The Importance of Site Analysis

Over the past few months, I have been working on some landscape designs.  These designs have reminded me how important site analysis is to a successful design.  Choosing the right plants for an area begins with a close look at the area being considered for a new garden. In my opinion, gardeners (I include myself in this category) don’t spend enough time observing our gardens throughout the year prior to planting anything. Here are a few important aspects to consider that will help you develop a rewarding planting scheme.

What is the size of your outdoor space? 

Site analysis begins with taking a step back to observe the big picture. A small planting bed leading to the front door versus a larger foundation or island planting require different plants. Most plants need space to fully develop. Be realistic when you first start thinking about your garden.  Lay out your garden beds with a hose to help define the landscape space.  Step back and look at the lines and size of the bed.  Is this the look you want for the area? 

Another piece of advice I often give is to start small and work on your areas over successive seasons.  A new garden can be overwhelming as you work to establish new plants, control weeds and maintain those new plants through the first year.  Once the first area is up and growing, you can move to the next area.  By starting small, you can build on your successes.

By using a garden hose to layout your garden, you can play with the design and curves before moving any soil. Step back and take a look. Adjust the lines until you are satisfied with the flow and size of the bed. Visualize the area with mature plants.

Control perennial/annual weeds before planting anything

Bindweed

Obviously, the best time to eradicate bindweed is before you plant. I spray the area with Roundup™ several times starting in July and August. Anytime we see green, the area is sprayed. This is the best time to spray because the plant is moving energy from the leaves into the roots for winter storage. The chemical is also moved throughout the extensive root system, killing even those deep roots. Trust me, it is worth waiting to plant until this weed is removed permanently.

Small patches can be hand pulled but you have to stay on it. Every sprig that pops up must be pulled immediately.  We have also had limited success with hand painting the leaves with Round-up.  Again, every new plant must be found and painted.  Essentially, you have to be as ruthless and relentless as this weed is to completely remove it from your garden. I thank my ancestors for bringing this over to America with their wheat seed.

If you are firmly opposed to using any chemicals, you might consider solarization instead, or you may want to read my colleague’s blog post “On Weeding“.

Bermuda grass

This perennial grass is a problem because of its vigorous creeping habit.  The plant spreads by seeds and by above and below ground stems that can take over a garden in one season.  It is drought tolerant and thrives with neglect.

Like bindweed, bermudagrass is best removed before planting (same as bindweed).  If you have it growing next to your gardens, a buffer must be maintained between the perennial display and the lawn area.  This buffer can be weeded by hand or sprayed every few weeks with Roundup™ to burn back any new runners toward the garden.  Raised beds are another defense against bermudagrass.  Don’t blow bermuda grass clippings into your gardens.  Again, it is better to wait to establish your new wildflower garden until you have bermudagrass eliminated.  I have made the mistake of planting into bermudagrass and I am fighting with it every year. 

Keep plants in scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late. Keep in mind that your overall garden size helps determine what plants you can use in your design. Plant scale generally means using plants that are half the bed width. For instance, an area six feet wide needs plants that are no taller than three feet. A tall (8 foot) compass plant would stick out like a sore thumb if used in this area. In a narrow bed leading to your front door, taller plants tend to fall over and get in the way. Shorter plants such as prairie dropseed and black-eyed susans are a better option. Measure up what you have in order to see how everything will fit into place.

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

Look for Site Analysis Part 2 next week.

Callery Pear: Cut Them Down

Originally posted on May 1, 2019

This is such an important topic and such a huge problem that we thought it is worth sharing again.

Several years ago, I noticed something disturbing was happening to our prairie reconstruction.  Small little trees were popping up throughout the original prairie planting. I could not figure out where they were coming from, but they looked like pear tree saplings.  It wasn’t until I saw a large white blooming Callery pear tree in the spring that it all came together. 

Callery Pear

Although the flower clusters are beginning to fade, Callery pear’s white blooms are most obvious in the spring. We planted them for their explosion of spring blooms and nice fall color, but this ornamental tree has become highly invasive.  It threatens native wildlife habitat and has become a nuisance for private and public landowners.

This once favorite tree was planted extensively throughout the U.S.  The Callery pear – also referred to as Bradford pear – formed a nice pyramid to rounded shape.  The vertical limbs made it a nice median and street tree as well, ultimately reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and 20 -30 feet in spread.  This Chinese native was a harbinger of spring for decades with its prolific white blooms.  An added bonus was its reddish-purple fall color.

Despite all those positives, these trees have become problematic. This non-native, flowering tree was assumed to be sterile, but it is not.  It now cross-pollinates with other cultivars of Callery pear to produce hybrid offspring.  The fruit is ingested by wildlife and birds that spread the seeds across the countryside and into your yards.  It is aggressively displacing native vegetation, causing economic and environmental damage. 

Escaped Callery Pears*

The message to property owners is to remove the trees now while you can easily identify them in bloom.  We need to keep them from spreading to native areas.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings to see them go, because they are a weak-wooded, thorny mess. 

Native alternatives to Callery Pear:

  • Eastern Rudbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’)
  • American Plum (Prunus americana)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
  • Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
  • Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
Blackhaw Viburnum in spring
Blackhaw Viburnum fruit and fall color

We have cut down the culprit, but still have a bunch more saplings to remove this summer. There was one more larger tree that was cut down near the Visitor Center. We will continue to eradicate these unwanted invaders in our prairies.  It will take time but I believe we can get the upper hand.  I would encourage you to remove them in your landscape as well and replace them with native trees. Callery pear has no place in the landscape anymore. 

*Image Source

Here is additional information on Callery pear trees from the Kansas Forest Service.

Benefits of Planting Perennials

As gardeners, we have many choices of plants to introduce into our landscapes.  From trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials (including grasses), the options seem to be endless.  Here at the Arboretum, we gravitate toward perennials for a number of reasons. 

What is a perennial?

Unlike annuals that germinate, flower, set seed, and die all in one season, perennials are typically cold-hardy plants that will return again and again each spring.  If situated in the right place in your landscapes, perennials will thrive, and will bloom either in spring, summer, or fall.

In my mind, the benefits of planting perennials in your home garden are as follows:

Incredible Root Systems

It often takes perennials several years to develop a sustaining root system after being transplanted from a pot.  These root systems compared to many annuals is much more extensive and much deeper.  During periods of drought, these deeper roots feed nutrients and moisture to the plant.  The deeper roots of grass are credited with developing the deep layers of top soil found in many states that now support farm crops.  These roots also control erosion, sequester carbon, and break up tough compacted soil. 

Xeric Garden
Xeric Garden interpretive signage located on the Dyck Arboretum grounds. Artwork by Lorna Harder.

Diversity of Perennials to Establish in the Landscape

As I said earlier, there are so many different types and varieties of plants you can choose to establish in your display beds. A well-designed landscape with a variety of perennials will enhance the aesthetics and appeal of your property. With perennials that bloom at different seasons during the year and attractive grasses for fall and winter interest, you can create a diverse habitat for wildlife and pollinators, too.  Keep in mind, the habitat you create is provides homes for insects and food for birds during the long, cold months of winter. 

Prairie Window Project, August 2016. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Do perennials require less maintenance?

The key to success with perennials such as native wildflowers and grasses is putting the right plant in the right place in the right way. Perennials will NOT require less maintenance if you are trying to grow something in your landscape that has no business being there. Learn as much about the plants you want to use before you put them in the ground. 

Perennials typically last several seasons. You don’t need to plant every single year like you do with annuals. By planting them once, you save money and time. You will need to clear last year’s growth in February or March and occasionally divide some clumps of perennial grasses as they expand over time. Perennials are a cost-effective and sustainable choice for landscaping.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ ready for spring.

Perennial plants can be the anchors to a landscape. While trees and shrubs provide the backdrop, perennials provide the elements of habitat that pollinators and other wildlife seek. These permanent pieces of your garden puzzle add beauty year after year.  They can be combined to add continuous blooms and interest throughout each growing season.  As perennials come in and out of bloom, a diverse collection of wildlife and pollinators will discover your landscape.  This is ultimately the real benefit of a perennial garden. 

A note about annuals

When I think about annuals in the landscape I don’t think about petunias.  I choose annuals on their ability to provide nectar for pollinators.  Nectar-rich annuals need to be drought tolerant and self-seed, too.  See this article about a mostly annual garden.

Learning About Leaves

Every year I learn more and more about how important leaves are for the ecosystem. We have several blogs about leaves already, (including Scott’s best management practices and my sustainable leaf-raking tips) but this information often needs updating and augmenting. The more we know, the better we can do! And that applies to us too here at Dyck Arboretum. Here are some new ideas I am implementing around the grounds to a-leave-iate our leaf problems.

My dog Rosie loves leaves, and so do I! Raking (and playing in) leaf piles was a staple activity of my childhood that I still enjoy with my family today.

Leave them when you can…

I know it is not always possible, but the easiest and best practice is leave leaves were they fall. Here at the Arboretum we let leaves freely accumulate in hedgerows, shrub borders, and garden beds, even though it might not look traditionally ‘tidy’. Many insects use leaf litter for shelter and breeding, and insects are the linchpin to our ecosystem! As E.O. Wilson said, they are the little things that run the world. Their populations are in serious decline across many species, especially the leaf-loving firefly.

Allowing leaf litter to stay undisturbed through fall and winter is an easy way to improve insect habitat. While you might be worried about all those ‘bugs’ snoozing in your landscape, don’t be. Just remember to keep the leaf layer only a few inches thick and not piled high directly up against the foundations of your home.

Fall colors on the west side of the Arboretum. Stunning, but short lived! Soon these leaves will be swirling around the sidewalks and piling up on paths.

Don’t Shred

A light sprinkling of leaves will not harm your lawn, but they can cause damage when too thick, matted, and wet over the winter, so you may have to remove them. Many folks rush to the mower and shredder for this task. We have a large mulching mower that I once happily raced across all the Arboretum lawns with.

BUT – I’ve learned now that many insects have already laid eggs or cozied up for dormancy in these leaves. So shredding likely kills all those beautiful and beneficial insects we are hoping to attract. I am attempting a 60/40 rule this year: remove the bulk of the leaves by raking, shoveling, or blowing, and only mow that last forty percent in particularly important/sensitive lawn area. For an acreage this large it is impractical to do much by hand, but I am hoping my small effort will make a positive difference for the insects that call the Arboretum home.

Thanks to volunteers we are able to rake and redistribute some leaves. Without their help, much more would have to be shred with a mower to save time.

Redistribute

After the wonderful workout of raking leaves, it is time to put them…where? If you have a compost pile, that’s a great start. Or layer them over your vegetable garden. Pile them under cedar trees or in weedy spots you want to smother.

Dyck Arboretum is not accepting community leaf donations this year as our leaf house is deconstructed at the moment, but many cities (including Hesston) have a free drop off leaf compost area for their citizens. For extra sustainability, skip the plastic bags and move your leaves loose with just a tarp and a truck bed. If you must use bags, don’t tie them up so they can be easily dumped and reused next year when the leaves fall again.

Our parking lots accumulate leaves quickly, and they begin to compost as they pile up in the curb. We use a grain shovel to scoop them out, rake them up, and toss them around the trees and shrubs as good mulch and fertilizer.

This time of year I see piles and piles of bagged leaves on the curbs of our neighborhoods and cities. We can certainly do better now that we know what a gold mine of habitat and nutrients these leaves really are. So get out there and jump in those leaves, spend a day in the fall sunshine, and do your part to help those “little things” keep running the world!

Plants for hillsides and slopes

One of the more common landscaping conundrums is deciding what to plant on steep slopes or hillsides. These areas require plants that can establish quickly, have fibrous root systems, that hold soil to control erosion, are tolerant of fluctuating soil moisture and potentially poor nutrient availability, and require little care once established.

Slopes and hillsides are already challenging because of sun exposure, and the degree of the slope only exacerbates the problem. Establishing plants from seed is the most economical choice, but is also the most subject to erosion for the first 3 to 5 years until plants get established. Often, turf grass such as fescue, buffalograss, or bermuda grass is the first groundcover choice for keeping soil in place, but mowing these sloped areas can be a challenge, maybe even dangerous. Turf does not create much habitat for wildlife and pollinators either.

There are many plants that will establish cover more quickly than seed. These native plants offer a lower maintenance alternative to a mowed lawn. The following list is just a start. Remember to plant more densely (1-2 feet apart) so the area gets completely covered with plants quickly.

Grasses

The following grasses, with their extensive fibrous root systems are ideal plants to stabilize a steep area and prevent soil erosion.

  • Andropogon geradii (Big Bluestem)
  • Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama)
  • Chasmanthium latifolium (River oats)-Can grow in sun or shade but is aggressive. It will spread by seed and rhizomes to crowd out most other plants.
  • Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye)
  • Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass)
  • Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)
  • Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)
Little Bluestem with Aromatic Aster and New England Aster

Wildflowers

  • Achillea millifolium Yarrow
  • Allium cernuum Nodding onion
  • Amsonia sp. Blue star
  • Aquilegia canadensis Columbine
  • Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Baptisia australis False blue indigo
  • Dalea purpurea Purple Prairie Clover
  • Echinacea purpurea Purple coneflower
  • Eutrochium (Eupatorium) maculatus Joe-pye weed
  • Filipendula rubra Queen-of-the-prairie
  • Liatris pycnostachya Prairie blazing star
  • Liatris spicata Dense blazing star
  • Rudbeckia sp. Black-eyed Susan
  • Penstemon digitalis Penstemon
  • Symphyotrichum oblongifolium Aromatic aster
  • Solidago sp. goldenrod
  • Tradescantia ohiensis Spiderwort
  • Veronicastrum virginicum Culver’s root
Amsonia ‘Butterscotch’ and Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ with mulch between plants to control erosion.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry
  • Cercis canadensis Redbud
  • Coruns sp. Dogwood
  • Crataegus viridis Hawthorn
  • Heptacodium miconioides Seven Son Flower
  • Ilex verticillata Winterberry holly
  • Lonicera reticulata Grape honeysuckle
  • Prunus Americana Wild Plum
  • Prunus sp. Sand cherry
  • Prunus virginiana Chokecherry
  • Rhus aromatica Fragrant sumac
  • Sambucus canadensis Elderberry
  • Viburnum prunifolium Blackhaw Viburnum

If the erosion is already very serious, you might want to consider using erosion-control blankets to stabilize the erosion area until the plants can take over the job. The erosion-control fabric works by slowing the runoff water and allowing sediments to fall out rather than be washed away. Choose a mat that will decompose over time, e.g. straw or jute, rather than something made of plastic. Start by slicing a small opening in the mat so plants can be put into the soil beneath. I recommend hand watering during establishment as much as possible since sprinkler irrigation can increase soil erosion.

For more gentle slopes, heavy mulch or pea gravel can be used to control erosion during establishment. Each slope situation is unique, but if you can, the best strategy for stabilizing a slope with plants is to establish vegetation at multiple levels—plant trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. A multi-level canopy will do the best job of intercepting and slowing precipitation before it hits the ground, reducing surface erosion. Different vegetation types also provide both deep and spreading roots that stabilize the entire soil profile. Generally, it takes 2-4 years to get these plants fully established and roots anchored into the slope.

Slopes covered with a variety of grasses including switchgrass and fountain grass at Wichita Art Museum. Photo by Brad Guhr

Summer Garden Checklist

Kansas summers can discourage even the hardiest gardeners. However, taking time to manage your garden now will help your garden later. Here’s my Summer Garden Checklist for the Kansas gardener.

Control Warm Season Weeds

Summer brings with it a new set of weeds to control. Hot weather germinates summer annuals like crabgrass, foxtail. Nutsedge and other weeds invade your lawn and landscape as well. Manage weeds using nonchemical methods such as cultivation, hand weeding, or mowing; use toxic chemicals as a last resort. 

Mowing regularly and occasionally edging along sidewalks and walkways is needed to ensure your lawn is not overrun with weeds. In a landscaped bed, hand pull any of these weeds, especially if they have seed heads.  It is so important to not let these weeds go to seed. Stay vigilant even though the summer heat tries to squash your enthusiasm. A little extra effort now will make your garden better this fall and into next year. 

Crabgrass in tree mulch ring controlled with roundup: one treatment should clean up the mulched area and keep it weed free the rest of the season.

Be Water Wise

To reduce evaporation, water when temperatures are cooler and air is still, usually in the early morning. Water deeply to moisten the root zone, but infrequently. About an inch of water each week is a good rule of thumb!  If you have invested in container plants, they will need daily watering, as soil in pots can dry out quickly and damage plant roots on hot summer days.  Each of our gardens have indicator plants that show stress first, let these plants be your guide as when to water.  For new planting started this spring, water when the top one to two inches of soil is dry.  Remember it takes three to five years for sustaining roots systems to develop for most native plants.  Supplemental watering is necessary to encourage growth and root development in these young plants. 

We use pressure compensating 1/2 inch soaker hoses to efficiently water trees, shrubs and a few flower beds. Each emitter puts out 1 gallon of water per hour.

Prepare for seeding

If you are wanting to establish native prairie plants from seed, now is a great time to prepare your area.  Mow your area short (1-2 inches). Control perennial weeds such as bindweed or Bermuda grass by carefully spraying the area with Roundup. It will take several applications to get these problematic weeds under control. If you can see soil, tillage is not necessary. If you can’t see soil, till lightly to expose some bare soil. Remember, each time you till, you bring up more weed seeds, so tread lightly. 

Measure your area and order a seed mixture that matches your site. A good seed mix ratio of wildflower to grass is 70% wildflowers to 30% grasses. Grasses tend to dominate over time, so this ratio will give the wildflowers a good start. We typically spread seed in November and December after the soil temperature has dropped enough to discourage germination. The natural freeze/thaw of the ground will work the seeds down into the soil to the proper depth for germination next spring. 

This is the seed mix we established along our newly renovated path.
Sidewalk edge planting: We mixed some sand with the seed mix to make it easier to distribute. We then let the natural freeze/thaw of the soil plant the seed for us through the winter. Germination occurred the following spring when soil temperatures rose above 60 degrees.

Trim

Now is a great time to trim back perennials that have become unruly. Perennial and grasses that are encroaching sidewalks, paths, and structures can be sheared back to size. If this is a problem every year, you may consider moving the taller plants to another spot. Plants can be divided next February or March before they start to actively grow. 

Low hanging branches from trees can also be pruned. It is getting late in the season to do much pruning on shrubs. New growth may not have enough time to get hardened off before cooler/colder weather.  If a branch or shoot is in the way, then prune it, but prune sooner rather than later. If you can wait until the shrub goes dormant this fall, then wait. 

As a general rule, early spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, lilac and spirea should be pruned right after they are done blooming since they bloom on the previous year’s growth. Pruning right after blooming will allow the shrub to grow and develop a new set of buds for the next spring. 

A large compass plant that needs to be trimmed away from the path.

Finally, remember “WHY” you are gardening; creating habitat, conserving water, aesthetics, attracting pollinators, attracting birds and other wildlife or curb appeal. Let your “WHY” reinvigorate you to take care of a few extra tasks that will give your landscape a boost. Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t forget to step back to enjoy what you are trying to create. If it is all work and no enjoyment, then what is the point.

Pale purple coneflower with a common buckeye butterfly. Fun to watch!

Do You Have Nutsedge?

This time of year, yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) and purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus) become problematic in the landscape. These problem weeds have triangular grass-like leaves and form colonies if left unchecked. It is not a grass, but rather a sedge. The key identifying feature is the triangular stem in cross section, as opposed to a round cross section in grasses. 

In Lawns

Nutsedge is a common weed in lawns with waterlogged soil, and its presence often indicates that drainage is poor, irrigation is too frequent, or sprinklers are leaky. Once established, however, it will tolerate normal irrigation conditions or drought.  Established nutsedge plants grow faster than many lawn grasses, so it is often noticed when it outgrows the surrounding grass. The leaves are bright green and have a waxy appearance in summer when surrounding lawn grass may be a lighter green.

Management in Lawns

As with most weeds in lawns, the best defense is to maintain a healthy, dense turf that can compete and prevent weed establishment.  Water lawns on an as-needed basis, not on a regular schedule. Overwatering increases disease and provides a better environment for nutsedge to grow. 

For larger infestations in lawns, spot spray with a liquid, selective herbicide that contains the active ingredient: Common Name: Halosulfuron; Trade Name: Manage, or Sedgehammer and others or Common Name: Sulfentrazone.  Mixing these herbicides with a non-ionic surfactant that breaks down the waxy leaf coating to the chemical is more effective. 

In Mulch

Nutsedges thrive in areas with little or no competition.  In mulch rings around trees and between flowers offer ideal conditions for large colonies to form. Actively growing stands of nutsedge have extensive root systems that can reach as deep as four feet. Nutsedges produce underground tubers and runners that make it difficult to pull out of the ground. Each of these can produce another plant if not completely removed.

Mechanical management

Digging out or using an appropriate weeding tool to remove the underground ‘nutlets’ is the primary means of mechanical control of nutsedge. This is a viable option at the beginning of an infestation and on young weeds.  If you want to avoid spraying chemicals for control of nutsedge, you need to relentlessly pull the plants every time a new plant emerges.  It is most active in May through October.  We have also smothered nutsedge with cardboard and two to four inches of mulch. Nutsedge may emerge again next year after the cardboard has decomposed.

 

Spraying

We have had success spraying nutsedge.  We use Manage™ (Sledgehammer) herbicide. It is a selective herbicide that only kills nutsedge and can be sprayed in close proximity to other perennials, shrubs and trees. It takes a few weeks for the plants to show decline, but Manage™ kills the whole plant including the runners and tubers. I have used Roundup as a control, but it is a non-selective contact herbicide that kills the weeds it contacts.   

Nutsedges are often unwelcome competition for our more desirable plants. These “weeds” can be controlled by a healthy, actively growing landscape. Competition and vigorous plantings will push these plants aside. If you do find it in your landscape, remove it immediately. If you have larger areas, be persistent, over time, you will get the upper hand.  Be as unrelenting as the weeds.  As they say on the Red Green Show, “We are all in this together. I am pulling for you.”

All About Bindweed

It’s a plant all gardeners know well: the infamous bindweed. Thought to have been accidentally introduced from Europe by crop seed contamination in the 1700s, it has established itself all over the North American continent. But I recently found a native relative to this terrible pest, and upon further research, learned some fascinating facts about this plant family! The more we know, the more effective we can be at eradicating the invasive ones and properly identifying our look-a-like native species.

Common field bindweed is often pink, white, or even striped. Photo from wikimedia

Common Bindweed, Uncommon Problem

Convolvulus arvensis is the bindweed we all know and hate. It is a member of the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae). Its funnel shaped flowers hint at its lineage, and they are often visited by sweat bees and other small pollinators. Blooms may be white, pink, or even striped. Even farther up it’s family tree we find it is related to nightshades (think: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, horsenettle) all a part of the order Solanales. Bindweed has spread all around the world and is listed as one of the United States most problematic agricultural weeds. It causes millions of dollars in crop losses every year.

Good Bindweed and Bad Bindweed

I didn’t know there was such a thing, but good bindweed exists. There are native species, often called false bindweeds, that look very similar but do not grow as aggressively. I was walking along the pond edge here at the Arboretum when I spotted what I thought was a bindweed. Odd, since bindweed rarely colonizes densely planted areas, especially in the shade. When I came closer I saw just how big the flower was. It was easily double the size of a regular bindweed flower, and a much brighter white.

This plant was actually a Calystegia species, likely low false bindweed (C. spithamaea). To my knowledge, this is the first occurrence of this species on our grounds. It could have come in with some flood waters, or sprouted after the disturbance of our island renovation efforts. We may never know, but we can surely enjoy its blooms and try to preserve it.

C. spithamaea isn’t usually found in our state, but it isn’t impossible. The native range is much farther east and north, but it could have found its way here in a seed mix ordered from out of state. There are other Calystegia’s that are more commonly found in our area, but they don’t match it’s growth habit as well. Oh the fun of solving plant ID mysteries!
Calystegia spithamaea has a pure white flower and is much less vigorous and vining than field bindweed.
The flowers are much larger than those of common field bindweed.

Best Management Practices

If you have the non-native kind of bindweed, you are probably in a daily struggle to keep it under control. Common bindweed is a perennial, meaning its roots survive the winter. Simply mowing it or cutting off the flowers will not successfully eradicate it from your lawn and garden. Also, those roots are incredibly tough and can be 20 feet deep! Pulling it is an exercise in patience, as it seems to regrow before your eyes. Most bindweed can easily resprout from small pieces of root left behind in the soil. If you have a small patch and you weed often, you may be able to get ahead of it and eventually weaken the root system. For folks who have A LOT of bindweed, here are some of the most effective controls:

  • Solarization (clear plastic placed over the area for a full growing season)
  • Smothering (cardboard with a thick layer of mulch on top for at least a full year but more likely 2 to 3)
  • Chemical control (glyphosate, 2-4D, paraquat, etc.)

And remember, avoid tilling the soil! Freshly disturbed soil is easily colonized by bindweed, and often there are seeds in the soil that get churned up to the surface, ready to germinate. Leave the soil undisturbed and only dig/loosen it in the specific holes where you will be planting.

Preparing to Establish a Landscape with Native Plants

It’s obvious to me that interest in landscaping with native plants continues to expand.  More and more people are reconnecting with the natural world through their native landscapes.  Besides creating habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and insects, these newly developed gardens conserve water, reduce chemical and pesticide use and beautify the landscape.  As you think about preparing to establish a landscape with native plants, here are some things to consider.

Analyze the Location

You know your garden better than anyone. You know the soil type. Does it stay wet or is it extremely dry or something in between? You know how much sun your area receives during the day and throughout the year. You know where the water flows. Are there areas that you can utilize as a background or backdrop?  Is there something you are trying to screen? Is there an area you are trying to develop? These are important questions that ultimately determine the types of plants you will choose.

Prepare the Site

Site preparation doesn’t have much to do with plant selection, but it is an important step to consider any time you are preparing to establish a landscape. You need to get perennial weeds such as bindweed and Bermuda grass eradicated before you plant your garden. If these weeds are not eliminated, they will overrun and out compete anything you plant. Trust me on this. I am still fighting these weeds in certain areas in my yard because I didn’t complete this step.

It is also good to define the area with some kind of border. Start by laying out a garden hose and moving it around until you settle on size and shape that seems appropriate for the space. I recommend starting small. Develop an area you can manage and fits your lifestyle. You can always expand, but a bed that is too large can quickly become overwhelming. Once you have defined the border, I use metal edging, brick, limestone or landscape stone as a buffer for a mower or weed eater. Edging makes your native garden look intentional.

Choose the Plants

Once you have gathered all this information about your site and all the initial work has been done, you are ready to decide which plants will grow well together. The most important step in the selection process is matching plants to the site. There are a group of plants or a plant palette that will grow in your site with little or no water once fully established. You need to become familiar with every aspect of the plants through investigation, research and experience. I often start with one or two plants I know will grow in this location. Once I have established them as the foundation, the other plant combinations come easier.

I design each landscape with the finished picture in mind. I consider heights, bloom time, habit, forms and textures. We often only think about these plants when they are in bloom. But don’t forget their other qualities, such as seed heads that provide visual interest in the winter months. It provides you an opportunity to highlight these qualities with another perennials or native grasses (e.g. coneflower seed heads against little bluestem). 

I group plants together for visual affect and stagger blooms throughout the season. Conceptually, I lay out plants in such a way that plants with different bloom times are next to one another. For instance, I would not plant two spring bloomers next to one another, but rather a spring bloomer next to a fall bloomer next to a summer bloomer. I even like to mix some grasses with certain perennials so you have the structure of the grasses propping up the perennial. Also, you want something coming into bloom and going out of bloom from spring through fall. Grasses add wonderful texture and movement to the garden during the winter months.

Maintenance

One of the misconceptions about native plants is that you just plant it and forget it. That is generally not the case. Establishing native plants in your garden or landscape usually requires putting extra work in those first few years. It takes time for those root systems to fully develop. Over time, you will begin to reap the benefits of native plants, especially if you have done your homework before you put the first plant in the ground.

Those tiny plants are most vulnerable during the first two or three weeks after planting. You must water them daily and sometimes twice a day in warm, dry seasons until you start to see some new growth. There is a fine line between over watering and under watering. Generally, you try to rehydrate the potting soil of those plants each time you water. Many maintenance practices used for traditional cultivated plants also work for native plants.

The first couple of years, I try to keep the tags around the plants so I don’t accidentally pull a small wildflower or grass. Pull all the winter and summer annual weeds when they are small and certainly don’t let them go to seed. February or March is the time to prepare your bed for spring. 

Northwind Switchgrass cut back and ready for spring

Your native landscape connects you to the land. The economical, ecological and beautiful garden you create can be enjoyed for years to come. I predict that your native landscape will be a hub of pollinator and butterfly activity. It will be an important link to other gardens in your neighborhood. It may even inspire you to establish other prairie gardens in your landscape. 

Your success may influence others to follow your example. A native plant garden should be cherished, because you are helping the natural world in so many far-reaching ways. Believe it or not, your garden will have a positive impact. So get started! Let your imagination and creativity inspire your design.

Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen. Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Photo Credit

Keystone Natives for the Food Web

I have been reminded over the past few weeks about about the importance of keystone natives. There is a growing body of research that touts the benefits of keystone species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses to the food web. According to Doug Tallamy, landscapes without keystone plants will support 70–75% fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone plants, even though it may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area. Keystone plants must be included in your native garden design.

Take a look at Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard for more data.

The food web includes, plants, insects, pollinators, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and mammals, from rodents up through bears.  Each is reliant on the other for their survival. Tallamy focuses much attention on trees that support the food web such as oaks, cherry, cottonwood, willow, and birch.  However, there are many native perennials that are also key components of this food web. To provide a solid foundation for a healthy food web in your garden, start with this list of native wildflowers to include in your landscape:

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

These summer blooming wildflowers with bright yellow flowers can be striking in the landscape. However, they have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time. The plant is insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar.  In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia.  It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod with red switchgrass

Asters

A diverse genus that supports 112 species of insects, asters are a valuable late-season (September – November) source of pollen for bees and nectar for bees and butterflies. During the summer, the asters are host plants to the caterpillars of some of the crescent and checkerspot butterflies. As summer wanes, asters start blooming with colors of white, purple, and pink depending on the species.  Fall provides a unique challenge for pollinators and asters help with both migration and overwintering butterflies and bees. 

A few of my recommended forms are Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’, Aster novae-angliae varieties, Aster laevis and Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ for sun.  In a shady area, try Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’, Aster cordifolius, and Aster macrophyllus.

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)

There are eleven species of sunflower recorded in Kansas. These wildflowers are not usually fit for a formal garden setting, because they spread vigorously by seeding and rhizomes.  They have a tendency to push out other desirable plants.  However, they support 73 species of insects, so we maybe need to find a place for them. 

I’m not referring to the large-headed annual cultivars you see growing in a field, but rather the true native perennials with bright yellow flowers seen growing along the roadside in the late summer and early fall.  Plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. I would encourage you to try a few sunflowers in the peripheral areas of your yard where they can spread out and have room to roam. 

Maximillian Sunflower and Big Bluestem

Milkweeds

Monarchs are in peril. Milkweeds are one of the answers to reversing their plight. By planting more milkweeds, monarch will find these larval food sources more readily. Milkweeds are larval host plants for Monarch and Queen Butterflies and the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Many bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles visit milkweed flowers for the nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar that it is replenished overnight. Nocturnal moths feast at night and other pollinators flock to these important plants during the day. 

Choose butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or green antelope horn milkweed for your formal garden and common, Sullivant’s, or whorled milkweeds for the outskirts of your property. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.

Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.)

Liatris are very important wildflowers. The vibrant purple blooms in summer support many great insect species. They are quite adaptive with different species growing in dry to moist soil conditions. There is literally a blazing star for just about every garden setting. 

I prefer Liatris pycnostachya and Liatris aspera, but many others, including Liatris ligulistylis and Liatris punctata, are nice too.    

Liatris pycnostachya

Planting just natives is not enough. Garden designs and plant communities must contain at least some keystone plants to positively impact the food web. This is the start of a list, but there are certainly more plants to choose from.  Check out Keystone Natives for the Food Web-Part 2 and Keystone Natives for the Food Web-Shrubs.