants in an attempt to continue that learning process.  I moved plants that were not happy to other areas in the garden where they began to thrive.  These exploratory trips – we called it “55 mph botany” – helped me hone my identification skills as we traveled many of the back roads of Kansas in search of unique native plants.  Each of these experiences influence plant choices, mixtures and sequences in landscape plans.  As native plants have become more mainstream, more information is available.  Naturally, I am still learning.


Flint Hills-Photo by Craig Freeman

I say all this to encourage gardeners, specifically native plant enthusiasts, to learn everything you can about at least 25 plants that will grow well in your landscape.  From those, there is nearly an infinite number of plant combinations.  By matching plants to your sight, the guess-work has been taken out of the equation.  This will increase your successes and diminish your failures.  If the plants are happy, they will take care of themselves. And that will increase your enjoyment while greatly reducing your upkeep and maintenance.

Challenge:  Start with learning about 10 native plants, eight wildflowers and two grasses.  As you learn about these plants and incorporate them into your garden where they like to grow, I believe you will be rewarded in time with a landscape that works for you, not against you.   You will have a community of plants that flourish together.

Let the learning begin!

Principles of a Sustainable Landscape Design

Through our work in promoting the use of native plants in landscaping, we have observed that homeowners and gardeners are becoming increasingly aware of the positive impacts they can have on the natural world.  At the same time, they are looking for ways they can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a weekly article I receive online, landscape architects were asked to rate the expected popularity of a variety of residential outdoor design elements in 2016.  Here are the top trends in landscape design, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA):

  • Rainwater/graywater harvesting-88%
  • Native plants-86%
  • Native/adapted drought tolerant plants-85%
  • Low maintenance landscapes-85%
  • Permeable paving-77%
  • Fire pits/fireplaces-75%
  • Food/vegetable gardens (including orchard, vineyards, etc.)-75%
  • Rain gardens-73%
  • Drip irrigation-72%
  • Reduced lawn area-72%

These trends highlight the importance homeowners place on a functional landscape – landscapes that reflect their values and life style, gardens that center on solutions to problems rather than creating additional problems.  Invest your time and energy in something that can make a significant difference.   Think about these four principles as your develop your own sustainable landscape design.

Principle #1 – Treat Water as a Valuable Resource

We have seen the dramatic results of the drought in the west.  Throughout 2011 and 2012, we endured our own drought here in Kansas.  Certainly, the extremes we faced were not as severe as in places like California or Texas, but the impact on our landscapes can still be seen.  Water demand was at an all-time high.  Our landscapes were losing water faster than it could be replaced.  In the aftermath, people began to ask tough questions about water use, irrigation practices, plant material and rainwater collection.

A sustainable design focuses on proper plant selection (i.e. native plants), drip irrigation if necessary and rain gardens or collection points to capture storm water.  This new approach to design keeps water in the proper perspective.

ArbFlowers_May06- 007

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ is a native, drought tolerant perennial

Principle #2 – Value Your Soil

Like water, soil is a finite resource.  There are choices we can make to improve our soil and to reduce or eliminate runoff and soil erosion in our landscape.

A sustainable design uses deep rooted perennials and grasses to hold the soil.  These plants can be combined in appealing combinations.  Beautiful blooms, textures and forms serve functional purposes in the design.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

“Twilight Zone” little bluestem                                                   Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Principle #3 – Choose Native Plants

In my opinion, your first choice in a landscape should always be native plants.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose for your landscape.  I know there are some amazing adaptable perennials too, but if you start with a base of natives, you will be rewarded year after year.

A sustainable design matches appropriate plants to the site.  Right plant, right place.


Native planting at Sunset Elementary in Newton, KS

Principle #4 – Don’t Be Wasteful

Does your landscape add to the landfill?  How much waste does it produce each year?  Lawns are an important functional element in the landscape.  I need a space for my children and pets to roam.  They can also generate large quantities of yard waste, especially if you collect grass clippings.  Do we need a huge lawn or can it be reduced in size and replaced with beautiful wildflowers, grasses and ornamental trees and shrubs?

A sustainable design evaluates every aspect of the landscape with the goal to reduce your negative environmental impact, while including features that are beneficial to the natural world and beautiful at the same time.


These homeowners chose to reduce lawn by replacing with wildflowers and shrubs.

It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.” – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home


Still wanting more information? You may find some helpful hints on our “Landscaping with Native Plants” page. Or, you may wish to sign up for a Native Landscaping Class and/or visit with one of our staff at the FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, April 21-25.


Native Plants Are Becoming “The New Normal”

What is normal?  A definition I like is “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.”  So, what would most mid-Westerners think of as a “normal” landscape? How about a landscape dominated by lawn, a few foundation plantings with uninspiring, “tidy” perennials and shrubs that serve no real purpose other than to take up space? In my opinion, this describes many of the common landscapes we have seen over the past 20-30 years, including some areas around my own house.

The “new normal” reflects a current state of being after some dramatic change has transpired.  It replaces the expected, usual, and typical with exciting, productive, purposeful, beneficial and sustainable.  I believe that over the past few years we have seen a renewed interest in landscaping that fits this description, and that soon, landscaping with native plants will become the new normal.

Through increased interest in our native plant sales, native landscaping classes and educational programs, we are witnessing a collective realization that there are significant benefits to utilizing natives in the garden, benefits that make sense both for people and for the wildlife that depend on these plants for their survival.  We as a society have also come to understand, we don’t have to give anything up in the process of developing an eco-friendly landscape.  It is interesting and ironic that this “new normal” of landscaping with native plants is taking us full circle here in Kansas, back to our prairie roots.

Here are three reasons native plants should be the “new normal” in your garden:

#1 Low Maintenance

There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape.  However, if we emphasize selecting plants that grow naturally in our area and matching them to our site, maintenance will be drastically reduced.  Native plants have adapted to local conditions.  Once established, the deep roots of the prairie natives will take them through prolonged periods of drought.  Healthy plants require less maintenance, are stronger, are less prone to disease, require less water, provide beautiful blooms while growing in the toughest environments, therefore reducing our time in the garden and increasing our enjoyment.

The new normal is to select plants that go naturally with the place we live, rather than planting traditional landscapes that often try to change the place to accommodate the plant.


Native wildflower planting at Denver Botanical Garden at Chatfield

#2 Beautiful Plants

If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place.

The new normal is a renewed awareness of the natural beauty of the prairie and a recognition that we can have a part of it in our own gardens.

ArbFlowers 212

Summer Wildflowers in the Arboretum

#3 Attract Pollinators and Wildlife

Even in most urban settings, wildlife surrounds us.  Pollinators live in our neighborhoods and utilize plants in our landscapes.  By strategically planting even a few native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that bloom at different times throughout the year, you can make a positive impact on their survival.  When it comes to helping the natural world, diversity is crucial.  Increasing the natural diversity on your property will ultimately benefit wildlife.

The new normal is understanding that we can positively or negatively influence the natural world by the plants we choose.  Even a few native plants in your garden, combined with those of your neighbors, will be extremely beneficial.

Asters-Butterflies 008

Painted Lady Butterfly on New England Aster

Over the years, I have learned that there is no right or wrong way to use native plants.  If you don’t like something, or if a plant isn’t happy, you can always try something else.  In most cases, you can just move it.  I have to remind myself that these plants are so much better than a turf lawn.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been rewarded for my efforts in observing a beautiful flower covered with lively pollinators.  To see them flying from plant to plant makes it all worthwhile.

Eight Garden Myths Worth Knowing

Over the years, I have come to realize how little I knew about gardening the right way.  So much of what I knew as a budding horticulturist was gleaned from school.  It wasn’t until I had killed a few plants and tortured many others that I began to learn some basic principles that guide how I work in my own garden today. Many times, we do things to plants and flowers in our gardens for no reason, other than “that is how it has always been done” or “Mom or Dad told us to do it that way”. There may not be any legitimate scientific data backing a certain practice, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyhow. Begin to demystify gardening with these truths I have learned.

Myth #1  Add sand to improve clay soil drainage.

Truth: This takes me back to my days sitting in soils class and learning about soil particles.  Clay particles are fine and fit nicely between the sand particles which forms a substance similar to concrete.  Since every pore is filled with these particles, air exchange and drainage is reduced, if not made impossible.  The better choice for clay soils is to choose plants that thrive in them, such as milkweed, indigo, bluestem, or blazing star.


The result of mixing sand and clay soil-It will dry and become like concrete.

Myth #2 Drought-tolerant plants (native plants) don’t need to be watered.

Truth: They are still live plants that need water for survival, though maybe not as much as others.  Match plants to your site, for sure. But native plants are only drought tolerant to a point and may need water during prolonged dry spells.  Until they get established, they are very vulnerable to drought stress.  Establishment Guide

Myth #3  After pruning a tree, treat open wounds with a wound dressing.

Truth: There is good research suggesting that treating a tree scar/wound after you have removed a branch is bogus.  Trees are resilient and can heal themselves.  Treatments can delay the healing and even lock in plant diseases.


Oak branch scar with callus tissue

Myth #4  Amend the soil when planting trees and shrubs.

Truth: At the arboretum, we have heavy clay soils.  For years, I put soft soil (compost) in the backfill when I planted trees.  I have come to find out, that is like planting the tree in a pot.  The new roots often circle the hole, unwilling to venture into the hard clay soils.  This restricted root growth slows establishment.  Use the native soil in the backfill and force the tree to acclimate to its new surroundings.

Myth #5  Plant a tree even with the soil line.

Truth: In our clay soils, it is better to plant a tree high.  Find the root flare and plant the top of the flare at least 2 inches above the soil line.  It can even be 6 inches higher.  Planting too deep can deprive the growing point of oxygen or actually drown the tree if the soil stays too wet. Recommended Trees for South-Central Kansas


Newly planted Sugar Maple is slightly raised

Myth #6  Apply turf fertilizer early in the spring to help encourage new growth.

Truth: Applying early spring turf fertilizer only encourages top growth, resulting in more mowing in the spring and summer.  It does very little for the root system of the turf.  In our climate, the focus needs to be on developing healthy roots. That is why we fertilize in the fall (October and November).  Turfgrass growth slows in the fall as nutrients are translocated to the roots for the leaves.  This translocation process stores energy in the roots in preparation for next year, helping it survive the summer with less stress.

Myth #7  If a plant is under stress, it should be fed.

Myth: If a plant is under stress, fertilizer will not solve the problem.  Usually it is environmental (dry soils, overwatering, compacted soils, root damage, etc.).  Our soils generally have adequate nutrients, so diagnose the problem to find the solution.

Myth #8  When it comes to fertilizers and pesticides, if a little is good, twice as much is better.

Truth:  I have experienced this in a number ways over the years, from dead grass to burned foliage, causing me a few sleepless nights.  There are precise directions for a reason and label directions have been carefully developed to help you avoid catastrophes.  We want immediate results to a problem so we “kick it up a notch”.  BAD IDEA!!!  Too much of a good thing is usually harmful and often results in unforeseen consequences.  Using the exact recommended dosage is always the best practice.  Trust me.

These are some truths I learned the hard way.  Unfortunately, some plants took the brunt of my misinformation.  Myths, old wives tales, and folklore abound in the world of gardening.  Learn from my mistakes.  You and your plants will both benefit.


Three Ways To Connect With The Natural World

There is something healing about being outside.  I am not a scientist or a psychologist, but a short walk in the great outdoors does wonders for my physical and mental well-being.  The problem is that I don’t get outside enough to encounter those helpful connections.  It happens too infrequently.  I sit in my office staring at my computer screen never venturing outside and then wonder why I feel tired, disconnected, and even a little uneasy when I go home at the end of the day.

If we know we need to go outside to lift ourselves up, why don’t we make it a priority?  I don’t know all the reasons, but I have heard that there are medical benefits from being outside for just 15 minutes.  This makes me think about why I need to create time in my schedule to be in nature.  So, I challenged myself to be outside at least once a day for 15-30 minutes.  Here are some ways I plan to connect with the outside world along with some positive benefits I know I will experience.

Get your hands in the soil.

This can be done in many ways, but the most obvious is growing something.  I love: the smell of the earth after a rain; the thrill of establishing a new plant; soil on my hands; planting a vegetable garden.  Just planting a few plants can have tremendous benefits to you and nature.  It is invigorating being in the garden and watching your landscape be transformed each year.


Take in the Sunshine.

It has been cold and gray for the past few weeks and I am craving some sunshine.  What is it about the sun that we need?  Maybe it is the Vitamin D our bodies need that is best supplied by the sun.  I know too much sun is not healthy so I get enough sunlight by sitting under a nice shade tree after puttering around in the yard with a cool drink in my hand.  There is a link between sunlight and the prevention of all sorts of diseases.  So get outside in the sun for your health.

Another important benefit of the out-of-doors is that it will make you sleep better.  Everything I have read about being outside points to the importance of sunlight.  When you wake up, and throughout the day, sunlight is really beneficial.  Again, don’t get too much, but 15-30 minutes exposed to bright sunlight will help you sleep better.  Try to exercise outside, walk your dog during the day, and enjoy that first cup of coffee in the morning in a sunny spot.  Not only is the sunlight soothing and relaxing, but the natural world slows us down.  When we are bombarded by too many stimuli, we need to remember that the sunlight will help calm us down.


Enjoy the Natural Beauty.

Nature can transport us away from it all.  Take a walk through the park or visit a natural area and you will be mentally and physically changed.  There are so many fascinating sights to behold: the beauty of a coneflower in bloom or monarchs clustered on a branch.  Often I am mesmerized by the richness of what I see.  My senses are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the natural environments I find.  A short walk each day will change your perspective.

The calming effect of the outside world is something I need in my life currently.  Let’s face it, we are worn down over time by the busyness of life.  I need moments that energize me, reduce the stress, stimulate my brain in different ways than a computer does, and boost my attention span.  Fear and anxiety slip away the more time I spend outside.  Boost your spirits. Get outside.


I am not a scientist or doctor but I know how my countenance changes the moment I am outside.   Simply put, we need to get outside for better health.   In my opinion, 15 minutes outside makes the next hour inside so much better.