Fireflies of Summer

The longest days of late June in Southcentral Kansas for me feel synonymous with sweltering hot swimming weather, carefree kids riding bikes, backyard BBQs, blooming milkweeds, butterflies, and the first signs of the fireflies of summer.

Saturday evening, June 12, 2021, I saw the first flash of a firefly in my backyard. I found many adult fireflies on the underside of milkweed leaves while looking for monarch caterpillars in my prairie garden. Over the last week, fireflies have begun putting on a dazzling light show in the early evening hours.

Firefly Diversity, Life Cycle, and Habit

Fireflies, sometimes referred to as lightning bugs, are neither flies nor bugs. They are beetles (order Coleoptera) in the family Lampyridae. Nearly 170 firefly species of Lampyrids have been documented throughout the United States and Canada.

Like all beetles, fireflies go through complete metamorphosis in four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The complete life cycle can range from two months to three years or more, the majority of the life cycle spent in the larval stage. The larva is a predator that eats soft-bodied invertebrates including earthworms, slugs, and snails. It first injects paralyzing neurotoxins to immobilize its prey. Then it secretes digestive enzymes to liquify it for easy consumption.

Fireflies have specialized light organs under their abdomens that produce the compound luciferin. Luciferin combined with oxygen undergoes a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence that produces light with almost no heat. Even the eggs and larvae of some species glow, hence the name “glow worm”. Adult males and females turn that light on and off to communicate in their mating ritual. Each species of firefly has its own distinct lighting pattern.

Research shows that this illumination system also deters predators. Just like a monarch butterfly has a bright coloration system to communicate that it is poisonous, fireflies send the message that their bodies are toxic by flashing. I have big brown bats living in my yard. I thought they would easily munch on fireflies since beetles are a favorite part of their diet, but this article helped me to learn otherwise.

Larry Buschman – Local Firefly Expert

I probably would not have become inspired to learn more about fireflies if it hadn’t been for meeting Larry Buschman. Larry is a total firefly nerd and a knowledgeable one at that. He travels throughout the Central United States every summer to look for and study different species of Lampyrids. Larry was kind enough to let me tag along last summer and observe him in action. When I met him for the first time in a parking lot along the Walnut River near El Dorado, he wasn’t hard to spot. With his red light head lamp, insect net, and his homemade contraption consisting of a “flashing system” and camera on a fishing pole to lure in and photograph various species, Larry looked like a character out of Ghostbusters. I knew right away I had met a new friend.

“Who you gonna call” if you want to identify fireflies? Larry Buschman.
Larry trying not to be annoyed by my flash camera messing up his night vision while he identifies a firefly specimen.

We set out for the deepest and darkest part of the riparian woods. As it got dark and Larry got to work luring in fireflies, we caught two different species of fireflies. We found Photinus pyralis “The Big Dipper” abundantly. This is the species that you and I probably most commonly see in our yards in Kansas. The males display five 1-2 second flashes regularly every 4-5 seconds, which elicits a similar one-time flash by the female.

We also found a less common species in the genus Photuris. This group is easily identified by its humped back and longer legs. Female adults of Photuris are often predators of other fireflies. While the long, slow flash narrows down the identification of this firefly to one of a couple of different species of Photuris (either P. caeruluscens or P. lucicrescens), Larry was not sure on the identification. So, for now it gets the more generic designation of Photuris spp. See more details about the firefly species of Kansas in Larry’s Field Guide to Western North American Fireflies.

Larry allowed me to take home and photograph the next day the two species we found.

Firefly Threats and Conservation

World Firefly Day is coming July 3-4, 2021 and marks a good time to think about their conservation. Firefly species around the world are threatened. A recent study identified that the three most prominent threats to fireflies are 1) habitat loss, 2) artificial light, and 3) pesticide use. Artificial light at night and pesticide use are two threats that we can curtail fairly easily and with minimal effort. Check out light pollution solutions and firefly-friendly lighting practices to help you reduce light pollution in your landscape. And consider the sensible approach of Green Scaping to reduce and even eliminate pesticide use in your landscape.

Addressing the largest threat to fireflies of habitat loss is one we can also take on in our landscaping. It is a drumbeat that we deliver regularly through our education channels at Dyck Arboretum. Building habitat for insects in general will benefit any subgroup of insects including fireflies. Plain and simple, you can do this by increasing the diversity of native plants in your landscape.

For further firefly conservation recommendations, check out the Xerces Society’s comprehensive publication Conserving the Jewels of the Night.

I’ll leave you with a favorite children’s book to share. Children will be an important part of firefly and insect conservation into the future. Consider how you might restore insect habitat, curb pesticide use, and reduce light population to help protect the fireflies of summer.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Many of our readers and webinar participants have asked for an update on my native front yard project, and I am happy to oblige! As with every native garden, it had it’s ‘ugly duckling’ phase wherein it was more mulch than garden. This is normal, and patience is key to getting past this phase. Given the right conditions and enough time to mature, native plants will thrive and thrill you.

An Earth-Friendly Garden

Would you believe that not all gardens are ‘green’? I wanted to avoid the use of too many exotics, which take a lot of extra irrigation and often do not provide food for wildlife and insects. My goal two years ago was to decrease the amount of lawn in my landscape and increase quality habitat in my area. Since then I have been pleased to host buckeye, skipper, and monarch caterpillars. I have seen many species of birds swooping over my garden to eat the flies and moths that hang around. With very low water needs, this landscape helps keep my household water consumption low.

Grey Santolina and purple skullcap anchor the front of my low-growing native landscape.
Limestone edging along the curb stops my mulch from sliding away in heavy rains. I also found a few interesting boulders to serve as substrate for hen and chicks. They make a nice focal point, and add structure.

The Best Laid Plants

While we talk a lot about careful planning and design as keys to success with a native garden, a dash of spontaneity keeps the garden fun and fresh. After initial planting, I continued to add plants and deviate from my written plan. That’s okay! Adding lambs ear from my grandmother’s house, and strawberry mint from my parent’s greenhouse made the garden more personal and functional. I continue to fill in gaps here and there as I see them appear. I have learned an important lesson from all of this: if a certain plant doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you failed or that you aren’t a good gardener. It might just mean it wasn’t in the right spot! Fill that space with something else you like and try again.

White flowers of thyme spill onto my sidewalk, contrasted with the silvers of lambs ear
and the chartreuse leaves of bluebeard and sumac.

Plant Selection

I mixed natives and non-natives to create a landscape that speaks to me; a space that is visually pleasing and ecologically friendly. Here are some of my favorites that are all growing well together:

  • lamb’s ear (Stachys bizantina)
  • fame flower (Talinum calycinum)
  • bluebeard (Caryopteris sp.)
  • skullcap (Scuttelaria resinosa ‘Smokey Hills’)
  • ornamental onion (Allium spp. )
  • Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuisimma)
  • prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  • grey lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
  • sand cherry (Prunus besseyii ‘Pawnee Buttes’)
  • perky sue (Hymenoxys scaposa)
  • horsetail milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • dwarf false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor)
  • thyme, oregano, and lavender

Stay tuned for future updates as this planting matures and continues to change. We have had such great enthusiasm around our Native Front Yard classes, making me hopeful that many of you are on the journey to more sustainable front yards as well!

How to Plant Your Garden Kit

There is no “one way” to landscape with native plants. One person’s dream landscape design might be someone else’s nightmare. Native gardens can be wild and wistful, or organized and formal. As long as the plant species being used are beneficial to wildlife and water conscious, you are on the right track! But it can be overwhelming when you have lots of great plants to choose from, but no guidance on how or where to install them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Planting can be daunting for beginners.

Our garden kits are so popular at FloraKansas because they take the guess work out of plant selection. Looking to fill in your shade garden? Our shade garden kit has a mix of spreaders and specimens to keep your interest through the season. Hoping to host caterpillars? The host plant medley we put together is a buffet for monarchs, fritillaries, swallowtails, and more. But after buying the kit, the real work begins!

Mountain mint is a plant included in our Monarch Special kit. A magnet for pollinators, it has a long bloom period and should be placed toward the middle or back of your garden area because of its height.
This is a very simple example schematic you could draft for yourself, depending on your circumstances. Use X’s to show each plant’s future placement and be sure to include existing structures like fences, driveways, sidewalks, or trees.

Keep It Simple

Our basic guidance is simple: cluster plants and design by height. This means keeping some color blocks together. For example, if the species are small like Viola pedata in our host plant kit, consider placing them in close proximity. When they bloom, it will make a much bigger impact and will draw more attention than just one plant here and there. Also keep an eye on height, planting so that one species doesn’t overshadow others. Place tall species at the back or middle of your viewing area, and shorter species toward the front or around the border. These two guidelines alone will help make your garden kit look planned and intentional, and can also help you stay organized when it comes time to weed. Use this simple design as an example, and make your own adjustments based on the kit you purchased.

Plants out in their natural prairie settings have no organization or man-made pattern, which is beautiful and awe inspiring at large scale. In our small home gardens however, careful design and clustering of color is a more manageable and visually pleasing approach. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Let the Plants Be Your Guide

If you purchased a garden kit with taller grasses like switch grass, those can serve as a backdrop for the color of flowers in front. If your kit included little bluestem, consider mixing those into a mid-height section as added structure for Liatris or milkweeds. As for how close to plant, we usually suggest no more than one plant per 2.5 to 3 square feet to accommodate the vigorous growth that is sure to come.

So grab some scratch paper and make a few sketches before you start digging holes. Or don’t! As I said before, there is no right way. You can plan down to the very last inch or throw them in willy-nilly. As long as you are having fun and planting native, you can’t go wrong.

Garden Small, Be Intentional

While taking time this weekend to weed the small native plant beds I have dotted around my landscape, I was reminded of the joy this tending process brings me. Not necessarily because I love weeding the seemingly endless emergence of hackberry seedlings and henbit sprouts every spring. But because it leads to my spending time with and being intentional in these gardens.

Weeding and Experiencing Wildlife

Of course, I want my gardens to look nice. But a big part of my intentionality in native gardening is knowing that it is a place to feed and host wildlife. And how will I notice and enjoy that wildlife if I don’t spend time looking for it? While weeding to help manage the human-desired aesthetics of this garden, I’m also being mindful of how this garden will look to insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

I know that the new flower emergence of rose verbena, celandine poppy, columbine, golden alexanders, golden ragwort, and woodland phlox all around me will attract wildlife. And sure enough, before long two pearl crescent butterflies make an appearance and land on nearby vegetation. Robins scratch through leaf litter nearby and grackles squawk overhead in the hackberry trees that gifted me their seedlings.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in flower

A tattered monarch (the first I’ve seen this spring) stops to sip nectar from a dandelion that I’m glad I hadn’t yet plucked. Unfortunately, none of the five species of milkweed in my yard (common, butterfly, whorled, showy, and green antelopehorn) have yet to emerge from dormancy. I’m guessing this female has carried eggs here all the way from Mexico and is looking to oviposit on milkweed stems. Soon, new shoots will be available to serve as monarch caterpillar food.

4/19/21 Map of first sightings of adult monarchs at Journey North website confirms that I should now start to see monarchs in South Central Kansas

Next, a fresh-looking eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly flaps through with powerful flight while a Carolina wren sings loudly nearby, part of a resident pair that I enjoy seeing regularly. Then, a bumblebee visited a nearby columbine flower, reminding me not to mulch too heavily or thoroughly, because they commonly nest underground.

Carolina Wrens eat mostly insects during the breeding season including caterpillars, beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, and many others drawn in by native plants – Photo by Bob Gress (Birds in Focus)

I’ve been at this native gardening process for decades now. But it seems that I see and learn something new almost every time I’m observant and present in the garden.

Start with Small, Manageable Gardens

If you are interested in a brief explanation how I got started with planning and planting some of my small gardens, HERE is an earlier blog post on the topic. The key is to start small and plant only what you will enjoy managing. If you don’t enjoy the regular process of weeding and tending your garden(s), then the process will not be sustainable. And for some native plant gardening best management practices, HERE is another blog post with advice.

Once you have your small garden site outlined and prepared for planting, consider one of the following wildlife-attracting garden kits of thoughtfully-selected assemblages of plants to fit your planting location. For more details about our FloraKS plant sale, click HERE.

Garden kits available at Spring FloraKS Plant Sale

To make sure you are successful in your gardening efforts and enjoy the process, be sure that you start small. Keep your effort manageable, and be intentional with your focus.

From Lawn To Lush

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

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

Cost over the ‘Lawn’ Haul

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

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

Lawn Alternatives Bring Balance

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

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

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



Native Grasses for Color, Movement and Structure

Many people have a love/hate relationship with ornamental grasses.  They know they need them in the landscape, but the loose, naturalistic look of grasses makes the garden seem untidy or a little too “wild”.  However, these attitudes are beginning to change, especially as people notice how landscape designers like Piet Oudolf incorporate native grasses throughout their designs.  Unkempt gardens are suddenly becoming vogue.    

Native grasses can be wonderful assets, bringing color, structure and varying textures to the garden. In the autumn and winter, grasses harmonize and soften the landscape providing movement with the gentlest breeze. More and more, I have been blending grasses into designs.  Grasses anchor a landscape and they are tough and resilient, too. Drifts of grasses all through the design along with mixing and matching grasses with wildflowers for structure and contrast looks more prairie-esque. 

There are new varieties of ornamental grasses to choose from every year.  Native grasses with their deep roots are suited to dry and sunny conditions, some even can thrive in wetter soils.  The following list of grasses we use here at the Arboretum in sunny borders and intermingled with wildflowers. They will be available at the spring FloraKansas: Native Plant Festival.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep.  It perseveres in tallgrass prairies. The vertical stems stand firmly, sway with only a slight breeze, and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange.  The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”.  Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil. ‘Blackhawks’, ‘Red October’ or ‘Rain Dance’ are nice varieties to use in the landscape. 

Big Bluestem/Turkey foot grass

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement. For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil. It is very drought tolerant. Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’- consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’- red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’- tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Northwind Switchgrass
Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

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Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies. I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings.  Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top. It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun. Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.

Indiangrass Seedhead Plumes

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’)      

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids. I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers. They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest. This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens.


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting Little Bluestem. for the most part it remains upright even through the winter. The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion. The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall. It truly has a carousel of color. It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed Susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape. Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’.

Blue Heaven’ Little Bluestem


Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country. To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green. In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn. With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories. It requires almost no maintenance once established. Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings. 

Prairie Dropseed with Giant Blackeyed Susan and Yellow Coneflowers

There’s really nothing like tall grasses waving in the breeze. The colors and textures change with the seasons. Don’t forget, they also provide a crucial habitat for birds and pollinators. They are in more and more of my designs because they add so much to the landscape. They don’t necessarily bloom in the same way that wildflowers do, but native ornamental grasses are both functional and visually appealing throughout the growing season and into the winter.


Landscaping to Attract Pollinators

This time of year, we are all evaluating our yards and landscapes as we prepare for spring.  If you are like me, you want your landscape to do so much more.  I want beautiful plants and season-long bloom.  I want to choose plants that require less water.  I want to provide a setting that attracts pollinators and wildlife of all forms.  For those focused on gardening to attract pollinators, here is a checklist to follow to welcome more wildlife into your landscape. 

Meet their basic needs

Generally, pollinators need three things: food (nectar and pollen), water and shelter.  Native plants are more attractive to different pollinators than exotic (non-native) plants.  These native pollinators have adapted to the life cycles of the native wildflowers and seek them out. 

Photo by Dave Osborne

Choose location wisely

Native plants generally require less water and thrive with minimal attention if properly sited and established.  Take the time to do your homework and choose plants that grow best in your soil and site conditions.  Look for a sunny area (6+ hours of direct sunlight) with areas of shelter on the peripheries from strong winds.  Design your landscape to include a water source.  A simple bird bath with a stone inside so pollinators can land will suffice. 

Design in clusters

A cluster of wildflowers of one species in bloom will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered throughout the landscape.  I like to plant in odd number groups such as three, five, or seven and include plants with purple, yellow, white, blue or violet. 

Provide diverse nectar sources

Wildflowers come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  This diversity is attractive to pollinators, too.  There are over four thousand species of bees in North America.  They are different in size, shape and they feed on different shaped flowers.  Having a diversity of plants means more pollinators can benefit. 

Succession of bloom

Wildflowers should be coming into and out of bloom throughout the growing season.  With several plant species flowering at once, and a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer and fall, you will sustain a range of pollinator species that fly at different times of the year. 

Plant milkweeds

Monarch Watch encourages the planting of milkweed species because monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds.  Milkweeds are so important to the life cycle of monarchs.  For our area, they recommend common, swamp, butterfly, spider, and Sullivant milkweeds.  We will have these milkweeds at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Native Plant Guide
Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

Identify your motivation

Is it important to provide habitat for bees and butterflies?  Is it important to conserve water?  Do you want more from your landscape than sporadic blooms and a haphazard design?  Are conservation and stewardship efforts important to you? 

Monarch populations have been dwindling.  Bees are threatened by the environment, disease, pesticides, herbicides, and beehive decline. According to Monarch Watch, the United States consume habitat for monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres a day, or 2.2 million acres per year.  We could help offset these losses by creating a landscape that welcomes birds, pollinators and other wildlife. 

If you have questions about landscaping with native plants, the Arboretum staff or volunteers can help you plan and design a landscape that will attract pollinators AND meets your expectations.  Check with us during the spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.  We offer species and varieties that pollinators love.  No amount of effort is too small to have a positive impact.

Succession of Bloom

Every gardener strives to have a continuous symphony of flowers in their gardens from spring through fall.  However, most gardens, including some of mine, seem patchy in appearance with sporadic blooms from time to time.  Although a continuous floral bloom is the goal, it is often not achieved unless a method called succession planting has been implemented. 

Succession of bloom is used to describe a diverse set of plants in a flower border that will always have interest. At any given time during the growing season there are plants coming into bloom and fading out of bloom.  This consistent bloom is important in a design, especially when using native plants.   

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr

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.

In my opinion, succession of bloom is one of the most important concepts in native plant design, right after site considerations and matching plants up to your site. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know, the easier it will be to seamlessly incorporate them into your design. Succession of bloom always provides something of interest in the garden, but it also provides season-long food for pollinators and other wildlife.   

Starting a List

Put together a list of plants that bloom at different seasons and will grow well in your area.  Include early season bloomers, midseason bloomers, and late season bloomers. Select a set of grasses that combine well with those wildflowers or provide backdrop for other perennials in front of them. 

Native Plant Guide
Working on a landscape design for one of our members.

Begin the Design

As you layout your plants in your design, think about heights and layer of plants. Typically, there are only three or four layers of plants.  Plants 4-18 inches tall in the front, middle layers of 18-24 inches and 24-48 and then taller perennials at 48+ inches tall.  These tiers guide how I combine the plants and layout the design. 

Initial planting next to the Prairie Pavilion.
Needs more grasses and wildflowers to fill the gaps and cover the mulch.

Layout

Always think about foliage and flowers. In matrix planting, made popular by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, every square inches is covered with plant material.  From the groundcover layer through the seasonal interest layer and on up through the structural layer, plants crowd out weeds and mimic the prairie community.  Keep in mind, blooms will fade, so foliage is important too. Seed heads can be supported and highlighted with grasses. A striking example is the dark seed heads of coneflowers later in the season with little bluestem.

Little Bluestem and Pale Coneflower seedheads

Plant in smaller groups

I prefer to plant is smaller groups such as five, seven or nine individual plants. Often, I will mix in some native grasses with the wildflowers. A larger swath of something out of bloom leaves a large void in the design, especially if it blooms in the spring. Plant closely enough so that foliage intermingles. If plants are spaced too far apart that there is more mulch or soil than plants, this void will draw your eye to the plant that is out of condition. By planting densely, you will hardly notice a plant out of bloom. 

The example below is simplistic, but the concept is the same. Succession planting combines specific plants for your garden that all look good together and bloom at different seasons. Try to avoid planting two different groups of plants next to each other that bloom at the same time. Those groups will leave a larger hole in the landscape.   

Example: nine coneflowers (pink) with five little bluestem ‘Twilight Zone’ (blue) planted next to seven Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ (yellow) which is planted next to three Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite (purple).

Your pattern can be continued or another set of seasonal plants can be incorporated into the design. This is also a tier in the overall design. They are all about the same heights. Plant something taller behind and shorter in front of these perennials.

Succession planting is very rewarding, and these simple techniques should guide the process. Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know the easier it will be to combine them according to bloom time. Succession planting is something that we all respond to, and brings the garden together visually.

Feeling Edgy

Every good piece of art deserves a good frame. The same goes for gardens! A well-designed, ecologically friendly landscape needs to have borders and edging keeping it in bounds, not only physically, but visually. Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan makes this point better than anyone in her text ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’.

Novel landscape designs that improve ecological quality may not be appreciated or maintained if recognizable landscape language that communicates human intention is not part of the landscape.

Nassauer, 2007

In layman’s terms, no matter how wonderfully water-wise and pollinator-friendly your garden is, if it looks messy, all the neighbors will hate it.

Proper edging can make a garden look tidier and more intentional. For prairie gardens that may be prone to look unruly, framing and clean lines are very important. Photo from Our Mother’s Garden entrance.

Beauty Standards

Messy, in this usage, is a unique idea borne from our Eurocentric culture. These traditional gardens and landscapes need to be constantly in order, with straight lines, perfect symmetry, short lawns and hedges trimmed into unnatural shapes. Those standards of beauty and acceptability come from the aristocracy of Western Europe; castles and manors with hedge mazes, rose gardens, and endless formal lawns.

In our prairie home, these ideas do more harm than good. Trying to maintain those landscapes of the old country is costly, labor intensive, and destructive. Kansas is hot, dry, and extreme in her fluctuations, unlike the place of my ancestors from Europe – cooler, moist, and temperate. And trying to make the natural world bend to my ideas of perfect order is an uphill battle and a waste of resources. But we can achieve an orderly, formal aesthetic by using proper edging in native landscapes.

Steel edging makes a strong statement. It lends a degree of formality and tidiness, even if the plants inside the edging are aggressive natives!
To install this stone edging, volunteers helped me dig a shallow trench against the sidewalk. We situated them an inch or so below the sidewalk, to make sure they sit tightly together and aren’t moved by heavy rains.

Choosing the Right Edging

Plastic. Metal. Wood. Stone. What is right for your space? This may depend on the design of your house, or the structure a garden is nearest to. It may also depend on the plants. For instance, species with vigorous underground spreaders that need control may require deep steel edging. My personal favorite is stone. If installed properly, stone never has to be replaced. Steel edging is becoming quite popular for its modern, industrial quality, but can be expensive for large spaces.

You can see here my own unfinished edging project. One side looks neat and tidy, and is holding its mulch and soil. The other side sans edging routinely erodes after rain events, sending my mulch and good garden soil into the gutter.
Steel edging is installed by hammering the sections into the soil, then joining them with clips at corners or joints. Mulch or gravel is then added around the edging according to the style you are trying to achieve.

If you are concerned about how your pollinator garden or native landscaping may be perceived by passersby, consider edging it. Edging adds an easily recognizable human element. Onlookers will see this space is purposeful, cared for, and important. And it just might convince someone to create a prairie garden of their own.

Silver and Gold

Even when the mercury drops and the snow flies, I am still thinking about gardening! Winter is the best time to sketch and plan; to dream up additions to your landscape so you are ready to install when spring arrives. Of course, at Christmas time my mind is always drawn to plants with silver and gold tones. Here is a little sample of some of my favorite holiday-colored landscape picks that can bring joy all year.

Short-Toothed Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum muticum

Mountain mint is easy to grow and tolerant of a wide variety of conditions. The leaves develop a silver, dusty look that adds great texture to the landscape. Photo by SB Johnny via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that I am a fan of mountain mints. There are several species that grow well in our area, and I have planted them all! I appreciate its low maintenance habit, long lasting blooms, its usefulness in floral arrangements, and have I mentioned it is a pollinator magnet? Insects go absolutely bonkers for the hundreds of tiny white blooms that cluster at the top of the plant. P. muticum is a special favorite because of its wider, silvery leaves. A strong silver tone brings a coolness to the garden in summer, and nods to the first frosts of fall.

Gray Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus

Just outside our Visitor Center is a lovely gray santolina specimen. The jewel of our xeric garden year round, it is especially eye-catching when it blooms.

A Mediterranean native, this drought-loving plant is a fabulous ground cover. Plant in full sun and well drained soil, and forget about it! It needs no fuss, and rewards you with yellow, button-like blooms in early summer. The silver foliage stays attractive all year in our area, and has a powerful, sage-y fragrance.

I could also include the well known garden plants like Russian sage and Lamb’s ear in this list — both grow very well in Kansas and add that touch of silver compliments contemporary and cottage gardens alike.

Goldenrod – Solidago sp.

Goldenrods are, of course, a great way to add gold tones into your landscape. Toward the end of the growing season, when the sun streams in at a lower angle, these beauties come into bloom. Their golden flowers are not only beautiful, but they are a vital source of nectar for migrating monarchs. My favorite cultivated variety is S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’, but there are many good ones to choose from.

Switchgrass – Panicum virgatum

Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg
Switchgrass and big bluestem play well together, especially in dormancy when their bronze and red tones add some holiday cheer to the garden.

While I enjoy the lustrous green of switchgrass in summer, I really prefer how it looks in November and December: golden bronze arching leaves and fluffy seed heads holding a bit of morning frost. The gold tones of dormant switchgrass make it useful for decorating your Christmas tree (try slipping in few seed heads and watch the lights make them twinkle!) or for making dried wreaths and bouquets. Birds also love to nibble on the grass seed through the winter, so be sure to leave some standing to provide that critical habitat.

So go ahead, dream of spring! Anytime of year is a good time to make plans for improving your garden and landscape. Each season offers a new perspective on what colors, shapes and textures work well together. If you are lucky, perhaps someone will get you a Dyck Arboretum Membership or an eGift card to use at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for Christmas to help make your native garden dreams a reality!