Army Worms

The Arboretum is under siege! An army has invaded, demanding we relinquish our lawns! Army worms, that is. These pesky creatures can cause major damage, and they unfortunately have a taste for fescue. Last week we came upon a sidewalk full of worms, crawling out of the lawn in search of more food. The grass was a sea of them, their tiny movements making it seem like the ground was alive.

Close up of a fall army worm Spodoptera frugiperda.
Army worms have a distinctive ‘Y’ marking on their heads
and are usually found feeding in groups.

To Spray or Not to Spray

I am always a big advocate of lassez-faire when it comes to controlling insect populations. After all, “plants are meant to be eaten”, right? And every insect has its place in the food web to keep our ecosystem thriving. I say this every time our members call asking about why their coneflowers have holes in the leaves, or why their Zizia has been defoliated. I tell them not to panic, that bugs are good to have in a garden, and that with enough good habitat natural predators will help keep the populations in check.

But when populations explode overnight, it can rightly cause concern. Native perennial flowers have deep tap roots that can reach 10 ft deep and beyond, which means they easily recover from a bit of nibbling. Fescue does not. The root zone is often less than 2ft, and in the heat of summer it can get even shorter. These little bugs can cause big damage! But luckily they rarely kill the grass. According to KSU Extension and Research, they don’t usually eat into the crown of the plant, rather move on to more tender greens. This means the plant can regrow and recover once they leave.

Fall armyworms seldom kill grass ---- rather, than nubbing a plant
down to the crown and growing point, larvae will select a more tender adjacent grass
blade to feed upon. Of course, under heavy feeding pressure, larvae may be forced to
feed deeper down on a plant, but usually, when the food supply becomes scarce or
"tough", the larvae will move "in mass" to adjacent areas where there is a "fresh stand"
of food to feed on.

- Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service
Army worm damage looks a lot like drought stress at first glance. The grass turns patchy and brown.
This lawn was green and lush 72 hours before this photo was taken, an example of how quickly these little worms can feed.
Fescue at the Dyck Arboretum, beginning to resprout on August 18, 3 to 4 days after the army worms have finished feeding.
Stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks.

Use a Targeted Pesticide

Insecticides containing acephate and spinosad are effective at killing caterpillars, but we opt for friendlier treatments since these are known to harm the bees, birds and butterflies that call the Arboretum home. To avoid unnecessary kill off of non-target insects, I use Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis. This is a biological pesticide that uses bacteria to infect the gut of the army worm. In the alkaline gut environment of insects, it turns toxic and gives them a terminal tummy ache. We also use this around the Arboretum to keep bagworm populations in check when they start to overwhelm our cedar trees. According to current research on Bt, it is non-toxic to humans, pets, birds, and fish. It also has a short life once sprayed, which means reapplication is necessary, but also ensures you aren’t killing more insects than you intended to.

Monoculture Dilema

This is the precisely the problem with monoculture lawns. They require consistent maintenance, chemical and physical, to achieve that uniform, western European ideal of ‘perfection’. As we consider seeding new grassy areas of the Arboretum, we may be looking to a fescue mix, or a seed mix that includes sedges and native grasses together. This means that if an infestation comes along, hopefully not all species in that mix will be palatable and leave some green behind while the rest of the species recover.

If you see a few army worms here and there, don’t panic. Only large populations require a chemical response. But to those of you who will encounter them by the millions this summer like I did, good luck!

Garden Retreat

As much as we love our work at the Arboretum, sometimes the staff need to get out and about! Once or twice a year we take a staff retreat, spending a day in leisure time together. We eat, laugh, and explore new places. We often visit other gardens or notable landscapes on these retreat days. Luckily, Wichita has two great locations to see beautiful gardens: Botanica and the Wichita Art Museum. Click here to learn more about how your Dyck Arboretum membership gives you free admission to these places.

Mi Garden et Su Garden

Visiting other gardens is always a treat for us plant nerds, and Botanica never disappoints. It has seventeen acres of sprawling gardens including the Chinese Friendship garden, a woodland glade, a prairie-inspired meadow, a butterfly house and a children’s garden. With interactive statues and countless water features, there is excitement around every corner. Although our mission and goals are very different from Botanica’s, we can still draw inspiration and fresh ideas from their exhibits. They have many vibrant annual plantings featuring coleus, begonias, cannas, and more. These would be unsustainable for our garden, given our smaller staff and water-conscious focus, but the color combinations and design principles could be implemented within our ethos of ecological native plantings.

Arb staff enjoying the children’s garden at Botanica.
Botanica does a fabulous job of seamlessly mixing classical garden designs and exotic, tropical plants with prairie favorites. While it is no doubt labor intensive to maintain, the effect is undeniably beautiful.
Their boardwalk and pond includes views of water lilies, lotus flowers, pickerel weed, and many other stunning aquatic plants.

What a WAMmy of a Retreat!

The Wichita Art Museum is full of priceless paintings and sculptures inside, but also has an 8-acre ‘art garden’ outside. The plantings feature prairie natives like coneflower, switchgrass, side-oats grama, alliums, and rattlesnake master. These familiar plants are growing in modern designs, grouped in masses to create large swathes of color and form. As a backdrop for sculptures and surrounded by interesting walkways, the prairie species look wild and yet orderly. They also provide great pollinator habitat in an otherwise urban, nectar-less area. Prairie plants require less water than traditional landscaping, making these gardens green in more than one way.

Mass plantings featuring fountain grass and catmint make a dramatic effect at the WAM. As we have learned here at the Arb, mass plantings are also easier to weed and maintain, especially for volunteers and staff who may be less familiar with the plant material.
The Wichita Art Museum has set their massive outdoor sculptures within several prairie-themed garden spaces. Brad is taking this photo while Scott and I chat about grass varieties and Janelle, the truly wise one among us, seeks shade to prevent a sunburn!
WAM infuses every space with a modern, clean-cut feel. The stepping stones cut an orderly path through a dense planting of grasses.

What a joy it was to take a day away from the Arboretum office, the greenhouse, and the ever-present crabgrass to explore other gardens and refresh our mindset. I returned to the Arboretum with renewed appreciation for what makes our garden unique and what our mission charges us to do, but with new inspiration for how we can do it better. If you are an Arboretum member, be sure to take advantage of that reciprocal membership. Visit these Wichita institutions and support them if you can.

Wildflowers for Low Maintenance Areas

When you mention wildflowers, people tend to visualize broad swaths of colorful flowers growing in meadows. This effect is often very difficult to achieve because of problems with soil preparation, plant establishment, weed control, and long term maintenance. Finding a solution to these problems usually requires more time and effort than most people want to invest.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Many wildflowers can be naturalized in low maintenance and unmown areas where they can reseed themselves or spread via roots. Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a good candidate for naturalizing. Common in Kansas, the bright yellow ray florets with the characteristic brown, domed centers are a familiar site in June and July. Black-eyed susan is a vigorous biennial to short lived perennial that self-seeds readily. It will thrive in low a maintenance area with little care. 

Black-eyed Susan

Clasping coneflower (Dracopis amplexicauslis)

This annual grows 18-24 inches tall and produces masses of large yellow flowers from late May well into July.  The flowers are similar in appearance to black-eyed susans, but the ray flowers tend to droop downward. Also, they often have a dark red-brown band near the base of each individual ray floret. Clasping coneflower, a copious seed producer, thrives in clay soils and will often form dense colonies in moist soils. In late May and June, it is very showy in low fields and ditches in the Flint Hills of southeast Kansas.

Showy evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

This somewhat sprawling to upright perennial is common along roadsides in central Kansas. While white is the most common color, pink flowered forms can be found in this area as well. It generally blooms heavily from mid-April into June and then produces sporadic blossoms throughout the summer and fall. It seeds readily but usually takes two years to produce blooms. Here at the Arboretum, we have both the pink and white forms that produce a solid mass of flowers for over six weeks in the spring.

Showy Evening Primrose Photo by Emily Weaver

Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera ‘Red’) and yellow columnar coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Typically, these upright clump forming perennials have abundant red tinged or bright yellow daisies with drooping ray petals around a prominent central cone – resembling a sombrero. The flowers are pollinator magnets, providing weeks of color and insect food. These wildflowers perform best in full sun and medium to dry moisture.  The attractive seed heads add late season interest and birds seek out the seeds in the fall and winter. 

Columnar coneflower photo by Emily Weaver

Other wildflowers

  • Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa
  • Leavenworth eryngo, Eryngium leavenworthii
  • Willowleaf Sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius
  • Maximillian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianii
  • Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
  • Showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa
  • Canadian goldenrod, Solidago canadensis
  • Grayhead coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
  • New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae
  • Hoary vervain, Verbena stricta
  • Blue vervain, Verbena hastata

All of these species are true wildflowers. They are aggressive, thrive with neglect and will continue to reseed and spread for many years. We recommend planting them from seed in late fall or early winter. Other desirable wildflowers can be added to these natural areas but do not try to plant these in your perennial border among your garden variety perennials and annuals. They will soon take over. They are best left to brighten the wilder areas of your yard and garden. Enjoy them from a distance.

Landscaping with Native Kansas Oaks

Filtered light coming through a stately open-grown burr oak.

There are many appealing reasons to consider landscaping with native Kansas oaks. Oaks are

  • long-lived with strong branches,
  • can grow to be large and stately,
  • provide welcome shade from the hot Kansas summer sun,
  • allow some filtered light to pass through to allow growth of understory vegetation, and
  • enhance the wildlife diversity in any landscape by attracting insects.

Native Kansas Oaks

Kansas is predominately a prairie state. Fire and grazing have helped keep grasses and wildflowers as the dominant form of vegetation for thousands of years. Kansas does, however, get enough precipitation to support trees, especially many drought-tolerant species of oaks. And when they are not being burned or grazed down to the ground on a regular basis, they can thrive here.

With the Rocky Mountain rain shadow influencing the precipitation map for Kansas, we have increasing bands of precipitation moving from west to east across the state.

Trees generally need more water than prairie grasses and wildflowers. Therefore, it is understandable that eastern Kansas climate is most hospitable for growing trees. The following Küchler Vegetation Map of Kansas confirms the association between greater precipitation and the historical presence of trees by the location of oak-hickory forests, oak savannas, and other timbered regions in the eastern part of the state.

The trees that thrive throughout eastern Kansas may also be able to grow further west into Kansas, but will be limited to locations near streams or urban landscapes where they can receive supplemental irrigation.

Using the fantastic recently published book, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas by Michael Haddock and Craig Freeman, I compiled the following table of the oaks native to Kansas. I have listed the 12 native oak species in order from most to least common in Kansas. I did this to serve as a guide to the species that generally have the greatest tolerance to drought conditions and that are therefore more likely to succeed even in the drier parts of the state.

Attracting Wildlife

Regarding the benefits of oaks I provided in the introduction, I want to expand a bit on the benefits of attracting wildlife.

Filtered light sustains understory vegetation

Oaks in general and especially more drought-tolerant oaks like burr oak allow more light to filter through its leaf canopy to the understory than other tree species such as elms and maples. As I describe briefly in a post about a local, large burr oak tree, burr oak savanna plant communities of Eastern Kansas were historically able to support diverse arrays of grasses and wildflowers under their canopy that promote a healthy ecosystem of biological diversity. Urban folks can follow this model and grow prairie-like native plant gardens under the canopy of oaks. This also helps explain why it is easier to grow turf grass in the filtered light conditions under an oak than it is under the shadier understory of an elm or maple.

Oaks – the best trees for supporting wildlife

Professor Doug Tallamy in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is a big proponent of using native oaks to attract wildlife. His book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens makes a strong case for using oaks to attract caterpillars, and subsequently birds that feed caterpillars to their young, to enhance the biological diversity of a landscape. His research shows that the oak genus (Quercus) attracts more caterpillars to its leaves, flowers, bark, acorns, and roots than any other genus of trees. In fact, this genus is so important to Tallamy that his most recent book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees focuses entirely on the subject.

Five Favorite Oaks

While I think there are appealing components to all 12 of the native Kansas oaks, I have narrowed my focus for the purposes of this post to promoting five favorite oak species.

USDA maps denote the natural range of each species. A given tree may still thrive in say an urban area outside of this range when offered wind and drought protection from structures, other trees, and/or supplemental irrigation.
This 55′ wide by 45′ tall burr oak outside my office window is great example of how this species takes a wide-open stance when grown in full sun. The root structure cross-section drawing pasted proportionately below this tree was found in the Nebraska Conservation Bulletin Number 37.

Burr oak savannas were part of the focus of my graduate research and I simply love the majestic, strong-branched open-grown shape of this species. The shape and distinct look of a mature Q. macrocarpa specimen in winter is as interesting to me as its leafy green look during the growing season. It is bimodal in its moisture distribution, meaning it can survive in both dry upland conditions as well as low floodplain conditions. Thick, gnarly bark makes this tree more fire tolerant than most, and when top-killed, its taproot allows it to immediately re-sprout. The large acorn fruits (hence the Latin name “macrocarpa“) are food for many insects, mammals, and birds (e.g., turkeys and wood ducks). To appreciate the value of a burr oak to wildlife, click on this Illinois wildflowers link and scroll down to the impressive list of “faunal associations.” Burr oak leaves turn yellowish-brown before dropping in the fall.

The attractive ashy gray bark, toothy margined leaves and stately round shape of the drought-tolerant chinquapin oak make it an appealing landscaping tree. One-inch sweet acorns are a favorite food for many birds and mammals and the leaves turn yellow-orange to orangish-brown before dropping in fall. This species prefers well-drained soils but tolerates a variety of soil textures and moisture regimes.

Dwarf chinquapin oak only reaches a mature height of approximately 20 feet and certainly can be used in different landscaping scenarios than any of the four other medium to large landscaping trees recommended here. You may use it as a featured shrub or planted with many to form a screen. This species prefers sandy or clayey soils whereas the larger Q. muehlenbergii does best in calcareous soils. In spite of its small size, dwarf chinquapin oak can produce large quantities of acorns which along with the leaves and bark provide food for numerous species of insects, birds and mammals. This oak is known to produce underground runners to spread clonally.

Black oak is named for its dark bark color at maturity. It has a deep taproot with widespread laterals which make it a very drought-tolerant tree that is adaptable to a variety of soil types. It does especially well in sandy soils. As described for other oak species, black oak provides food for numerous insects, birds and mammals.

Shumard oak is a popular landscaping tree because of its strong branches, long life and red fall color. It is adaptable to a variety of soils and its acorns provide food for various types of wildlife including insects, birds, and mammals. Although its natural environment is along streams in Eastern Kansas, it is tolerant of drier areas further west in protected urban areas. A shumard oak I planted in my yard loses its leaves late fall, by around Thanksgiving.

Things to Think About

Tree size/location

When locating a tree, leaving room for the eventual size of the mature tree will save you or future caretakers time and money. Conflicts between growing tree branches and buildings, utility wires, city code street clearances, and branches of other trees can lead to tree trimming headaches, so consideration given to a tree’s height and spread is important. Also, the closer a tree is to a sidewalk or driveway, the more likely its roots are to alter the grade of and contribute to the cracking of that concrete.

How long will it hold its leaves?

Some oaks lose their leaves in fall, but others hold onto them until spring. I can think of a couple of reasons this may be important to you. If you like to do your leaf raking in fall, don’t choose an oak that holds leaves till spring. If you want your oak to cast shade in summer but not winter, be sure to choose an oak that drops its leaves in fall. For example, this may be an important consideration for a tree that shades a house in summer, but allows solar panels to work in the winter.

Oak leaves are slower to decompose

Know that oak leaves have higher tannin content than many other tree species, and therefore, take longer to decompose. I like to use all my tree leaves for garden mulch and since the oaks I’ve planted in my landscape are all pretty small still, this has not been a big concern. However, if you compost your leaves or have heard the myth that tannin-rich oak leaves will make your soil more acidic, read this article.

Slower growing trees still provide rewards

A common complaint I hear about oaks is that they grow too slow. Therefore, folks may opt for the short-term gain of quick shade provided by a poplar or silver maple instead of a longer lived oak. A poplar lifespan may be 30-50 years, a silver maple 50-100 years, and an oak 150-250 years. But what you gain in quicker shade with the poplar and silver maple, you give up in durability, attraction to wildlife, and passing along quality trees to future property owners. The above recommended oaks all would be considered slow to moderate rate growing trees. Do know that you can increase the growth rate of an oak with mulching, supplemental water, and fertilizer. Maybe it is the skewed perspective of an oak lover, but I would think that oaks even improve property value. And remember, a tree is planted for the next generation as much as it is for you.

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 candidawhite 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…

A Grand Old Burr Oak

I spent time this fall with a grand old burr oak near Hesston along the Middle Emma Creek in McPherson County that caught my eye a few years ago. I introduce to you the Stucky Oak.

Burr oak at the Stucky Place

A Relic of Belonging

This tree is a stately burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) estimated conservatively to be at least 200 years old. I find fascinating the remnants of vegetation around us that predate European settlement. Large open-grown burr oaks, like untilled prairies, are vestiges of a time shaped by climate and thousands of years of evolution.

For approximately 10,000 years since the last ice age, a warmer climate and the rain shadow effect of the Rocky Mountains have shaped the vegetation here. Plant communities existing at the location of Kansas have consisted mainly of grasslands tolerant of frequent fires initiated by lightning and Indigenous people and grazing by bison. Trees had a hard time getting established here when they were being eaten or burned to the ground every few years. Thus, prairies dominate the state of Kansas.

Oak Savannas of Eastern Kansas

As distance from the Rocky Mountains to the east increases along with average rainfall, trees more easily establish. An ecotone identified as oak savanna (prairie with scattered open-grown oaks) marks the transition from prairies of the Great Plains to the forests of the eastern states. Burr oak was the most dominant tree in this Great Plains ecotone for reasons described below. For more information about oak savannas, click HERE.

Oak savanna historical range (Credit: Guy R. McPherson, 1997)

Burr oaks in the eastern portion of the Great Plains were more likely to be found along stream corridors and especially on the east and north side of streams. Here, trees could survive better in the moister, more humid micro-climates and had some protection from prairie fires typically pushed in a east and north direction by the prevailing southwesterly winds. Fires that reached these locations were less frequent and of lower intensity as they typically would be backing against the wind. The Stucky oak along with a number of other old burr oaks dot the Stucky property located in one of these refuge areas just above the east bank of the Middle Emma Creek.

Burr oak range – USDA map
This burr oak in the foreground (let’s call it the “Sibling Oak”) is much younger than the Stucky Oak (seen in background) but still very stately. It too could be a relic of the oak savanna ecosystem present here during pre-European settlement times.

Unique Adaptations

Open-grown burr oaks growing on the prairie certainly have a different growth pattern than trees growing in a forest. Forest-grown trees have to reach vertically as they compete with other trees for sunlight. Trees growing on the prairie don’t have to compete for light and thus more efficiently orient their branches horizontally as well as vertically to maximize photosynthesis.

Old open-grown burr oaks are typically wider than they are tall (The Stucky Oak – Photo by Lamar Roth)

A tree with a relatively more shallow and broad canopy, will allow more light to filter through its branches to the understory below. This unusual, mottled light micro-climate under burr oaks harbors unique assemblages of plants not specifically found in either prairies or forests. For more on the makeup of these rare plant communities, click HERE.

Mottled sunlight penetrating through broad-reaching branches of the Stucky Oak

Fallen burr oak leaves are large, thick, rigid, curled, and irregularly shaped which keeps them aloft, and dry in the litter layer. In the spring, this persistent fuel easily burns and carries fire. Fires under burr oaks are hot enough to kill competing tree species that might invade its space, but not as hot as a grassland fire carrying more intense heat that could kill the burr oak.

Burr oak leaf and acorn litter at Dyck Arboretum

The thick, corky bark of a burr oak helps protect the cambium layer from the intense heat that could kill the tree. This trait develops on the trunk and branches of burr oak after about 10 years of growth and helps the tree survive repeated burning. For more on the biological and ecological traits of burr oaks and oak savannas, click HERE.

Thick, corky bark protects a burr oak from lower-intensity fires

Not Quite a State Champion

In 2019, I heard a presentation at the Kansas Native Plant Society Annual Meeting about the Champion Trees of Kansas Program. I’ve been curious how the Stucky Oak would stack up against the biggest trees in Kansas and recently got permission to take some measurements. Trees in the Program have a calculated point total based on the following formula: POINTS = trunk circumference in inches + height in feet + crown spread/4 in feet.

As you can see from the following table, the Stucky Oak fell short of the champion in St. George (near Manhattan) in total points. However, with a similar trunk circumference (diameter comparison is 5.6′ vs 6.5′) and larger canopy spread, the Stucky oak is only hurt in this scoring by its shorter stature. Take into consideration that a tree east of Manhattan has benefitted from more rainfall over its life and grown faster than the Stucky Oak. When doing so, it is not inconceivable to think that the Stucky Oak may indeed be an older tree.

A Sense of Place

For most houses we know, the choices of vegetation for landscaping are chosen by the people tending the home. The Stucky house location, I am guessing, was chosen because of the vegetation that already existed.

Matt Stucky and his tree

Matt Stucky is the third generation in his family that has lived in this house that has enjoyed this location and made memories here. He’s a farmer and land steward and when talking with him, you immediately sense the affinity he has for this tree. You can tell that he enjoys the thought that his kids swing under the shade of this oak and throw acorns at each other the way he did as a kid and the way his dad probably did too.

The farm name shows pride in a sense of place

Matt fondly told me the story of an elderly couple from Oklahoma that stopped by some years ago to say they got married in their 20s under the giant oak in his yard. They were descendants of the original Classen Mennonite family that settled in the area in 1874. The couple showed Matt an old photo of the occasion. The tree in the photo looked basically the same as it does now. The couple returned many summers thereafter to sit in the shade of the oak for an afternoon.

History Transcending to the Future

The thought of natural phenomena that transcend generations of people and time move me. Whether it is seeing the same constellations in the skies above known to earth’s life forms since the beginning of time, stewarding prairies that have provided sustenance to residents of the Great Plains for thousands of years before me, or paying homage to an old tree known by families of Indigenous as well as European cultures, I find such things to be very powerful.

Burr oak through the seasons (Partners in Place, LLC)

Equally as powerful for me is our responsibility to carry these stories forward. I challenge you to make a connection to stories related to the nightly traverse of Orion across the winter night sky, how a bison kill for the Quivira Indians of Kansas was like a visit to the grocery and hardware stores today, and how an oak can enhance the biodiversity of your home landscape. Embrace these connections and pass them along to the next generation.

Acorns collected from the Stucky Oak

With this spirit in mind, my friend, Lorna Harder, and I collected acorns from the Stucky Oak and hope to raise burr oak progeny. We would like to share these young trees with teachers who participate in our Earth Partnership for Schools Program and members who attend our plant sales.

The quote from Caecilius Statius, 220-168 B.C. goes “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations.” I think you know now what species I would choose.

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”

― Carl Sagan

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)

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

Visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park

I would highly recommend that you visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, a new gem in the crown of great destination places to visit in Kansas. The High Plains and western Smoky Hills landscapes of Western Kansas are too often overlooked as a flyover region or burden of windshield time to endure as Kansans head west to the mountains. But if you take the time, I am sure you will become enamored as I have by the geologic history, wide-open viewshed, and various biological elements of the short to mixed grass prairie ecosystem. There are various intriguing features for a visit to Little Jerusalem.

Little Jerusalem, looking north from the 1.2-mile overlook

A Look Back in Time

You will immediately notice the layer cake geology in the Niobrara Chalk spires and unique standing features carved by the Smoky Hill River at Little Jerusalem over. Layers of shells, shark teeth and bone fragments were deposited at the bottom of an ancient Cretaceous era inland sea covering this area from 145 to 66 million years ago. These are favorite areas for paleontologists to find skeletal fossils of swimming reptiles such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.

Carl Buell’s Tylosaurus painting used in Mike Everhart’s short story “A Day in the Life of a Mosasaur. http://oceansofkansas.com/mosa-sty.html

Recreation in Wide-Open Spaces

Treeless plains make for stunning landscape views and Western Kansas has no shortage of them. Wide-open spaces, few people to see, and a typically windy environment also make this an excellent place to socially distance yourself during a pandemic outdoors while exercising your body and mind.

Little Jerusalem, looking west from the 0.25-mile overlook

After arriving at the new parking lot and paying your $5 car fee at the self-pay station, you can set out on hikes to great views either a 1/2 mile or a little over 2-miles total in length. I took in the views at all three of the overlooks which were all impressive. But I would have to say that the views from the overlook furthest in distance (1.2 miles) from the parking lot were most spectacular. Most of the trails consist of packed gravel that are easy to walk on.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park trails

Rare Plants and Animals

There is so much to see at Little Jerusalem in the short and mixed grass prairie all around. You can simply take in the beauty of the colors and textures as part of the surrounding landscape. Or you can investigate closer to see an array of interesting examples of flora and fauna unique to the area. Great Plains wild buckwheat (Eriogonum helichrysoides) is found around the chalk bluffs of Western Kansas (with the largest population found in this park) and nowhere else in the world. Ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) are open-country birds that breed in grasslands and the most nests in Kansas are found along the bluffs of the Smoky River.

Ferruginous hawk, photo by Bob Gress (BirdsInFocus.com)

Close to Other Worthy Features

While planning your visit to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, consider visiting a few other worthy public and private features in the area in or near the Smoky River valley and watershed.

Locations of recommended destinations

Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County has been protected and is currently being managed by Kansas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It is an expansive example of short and mixed-grass prairie managed as a working ranch that features dramatic chalk bluffs, grazing cattle and bison, black-tailed prairie dogs, and the federally endangered black-footed ferret.

Monument Rocks National Landmark and Castle Rock, combined in consideration for one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, are both impressive examples of Niobrara Chalk towers on either side of Gove County. Both features are on private land where visitors are allowed to get close to the features. Be respectful of the rules including no climbing, fossil hunting, camping, littering or bonfires.

Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark in Gove County

During your Western Kansas visit, consider renting a cabin or camping at beautiful Lake Scott State Park. It is considered by National Geographic as one of the country’s 50 must-see state parks. Extensive hiking trails, a state fishing lake, and various features of cultural history from Pueblo Native Americans to early European settlers can all be found here.

Sunset at Lake Scott State Park in Scott County

I’ll leave you with a poem (Prairie Wind by Fred D. Atchison, Sr.) featured on one of the signs at Little Jerusalem where one is invited to “Have A Seat, Fill Your Lungs”:

I am thinking of you, prairie wind

running free across Kansas plains

and see the evidence of your presence

billowing seas of golden grain.

You etch your mark on sandstone cliffs

sculptures carved by a timeless hand

and move soft brushes of prairie grass

drawing circles across the sand.

It is humbling when I realize

these soft breezes reaching me now

whispered lullabies to the Indian child

before the prairie was put to the plow.

I have witnessed your destructive force

throughout the reaches of your domain

and felt the comfort of your caress

when you become gentle again.

You are an adversary to work against

and you break those who will not bend

an ally to all who work with you

when finally we learn to walk with the wind.