From Lawn To Lush

Lawn alternatives are more than just a passing craze. They are a great way to reduce your carbon-footprint and increase pollinator habitat. I am excited to present a class this week on this very topic, and thought it might be nice to preview it here on the blog.

I replaced a large section of lawn at my own home, and instead planted with bluebeard, perky sue, sedum, prairie drop seed, Mexican feather grass, horsetail milkweed, and lavender. The violets came up on their own, and in hordes! But I leave them there because they are host plants for fritillary butterflies.

Cost over the ‘Lawn’ Haul

Traditional lawns of cool season grasses such as fescue and Kentucky blue grass have a wonderful place in my heart. They are great for entertaining, playing family games of badminton or throwing a Frisbee for the dog. But all that green space adds up: Kansas alone has 157,000 acres of turf and lawn, according to data from 2006 released by the KSDA. In that year, it cost Kansans an average of $1,541 per acre to maintain the turf grass in our state. So we end up with lots of grass, lots of money spent, but little to show in terms of habitat, soil health, or carbon sequestration.

Volunteers helped us plant our Sundial bed near the Visitor Center. The planting is dense and diverse, but is balanced well by the solid green of the fescue lawns around it and the tidy limestone edging.

Lawn Alternatives Bring Balance

Rather than villainizing turf grass and framing it as the epitome of all native landscaping evils, a symbol of a Eurocentric society ,obsessed with outward displays of status that date back to palaces and aristocratic practices of a bygone era….I choose to focus on balance. We must balance our love of flat, green, monoculture lawns with the urgent need for diverse native plantings. By converting some areas of your lawn to forbs, shrubs, native grasses and groundcovers, you gain interest and beauty and ecological benefits.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways/hardscape. The sidewalks keep it looking organized and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

If you want to learn more about planting lawn alternatives, what species to choose and maintenance tips, be sure to sign up for our Native Plant School Series and catch my class tomorrow night!



Seeding After Disturbance

Dispersal of prairie wildflower seeds after sidewalk construction

I’d like to tell you about our late December sidewalk edge prairie seeding after disturbance following the installation of a new sidewalk right outside my office window.

Preamble about Disturbance

Disturbance is rich with meaning and ever-present.

In humans…

Our lives are filled with different levels of disturbance. While we typically trend toward stability and shy away from disturbance, we know unsettling events will happen. So, we try to be ready for them, use them as a resetting point, and work to make ourselves more resilient as quickly as possible going forward. How we respond to disturbance determines how quickly we recover in that quest to eventually make ourselves better.

In the prairie…

The same goes in native plant communities on the Plains. Disturbance is a natural and important element in maintaining a prairie ecosystem. While fire and grazing are two disturbing elements, they have ironically been prairie stabilizers for thousands of years. Without their occurrence on a semi-regular basis to knock back woody plants, prairies will be invaded by shrubs and trees and transition to woodlands and eventually forests in a manner of decades.

Fire and grazers also expose and disturb soil. In the spring, fire removes a cold-insulating organic matter layer, blackens the soil surface, and heats the soil profile. Hooves of grazers stir soil and buffalo wallows clear existing vegetation. Burrowing mammals of the prairie also stir up and expose soil. All of these activities encourage the germination of early successional forb seeds in the soil seedbank that attract unique species of wildlife in biological diverse prairie. Disturbance is not only good for the prairie, but it is essential.

In this sidewalk-lined prairie garden…

Ever since the new sidewalk was installed summer of 2020, the adjacent soil in 2-4′ zone of disturbance on either side has been bare. The vegetation in these areas prior to disturbance consisted of native prairie grasses and the occasional prairie wildflower. But after this soil disturbance, annual weeds will explode from these areas come spring. It may have been 40 years since this site was a farm field, but I guarantee that the agricultural nonnative and native annuals brought in by years of farming, including species like henbit, foxtail, and ragweed, will profusely germinate here in a few months.

A Unique Opportunity

These sidewalk edges have been an important educational resource over the last 15 years. Thousands of students, from Kindergarten through college-age, have studied them for plant and insect diversity via field trips and labs. School teachers participating in our Earth Partnership for Schools summer institutes and classes of master gardeners and master naturalists have also gotten in on the sampling of these areas each fall.

Field trip students conducting insect studies of sidewalk edge prairie habitat
A science teacher studying sidewalk edge prairie habitat during an Earth Partnership for Schools summer institute

Over these years, I’ve noticed that tall native prairie grasses, including big bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, and eastern gamma grass, have come to dominate these sidewalk plantings, while wildflowers have slowly gotten crowded out. Frankly, these plantings needed some disturbance to break the grass stronghold and provide a window of opportunity for an infusion of new species.

Rather than discourage with herbicides the germination of annual weeds and grasses sprouting from roots along this disturbed sidewalk edge, we decided to plant a native wildflower mix to offer hearty competition. We chose a diverse array of colorful flowering prairie species desirable to human eyes and insect pollinators alike. The sports adage that “the best defense is a good offense” certainly fits our approach to the ecological restoration of this sidewalk edge.

Seed Mix

Sidewalk edge seed mix including 43 species of forbs

Prairie Moon Nursery offers a nice array of prairie wildflowers with historical range into the mixed/tallgrass prairie of Kansas. I went through their seed inventory and chose all the species that I know from regional prairies (with a few exceptions). A nice summary of other seed and plant sources can be found through Kansas Native Plant Society. The developed species list amounted to the following 43 species, representing a variety of heights, colors, and bloom times and should add a nice diversity of plants and eventually wildlife to these areas.

FORBS
Allium stellatumpink wild onion
Anemone canadensisCanada anemone
Asclepias sullivantiismooth milkweed
Asclepias tuberosabutterfly milkweed
Asclepias verticillatawhorled milkweed
Asclepias viridisgreen antelopehorn milkweed
Aster azureussky blue aster
Aster novae-angliaeNew England aster
Baptisia albawhite wild indigo
Baptisia australisblue wild indigo
Brickellia eupatorioidesfalse bonset
Callirhoe involucratapurple poppy mallow
Chamaecrista fasciculatayellow partridge pea
Coreposis palmataprairie coreopsis
Dalea candidumwhite prairie clover
Dalea purpureumpurple prairie clover
Desmodium canadenseshowy tick trefoil
Desmodium illinoenseIllinois tick trefoil
Echinacea angustifolianarrow-leaved coneflower
Echinacea pallidapale purple coneflower
Eryngium yuccifoliumrattlesnake master
Lespedeza capitataround-headed bush clover
Liatris asperabutton blazing star
Liatris punctatadotted blazing star
Liatris pycnostachyaKansas gayfeather
Monarda fistulosawild bergamot
Oenothera macrocarpaMissouri evening primrose
Penstemon digitalissmooth penstemon
Penstemon grandifloruslarge beardtongue
Penstemon tubaeflorustube beardtongue
Phlox pilosaprairie phlox
Pycnanthemum virginianummountain mint
Ratibida columniferalong-headed coneflower
Rudbeckia hirtablack-eyed susan
Ruellia humiliswild petunia
Sisyrinchium campestreprairie blue-eyed grass
Solidago missouriensisMissouri goldenrod
Solidago speciosashowy goldenrod
Tradescantia bracteatabracted spiderwort
Tradescantia ohiensisOhio spiderwort
Zizia aureagolden alexanders
SHRUBS
Amorpha canescenslead plant
Ceanothus americanusNew Jersey tea

I was sure to omit species that would be aggressive as they are in nearby gardens and will eventually invade on their own. The mix for 1,000 square feet was calculated to be planted at a generous rate of 73 seeds/sq. ft. (50 seeds/sq. ft. is what I recall to be a minimum industry standard) This cost us $171.20 including shipping and a $50 mixing fee for orders under $200.

Eye candy from the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog

Planting Process

We pushed to get this seed ordered and delivered as early in the winter as possible. I like to aim for December, but have planted in January also. Different wildflower species require various types of treatment/stratification for best chance of germination, but a general successful approach is aiming for 2-3 months of cold-wet conditions (a typical winter) that will lead to the best rate of germination possible. After receiving the seed, we proceeded as follows…

Seed mix from Prairie Moon Nursery

Mix seed with bulk

We used sand, but mixing sawdust, kitty litter, or other media with your seed will do. The seed will seem like an incredibly small quantity of material to spread over a large area and adding bulk material helps increase the chances that you will cover the entire planting area with seed.

Dividing mix evenly into planting areas

A supply of 5-gallon buckets is helpful to divide the seed/bulk material mixture into even quantities that match the number of even-sized planting areas. To give yourself a reserve quantity of seed, I recommend doubling the number of seed quantities per planting area. For example, we had two sides of sidewalk to plant, and prepared four buckets of seed. Cover each planting area with one bucket and then do the same again with the second bucket. If you blow it with the first bucket and don’t cover the entire area – which is easy to do – then you have a reserve bucket to finish the job.

Raking planting area

Good seed/soil contact is the goal to encourage seed moisture absorption and improve germination once an average soil temperature of 55 degrees F is reached in the spring. There was some dead plant debris covering our planting areas, so we raked the areas before planting.

Raking the planting area prior to seeding

Dispersing seed

Seed dispersal is easy by hand and probably most successful when conducted with bare hands so you can feel the seed mixture, if you can keep them warm on a cold day. But standard handheld or rolling push-behind broadcasters could also be effective. More sophisticated seed drills calibrated to specific seed sizes are not very effective with mixes containing various sizes and textures of seeds like we were dealing with.

A final raking

While not an essential step, we had the human power and time to do a light final raking after planting to barely cover the seed. You want to be careful to not bury small seeds too deeply. Seed planting experts often advocate for allowing nature and its powers of freezing/thawing, precipitation, and gravity to work the seeds into the top 1/8-inch of soil throughout the course of winter.

Follow-up

Moisture and frozen ground are now what we wish for

Most of the work is now finished with this planting and the main job in follow-up as we look forward to colorful, flowering wildflowers throughout the growing season is to have patience. While a few species like black-eyed susan, wild bergamot, and yellow partridge pea may flower in the first couple of years of this planting, most species in the mix won’t flower until year three or longer.

Photo used by permission from Nature Education-1995 Conservation Research Institute, Heidi Natura

It will be difficult to think of this planting as anything other than a complete and utter failure in the first year when all you can mostly see are weeds. However, careful inspection should show in this first growing season that small sprouts of prairie species hidden close to the ground are there. Prairie wildflowers develop deep, 5-15 foot root systems to help them survive for years and even decades through harsh Kansas summers and that process takes time. About all we can do is mow the planting area as high as possible once or twice each year in the first few years to keep annual weeds from going to seed and reduce their competition with prairie seedlings for light and water.

My friend often refers to the sage advice of Frog and Toad after a planting. I will follow her lead and leave you with this message as there is little left to do…

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.

Don’t Bug My Plants

I get a lot of calls and emails that start with “something is eating my plants!” Either frustrated or panicked, most view this development as a bad thing. To their surprise, I usually say “Congratulations!”. A bug can be a great thing.

The fact is, plants are meant to be eaten. Plants provide food for the rest of the living world, especially for the world’s insects. It is normal for the native animals of our area to nibble, chew, and sometimes completely defoliate plants. Humans forget this, much to the detriment of the biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Bugs are essential to life on earth, so we should be excited about feeding them!

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

I like to say Congratulations, not to be flippant, but to help people reframe the situation. I explain that it is very possible they are hosting a native butterfly, moth or beetle larvae. Holes in your Hibiscus can be a good thing! By investigating what exactly is lunching on your leaves, you begin to engage deeper with your garden and with the ecosystem at large. Look carefully before you spray a pesticide; you may find an interesting little friend. You may even be able to precisely identify the bug based on what plant it is eating.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eat milkweed seeds. They cause no harm to the plant, and are actually a good friend of the gardener looking to keep their milkweed population under control.

A Funky (plant) Baseline

Plants are at the base of the food chain. They convert the most primitive form of energy – sunlight – into tangible, edible growth. This conversion of sunlight to green leaves allows everything in the food chain to function — bugs, rabbits, and deer eat the leaves, songbirds eat the bugs, snakes eat the bird eggs, coyotes or hawks eat the snake, and so on.

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, and native plants are especially important. According to a 2018 study, “in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plant biomass, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.”

Insects in our area have evolved to feed on and coexist with our native plants, and these insects feed everything above them in the food chain. If you find a bug eating your favorite plant, consider how important that little fella might be in terms of feeding the other animals in our ecosystem.

Sulphur caterpillars are voracious, defoliating their host plant in a matter of days.
But it always recovers nicely ones they pupate and move on.

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

The main concern is: will my plant recover? And, most of the time, the answer is yes. Remember, plants are meant to be eaten. They have evolved all sorts of clever ways to survive, and many can survive being eaten completely to the ground. Our Senna and partridge pea plants at the Arboretum become completely defoliated by Sulphur butterfly caterpillars every year. And yet, often they have enough energy to bloom and set seed by the end of the season. Checkerspot larvae absolutely shred the leaves of our coneflowers, but up they come next year, blooming happily.

Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) munched my violets this spring, but never ate enough at once to hurt the plant. Watching them grow and pupate was worth the holey leaves!

Whatever you find eating your garden plants, remember to do your homework before taking action. Leave the pesticide on the shelf, and do some investigation instead! If you have aphids or spider mites in an infestation large enough to damage your plant, consider Safer Soap for a gentle approach. If you find a caterpillar, inch worm, or other larvae, it is likely not a cause for major concern or treatment.

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)