Closing Out the Year

Sunset at the Arboretum in December 2021. Photo by Gerry Epp

As the sun sets on another year, we want to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. We know this is an unusual holiday season and the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff wishes you health and happiness.

The Arboretum grounds will be open to the public during daylight hours, but the gift shop and office will be closed through January 2.

We cherish the friendships and relationships with each of you over the past year. The people who support and care for this place are at the heart of our mission statement: “cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.”

It is our goal for 2022 to further this mission and build resilient relationships with as many people as we can. This year has been a challenge, but serving each of you in various ways is always a highlight. We look with hope into the new year.


Take care,

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Katie, Scott, Janelle and Brad

A Winter Garden to Look Into

This time of year our focus changes a bit as we transition to spending more time inside. You look longingly outside at your garden, anticipating warmer weather and the arrival of spring. We are not restless yet, but for those of us who garden and love to dig into the soil, it helps if we have something to look at through the kitchen window or sitting in our living room. Here are some plants to consider adding as you “look into” your winter garden.   

Form

Flowers fade into buttons, globes, plumes, spikes, daisies or umbels that can be emphasized with the play of light and motion. These expired flowers are attractive even after they are done blooming.  

  • Coneflowers: These dark seed heads are attractive with native grasses and are favorites of overwintering birds.
  • Asters: Swaths of these fall blooming perennials provide structure and decent fall color. 
  • Amsonia: Blue flowers in the spring and attractive color in the fall
  • Prairie Dropseed: This is one of my favorite grasses. Fine foliage, airy seedheads, and golden orange fall color that mixes well with many other shorter perennials.
Coneflowers with little bluestem

Texture

This garden design element refers to the surface quality of the plant. Whether coarse or fine, textural plants combined with interesting forms are quite dramatic in the winter landscape.    

  • Switchgrass: There are so many varieties to choose, from tall to short and from green to red leaved. You really can’t go wrong by adding some of these native grasses to your garden. 
  • Rattlesnake master: This unusual native has attractive gray-green foliage and starry white blooms in the summer. As it transitions into the winter-the whole plant turns tawny gold.
  • Little bluestem: The fine stems of little bluestem add bright color to the stark winter garden.   
Fall color of Amsonia with Northwind switchgrass and Oktoberfest Maidengrass

Fruit/seeds

This element in the garden is often overlooked or removed before the birds need them. For birds that take winter residence in your garden, the right mix of plants creates a habitat that is fun to watch. 

Composite flowers like blackeyed susan, coneflower, blazing star, sunflowers, and goldenrods are vital food that birds seek out. 

  • Crabapples: Most of ornamental trees have persistent fruit that are utilized later in the winter as other food becomes scarce.
  • Blackhaw Viburnum: This native produces abundant fruit that taste like miniature prunes. Birds and other wildlife love them.   
  • Sumac: The reddish fruit atop these native shrubs are a favorite of Chickadee and Titmouse. 
Robin on a crabapple tree (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

Stems

Stems are not noticed until everything is bare, but can provide something interesting and beautiful to look at in the winter.

  • Red/Yellow twig dogwoods: They explode with color especially with snow.
  • Big Bluestem: Forms with brilliant red fall color are the best with regards to standing out in the landscape.
  • Seven-Son Flower: Great exfoliating bark on this fall blooming small tree. 

Shelter

This can be a brush pile or evergreen of some type. Each provide shelter and safety for wildlife during the cold winter months.   

  • Taylor Juniper: This upright form of our native evergreen also has fruit that the birds need. 
  • Alleghany Viburnum: Tall semi-evergreen shrub with attractive fruit and leathery leaves. 
  • Brush pile: Brush piles create shelter that conceals and protects wildlife from predators and weather. Situate the brush pile where you can enjoy wildlife viewing. 

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ViburnumRhytidophylla_EWeaver_14July2002_00371-Copy.jpg
Alleghany Viburnum fruit and evergreen leaves

In the winter, there are fewer times of satisfaction from the garden. If you have only a few plants to watch in the winter landscape, make sure it’s enough to keep it interesting.

Snow captured by switchgrass

Giving thanks for the Arboretum team!

What a wonderful time of year when we take a moment to reflect and be thankful for all the blessings we have received. Blessings are around us, but we may have to look a little harder to find them lately.

At Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, we’re thankful for you! We are so grateful that you walk right alongside us with your interest, time, talent and support. You may not be in the building with us, but your partnership with our mission means so much. We couldn’t do what we do without your support and encouragement. Thank You! 

I would also like to express my thanks to the adaptive and talented staff of the Arboretum for their many sacrifices this past 18 months. Each of them did yeoman’s work. 

Dyck Arboretum staff visiting Botanica during our summer staff retreat day

Brad Guhr: Education Coordinator/ Prairie Restoration / Prairie Window Concert Series Coordinator

I appreciate Brad’s interest in prairie education. Through his work with the Earth Partnership for Schools program, over 290 teachers and 50,000 students have been introduced to the beauty of the prairie landscape. These students are the next generation of stewards and conservation enthusiasts. 

He also has a passion for good music and I totally trust his work with the concert series. He has a knack for picking the right performers for each season. 

I also appreciate his willingness to serve wherever needed. We all wear many hats and he is always asking what needs to be done. He is also our spreadsheet guru. 

Thanks Brad!

Brad on the far right with an Earth Partnership for Schools cohort

Janelle Flory Schrock: Public Engagement Coordinator / Office / Rentals

Janelle works in a setting where there are constant distractions. She is pulled in so many different directions each day between phone calls, walk-ins, and other interruptions, it’s difficult to focus on just one thing at a time. In spite of all the chaos, she manages to somehow keep things moving forward. I appreciate her willingness and ability to work through these challenges. I am sure there are days she wonders what got done, but it does.         

She does a great job managing our website and social media spaces. She makes me sound more eloquent than I really am by reviewing blog my posts. In addition she manages memberships, contributions, rentals, and gift shop, as well as our plant sale and ticket sales, even though bookkeeping is not her favorite thing. 

And yes, I appreciate her ideas and creativity, even though she doesn’t get to show this side as much with all the other things she does. I know she is underappreciated, but she is so vital to our organization. 

Thanks Janelle!

Janelle helping with the new sidewalk edge planting (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Katie Schmidt: Grounds Manager / Horticulturist   

Katie was hired to take care of the grounds, but she has taken on so many different roles. She manages the plant sales, give presentations, drafts landscape designs, and manages students and volunteers. I appreciate Katie’s can do attitude. If something needs to get done, she figures out a way to make it happen.

I believe she would say that she is not always a people person, but people gravitate to her. Her creativity and passion for what she does is infectious. Volunteers love working for her.   

I appreciate the care in which she manages the Arboretum grounds. It is not easy taming the prairie and not letting it get too out of control. There is a fine line between wild and too wild. She has a great eye for plant selection and design. 

Thanks Katie!

Katie sharing her passion for plants with the Plant of the Day feature on Instagram

       When you see these hard working folks at the Arboretum, please express your gratitude to them. They deserve it.

Five Book Recommendations for the Kansas Prairie Gardener

Learning to identify wildflowers is a rewarding pastime that can greatly increase one’s appreciation of the world of nature. Identifying plants in their natural setting can also inform our decisions on what and how to plant many of these wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs in our own yards.  Identification is made easier with the aid of a good wildflower guide especially if you are going old school without a phone. These books usually include photographs, drawings, written descriptions, and information on the plant’s ecology and distribution. 

The Arboretum staff is occasionally asked to recommend books on plants and animals. Most of the time we use our phones and search the internet for the information. However, there is something tactile about holding a field guide in your hand and working through the identification process. There are a number of good general guides, the following are particularly helpful in Kansas. 

Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas

A field guide by Michael John Haddock.  Flowers grouped by color of bloom.

Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds

by Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman, and Janet E. Bare.  This book is very scientific but thorough. If you find a plant you can’t identify, look here.

Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas Revised and Expanded Edition

by Michael John Haddock and Craig C. Freeman.  I love this book and use it often.  It has the county the plants are found in Kansas.

Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas

by Iralee Barnhard.  It has great color pictures and descriptions.

     

The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots

by Bob Gress and Pete Janzen.  Color pictures, field identification and other valuable information. 

Pocket Guides from the Great Plains Nature Center*

Kansas Snakes, Common Kansas Butterflies, Great Plains Waterbirds, Kansas Raptors, Kansas Red Hills Wildflowers, Kansas Flint Hills Wildflowers and Grasses, Common Kansas Backyard Birds, and Great Plains Shorebirds, Common Kansas Mushrooms, Kansas Amphibians, Turtles and Lizards, Kansas Land Snails, Kansas Mammals, Kansas Freshwater Mussels, Kansas Stream Fishes, Common Kansas Spiders, and Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species.

*Single copies of the GPNC Pocket Guides may be picked up free at the Great Plains Nature Center.  All GPNC Pocket Guides may be downloaded in pdf format from GPNC.org.  Copies can be mailed for $3.00 each by sending a check payable to the FGPNC, to: Pocket Guides, Great Plains Nature Center, 6232 East 29th St. N, Wichita, KS 67220. 

I know technology has changed so much of how we identify the world around us, but quite often, I still use these guides and books rather than my phone. In the absence of a guide I will take a picture with my phone, note the location and site conditions so I can look it up the next day in the office. Nature is a good teacher and I use the things I learn from the field in so many different ways. I am often amazed at the beauty of what I have found, but also the resiliency that it takes to survive where it is growing. Understanding leads to appreciation and appreciation leads to conservation and stewardship.       

These wildflower guides are available online and some can be purchased at our gift shop during the holidays.

Fall Checklist for a Wildlife Beneficial Landscape

Each fall there are a lot of articles and checklists outlining what you need to do to make a healthy garden – a whole stack of chores that take so much time and effort. Who are you tidying for? Is all that raking, cutting, hauling, tidying, trimming and pulling necessary this time of year? I’m here to tell you to stop and take a few steps back before doing much yard and garden clean up this fall. Here’s my fall checklist for a wildlife beneficial landscape:

Habitat=Wildlife 

First, all that tidying is destroying habitat and making it more difficult for backyard wildlife to survive the winter in your landscape.  Leave your perennials and grasses standing through the fall and winter.  These plants are resources for wildlife, offering shelter, overwintering sites and sometimes food. Cut back perennials and grasses in early spring. 

There is one exception – if you have diseased plants, cut them back now and dispose of the debris, but not in the compost pile.

Blackhaw viburnum with fruit and switchgrass in the fall

Mulch

DO spread mulch around trees and shrubs. A fresh layer of mulch insulates the soil from weather extremes. Two to three inches of mulch helps conserve water and control weeds. Too much mulch though can be a real problem as it seals off the soil from air exchange and makes soil go into an anaerobic state too wet for plants to thrive. Mulch is a good way to keep mowers and string trimmer away from the trunks and stems.    

Walk about

DO take a walk through you garden and label any plants that you are thinking about moving in the spring. Look for signs of drought stress in your landscape and remember plants that have struggled this year. Unhappy plants may need a new home and would benefit from a space with more sun, more shade, or more or less water. By flagging them now, you will save yourself some time searching for them next March or April. Use durable labels with pencil markings or waterproof pen that will not fade from the sun to mark their location. Keep in mind that some of these plants may be very difficult to identify next year.   

Ponder

DO assess your landscape as an ecosystem. Do you have the habitat that attracts pollinators and wildlife? Are there plant layers of trees, shrubs and perennials that mimic natural areas around you? What plants have you noticed are missing from your landscape? What is the starting point to create beneficial elements, layers and habitat in your landscape? Each different layer provides habitat and resources for different wildlife, so plan to include any missing layers in the spring.

Layers of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees

Look up and observe any pruning that needs to be done. Look for dead or diseased wood in your trees and shrubs and take note of path encroachment by neighboring shrubs. During winter, when these plants are dormant, is the best time to prune for best plant health. 

Leaves

DO leave fallen leaves in place whenever possible. Don’t let them smother your lawn, but rather mulch them into the lawn with several passes of your mulching mower. If you are inundated with leaves, collect them and use them in plant beds. Leaves make excellent compost and add organic matter to the soil. It is often overlooked that leaves offer overwintering sites for invertebrates and other critters that are part of healthy ecosystems. Remove only as much as needed.

Just think of all those pretty little insects tucked snuggly into bed for the winter in your landscape. (Photo by Brad Guhr)

This whole growing season you have created habitat through the use of native plants. You have been careful to avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides as much as possible. Bird baths, feeders, brush piles, and nectaring plants have helped build up populations of bees, butterflies, bugs, birds and other wildlife. 

You have created habitat so why destroy all that hard work by tearing it all down right now? Let the wildlife you have attracted to your landscape survive through the winter. Embrace a little untidiness. It will be worth it.  Wait until March or early April to get your landscape ready for another growing season. 

Last Update on Buffalograss Seeding Experiment

It has been almost a year since our buffalograss seeding experiment began.   In this new approach, we planted the buffalograss seeds along with annual ryegrass in the fall or early winter.  In theory, the annual ryegrass, a cool season grass will germinate and hold the soil through the winter.  The buffalograss seeds will work their way into the soil with the natural freeze/thaw of the soil throughout the winter.  These seeds will then germinate on their own the following spring with annual rainfall and warm 60 degree soil temperature.

Last fall I prepared the soil as if I was planting fescue so the annual ryegrass seed would germinate with daily watering.  This loose seed bed helped the annual ryegrass to germinate in about a week or ten days.  This method flipped the traditional buffalograss seeding upside down.  Typically, I have areas prepared to plant buffalograss in May and June.  Buffalograss it is a native warm season grass that needs to be planted when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees.

Update

I have been pleasantly surprised.  The little buffalograss seedlings have started to spread in amongst the crabgrass and knotweed.  I believe it will begin to overpower these weeds and completely cover the areas next year. 

Buffalograss seedling that have started to spread

I may look at putting a preemergent herbicide down next spring to give the buffalograss less weed competition.  This is primarily to control summer annuals such as crabgrass and foxtail. Barricade (prodiamine), Pendulum Aquacap (pendimethalin), Dimension (dithiopyr), Specticle (indaziflam) are recommended pre-emergent herbicides on established Buffalograss stands. Read and follow the chemical label application instructions for best results.  Pre-emergent herbicides can also be applied in the fall to control that pesky weed, little barley.

When asked if I would do this buffalorass planting method again, I would say yes.  For small areas of 1000 sq. ft or less, it makes sense and saves so much water.  For larger areas, I think it is a toss-up.  I think it will be successful either way.  Of course, summer seeding take at least daily watering for the first 10-14 days to get the seed to germinate.  For large areas, this obviously requires so much water because the soil dries out quickly with wind and heat.  I think you can be successful with either method but I really liked using less water overall. 

We encourage people to use buffalograss in areas that receive at least six hours of sunlight each day throughout the year.  Newer varieties are vigorous growers and require little to no water once established. Compare that to a traditional fescue lawn, which needs one to two inches of moisture per week to keep it alive in the summer. These newer buffalograss forms stay green longer in the fall and green up earlier in the spring.  If kept relatively weed free, they require less frequent mowing. Buffalograss needs little to no fertilizer and will reduce your overall maintenance.

Small buffalograss seedling

Reasons to Leave Ornamental Grasses In Winter

The use of ornamental grasses in the landscape has become more popular than ever, and for good reason. The allure of ornamental grasses is that they are tough and easy to grow. Their resilient nature reflects our prairie landscape in our own garden. They are a nice visual contrast to many other plants like perennials, shrubs, trees and even other grasses. A bonus is the beauty and movement they add to the winter landscape.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

One of the questions we get this time of year is whether or not to cut ornamental grasses back to the ground for winter?

In the fall, ornamental grasses are in their full regalia with their attractive seed heads. From short to tall, these grasses put on quite a late season show. As we transition into fall, the colors they develop are another reason we use them in our landscapes. However, these fall colors fade and we are left with dull shades of tan and brown. Is it best to leave these grasses now or remove them? Generally, we leave them through the winter, and cut them back before they begin to grow next season. In Kansas, this task can be done in late February to early April.

Here are some of the advantages of leaving grasses for the winter and waiting until the spring to cut them back

  • Grasses provide form and texture in the stark winter landscape of withered perennials and deciduous shrubs. These qualities stand out in the frost or snow and low winter sunlight.
  • Mix well with perennial wildflower seed heads
  • Provide movement in the garden. The tawny stems and seed heads move with the gentlest breeze.
  • If used as a screen, they can be left up just before they start greening up again in the spring.
  • Most native grasses can provide habitat and shelter for birds and other small animals along with overwintering sites for insects and pollinators.
  • By waiting to remove the previous year’s growth until late winter, the crown of the grass is more protected from the elements.
Little Bluestem and Coneflower Photo by Emily Weaver
Switchgrass capturing snow

How do I cut back my grasses?

After leaving the stalks up through the winter, they are drier, more brittle, and easier to cut back. I like to cut tall grasses like switchgrass and big bluestem down to about 2-3 inches off the ground. I do this with a hedgetrimmer by moving it back and forth across the stalks a few inches at a time. We used to completely remove these stalks and haul them away. Now, we let the clippings lay as mulch around the plants. These stalks may still have overwintering pollinators in the stalks that are left in the garden for next season. By spreading the cut stems around as mulch it helps to break down more quickly too. I shape smaller grasses like prairie dropseed with a pruner or hedgetrimmer. Again, I like to cut them back to two to three inches from the ground.

Over the years, we have found it very beneficial to leave ornamental grasses standing for the winter. You’ll be creating a habitat for birds, insects, and small animals. The rustling grasses will remind you of the successful season past and the promise of spring yet to come.

Switchgrass cut back in late winter ready for spring

Plant Profile: Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.) are one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Their bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity. Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on its nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter.  Here is a look at a few species and cultivars worth trying.   

Missouri black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia missouriensis)

In the wild, Missouri Black-eyed Susan grows in rocky limestone glades, barrens, and tallgrass prairies. It ranges from Illinois and Missouri, south to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Although not native to Kansas, I have found it very resilient and quite adaptable to various growing conditions. It has large bouquets of bright yellow flowers atop 18” stems. The foliage is narrow with the leaves and stems covered with a dense fuzz. It’s a nice addition to the front/middle of any border or informal meadow landscape. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

This native gem can be found in eastern Kansas and on into much of the southeastern Great Plains. It grows naturally in open woods and savanna areas with medium to moist soil. Each plant can produce loads of charming, warm yellow daisy flowers with brown button centers. It keeps pumping out blooms through much of the later summer through fall. The slender branched stems are surprisingly sturdy and help the plant reach an ultimate height of three to four feet. It is a wonderful habit plant with blooms for pollinators and seeds for birds. It does self-sow, so know that it will move around. You will need to selectively weed plants out of your landscape, if you are agreeable to that sort of thing. 

We have carried a cultivar of Brown-eyed Susan called ‘Prairie Glow’ with attractive flowers of burnt orange with yellow tips surrounding a chocolate center cone. ‘Prairie Glow’ prefers full sun to light shade, and is also adaptable to many soil conditions.

Brown-Eyed Susan

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

Sweet black-eyed Susan grows throughout much of the central and eastern Great Plains in low, moist soil of thickets, creek banks, pastures, prairie ravines and ditches. The flowers are spectacular and rival sunflowers in quantity of blooms, if the root system can find consistent moisture. A large variety of insects love the nectar and/or pollen of Sweet Black-eyed Susan and flock to the blooms during July, August and September. 

This is a great plant for a full sun to part shade location, but only when there is ample moisture. It will not endure dry soils. Plant it by a stream, water garden or pond where water is available on or near the surface. ‘Henry Eilers’ is a nice cultivar discovered in Illinois as a stabilized mutation with rolled or quilled ray petals. This cultivar reaches five feet tall and two feet wide. ‘Little Henry‘ is a shorter form which grows 3 to 4 feet tall but has the same quilled flowers.

Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.
www.terranovanurseries.com

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

There are many forms of this poor man’s daisy, because it is so easy to hybridize. Typically, the species is found in full sun to part shade in mixed and tall grass prairies as a short-lived perennial or annual. It seeds readily and is a favorite to include in many prairie seed mixes. The bright yellow blooms from June through September are a welcome sight in any landscape from prairie to wildflower seeding. Some cultivars available are ‘Cherry Brandy, ‘Prairie Sun’, ‘Cherokee Sunset’, ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Autumn Colors’, ‘Denver Daisy’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Goldrush’, ‘Rustic Colors’, ‘Sonora’, ‘Toto Gold’, and ‘Toto Lemon’.

Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

This species grows in similar habitats to sweet coneflower – moist soil of creekbanks, thickets and open woods. A cut leaf coneflower really stands out in full sun and adequate moisture. The leaves are deeply lobed and the large, wide clumps, two to four feet across, can reach five to six feet tall.  Each stalk can have multiple large flowers with a greenish-yellow central cone. They bloom from July to October.  A garden worthy cultivar of cut leaf coneflower is ‘Herbstonne’.

Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

This eastern United States black-eyed susan is one of the most widely used in horticulture. Many cultivars, varieties and subspecies are incorporated into landscape designs. The native form thrives in glades, meadows, and prairies.  Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida and Rudbeckia fulgida var. speciosa are two of my favorite native forms of orange coneflower. They grow well in landscapes with medium to moist soil and plenty of sun. These clumps slowly spread by rhizomes ultimately forming a dense mat of dark green leaves. The blooms pop up from July through September. 

‘Goldsturm‘ was a popular cultivar, but it has been used less because it has issues with septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. New forms like ‘American Gold Rush’, ‘Little Goldstar, and ‘Viette’s Little Suzy‘ have resistance to both septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. These are great alternatives to ‘Goldsturm’. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’

Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)

Prairie Dropseed (foreground), Rudbeckia maxima, and yellow coneflowers

I love this coneflower for its blue green leaves and large coned flowers in June and July. It makes quite a statement in the landscape with flower stalks to six feet.  Native to Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, I have found it to be quite adaptable. It appreciates regular moisture but can handle some dry periods.  Birds eat the seeds from the large cones during the winter. 

There is a Rudbeckia for just about any landscape situation with full to part sun and wet to dry. Pollinators love them and birds too. Add some to your garden for their late season bloom.

Plant Profile: Columbine

As I put together lists of plants according to the season that they bloom, I often come up short on spring blooming plants. In a prairie, many plants are slow to get growing in the spring until warmer temperatures spur growth.  One of the more tried and true spring blooming perennials I like to include on my lists, especially in partial sun areas, is Aquilegia canadensis, or columbine.

The Columbine flower

Columbine is one of the most popular plants for shade.  However, it grows quite well in sunny spots with morning sun and afternoon shade.  This spring blooming (May-June) woodland native is essentially two flowers in one! It has an inner yellow flower surrounded by a delicate spurred outer flower. These nectar-rich blooms are a favorite of butterflies, other pollinators, and even hummingbirds in the spring. 

The typical red/yellow flower of our native columbine

The name

Its scientific name and common name reference a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia comes from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together).

The leaves

The blue-green foliage elongates in the spring, with reddish stems topped by the elegant flowers. After blooming the stems dry. I like to cut back these flower stems to the rosette of foliage.  If you leave the flower stems, the brown capsules, full of black seeds, will fall and seed themselves in your garden for next season. Occasionally, the foliage will be infested with leaf miners. Simply cut the foliage back to remove the unsightly leaves and let it regrow a new rosette of lobed leaves. Then you can distribute the seeds in other areas where you would like some more plants.

Caring for Columbine

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions. It is quite adaptable, growing in wet to medium dry soils.  It makes a nice combination with golden alexander, blue star, false sunflower and sky blue aster. A pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by the late Al Gantz and introduced by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Beautiful pink columbine flower from Marion County, Kansas

As you put together your plant list for a design or matrix planting, don’t overlook the obvious. Columbine is a wonderful woodland wildflower that should be brought out of the shadows. Include it in your design as a filler to add an early pop of color in the spring in your partial shade/sun site.

Coneflowers: A Lesson in Host Plants

Coneflowers are so emblematic of the prairie. I love to include these prairie denizens in many of my designs. They are quite adaptable and I love the yellows, purples and pink colors of the true natives as they bloom during the summer.  The new cultivated varieties are attractive too. A mass of coneflowers with little bluestem make a nice combination by providing color and texture through the growing season. But right now, many of the plants are full of little black or brown caterpillars that are using Echinacea and Rudbeckia as their food.

Coneflowers as host plants

We are getting calls from our members and customers, and are seeing damage on our plants as well. Coneflower leaves are blackening, getting holes and disappearing. Contrary to how you may feel, this damage is an indication that your garden is functioning properly. Host plants are the vital food source that caterpillars live on. Adult butterflies will seek out these plants to lay their eggs on because they know that the caterpillar cannot travel far and will not survive if placed on a plant that they cannot eat. These caterpillars will eventually turn into checkerspot butterflies or a relative in that family. 

Think differently about your landscape

One of the goals of any garden – besides beauty – is to have pollinators in your garden. Sometimes they might not immediately be in the form you desire. Sometimes pollinators or their caterpillars may eat your plants or deform them.  Don’t be too hasty to spray or remove the culprits. They are doing what comes naturally to them and it is often better to leave the insect. These insects are fantastic food for fledgling birds as well.

Understand the life cycle

The caterpillars eating your coneflowers will make cocoons in a week or so and then turn into butterflies.  We must learn to embrace these caterpillars and accept some damage. The coneflowers will eventually recover. The tradeoff is that we create habitat suitable for butterflies to complete their life cycle. The “ugly, hairy” caterpillars will morph into beautiful butterflies that are equal to the beauty of the flower. 

The key to a successful butterfly garden is to plant both nectar and host plants, so that the butterflies will have a food source in all stages of their life cycles. We often design our landscapes as nectar sources and forget that these pollinators need host plants too. So as you design your landscape, include flowering plants that produce nectar and also double as host plants.

Other host plants

  • Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Gorgone Checkerspot, Bordered Patch butterfly
  • Aster spp. Host plant for: Pearl crescent, Painted Lady and more
  • Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) Host Plant for: Silvery Checkerspot and more
  • Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) Host plant for: Painted Lady, Common Checkered-Skipper and more
  • Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) or Dill (Antheum graveolens) Host plant for: Black Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail and more NOTE: The Black Swallowtail will feed on any plants within the Parsley family.
  • Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Painted Lady and more
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) Host plant for: Monarch
  • Mallow (Malva spp.) Host plant for: Common Checkered-Skipper, Gray Hairstreak , Painted Lady and more
  • Violet (Viola spp.) Host plant for: Great Spangled Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Meadow Fritillary and more