Feeling Edgy

Every good piece of art deserves a good frame. The same goes for gardens! A well-designed, ecologically friendly landscape needs to have borders and edging keeping it in bounds, not only physically, but visually. Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan makes this point better than anyone in her text ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’.

Novel landscape designs that improve ecological quality may not be appreciated or maintained if recognizable landscape language that communicates human intention is not part of the landscape.

Nassauer, 2007

In layman’s terms, no matter how wonderfully water-wise and pollinator-friendly your garden is, if it looks messy, all the neighbors will hate it.

Proper edging can make a garden look tidier and more intentional. For prairie gardens that may be prone to look unruly, framing and clean lines are very important. Photo from Our Mother’s Garden entrance.

Beauty Standards

Messy, in this usage, is a unique idea borne from our Eurocentric culture. These traditional gardens and landscapes need to be constantly in order, with straight lines, perfect symmetry, short lawns and hedges trimmed into unnatural shapes. Those standards of beauty and acceptability come from the aristocracy of Western Europe; castles and manors with hedge mazes, rose gardens, and endless formal lawns.

In our prairie home, these ideas do more harm than good. Trying to maintain those landscapes of the old country is costly, labor intensive, and destructive. Kansas is hot, dry, and extreme in her fluctuations, unlike the place of my ancestors from Europe – cooler, moist, and temperate. And trying to make the natural world bend to my ideas of perfect order is an uphill battle and a waste of resources. But we can achieve an orderly, formal aesthetic by using proper edging in native landscapes.

Steel edging makes a strong statement. It lends a degree of formality and tidiness, even if the plants inside the edging are aggressive natives!
To install this stone edging, volunteers helped me dig a shallow trench against the sidewalk. We situated them an inch or so below the sidewalk, to make sure they sit tightly together and aren’t moved by heavy rains.

Choosing the Right Edging

Plastic. Metal. Wood. Stone. What is right for your space? This may depend on the design of your house, or the structure a garden is nearest to. It may also depend on the plants. For instance, species with vigorous underground spreaders that need control may require deep steel edging. My personal favorite is stone. If installed properly, stone never has to be replaced. Steel edging is becoming quite popular for its modern, industrial quality, but can be expensive for large spaces.

You can see here my own unfinished edging project. One side looks neat and tidy, and is holding its mulch and soil. The other side sans edging routinely erodes after rain events, sending my mulch and good garden soil into the gutter.
Steel edging is installed by hammering the sections into the soil, then joining them with clips at corners or joints. Mulch or gravel is then added around the edging according to the style you are trying to achieve.

If you are concerned about how your pollinator garden or native landscaping may be perceived by passersby, consider edging it. Edging adds an easily recognizable human element. Onlookers will see this space is purposeful, cared for, and important. And it just might convince someone to create a prairie garden of their own.

Defining Sun Requirements for Native Plants

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

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

Terminology

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

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day
  • Dense shade – No direct sunlight and little indirect light reaches the ground.

A Closer Look at the Terms

Full Sun

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

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

Kansas Gayfeather in full sun

Part Sun and Part Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Shade

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

Native columbine thriving in the shade of an elm tree

Dense Shade

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

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

Bagworms: Pest Spotlight

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

Bagworm Life Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one generation of bagworm eggs are produced every year.

Bagworm Hosts

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

Natural Controls

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

Manual Controls 

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

Spraying for Bagworms

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

The biological control we have been using to control bagworms

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

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

Buffalograss Seeding Experiment

Buffalograss gets its name from the “buffalo” that once roamed the Great Plains and foraged on this dense native turf.  As a component of the shortgrass prairie, early settlers used sod, held together by buffalograss, to construct their sod houses. Prairies were woven together with buffalograss and that’s why it makes such a nice lawn option.

Shortgrass prairie in Finney County, KS-Photo courtesy Craig Freeman
Buffalograss lawn at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, Hesston, Kan.

Background

Buffalograss is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. The male flowers held above the foliage are on small, comb-like spikes. Female flowers cluster on short stems down in the leaves closer to the ground.  From seed, you get both male and female flowers.  Like blue grama, I find the male flowers attractive enough that I leave them when I can.  They can be mowed off for a look that’s more formal, manicured turf grass.

Regular Seeding

Typically, we seed buffalograss in the summer when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees.  In South central Kansas, it is recommended that seeding of buffalograss be completed no later than August 15.  Later seeding is not very successful because the newly germinated seedlings do not get fully rooted before winter.  That has been a good rule of thumb, but requires so much water in the summer to get the seeds to germinate.

Dense seeding of buffalograss

Our Experiment

This winter we will be trying a new seeding technique with buffalograss.  We have our area prepared and ready for planting. This November, we will seed annual ryegrass with buffalograss seed.  The ryegrass is a cool season grass that prefers cooler weather.  Once germinated, it will hold the soil through the winter while the buffalograss seed is naturally planted with the freezing and thawing of the soil.  The round seeds will not germinate because soil temperatures are below 60 degrees.

Area to be seeded with annual ryegrass and buffalograss

Next Year

In the spring, the buffalograss seed will germinate as the soil temperatures warm. By May, the new seedlings will benefit from spring rains and the buffalograss will begin to spread under the canopy of the ryegrass. As the temperatures warm into the summer, the annual ryegrass will begin to fade and the buffalograss will become more prominent. By the end of the summer, a new thick buffalograss planting will be fully established, spreading and healthy.

This is an experiment. We will keep you posted on the progress of this planting. I believe it has real potential because it uses natural processes to plant the buffalograss seed. We will use less water compared to germinating the seed in the summer and the ryegrass holds the soil to prevent erosion.  It sounds good in theory but it has yet to be tried. 

Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) fun facts

  • It is a larval host for green skipper butterflies.
  • The genus was named for Claudio and Esteban Boutelou, 19th-century Spanish botanists.
  • The specific epithet, dactyloides, means fingerlike, which refers to the inflorescences.

Controlling Weeds in Buffalograss Lawn Areas

There has been recent renewed interest in establishing buffalograss lawn areas as an alternative to conventional fescue. Buffalograss is a native sod-forming grass species that is well adapted to our climate.  It is a nice choice for open, sunny areas. As a warm season grass, it uses water efficiently and effectively, even during periodic and prolonged droughts. This fine textured prairie grass spreads by both seed and stolons (runners), which take root and produce new plants.  We have buffalograss varieties of Cody, Sundancer, Legacy and Bowie growing on the Dyck Arboretum grounds. 

Thick weed free buffalograss

Weeds

One of the drawbacks of buffalograss is that it susceptible to weed infestations. Crabgrass and foxtail are problematic summer annual weeds and henbit, dandelion and chickweed are broadleaf weeds that regularly infiltrate buffalograss.  Each of these types of weeds requires monitoring and sometimes control measures.

Timing

Usually in late October to early November, we spray for broadleaf weeds in our buffalograss lawn areas.  We have several acres of buffalograss, so we hire someone to spray for us.  Choose a day that is 50 degrees or higher. The better the weed is growing, the more weed killer will be moved from the leaves to the roots. Cold temperatures will slow this process, but these products will still work at lower temperatures.

Weed Control

Here at the Arboretum, we are seeing henbit germinate and dandelions greening back up due to earlier rains and cooler temperatures.  These perennial and winter annual weeds usually have germinated by October, but they may be later this year due to the lack of moisture.  However, we are seeing some winter annual weeds. 

It is best to control these young plants when they are small before they get fully established. We use herbicides such as 2,4-D or Trimec blends with 2,4-D, MCPP and Dicamba. By spraying now, these weeds uptake the chemicals and move it from the leaves to the roots readily. This process of translocation is naturally occurring with most plants resulting in a more complete kill of the plant including the roots.

Buffalograss and low growing natives. It’s not just for lawns.

Pre-emergent Weed Control

One of the practices we have tried on smaller areas of buffalograss is the use of pre-emergent herbicides in the spring. 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.

Is all this worth it?

We encourage people to use buffalograss despite having to spray it occasionally.  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 need little to no fertilizer and overall will reduce your maintenance.    

It is not my favorite thing to do, but we have seen real benefits from these regular spraying and pre-emergent applications. Before we sprayed in the fall, we were mostly mowing weeds the next spring, especially henbit. In early spring, the henbit was flourishing, but the buffalograss had not started actively growing.  Dandelion, chickweed, and bindweed also had free reign. We made the decision to spray in the fall and it has made such a difference the next year.

By the way, it’s not too late to prepare your landscape for a buffalograss lawn planting next year.

What to Plant in the Fall?

Fall is often overlooked as a key planting time for a beautiful garden. It’s such a good time to give your plants a little attention before winter sets in. Take advantage of fall’s cooler weather to dig in your yard and add a few plants. With warm days and cooler nights, I actually prefer to establish plants after the heat of summer has passed.  Here is a handy list of items I like to plant in the fall:

Shrubs

With warm soil temperatures persisting well into October, adding a few shrubs to your landscape is one of the easiest tasks to do.  Whether evergreen or deciduous, fall planted shrubs will continue to root as long as the soil is not frozen.  Select healthy, actively growing shrubs and always plant at or slightly above the natural soil line.  These newly planted shrubs will benefit from regular watering through the fall until the ground freezes.  Mulching appropriately stabilizes the soil temperatures to keep newly established plants rooting until winter dormancy. 

Leadplant is an native butterfly bush alternative.

Trees

Fall is a perfect time for tree planting. With an increase in rainfall and cooler temperatures, you will need less water to get the trees established.  Tree growth stops as the days get shorter, but warm soil and consistently cooler weather help spur on new root growth.  These new roots will develop as long as the soil is not frozen.  Trees planted in the fall are better equipped to deal with heat and drought in the following season because they have a more established root system.  Fall is also a great time to pick trees by the fall they produce.  Steps to planting a tree. 

Newly planted American Elm

Perennials

Time and again we have seen the benefits of planting perennials in the fall here at the Arboretum.  We usually have more time to focus on getting them established, too.  Fall planted perennials such as wildflowers and even native grasses are more robust and vigorous the following year.  It’s true, we don’t always feel like gardening this time of year, but the reward is worth the extra effort.  Here is a short list of perennials for fall plating: 

Wildflowers

  • Black-eyed susan
  • Coneflower
  • Blazing star
  • Asters
  • Penstemon
  • Primrose
  • False Indigo
  • Blue Star
  • Yarrow
  • Milkweed

Grasses

  • Little bluestem
  • Big bluestem
  • Indiangrass
  • Prairie dropseed
  • Switchgrass

As you can see, just about any perennial can be planted in the fall.  Establish them as you do in the spring with daily watering for the first few weeks depending on the weather.  Back off on watering as you see new growth. 

During the winter, check the new plants monthly and water them if the top inch or two is dry.  The biggest issue with fall establishment is that the plants get too dry during the winter.  Desiccation/neglect can be a real drawback of fall planting.  I have done this myself by thinking “Oh, the plants are dormant, so they don’t need to be watered.”  Don’t forget to check them through the winter!

Butterfly Milkweed

Bulbs and Cool Season Grass

Fall is a great time to plant a few spring blooming bulbs.  Order or pick up quality bulbs and plant them to the suggested depth.  I love daffodils, but species tulips, grape hyacinth and ornamental onions are nice additions to the garden. 

August and September are great times to establish cool season turf like fescue.  Make sure you buy seed that is free of weeds and other crop seed.     

While most gardeners are more accustomed to planting in spring, fall is also an ideal time to get a variety of plants established in your garden. Don’t let garden fatigue keep you from getting your landscape ready for next year.  Working in the garden in fall makes good sense both now and for next spring. Come to our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for more information and options for fall planting.

Landowner Prairie Restoration Spotlight – Carolyn and Terry Schwab

Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.

We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.

Terry and Carolyn Schwab and the property they manage (2007)

Increasing Wildlife Diversity

The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.

The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Vegetation Management

Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.

Numerous small trees invading in prescribed burning units A and B (2002 aerial photography)
Comparison with the previous photo shows that mechanical removal and prescribed burning have reduced tree cover over a six-year period, especially in units A and B (2008 aerial photography)

They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.

Management Unit B, post-burn in 2009 (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.

Conducting a prescribed burn on Unit C in 2010

Wildlife Monitoring

Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.

Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.

This 2013 regal fritillary on butterfly milkweed (a yellow native landscaping variety near house) was the last one that Carolyn has seen on her property (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!

A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.

Return of Butterfly Milkweed

The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.

Butterfly milkweed (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Protection for the Future

The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.

Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.

A white-tailed deer doe and two fawns sheltering on one of the Schwab pond islands (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

After the First Year: Words of Encouragement

Thinking about starting a new garden using native plants is one thing, but putting in the time to get it established is another thing altogether.  I was reminded today of the rewards you receive after working hard that first year to get your garden properly established.  A design I had put together for a local couple last spring is now exploding in blooms and growth this year.  They shared with me how amazed they are at the transformation those small plants have made in just one full year.  

Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Purple Coneflowers

The second year

This couple had put in the necessary time and effort last year by watering and weeding their small garden. There will still be a need for some maintenance this season, but it will be greatly reduced because of their efforts last year. 

Establishment is such an important step in the development of a new garden. You will still need to water during prolonged droughts and weed out invasive species. You will need to be vigilant until these natives are fully rooted and completely filling the space, crowding out weeds.  Then you can let them fend for themselves, especially if you have done proper planning and chosen the right plants for the space. 

Yellow Coneflower, Prairie Dropseed and Giant Black-eyed Susan

Beyond the second year    

Keep in mind, your first garden doesn’t need to be perfect.  More often than not, it won’t be perfect. However, remember that you are creating a habitat that blooms, attracts wildlife and pollinators and brings you enjoyment. It takes time to get the results we want. 

Often we get discouraged by the amount of time and effort needed to keep our garden going that first year. Prolonged dry spells, wind, heat and weeds can easily take the fun out of it. Think long term and remember why you are doing this. I certainly have experienced that discouragement and burn out, but have been rewarded with beauty and wildlife as these natives take off the next few years.  

Remain patient and vigilant when establishing a native plant landscape, especially those first few years.  Each season, plants will shift in response to the weather and soil.  Follow the plants’ lead, tidy up after them as you need, and fill gaps with new plants. It generally takes 2-5 years before the full benefits of your landscaping efforts pay off and wildlife find and use the native plants. An old adage says, “The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps.”  

Bordered patches are commonly found throughout the southwest US and Northern Mexico, but can be found in Kansas through late fall.

The First Year: Getting Native Plants Established

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

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

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

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

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

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

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

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

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

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

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

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

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

Mulch

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

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

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

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

Steps for Planting a Tree

This spring is going to be anything but normal.  I know that’s an obvious understatement.  All this social distancing has made me think of the many things I need to get done around my house.  Social distancing time may be beneficial and help me stop procrastinating.  My house needs to be painted.  I need to add a fresh layer of mulch on my front flower beds. Another thing I was thinking about was planting another tree. 

For those of you who are looking for things to do with your children who are home from school, planting a tree is a great activity to do together outside. And with the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd and Arbor Day on April 24th, there are many related online educational resources available to help talk about the importance of trees and caring for the earth.

So in that vein, here are the steps I take when planting a tree. 

Choose the right tree

I work from a short list of trees I know will grow well in our area.  Some of my favorites are: Caddo sugar maples such as ‘John Pair’ and ‘Autumn Splendor’, Shumard Oak, disease resistant crabapples, Shantung maple, and bur oak.  There are so many good options for our area, but make sure you are aware of the tree’s mature size.  This will affect power lines, crowding buildings and porches, and heaving sidewalks.  See our Native Plant Guide or recommended plants from KSU extension for other options.  

Shumard Oak ready for planting

Dial 811

We have all seen the cheesy commercials to “dial before you dig”, but the truth is it’s important to locate utilities.  It doesn’t cost anything.  You just give the location and then wait a few days for them to flag the area.  It is worth making the call rather than guessing while you’re digging. 

Locate the tree

Depending on the tree, some may be easy to find while others may take some time.  We recommend smaller trees that are ¾” to 1 ½’ caliper trees.  In our experience, these smaller caliper trees tend to root faster and acclimate to the site better than larger 2-3 inch caliper trees.  Plus, they are more economical and as I get older, I am less willing to wrestle with a 200 pound root ball than I used to be.     

Before Planting

As you look at your new tree in a pot or balled and bur lapped, you must find the root flare.  This is the point where the trunk widens to transition to roots.  If the root flare isn’t visible, you will need to remove enough soil until it is exposed.  This is a critical step to insure the tree is not planted too deep because this root flare needs to be slightly above the soil line.  Sometimes, nurseries heap two to three inches of soil on top of the flare, causing you to plant it too deep. 

Dig a proper hole

Dig and measure, dig and measure so you don’t dig too deep of a hole.  Make sure the root flare is a couple inches above the soil line.  The tree needs to sit on solid soil, not loose soil that will settle and move the tree deeper.  Make the hole two to three times the diameter of the root ball. 

Plant the tree

Before putting the tree in the hole, remove all wires, twine or anything else tied to the tree.  If you don’t, these ties and wire can girdle the trunk or branches and cause severe damage. 

Once the tree is in the hole, orient the larger branches to face south. The prevailing winds are from the south, which force branches to grow on the north side of the tree making it lopsided.

Once oriented, carefully remove the wire basket and cut circling roots from potted trees in two or three spots around the root ball.  This process will encourage new outward rooting of the tree. 

Back fill with the same soil you removed from the hole. Don’t amend the soil with something like peat moss, because you want the tree to immediately root into original soil, not some artificial environment. Trees planted into peat moss or amended soil have toppled over by wind because they just circled in that loose soil, never venturing out into our clay soils.  Don’t give them an option, force the trees to grow in our challenging soils from the start. 

There is no need to fertilize at this time either. Fertilizing forces growth that cannot be supported by the new root system.  If you need to fertilize, it is better to wait several years until the root system is more established.  I don’t add root stimulator either.  In my opinion, it is an added expense that doesn’t benefit the plant enough to justify the cost.    

Build a basin for watering

After the tree is properly back filled, I like to build a small basin around the tree. This will help with watering the tree, but also slowly settle as the back fill settles.  This basin can be mulched to help with cooling the environment, retaining moisture and controlling weeds.  Give it a good soaking at this time. 

Basin around an American Elm

Staking the tree

Most smaller trees will not need to be staked.  It has been proven that trees will establish quicker when left to move with the wind, which make the trunks stronger.  Larger trees will obviously need to be staked the first year, but stake only when necessary to keep the tree from toppling over until roots can anchor the tree on their own.  If you do need to stake a tree, we put one stake on the north side and two on the south side of the tree.  These stakes are evenly spaced around the tree.  Don’t use old garden hose but rather true tree straps around the trunk of the tree tied back to these stakes. After one year, remember to remove all of the stakes, wire and straps from the tree.

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Weeping willow with basin and stakes on bank of rain garden
Tree strap used for staking trees

Maintenance after planting

It is better to wait to do any pruning on the tree for the first year.  The only exception would be removing any damaged branches.  With the basin you have created around the tree, it makes it easier to water it thoroughly once a week for the first year depending on rainfall.  Keep in mind that it takes a year or two to develop an adequate root system to sustain a tree on its own without supplemental watering.

I have a placard at my desk with a quote from Martin O’Malley that says, ‘Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.’  This post seems rather lengthy, but the process of planting a tree goes rather quickly once you get started.