Gardens of France: Monet at Giverny

The famous painter Claude Monet transformed his acreage in Giverny into his own private paradise. It is the complete opposite of the other gardens we have discussed in this series. Gone are trimmed topiaries and carefully pruned perennials, and there are no great lawns on which to have military marches. Instead it is naturalistic, flowing, and whimsical. With it’s famous lily pond and Japanese bridge, we felt as if we were walking right into a famous painting! We saw some great landscaping principles here that you can apply to your own landscape, even if you don’t have an artist’s eye for design.

This lily pond was the subject of hundreds of paintings by Monet. I can see why he never tired of looking at it!

An Artist’s Garden

Monet was a preimminent painter of impressionism, a style placing emphasis on color, movement and light rather than intricate detail. Impressionist painters used broad strokes of color, and paintings in this style can seem blurry or unfinished. Understanding the impressionist style of painting helped me appreciate the garden design as well. The beds are tightly packed and verge on overgrown, and fine details are mostly lost, but the colors and textures shine through the chaos. Each area transitioned effortlessly into the next as we walked, flowing and natural. The garden was very much like an impressionist composition: seen too closely, it seems unintelligible but step back to see the whole and you are rewarded with a beautiful view!

Color Story

The garden of an artist would, of course, include a careful study of color, and Monet’s estate does not disappoint. Each densely planted row clearly had a plan. Yellows and whites are planted next to an entire row of blues and purples, which visually melt into burgundies and reds. Around every corner were fascinating flower species in row upon row, but always in monochrome or a two color maximum. Consequently, the busy landscape appeared organized and very relaxing.

Wildness Contained

Dozens of narrow paths lead you through the estates gardens. At times you can scarcely see around the corner or over the hedge. With no idea where we were headed, we just enjoyed the walk and didn’t worry about what’s next. Perhaps that the was the artists plan all along! It can feel like a wild place but in fact, from an aerial view, the estate is laid out in neat rows and squares. The staff keep the paths well maintained and very tidy. This helps to carefully frame all that wildness, giving viewers an easier time viewing, interpreting, and enjoying the space. As the garden of an artist, it makes sense to strive for visual balance. This principle of good planning and framing is one we encourage in all of our landscaping classes.

Japanese Influences

Claude Monet devant le bassin aux nymphéas de Giverny
(Monet in front of the water lily pond)

Monet was a collector of Japanese prints, which are on still on display in his home today. His love for this art form inspired him to include classic Japanese elements in his garden. Water lilies are an important motif in Asian art, as well as arched bridges. Accordingly, Monet renovated his countryside property to include these elements, which have become the most recognized subjects of his work. Japanese woodblock art is known for clean lines and flat, unshaded color. Monet mixing Japanese stylistic elements into his garden is a great reminder for us all: don’t shy away from trying new garden styles you like, as great design can be made from unexpected combonations!

Monet’s garden was a much needed break from all the formal, stuffy gardens of French nobility. It was a family estate, and the place felt much more loved and lived in. The artist’s influence was very much still present on the grounds in its naturalistic style and rambling paths. I am reminded that great garden design should be a reflection of your personal style, and can inspire great art…or vice versa!

Gardens of France: Versailles

Another post in my series on some of the gardens I visited while in France, today we are talking about the famous gardens of Versailles. At one time the palace and grounds were the symbol of a nation: wealthy, powerful, and not to be trifled with. The gardens are dizzying in their scope and meticulously manicured. It is so large, in fact, we rented a golf cart on our visit and still barely covered a fraction of the grounds. While times and tastes have changed, many of the common horticultural practices of that by-gone era are still with us in modern times. But should they be?

A Famous Palace

The Hall of Mirrors offers a spectacular view of the gardens. The thousand reflections behind you only amplify the effect. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Versailles palace started as a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIII in the early 1600s, but grew exponentially under his son, Louis XIV. The palace and gardens expanded and gained their grandeur under his reign. Known for his stylish flare and a love of luxury, he spared no expense. He hired famous landscape architects and kept a close eye on every detail. But why is a garden important to a king?

Just a sliver of the palace is seen here. With 2,300 rooms it is very difficult to try to capture the whole palace in one frame, so I gave up!

A Garden’s Purpose

More than just a pretty place to take a walk, the gardens were an expression of culture, national pride, and the absolute power of the king. Politically, it is savvy to have an impossibly huge and cushy estate to share with your courtiers, to ensure they can never dream of turning on you. And to have spacious and glittering gardens such as these might have been a jab at Italy, France’s direct competitor for all things culture and luxury. The gardens are not only designed with military symbolism, but also with real strategic overlooks. A large open plane with view from above is a strong position, metaphorically and literally. While on his land, nothing escapes the eye of the king!

Control

Topiaries (700 in total!) shorn into unnatural geometric shapes. Hedges squared off at right angles. Lawns carved into patterns that look like a green tapestry from above. This style is very much about control. A show of man’s power over nature, and the ability to tame wilderness into our idea of aesthetically pleasing order. There is even an Orangerie at Versailles where hundreds of tropical trees (oranges, olive, palm, pomegranates, etc.) are housed, moved in or out depending upon conducive weather. And while this may seem like an overdone, classical style from the past, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Modern horticulture in neighborhoods and parks still priorities tidy, unnatural shapes, short cropped lawns, and a total replacement of the natural landscape. We continue to import exotic plants that take a painstaking amount of work to keep alive. It seems we still like the feeling of control.

Let’s Talk Lawn

Lawn was a relatively new fad of that time period. Short-cropped expanses of grass were showing up at all the fashionable chateaus and manor houses of northern Europe. Lawns of the period were maintained either with sheep, or a small army of servants and gardeners. To have a lawn meant you also had money and status. The lawns of Versailles are vast and stunning, but interestingly they were not weed free. Even now, the gardens of Versailles have clover, dandelions, and various other broadleaf intruders – so go easy on yourself! True monoculture is so unnatural and hard to achieve that even the most famous garden in the world can’t manage it.

What practical lessons can we learn from Versailles?

  • Purpose. Are you trying to stave off a coup or intimidate a foreign diplomat? Not likely. But how about enhance curb appeal, deal with poor drainage, or create pollinator habitat? Identifying your purpose helps you make wise design choices.
  • Relax. Our desire to control every leaf of every plant is a thing of the past and totally at odds with nature. But we know now how to design aesthetically pleasing landscapes that work with nature instead of against it, meaning less work and more enjoyment.
  • Traditional ≠ Beautiful. Americans would do well to stop aiming for that impossible lawn standard set by aristocratic Europe (saving money and pollution along the way), and leave these outdated landscape principles behind as we move toward more sustainable practices.

All that said, of course the gardens of Versailles are a wonderful place to visit. The fountains, the mazes, the statues, it’s a feast for the eyes! And though I don’t think these horticultural principles should be emulated today, we can certainly enjoy their amazing historical restoration and learn from these innovative designs of the past.

The Importance of Diversifying Landscapes

When you look at a virgin prairie (one that has never been tilled), you quickly discover a tremendous diversity of plants. Each square foot has many different species vying for sunlight, moisture, and space. Species change throughout the prairie as well from high to low, wet to dry, sun to shade, and vary even with soils. This diversity contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of the prairie landscape.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017. Photo by Brad Guhr.

One of the keys to successfully creating a prairie garden is including a diversity of plants suited to your site. Time of bloom and aesthetics are often considered first, but including variety is an essential element in the process too. It’s also important to think about diversifying trees and shrubs. Let’s look at some reasons why diversifying our home landscapes to include more species is so relevant.    

A Diverse Landscape is a Resilient Landscape

While each landscape is different, they all face an array of environmental pressures, such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases. A diverse landscape is more adaptable and resilient, able to endure these environmental hazards.  We have all seen shelter belts and monocultures decimated by drought, pests or disease-leaving large holes in the landscape.  If you think about it, single species or similar species landscapes are vulnerable to eradication in ways that diverse landscapes are not. 

A Diverse Landscape Attracts Diverse Wildlife

Building season long blooms benefits wildlife. Plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom mimics the prairie ecosystem. If you watch any prairie throughout the year, there are always a new set of plants blooming every few weeks throughout the growing season. Beyond building resilience, a diversity of plants attracts a diversity of pollinators and wildlife allowing them to complete their lifecycles. This is so crucial for their survival.  Patchwork prairies can serve as harbors, offering food and shelter to a broad range of wildlife. 

Butterflyweed with pale purple coneflowers and common milkweed

A Diverse Landscape is Visually Interesting

As I said earlier, often our first consideration when choosing plants is aesthetics or ornamental characteristics. I don’t want to downplay this step in the process, but I do want to encourage you to try many different types of plant species. By varying plant species, you provide visual interest, which adds character to your landscape. Some of the most inviting spaces have diverse colors, shapes, blooms, textures, layers, and heights of plants.   

A Diverse Landscape is a Dynamic Plant Community

A diverse plant palette suited for your site can look formal, but it generally requires more effort on our part to keep it looking kempt. However, an informal planting can be just as attractive. It depends on your maintenance style and preference. No matter how you want your landscape to look over time, we must prioritize the careful selection and planting of diverse prairie species.

It can’t be overstated – diversifying landscapes in the urban setting is so important. Diversity in the plants you include in your landscape attracts diversity to your landscape. This thoughtful approach to design not only enhances the beauty of our gardens but also strengthens their resilience in the face of environmental challenges.  It also promotes sustainability, conservation of natural resources, and enriches our experiences with nature.

Gardens of France: Villandry

I just returned from a trip to France, and amongst my sampling of wine/cheese/bread, I also toured gardens. From the famous Versailles to unnamed courtyards in every small village, French people have a long history with landscape design. Gorgeous gardens are open to the public in every part of the country. This post is the first in a multi-part series exploring design inspiration we can import into our own humble yards. The climate may be different and the grounds palatial, but French gardens offer classic lessons to be learned about the design of a cohesive and pleasing landscape.

First up, Chateau de Villandry.

A Brief History

350,000 people per year visit this UNESCO site for good reason: its meticulously maintained gardens are unparalleled for their use of color and theme. This castle has too much history to recount here, but the short version goes like this: built on a Roman site that later became a medieval fortress and eventually a very refined 16th century family chateau, it has changed hands many times, hosted royal house guests and was the site of the 1189 treaty between England and France. The gardens transformed with each era. Lucky for us they are now restored to the Renaissance style by the Carvallos, owners since the early 1900s.

Divide and Conquer

Contrary to what you might think, subdividing a garden can actually make it feel larger. It leads your eye just around the corner or up the path, fooling your mind into thinking there is always more just ahead. From the elevated platform overlooking Villandry garden you can see multiple layers and divisions. Within the garden, further subdivisions are based on garden theme. Herb Garden, Kitchen Garden, Music Garden, Love Garden, Cross Garden…all featuring different designs and usage, kept visually separate by hedges or elevation difference.

How can I use these ideas at home?

  • Gardens large and small can benefit from sectioning, creating rooms and the illusion of more space
  • Use greenery, hardscaping, or natural elevation change to divide a space

Layering the Landscape

To achieve a landscape that has depth and visual movement, you can use layers. You can see in the following example of Villandry’s Sun Chamber, one way to layer is by using height. For a very professional yet unfussy aesthetic, plan for the mature height of your plants to climb steadily from groundcover to tree line. You can also layer with color to create depth, as we see in the photos below.

How can I use these ideas at home?

  • Think vertically about the layers of your garden, and add any that are missing
  • Use repeated colors and contrast to draw the eye along and create overlapping layers.

Good Framing

In all of our landscape classes we drone on about framing: borders, edging, and clean lines to contain otherwise “messy” plantings. This principle is not new, and is put to good use at Villandry. Some of their gardens are less formal and very diverse, but neatly contained by tiny boxwood hedges. While boxwoods are not great growers in our area, you can achieve this look with hardscaping for a much lower maintenance option, or use heat-tolerant plants that take trimming well like lavender, rosemary, yew, and St. Johns wort.

How can I use these ideas at home?

  • for a formal look, greater species diversity must equal defined, well maintained borders
  • metal edging, rock, or clean mulch lines are lower maintenance than a green hedge border
  • play around with the contrast between airy/busy/whimsical and clean, straight framing.

Design with Perspective

In this amazing gardenscape, the view changes based on where you stand: at a window from the chateau, from the bottom level of the garden looking out, or from the front entrance. While the area is naturally low, large stone retaining walls give a ‘sunken garden’ effect. This creates closeness and privacy even in such a huge estate but still allows the viewer to take it all in from an elevated viewing point.

View of Villandry gardens from the terrace. Directly below is the love garden, telling stories of the many types of love through the shape of the hedges.

How can I use these ideas at home?

  • when designing your landscape, think about the place you will most often view it from
  • elevate or sink areas of your garden to highlight certain features

For a deeper look into the gardens of Villandry and a virtual tour, visit their site here. Follow along for more posts coming soon in this series about more famous French gardens and their impact on modern landscaping.

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

Hard To Find Plant Species Available This Fall

Due to the diligent nursery work of our suppliers, and a bit of searching on my part, we will have interesting new species to offer at our fall FloraKansas event, as well as some old favorites that have been missing from our inventory for awhile. We love to offer an ever-widening selection of hard-to-find natives to plant enthusiasts in our area!

Rosa blanda

Rosa blanda illustration by Mary Lawrence, 1799, from World History Encyclopedia

Smooth rose is an easy-care native rose found in pastures from Canada to Maine and as far southwest as Kansas. Grows in clay, loam or sandy soils and likes full to part sun. Nearly thornless, this rose is much friendlier than other roses with just a few prickles at the base of older stems. Light pink blooms are visited by bees, and the rose hips of fall are eaten by various forms of wildlife.

Photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Scrophularia marilandica

Since its blooms are small and unassuming, you may have never noticed S. marilandica. I hope that changes! Figwort is tall with a many-branched flower spike. It is a boon for pollinators, and though it may seem spindly and weak its impact for bees is anything but. Native to the eastern third of the state and throughout the eastern US, it likes part sun to shade and a medium to moist soil.

S. marilandica, also known as figwort from Wikimedia Commons

Euonymus atropurpurecens and Sassafras albidum

These two trees have a lot in common: they have vibrant red fall color, they thrive in partial shade and moist soil, and are native to the eastern US. As we are on the edge of their native range, they need extra watering through the Kansas summer.

There are lots of nasty invasives with the name ‘Euonymus’, but described here is the native North American species. Also known as Eastern Wahoo this small tree grows 8-10′ tall in our area, sporting burgundy spring blooms and lantern-like fruits in fall.

Sassafras fits into similar landscaping situations, though it can get a bit larger. In ideal conditions it can be 60 feet tall, but on dry upland sites here in Kansas it will commonly grow to 15-25 ft. There is simply no match for its fall color and lovely variable leaf shapes. Both of these woody species form suckers if happily situated. Be prepared to mow around them or let them spread into a grove.

Fruits of a Wahoo tree, from Wikipedia
Range map of E. atropurpureus available through BoNAp.org

At our fall FloraKansas event next week we will also have Bladdernut trees (Staphylea trifolia), Chickasaw plums (Prunus angustifolia) and Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia macrorhiza). I am excited to add these species to our growing list of natives for the plant lovers of central Kansas.

Are there plants you wish you could purchase but can’t find them anywhere? Please send us your requests and we will seek them out for future years of FloraKansas.

Know Your Garden Priorities and Purpose

Portions of this article can also be found in our Summer 2023 issue of the Prairie Window Newsletter.

Having a summer intern here at the Arboretum is a lot of fun. Not only because I have someone to commiserate with when the temperatures are unbearable, or someone to laugh with when everything goes wrong, but also because they always ask “why?”

The island garden here at the Arboretum features an evolving prairie planting from seed. We manage this area with annual prescribed burns.

Why did we cut it by hand instead of mowing? Why did we move those leaves or add mulch? Why do we maintain this garden different from the next one?

The answers to these questions almost always center around priorities and purpose. To curate an Arboretum, we manipulate our natural environment in different ways, with goals in mind for each specific area.

  • Is the purpose of this garden to attract butterflies? Then we don’t do any trimming during peak caterpillar hatching time.
  • Are we hoping to encourage lightning bugs to nest here? Don’t rake away the leaf litter.
  • Is the goal of this space to be symmetrical, patterned, or have a certain color palette? Then we weed more frequently and stick closely to the original design.

Knowing your priorities and the purpose of a space easily guides your decisions.

Plantings at our neighboring retirement community make use of drought tolerant plants with a more traditional approach to design.

Evolving Priorities

Traditional landscaping has one job: to look pretty. We started creating ornamental gardens at castles and estates to signify wealth and create beauty. Several hundred years of horticulture practice have passed with little change. These human-centric values still have a stronghold on the landscaping industry. The typical shrubs, trees, and perennials installed around a newly built home in an American suburb are purely ornamental, with no relation to wildlife, climate, or geographic region.

Their purpose? Purely aesthetic. And so all the future decisions must serve that goal. Heavy chemical use to maintain the green lawn? Yes, to preserve the aesthetic. Constant trimming and shaping of shrubs? Yes, to make them look different from their natural shape. Overuse of water to keep non-native species green in a climate they did not evolve in? Of course. This is not a sustainable option, and at its worst is an outdated practice steeped in vanity and classism. Thankfully these priorities are beginning to shift to a more sustainable model of landscaping.

Find Your Purpose

Everybody has to decide for themselves, and for each unique space, what the purpose and priorities are. If the goal is to teach students about native plants, then we should prioritize plant labels. spacing, and good organization in the garden. If the purpose is to increase habitat, then prioritize ecosystem function — high plant diversity, dense, layered planting, less structure.

This sign garden at Schowalter Villa’s Prairie Lakes begins to move in the direction of building plant communities by planting more densely, but still prioritizes traditional aesthetics over ecological function.

There is no “one way” to successfully use native plants. Some of our members are looking to decrease water usage, but keep their landscaping looking traditional and tidy. In this case, we might suggest using some cultivated varieties of natives that don’t spread or seed out much, but are very drought tolerant. For folks hoping to restore a prairie plot for conservation purposes, we would recommend straight species only and help them find an appropriate ratio of grasses and flower species native to their region, or even their county.

Liatris pycnostachya, or prairie blazing star

The plants chosen for each new project should be chosen with clear purpose in mind. A few years in, when you are adding new plants to the garden or making tough decisions, remembering your purpose and priorities will help keep you on track!

A big thanks to our grounds interns present and past, who have all asked excellent questions and contributed their talents to the Arboretum. You challenge us to always think critically about our priorities and purpose!

Seven Lessons I Have Learned About Native Plants

Over the 26 years that I have been at the Arboretum, I have made my share of mistakes. Some examples include planting prairie dock in a formal garden design, starting a garden too fast, and/or not knowing my site.  I had book knowledge about horticulture, but I had not learned much about native plants.  Through trial and error – mostly error – I learned some hard lessons and even killed a few plants along the way.  I am still learning, but here are seven lessons I believe are essential for a successful prairie garden.

1. Perennial and annual weed control

I have made this mistake too often. In a rush to plant, I don’t get problem weeds like bindweed and Bermudagrass under control before planting.  I am still fighting this issue to this day in some of these landscape settings. However, when I take the time to properly eradicate these weeds, the overall long-term success of the garden increases and the work to maintain it decreases. A little work at the beginning will save you many headaches down the road.

Bindweed

2. Plants should match your site.

This is the most important principle to follow in developing a successful landscape. Take a critical look at the area you want to landscape with native plants. Is it sunny?  It is shaded for part of the day? What type of soil do you have? Is there a microclimate? Is it exposed to wind? All these factors will guide you as you select plants for your site. This step requires some research and time as you familiarize yourself with the qualities and environmental needs of native plants.

Spiderwort (purple), coreopsis (yellow) and penstemon (white) in spring bloom

3. Succession of Bloom

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie. If you visit a prairie landscape like the Konza Prairie every two to three weeks throughout the year, you will observe plants beginning to bloom, in full bloom or going out of bloom.  That is how you need to design your native landscape. Include plants that bloom in every season of the year and then strategically add grasses for movement and texture in the winter months. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses.

4. Plan your garden for all seasons of the year

This lesson took the longest to learn, because it meant becoming familiar with the complete life cycle of each native plant. I needed to learn all about them – their bloom times, soil conditions they need to thrive, mature height and what they look like when not blooming, including seedheads and forms. Most of these characteristics had to be experienced over several years.  That information is vital to planning and developing a prairie garden.

5. Be Patient

A prairie garden does not magically appear overnight. I know this goes counter to our “instant everything” culture, but prairie plants don’t work that way. It takes time for those transplants or seedlings to develop root systems that will sustain them during the dry periods of the year. I remember visiting a prairie reconstruction in Wisconsin several years ago. It had been established from seed 20 years earlier and the prairie manager said it was just then really maturing into a true prairie. I have found that if you are patient, you will be rewarded by beautiful, strong and adapted native plants.

Graphic from Grow Native!

6. Start Small

Planting too much too soon – I have made this mistake many times. My eyes get bigger than I can manage. I like too many of these native plants and rather than working at a project in stages, I plant the whole area. I then spend the rest of the summer maintaining a planting that is too big for the time I can give it. It has a tendency to get out of hand in a hurry if I don’t keep up with it on at least a weekly basis. Plant an area that you can handle with your schedule.

7. Remember Why!

Most times we create something for our own enjoyment. A properly designed native garden can be very attractive to you aesthetically. What we often forget, but are quickly reminded of, is that native plants attract many different pollinators and other wildlife to our landscapes. If you plant them they will come.

Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. Pollinators seek out the wildflowers they need and utilize them throughout the year. Monarch populations are declining. They need milkweed, and since we have milkweed in the Arboretum, they show up. Also, just like the monarchs, songbird populations are declining. They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.

Obviously I have not figured everything out. Learn from my mistakes and maybe a few of your own. Gardening is not an exact science. What works for you may not work for me. Your site may be totally different from mine. The key is to keep learning. Try plants you believe will work in your landscape.

Besides learning lessons the hard way remember to connect with your WHY! The “WHY we do something” gets lost in the tasks of creating something new. I need to be reminded “WHY” from time to time to reset my focus. We each have our own unique perspective and motivation, but reconnecting with your “WHY” will move you ever closer to your native plant gardening goals.

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

Native Grasses FAQ

After my Native Plant School class last week, there were several good questions about native grasses that are worth addressing again.

Question 1: How do you clean up native grasses in the late winter (Feb-March)?

Grasses tend to remain attractive well into winter, providing texture, movement and continuity to the garden. However, they eventually need to be cut back in preparation for spring. We use a gas powered hedge trimmer because we have so many grasses to cut back. The stems are tough but the trimmer easily cuts through them especially compared to hand pruners or loppers.

Starting at the top of the grass, we just cut through the grasses back and forth at 2-3 inch intervals until the grass is cut down to 2-4 inches off the ground. We then scatter the cuttings around the base of the grass so that it is not too thick. The trimmer makes quick work of a five foot grass. If the pile at the base of the grass is too thick, we scatter the clippings someplace else in the garden. This way you are keeping all those overwintering insects in your yard.

In our recent Winter Lecture Series, guest speaker Heather Holm suggested an even more insect-centric approach to spring garden clean up. Gain access to her presentation HERE.

Northwind Switchgrass cut back and ready for spring

FUN FACTS!

  • There are more than 400 different native bee species in Kansas.
  • An estimated 30% of native pollinators nest in pithy stems of plants such as native grasses and wildflowers.
  • Dead branches or logs decaying provide excellent habitat. Create a small bush pile for birds and pollinators. Overwintering butterflies and ground nesting bees can be found in brush piles and the decomposing wood gives fireflies a place to lay their eggs.
  • Nearly 70% of native pollinators are ground-nesting, burying into the soil to reproduce. Open soil without landscape fabric or two to three inches of mulch allow these burrowing insects to easily access the soil.

Question 2: When is the best time to plant buffalograss?

Buffalograss is a native warm-season sod forming grass. It needs at least six hours of direct sunlight for it to germinate and grow healthy. It spreads by stolens and has fine blue-green leaves. New seeded forms of buffalograss have been developed over the years such as Cody, Bison, Bowie, Plains, Topgun and Sundancer. Most of these seed forms are available online and some are available at regional Farmers Cooperatives. Seeding can be done anytime from May through August 15 as long as the soil temperatures at a two inch depth are above 60 degrees. Check out Buffalograss: Five Keys to a Successful Planting on our website.

Buffalograss Interior of Arboretum

Question 3: Can you list out the heights and mature sizes of the grasses?

One of the key components of a successful native landscape design is situating grasses. Repeating taller grasses at regular intervals looks formal while these same taller grasses at irregular intervals is relaxing and less formal. Grasses unify and blend your landscape together and they are wonderful companion plants with other wildflowers and shrubs.

  • Short= 4-24 inches, Examples: prairie dropseed, blue grama, pink muhly, sideoats grama, june grass, “Blonde Ambition” blue grama, purple love grass, and Nassella tenuissima,
  • Medium= 2-4 feet, Examples: Little bluestem, Little bluestem cultivars, Sideoats grama, Blonde Ambition blue grama, Northern sea oats, Pink Muhly grasses, “Cheyenne Sky” switchgrass, “Shenandoah” switchgrass, and sand love grass (Eragrostis trichoides).
  • Tall= 4-7 feet, Examples: Big bluestem and cultivars, Indian grass and cultivars, Eastern gamma grass, prairie cordgrass, switchgrass and switchgrass cultivars.
Indiangrass against the Kansas sky. Photo by Brad Guhr.