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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is WaterLinkPlanting-May2009_-026-1024x768.jpg
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. 

Solarization for Weed Control

At our Native Plant School sessions, the topic of weed control often comes up. When establishing new beds or planting buffalograss, eradicating weeds prior to planting is critical for success.  Hand weeding can be time consuming on these larger areas. Often we first use chemicals to control difficult weeds in our landscapes and garden areas without thinking about other options or ramifications of the chemicals we use. Solarization is another technique you can use without reaching for the chemicals to control problem weeds.  

What is solarization?

Solarization is the process of covering an area with clear plastic to heat the soil and kill weeds and seeds in the top six inches of soil. If done properly, the use of chemicals to control weeds is not necessary. 

File:SOIL SOLARIZATION.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SOIL_SOLARIZATION.jpg

What weeds can be controlled? 

Solarization can be an effective method of controlling many weeds such as bermudagrass, bindweed and other annual weeds. Keep in mind that some of these weeds have extensive root systems and many re-sprout, even after being subjected to super high temperatures.  It may take several solarization attempts to completely eliminate them from the area.  In the end, it may take a few more months before you are ready to plant, but you have not used chemicals to control these problem weeds. 

Steps to Solarization

  • It is best to use this method during the longest, hottest days of summer.  The goal is to get soil temperatures under the plastic above 140 degrees.  It is easier to reach these temperatures in June through August. 
  • This is a process that will last for a couple months.  Plan ahead in your planting schedule so solarization has enough time to work.  Some of the more aggressive weeds will not be eliminated in just a few weeks. 
  • It is best to remove existing growth and lightly till the entire area.
  • Remove stalks and debris that will puncture the plastic.
  • Rake the area smooth.  It is critical that the area is completely flat so plastic lays right on the soil with no air pockets. 
  • Irrigate the entire area so it conducts heat better.  The soil should be moist to 12 inches deep, but not muddy.  This is a real trick in clay soils.  This is a critical step in the process, because it is not recommended to re-irrigate after the solarization process has started.
  • Dig a 8-12 inch trench around the solarization area.   
  • Lay one entire piece of plastic over the area and tuck the edges into the trench you just dug. 
  • Cover the edges of plastic in the trench with soil, pulling plastic tight as you move across the whole area.  This makes a good seal around the entire site.       

Soil Solarization Illustration by W. Suckow, ucanr
Source: W. Suckow, ucanr.edu

Solarization incorporates the same principles of a hot compost pile to kill weed seeds and break down organic matter.  We have used this technique in smaller areas here at the Arboretum from time to time with mixed results.  Some have been very successful, but others have not completely eliminated some of the target weeds.  Smaller areas have had better results than larger areas especially when dealing with aggressive weeds like Bermudagrass. 

In the end, I think solarization should have a place in your weed control options. It is a nice alternative to using chemicals. Give it a try sometime.

Plant Profile: Southwest White Pine

When one thinks of classic and elegant conifers, Eastern white pine often comes to mind.  Unfortunately in the Great Plains, summer heat, wind and drought restrict growing Eastern white pine to only well protected sites.  We have a stand of Eastern white pines strategically planted with protection from these adverse conditions.  Even these few original Eastern white pines planted in the early 1980’s are slowly expiring because of environmental challenges. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative.  The Southwest white pine, Pinus strobiformis, is a tough, drought- and heat-tolerant conifer. Its native range extends from Texas to Arizona and south to Mexico.  They inhabit dry, rocky slopes in mountainous areas. 

Southwest white pine planted in 2000

Habit

Somewhat shorter and broader than its eastern cousin, the Southwest white pine reaches 30-60 feet in height at maturity, with a broad, rounded crown.  Needles are five per bundle (fascicle), 1.5 to 3.5 inches in length with a dark green to blue-green color.  The top and bottom of the needles have somewhat distinct white stomatal lines.  Though not as long and soft as the needles of the Eastern white pine, the needles are very soft textured and pliant.  The long cylindrical cones mature in two years and produce a brown oval seed that is edible.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_2207-768x1024.jpg

Culture 

Adaptable to our high pH soils, Southwest white pine prefers well-drained soil in full sun.  It is a moderate to fast grower. Young specimens in the Arboretum have grown 10-12 inches per year since they were planted in the mid-1990s.

Also consider a Southwest white pine as an alternative to Austrian pine, which has suffered from Sphaeropsis tip blight in the last decade.  It can be used as a large specimen or in a screen or windbreak planting. Its hardiness, drought resistance, and fast growth are definite attributes to consider in our challenging climate. 

Alternatives

Other evergreen and conifers we use here at the Arboretum: Arizona Cypress, ‘Taylor Juniper’, ‘Canaertii’ Juniper, Black Hills Spruce, Pinyon Pine and Vanderwolf’s Pyramid Limber Pine.  There are no guarantees on any of these.  They may develop blights, or other diseases in time.  Certainly they are all attractive to bag worms. 

The bottom line is that growing evergreens in Kansas will always be a challenge.  These are the best options for landscapers. Take a look at our 2020 Native Plant Guide for Spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for other landscape options.

Arizona Cypress

Winter Watering Tips for Your Garden

Growing plants in Kansas can be a challenge.  This spring we had an abundance of moisture – too much in fact – and now we are experiencing expanding drought conditions throughout the state.  With the landscape in a state of dormancy, you may forget to water those parched plants.  With winter upon us, how do you keep your plants alive?  Here are some winter watering tips that will save your landscape investment.

Little bluestem in late fall

Should I water my garden in winter?

Even though plants have gone dormant and lifeless, they should be watered periodically.  Newly planted perennials, trees and shrubs have not developed the extensive root systems to sustain them through a dry winter.  Dehydrated plants will struggle to survive the winter even when they are not actively growing.  Your plants are thirsty, so you will need to give them a drink. 

Cold weather watering tips

  • Look at the soil around your plants. If the top inch or two is dry you must water the plants.
  • If the soil is unfrozen, water on days above 40-45 degrees
  • Obviously, it is better to water after noon so water has time to infiltrate the soil before freezing at night. 
  • Water through the winter any time the top inch or two of soil is dry. 
  • Evaporation rates are slower during the winter, so you may only need to water once or twice a month.
  • If it stays dry through the winter months, it is critically important to water as the plants break dormancy next April and May.

What to water in winter

  • Plants installed this year (perennials, trees, shrubs and cool season turf)
  • Established cool season (fescue) turf, especially under trees and around shrubs.  Roots are competing for moisture with the grass roots
  • Pay special attention to evergreens as they are more susceptible to winter dry-out.
  • If it is especially dry, even established trees, shrubs and perennials will benefit from an occasional winter watering. 
Taylor Juniper (foreground) and Canaertii Juniper (background) – Don’t let these evergreens get too dry!

How to water in winter

Use garden hoses to connect to sprinklers and water nozzles.  These can be easily disconnected from the hydrant.  Obviously, irrigation systems will be damaged by freezing temperatures, so don’t restart any underground automatic sprinkler systems.      

Established turf and trees, especially those in sunny, windy, or exposed areas should be a high priority. Watering prevents them from drying out due to unique environmental conditions.

Don’t overwater your plants.  Soggy soils and heavy clay soils that stay wet for long periods of time will cause root rot and fungal issues.

Water as needed with one-half inch to one inch of moisture to rehydrate the top few inches of soil. 

Remember to remove hoses from spigot so pipes don’t freeze. Drain hoses of water to eliminate freeze damage to hoses as well. 

The winter landscape can be stark and often forgetten since it is not producing flowers or new growth. However, dormant plants are still using water and can be damaged by prolonged periods without moisture. Hopefully, we get some rain or snowfall, but it takes around 10 inches of snow to equal one inch of rain.

Don’t forget about your plants in this busy season of the year, keep checking those plants and the soil around them.  We don’t want you to be surprised by dry, dead or desiccated plants next spring.  A little winter watering now will keep you from replacing plants next spring. 

Putting Your Garden to Bed for Winter

It seems that winter has come earlier than expected this year.  I don’t know about you, but I have been caught a little off guard.  I wish I could say we have everything ready for winter, but that would be untrue.  In preparation for colder weather, I have put a simple checklist together for putting the winter garden to bed.

Perennials

Every year we receive quite a few questions about when to cut back perennials.  As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the winter garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a backdrop of little bluestem.

I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Black-eyed Susan with Switchgrass. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Lawns

Fall is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees, the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Leaves

I purposefully don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Clean and sharpen tools

I often overlook this step in the fall garden prep checklist.  A little time cleaning your tools like shovels, spades and other digging tools will give you a jump start next season.  This simple practice will prolong the life of your tools.  Doing this will prevent rust and deterioration.  I like to use a wire brush in the cleaning process before I sharpen each tool.  By cleaning off dirt and debris and applying a thin coat of oil, you will extend the life of each tool.

Store power tools

We always have trouble with our gas powered tools in spring.  We forget that they need to be drained of standard pump gasoline before being stored for long periods of time.  Today’s gas deteriorates relatively quickly and gums up the carburetors.  Empty your fuel tanks into storage containers of fuel, oil, and fuel mix if you are not going to be using the equipment in the next 30 days.  We add fuel stabilizer to the stored fuel over winter.  We like to run the engine completely out of fuel before we put it away. 

Disconnect and drain garden hoses

Obviously, garden hoses that remain attached to the spigot during cold weather will create problems. This connection and the trapped water in the hose will freeze not only the hose, but the spigot on your home.  I have seen these freeze and then burst as they thaw out.  It can be a mess and quite costly. 

Drain garden hoses before you store them for the winter.  It is best to bring them inside so they are not deteriorated by the winter sun.  Extreme winter conditions also break down the inner lining of the hose, weakening it over time.  We like to loop each hose into two to three foot loops. Create flat stacks of coiled hoses.  Hanging hoses will put stress on the areas where they are attached to the wall.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Spring is only six months away!

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

We are coming to the end of another growing season in Kansas.  Here at the Arboretum we have seen highs and lows as far as moisture is concerned, but all in all it has been a nice year.  The grasses are at their peak now with beautiful plumage and incredible fall colors.  As we prepare our gardens for winter, it’s a good time to evaluate how your garden performed this year and what it needs for winter or next year. Many gardens will need a fresh layer of mulch.

Arizona Cypress nicely mulched on a berm.

What needs to be mulched?

I typically focus on trees and shrubs because they benefit most from a new layer of mulch this time of year.  I tend to only mulch perennial beds as they are initially planted. More recently, we are planting new beds denser (plants closer together) so that the lower ground level plants fill in and out compete the weeds, making a thick wood chip layer less necessary.  In a prairie, there is no mulch in between the plants — low grasses, wildflowers and sedges cover the ground so weeds don’t germinate and cause problems. We are working to mimic that layered planting style.

What are the benefits?

Obviously, mulch is good at stabilizing soil temperatures which is important as colder weather sets in. It is also good for holding moisture and reducing weeds around the base of the trees and shrubs.  Aesthetically, mulch gives your landscape a finished look that distinguishes it during all seasons of the year.  An often overlooked benefit of mulch is that it keeps the mower and string trimmer away from the base of the plants.  As the mulch slowly breaks down, it releases nutrients into the soil and increases the water holding capacity of the soil.

How much mulch is needed?

For trees and shrubs, I prefer to use between two and four inches of mulch.  It is important to keep it away from the base of the trees and shrubs so insects and rot don’t become a problem at the stem or trunk.  Please don’t create mulch volcanoes, which are death to trees. An evenly spread ring around the base of the plants, replenished regularly, will help them tremendously.  For perennials, we only place one to two inches of mulch down and again we keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established but as they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch. 

Too much mulch piled up at the base of the tree can lead to fungus, rot, low oxygen levels and tree death.

Should you use landscape fabric? 

I am not a fan of landscape fabric.  I have seen it do more harm than good especially for many of our native plants.  One problem is that it keeps our clay soils too wet, leading to crown rot and other fungus growth. Using landscape fabric also makes it challenging to change your landscape plan in the future.  As an alternative to fabric, we encourage the use of large pieces of cardboard covered by mulch.  It still provides weed control during establishment but breaks down over time to be incorporated into the soil.  Just slice holes in the cardboard to install your plants. 

What type of mulch should be used?

Here at the Arboretum, we use wood chips from local tree trimming services.  We like it too be fairly coarse so it breaks down slower and is less susceptible to wind.  The type of mulch is not really important but texture is important. Finer mulches tend to cake up and seal off the soil which can be problematic to the plants root systems. Many municipalities have wood chip piles that can be loaded and used at little or no cost to you.  Why spend money on fancy wood chips when you can get it for next to nothing?  Most mulch looks the same after a few weeks in the sun anyway.

Mulch pile shown here is rough and natural colored, showing our prefered texture and style

 It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add it to your landscaping routine.  A little work now will pay dividends next year.   

Rethinking Garden Clean Up

It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming.  I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.

Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden.  The grasses are spectacular this year too.   

Monarch on New England Aster

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape.  It will be time for the prairie to sleep.  Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.

Taking stock

I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring.  I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens. 

Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March.  What areas am I going to focus on next year?  Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning?  What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape?  What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife? 

Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized.  Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Your stewardship efforts are making a difference.  Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden. 

Perennials

We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds.  It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem.  Enjoy these autumnal combinations. 

Little Bluestem

Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early.  Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months.   Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds.  Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape.  By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife.  We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch.  Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil.  In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good. 

Leaves

I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.

When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away.  They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.   

Tablerock Sugar Maple

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take note of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

What will all this rain do to my native plants?

The spring of 2019 has been an unusually cool and wet spring here in Kansas. I don’t like to complain about rain, because I know at some point it will quit.  Conditions will get hotter and dryer through the summer.  I don’t know what normal is anymore. For many of us, a short reprieve from the rain would be welcome.  It would give us a chance to catch up and let our basements dry out. 

All this rain made me think about what it does to plants.  Many of you have newly-planted gardens or established flower beds and you, too, may be asking yourself – what will all this rain do to my native plants?

Native Pink Columbine

Excessive growth

Rain obviously causes the plants to grow.  One of the downfalls of excessive growth so early in the season is that it will need to maintain that growth the rest of the year.  Certainly, native plants are adapted to our prairie conditions and have root systems that can sustain the plants.  It makes the placement of plants even more critical and important as we work to match the plants with our sites.  If the plants are properly situated, it should not be a problem. 

Use this season as an opportunity to observe your plants. If you see some wilting over the next few weeks, it may be an indication that the roots have been damaged or that the plants are not happy where they are planted. 

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

Plant diseases

All this rain has created perfect conditions for plant diseases like bacteria and fungi to flourish.  There hasn’t been much time for plants to dry out in between rains.  Prolonged periods of leaf wetness and excess moisture around the plant root zone can damage leaves and the crowns of plants.  A few days of sunlight will help, but we need to make sure these plants are not smothered by mulch and the crowns of the plants have a chance to dry. Many plants, including trees and shrubs, have been slow to leaf out. Excessive rainfall and overcast skies has slowed the plant’s growth and can affect the timing and intensity of the blooms for the rest of the season. With rainfall like we have had, it makes us more aware of drainage issues, air circulation, plant selection and planting depth within our landscapes.  

Nutrient leaching

Native plants don’t typically need to be fertilized.  Their extensive root systems tap into nutrients that most plants can’t reach. 

Your plants may have a yellow cast to them, but that doesn’t mean you should fertilize them.  It is a result of lack of sunlight and too much water.  Let them develop new roots and they will begin to green up on their own.  By adding fertilizer, native plants have a tendency to flop and outgrow their root systems. Resist the temptation to fertilize your plants. While heavy rains have leached nutrients out of the soil, affecting the plant growth, these conditions will usually only cause temporary nutrient deficiency.  

Bank of Amsonia

Plants are resilient and quite adaptable.  They should recover over time.  The long term effects of all this rain may not be fully known until later this year or even next year, but a majority of them will be fine.  One reward is that we haven’t had to water much.  We established some plants here at the Arboretum and never had to water them other than the first watering.  That is very rare in Kansas.  I love the sunshine today.  All the lush plants are loving it too.