Milkweed Pest: Oleander Aphids

Over the past few decades, there is an increased awareness of the importance of milkweeds for the life cycle of Monarchs.  More and more people are planting these native wildflowers in their gardens.  We closely monitor our milkweeds for monarch caterpillars and anxiously watch for the migrations in spring and fall.  We can even track the populations on Monarch Watch.  Milkweeds are vital to reversing the decline of this beautiful butterfly. 

However, large populations of small yellow insects that typically cover the leaves and stems of the milkweed plants are threatening this important wildflower species.  It seems like there are more of these tiny bugs every year.  This year, we have seen large populations of them on our nursery stock and throughout the gardens.  These oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) or milkweed aphids have become problematic. 

Oleander Aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids are not a native species, but were introduced into the U.S. on oleander.  They suck the sap out of stems and leaves, can cause flowers and pods to abort, and can even kill plants. They concentrate milkweed toxins in their tissue more effectively than native milkweed aphids, which makes them toxic to beneficial insects.  Like other species of aphids, their populations can explode in a short amount of time. When large populations are present, the plants will appear shiny due to the excretion of honeydew, which can also promote the growth of sooty mold.    

 As a milkweed gardener, what are your options?

Choose the right milkweed for your garden. 

Stressed plants will attract more pests.  Know your site and plant the right milkweed for your landscape. Swamp milkweed needs to be in a consistently moist area and butterfly milkweed naturally grows in areas with good drainage. Common Milkweed is very adaptable, but not for a formal garden. Plant common milkweed where they can spread and colonize a marginal area. There are many other species of milkweed that grow in sun to part shade and dry to wet. Continue to plant milkweed, but make sure it fits.  

Encourage beneficial insects

With the milkweed toxins in the aphids, beneficial insects tend to leave these pests alone.  This is a similar reason monarch caterpillars ingest the milkweed sap which makes them less prone to be eaten by predators. We have introduced parasitic wasp into the greenhouse to control these pests but that is not realistic outside that confined space such as your landscape. Lady beetles will typically eat aphids but they tend to shy away from these aphids.  

Don’t Fertilize

Let the milkweeds grow naturally in unamended soil.  Too much soil fertility will attract more aphids.  These aphids reproduce more quickly on plants that have high nitrogen concentrations.

Wait

Be patient as you wait for the natural processes to work.  Often, this is the hardest thing to do, because the plants are being adversely affected by thousands of these little pests.

Oleander Aphids on Whorled Milkweed

When these cultural practices have been unsuccessful, it’s time to take a more aggressive approach.  These are obviously not my first choices because they can also harm beneficial insects and even monarch caterpillars.  You must use as a last resort to save the plant.  Newly established milkweed plants may need some help the first few years until they get fully rooted.  Mature plants typically can fend off most of these pests.        

Squish

We have resorted to squishing the bugs on nursery stock.  These smaller plants are easier to manage by simply squeezing the affected parts of the milkweed plant between thumb and forefinger and drag along the stem. Use a glove or paper towel as you squish because it will get messy.

Squirt

Another option is to squirt the plant with a strong blast of water especially after you have squished the bugs.  Use a spray bottle of water or a jet of water from a hose. Focus the water on just the infested areas so other beneficial insects are not disturbed. 

Spray

The least optimum choice is to spray with horticultural soap or oil. Concentrate the spray just on the aphid colonies.  Use a piece of cardboard placed below the colony of aphids to minimize drift to other parts of the plant.  Again, this is a last resort option but may be necessary to save newly established milkweeds.   

Milkweeds are beautiful and essential native wildflowers.  They are under assault by these non-native pests.  Hopefully, you can get your milkweed plants through this onslaught of oleander aphids because they are so important for monarchs and other pollinators. 

Pandemic Picks for the Prairie Landscape

Do you have an out-of-the-way plot of ground that needs to be vaccinated from the maladies of soil erosion or a lack of biological diversity? Is this planting area safely physically distanced from other more manicured areas of your landscape? Would you like 2020 to be remembered for something other than COVID-19? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have a selection of very easy-to-grow native plant species that will establish your prairie landscape area faster than a coronavirus infects a church choir.

Brad’s PPE (Prairie Pandemic Elections)

Blooms May-June

  • Illinois bundle-flower (Desmanthus illinoensis) – a nitrogen-fixing legume with seed heads that are as attractive as its flowers
  • river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – the only shade-oriented species of the bunch that originates from stream corridors of Eastern Kansas
  • beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – the flowers attract bumblebees and the vegetation can be used make mint tea
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) – this favorite host plant for the monarch butterfly also has very sweet aroma when flowering
  • gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – stunning splashes of yellow when this species blooms in mass

Blooms July-August

  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  • cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

The genus Silphium offers four very hearty species that have so much to offer. Learn more about these species from a previous blog post.

Blooms August-September

  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) – this is the taller and more robust cousin of our plant sale favorite ‘iron butterflies’ ironweed
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum) – few species will attract more pollinators than this Eupatorium
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) – so beautiful and so invasive
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) – not all thistles are bad as I discuss in an earlier blog post
  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – goldenrods are famous for their color and pollinator attraction in late summer and few are heartier than this species
  • Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) – learn more about this and other sunflower species that could be considered good pandemic picks in an earlier blog post

See an earlier post I wrote about these late summer blooming “undesirables” and all the loads of insects they attract to our Arboretum landscape.

Prairie Ecosystem vs Prairie Gardening

In a diverse and thriving prairie ecosystem where these native species typically reside, a dense matrix of competitive prairie grasses and grazing animals help keep them in check. You could say that the prairie plant community has a herd immunity against these aggressive, super-spreader species.

But when you plop these species into a nutrient-rich, urban prairie garden with mulch and plenty of moisture, they grow seemingly with reckless abandon. They don’t have the same competitive prairie environment or grazers regularly eating them back to keep them in check. They spread quickly with rapidly expanding root systems and prolific seed production. These pandemic picks are long-haulers that will quickly (within a five years) take over slower and lower growing species, and you won’t need contact tracing to know where they came from. Therefore, we’ve learned (the hard way from some of our thankfully forgiving members) that these pandemic picks with their tall, rank growth do not belong in a small, more manicured garden.

So, given this information, you may ask…why recommend these pandemic picks that would make one symptomatic of a foolish gardener? Or, to put it more bluntly, WHO in the world is this CDC (Center for Dumb Consultation) that is giving you this advice!? Dyck Arboretum, of course!

The species I’m recommending provide colorful, aesthetically-pleasing blooms, soil erosion control, interesting vegetation, host plant food for caterpillars, and loads of nectar for pollinators. These species are extremely drought tolerant and will survive fine without care from you. And as an added bonus, they provide hearty competition for and crowd out annual plants like giant ragweed, a pollen emitter that makes you want to don your N-95 mask this time of year!

The major disclaimer I will offer and the key to being happy with these pandemic picks in your landscape is choosing a remote place where they can all be quarantined together. The more physical distance you can give this cluster planting location, the less likely their seeds are to invade more manicured areas of your prairie landscape. The only care this planting needs is an annual mowing/cutting in winter or early spring. Add some flammable tall grasses to the mix like big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass, and you can burn it annually instead.

To learn more about these species, visit the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website. A handful of these species are available through our FloraKansas native plant sale. Zoom on over to Dyck Arboretum in the coming days of September 10 (for members) and September 11-13 (for general public). All of these species can be found on our grounds. Bring a paper bag, catch me at FloraKansas, and I’d be happy to show you where these species can be found and give you permission to collect seed.

Get in early on this pollinator-friendly planting trend now as it may soon go viral!

Getting ready for fall’s crescendo

As the growing season winds down, there is still plenty happening in the garden. I like to think of this time as fall’s crescendo, bringing the prairie’s annual symphony to a high point before falling into dormancy. The asters are beginning to show a few blooms while the goldenrods and sunflowers are adding a bit of sunshine to the landscape and roadsides. 

Fall is a great time to glory in the many textures and forms of our native grasses too.  Every phase of the garden is beautiful, but I have come to appreciate autumn the most. 

Asters and Little Bluestem in the fall

Life is a cycle

Each fall, the garden reminds us that we have come full circle. From winter’s dormancy to lush spring growth through summer’s blazing hot days to fall’s crescendo of color and texture, the prairie has put on another spectacular display.  Now as flowers fade, the grasses will show their true colors and everything slowly becomes lifeless and brown.  These forms, textures and seedheads standout in the landscape, extending the interest in the garden into the winter once again. 

Embrace brown

So much is happening in the garden right now.  Plants are storing energy in their roots for next year.  The browns and yellows of the foliage mean this process is complete.  Actively growing plants are only alive at or below the soil line.  This transformation can be stark, but I think it can be quite attractive. 

Just because the plant has gone dormant, doesn’t mean you need to remove it.  I challenge you to leave it up through the winter.  A prairie garden in the fall and winter with all its forms, textures and muted colors has a unique beauty that should be savored.  Let it be.  Don’t be too quick to send it to the compost pile.  

Autumn splendor of Little Bluestem

Shelter

Dormancy is important for the plants, but so many other things benefit from these plants this time of year.  Insects of all types overwinter in garden litter and tufts of grasses. Inside plant stems and at the base of grasses, insects and butterflies at different life stages are safely harbored for the winter. This is why it is so important to leave these dormant plants through the winter.  In the spring, we cut these plants down but leave the stems as mulch.  These dormant insects will wake from their winter slumber to pollinate for you next year.    

Food

Songbirds that overwinter will find flower heads such as coneflowers and sunflowers welcome food sources.  As the winter deepens, food becomes much more scarce.  These nutritious seeds are just what these birds need to get them through the coldest months.  Again, you can cut them back in February or March as you prepare for spring.  Remember to leave as much as you can on the ground as natural mulch.  Don’t carry all those beneficial insects away from the garden. 

Coneflower Seedheads

Fall’s Crescendo into Dormancy

Fall is a reminder that natural processes are at work.  Simply understanding how important this process of dormancy is to the prairie and to wildlife should guide how you manage it.  Take note how the stark contrast of the native grasses in texture, form, and hues of color against spent wildflowers gives the prairie landscape a unique beauty all its own.  Whether you are taking advantage of the cooler temperatures to work on an outdoor project or just enjoying the plants and wildlife, it’s a great time to be on the prairie. I love this time of the year. 

Switchgrass capturing snow

  

What to Plant in the Fall?

Fall is often overlooked as a key planting time for a beautiful garden. It’s such a good time to give your plants a little attention before winter sets in. Take advantage of fall’s cooler weather to dig in your yard and add a few plants. With warm days and cooler nights, I actually prefer to establish plants after the heat of summer has passed.  Here is a handy list of items I like to plant in the fall:

Shrubs

With warm soil temperatures persisting well into October, adding a few shrubs to your landscape is one of the easiest tasks to do.  Whether evergreen or deciduous, fall planted shrubs will continue to root as long as the soil is not frozen.  Select healthy, actively growing shrubs and always plant at or slightly above the natural soil line.  These newly planted shrubs will benefit from regular watering through the fall until the ground freezes.  Mulching appropriately stabilizes the soil temperatures to keep newly established plants rooting until winter dormancy. 

Leadplant is an native butterfly bush alternative.

Trees

Fall is a perfect time for tree planting. With an increase in rainfall and cooler temperatures, you will need less water to get the trees established.  Tree growth stops as the days get shorter, but warm soil and consistently cooler weather help spur on new root growth.  These new roots will develop as long as the soil is not frozen.  Trees planted in the fall are better equipped to deal with heat and drought in the following season because they have a more established root system.  Fall is also a great time to pick trees by the fall they produce.  Steps to planting a tree. 

Newly planted American Elm

Perennials

Time and again we have seen the benefits of planting perennials in the fall here at the Arboretum.  We usually have more time to focus on getting them established, too.  Fall planted perennials such as wildflowers and even native grasses are more robust and vigorous the following year.  It’s true, we don’t always feel like gardening this time of year, but the reward is worth the extra effort.  Here is a short list of perennials for fall plating: 

Wildflowers

  • Black-eyed susan
  • Coneflower
  • Blazing star
  • Asters
  • Penstemon
  • Primrose
  • False Indigo
  • Blue Star
  • Yarrow
  • Milkweed

Grasses

  • Little bluestem
  • Big bluestem
  • Indiangrass
  • Prairie dropseed
  • Switchgrass

As you can see, just about any perennial can be planted in the fall.  Establish them as you do in the spring with daily watering for the first few weeks depending on the weather.  Back off on watering as you see new growth. 

During the winter, check the new plants monthly and water them if the top inch or two is dry.  The biggest issue with fall establishment is that the plants get too dry during the winter.  Desiccation/neglect can be a real drawback of fall planting.  I have done this myself by thinking “Oh, the plants are dormant, so they don’t need to be watered.”  Don’t forget to check them through the winter!

Butterfly Milkweed

Bulbs and Cool Season Grass

Fall is a great time to plant a few spring blooming bulbs.  Order or pick up quality bulbs and plant them to the suggested depth.  I love daffodils, but species tulips, grape hyacinth and ornamental onions are nice additions to the garden. 

August and September are great times to establish cool season turf like fescue.  Make sure you buy seed that is free of weeds and other crop seed.     

While most gardeners are more accustomed to planting in spring, fall is also an ideal time to get a variety of plants established in your garden. Don’t let garden fatigue keep you from getting your landscape ready for next year.  Working in the garden in fall makes good sense both now and for next spring. Come to our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for more information and options for fall planting.

New Favorite Plants

Every plant sale I find myself enthusiastically telling customers, “This is my favorite plant!” And every plant sale, that plant changes. Lets be honest, every DAY that plant changes! I am always finding new favorite plants that excite and inspire in the landscape. I have been especially impressed with the new shrubs and perennials in my home landscape. With little care and sporadic watering, they have beat the odds and survived in my laissez-faire landscape. Here are a few of my new favorite plants.

Phemeranthus calycinus – Rock Pink or Fameflower

Fameflower is one of very few native succulent plants in Kansas. The thick, needle-like leaves and wiry stems make it a unique addition to any garden. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I found a few of these growing in the gravel under the benches in the Arboretum greenhouse and couldn’t bear to throw them away. I planted them in my native flower bed at home. A few tiny succulent leaves and a thin, hair-like root has turned into a huge, wonderful plant! Fameflower has never been a big seller, and it never caught my eye until now. These flowers bloom for weeks and weeks, the flowers opening and closing every day. Because they are succulent, they thrive in hot, full sun areas and require little water.

Amorpha fruticosa – false indigo bush

False indigo bush has huge, spikey blooms with showy yellow anthers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

This shrub has been a favorite for a long time, but I had never planted one for myself. In the same genus as lead plant, it shares those lovely, pollinator-attracting purple spikes in late spring to early summer. The leaves are delicate and pea-like, and they are a favorite food of the silver spotted skipper caterpillar. I planted two of these shrubs in a low spot near the edge of my yard where water often collects after rain. They are thriving! To keep them from getting leggy, I plan to trim them back every spring.

These plants have only been planted for a few months, and already they are attracting wildlife! I saw some strangely folded leaves and upon further investigation found a caterpillar inside. This leaf folding is how the caterpillars create shelter for themselves as they eat.
They are very hard to photograph, but you can see the tiny black head with orange marking and light green body of the silver spotted skipper butterfly.
After blooming, it displays unusual drooping seeds heads.

Lythrum alatum – winged loosestrife

Don’t let the delicate purple flowers fool you; this plant is tough! It has already survived floods and drought in our small rain garden, and it was only planted in May.

No, this is not that terrible invader purple loosestrife taking over US wetlands. This is it’s well behaved native cousin. Wing-loosestrife has been a wonderful addition to our tiny rain garden area, and has come back from the brink of death multiple times when I have forgotten to water. That’s my kind of plant! Hummingbirds, long tongued bees, and skippers are all known to nectar on winged loosestrife.

More favorite plants to come….

This fall I hope to make a few additions to my beds. I need to add some filler and texture to my side yard, so I will plant mountain mint. A long blooming, drought tolerant favorite of pollinators, the white flowers will help blend the colors of the bed into a cohesive look. Pair that with the airy-ness of sand love grass and the charisma of cat claw sensitive briar, and I think the garden will shape up nicely!

Cat claw sensitive briar has spherical pink blooms and leaves that close up when touched. It can be found growing native statewide.

All of these plants and many more soon-to-be favorites are available for purchase at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 10-13. Check our website for information about our member-only day, curbside pick up procedures, and Covid19 updates relevant to the sale.

Shrubs for Wet Areas

Last week while splashing around in a lake in Missouri, I noticed a shoreline of shrubs blooming and covered with pollinators. And wouldn’t you know, someone had just recently asked me to recommend some shrubs for wet areas in their landscape. (Yes, there ARE wet places in Kansas.) The first example was right in front of me. 

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

That shrub I saw blooming along the lake was buttonbush. This deciduous shrub is commonly found in moist to wet areas in full sun to partial shade.  It can persist even when submerged for a time. The lustrous leaves shine in the sunlight. In early to mid-summer, the unusual, fragrant flower balls of this native shrub are magnets to a host of pollinators. 

I have seen up to two dozen swallowtail butterflies on one plant when in bloom. It has a rounded-upright habit ultimately reaching 8-10 feet tall and wide. ‘Sugar Shack®’ is a shorter form that works well in the landscape. Fruit persists into winter, adding winter interest. 

The Sputnik-like blooms of Buttonbush

 

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

Elderberries are under appreciated as landscape plants.  Even in the wild they often blend into their surroundings.  They are only noticed when they burst into bloom in early summer with dense clusters of white flowers.  Pollinators seek out these flowers and cover the flat-topped bundles. 

Consider planting elderberry shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they thrive in excess water. Many people use the raw elderberries in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production. You must have at least one of each for best fruiting. 

Elderberry Blooms

Dogwoods (Cornus sp.)

Some of the shrub dogwoods (Silky Cornus ammomum, Cornus racemosa and Cornus drummundii) are good options for wetter areas in the landscape. Each is a little different in height, shape and habit. However, they all offer creamy-white blooms in late spring or early summer. While in bloom, these shrubs are teaming with pollinators. Birds and other wildlife will eat the fruit that is produced. ‘Red Rover’ is a compact selection of silky dogwood with attractive blooms, bluish fruit and nice fall color. 

Others

Black and Red Chokecherry, Aronia melanocarpa and Aronia arbutifolia

Possumhaw, Ilex decidua

Deciduous Holly Fruit in winter

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata cultivars and hybrids

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin

Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum

Blackhaw Viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium

Rusty Blackhaw, Viburnum rufidulum

As it turns out there are very few plants that will grow in soil that is constantly saturated. These shrubs are more tolerant of wet sites than others. Obviously, all plant roots require oxygen in order to function and grow properly.  These shrubs persist in soil that lacks oxygen or is periodically flooded without succumbing to diseases and site related problems. 

Try some of these native shrubs that are more adapted to these adverse conditions. You can find them at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival in September!

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.

Why Native Plants?

Achieving any goal is a challenge. I find those goals that matter to me the most especially difficult and daunting. Success in moving toward these big goals needs a compelling “WHY”.  Whether in self-care, your job, or with your family, why you want to make the effort helps keep you motivated and moving the ball forward. 

It is the same for gardening with native plants. Why are native plants so important? In difficult times, even I need to be reminded of “WHY” we promote the use of native plants here at the Arboretum and in the urban and suburban home landscape. 

What is YOUR why?

With so much angst about the state of the environment, gardening with native plants is something each of us can do. We all want to see positive change, but often the solutions seem too big and out of reach. I believe the first step is to start with your own yard and neighborhood. 

Choose natives for all the good they do. Choose native plants not because they are easy (they’re not), but because they belong in your yard. 

Choose natives because you can. It is your choice. And when you choose to use natives, and many others make the same choice, you will have a collective positive impact on the world around you. 

Choose native as an example for others to follow. Imagine what that would look like over time – all the relationships you will develop with other gardeners and the conversations you will be able to have. 

Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Coneflowers

Here are a few other reasons native plants should become the “new normal” in gardening:

Low Maintenance

There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Native plants still need some care, but compared to a traditional landscape with a lawn, tidy shrubs and a few trees surrounded by perennial beds, native plants are extremely low in maintenance. Native plants are adapted to our climate and can grow in the toughest environments. Once established, their deep roots take them through prolonged periods of drought. 

Saves money

There are obvious savings associated with a native landscape compared to maintaining a traditional landscape. A native landscape uses less water, little or no fertilizer and no chemicals or pesticides, which in turn saves you time. I am frugal and a native landscape is a low cost alternative to a traditional lawn-dominated landscape.  Conservation and stewardship are trends that help you and the environment.

Blue false indigo

Saves water

We have seen an increased interest in native plants because of the water they save once established. Many homeowners are decreasing their lawns as a way of saving water and money.  Most roots on a fescue or bluegrass lawn are only three to four inches deep compared to prairie wildflowers and grasses that develop extensive root systems several feet deep. Big bluestem grass, for example, establishes roots up to ten feet deep. With a shallow root system, a typical lawn requires ten gallons of water per square foot through the summer to keep it looking green. If you minimize your lawn, you will begin to diminish your dependence on water. 

Kansas Gayfeather and Grayheaded Coneflower blooming along the Arboretum pond

Beautiful plants

If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place. Here are a few design ideas to get you thinking about your own native garden.

Garden Design Waterwise Native Design

Attract pollinators and wildlife

Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have wildflowers, you will attract butterflies. There have been over 20 butterfly species identified and documented at the Arboretum during the butterfly counts. They seek out our wildflowers 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.

Often 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. Certainly there are more reasons “WHY” to use native plants – we each have our own unique perspective and motivation. I hope reading this has helped you reconnect with your why, so you can move ever closer to your native plant gardening goals.

Pollinator Week: Seen Through a Child’s Eyes

Children are naturally inquisitive.  We see it all the time.  Children marvel at the world around them.  They ask questions and are passionate about so many different things. 

At some point along the way as we grow up, that desire to learn and observe gets muted. Often, I find myself walking past the natural world to the next task, not taking the time to enjoy the beauty around me.  However, watching children around butterflies and other pollinators brings back the child in me. They marvel and are amazed by the smallest things, especially pollinators.

Pollinator Week: Pollinators, Plants, People, Planet

As we celebrate National Pollinator Week, I want to encourage you to look at these pollinators through a child’s eyes.  Slow down and watch the mesmerizing and beautiful work of pollinators.  If you have children or grandchildren, watch their eyes as they discover new things.  Their eyes are wide open and and their minds are ready to learn. 

Students conducting an Insect Sweep

Children are also our future conservationists, land managers and biologists. Adventures into the wild can be transformational for these youngsters.  We all know these connections to nature will plant a seed for the future. We need people who are passionate about the natural world and its management. And the younger we can develop those interests, the better.

So as you think about your garden and how you can save pollinators, think about your own transformative experiences. What was awe inspiring, what made you smile, and what had you never seen before? Simply having plants that attract pollinators will have an impact on pollinators in the present, but having people (you and your children or grandchildren) in your garden to love and appreciate them will save the pollinators into the future. 

After the First Year: Words of Encouragement

Thinking about starting a new garden using native plants is one thing, but putting in the time to get it established is another thing altogether.  I was reminded today of the rewards you receive after working hard that first year to get your garden properly established.  A design I had put together for a local couple last spring is now exploding in blooms and growth this year.  They shared with me how amazed they are at the transformation those small plants have made in just one full year.  

Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Purple Coneflowers

The second year

This couple had put in the necessary time and effort last year by watering and weeding their small garden. There will still be a need for some maintenance this season, but it will be greatly reduced because of their efforts last year. 

Establishment is such an important step in the development of a new garden. You will still need to water during prolonged droughts and weed out invasive species. You will need to be vigilant until these natives are fully rooted and completely filling the space, crowding out weeds.  Then you can let them fend for themselves, especially if you have done proper planning and chosen the right plants for the space. 

Yellow Coneflower, Prairie Dropseed and Giant Black-eyed Susan

Beyond the second year    

Keep in mind, your first garden doesn’t need to be perfect.  More often than not, it won’t be perfect. However, remember that you are creating a habitat that blooms, attracts wildlife and pollinators and brings you enjoyment. It takes time to get the results we want. 

Often we get discouraged by the amount of time and effort needed to keep our garden going that first year. Prolonged dry spells, wind, heat and weeds can easily take the fun out of it. Think long term and remember why you are doing this. I certainly have experienced that discouragement and burn out, but have been rewarded with beauty and wildlife as these natives take off the next few years.  

Remain patient and vigilant when establishing a native plant landscape, especially those first few years.  Each season, plants will shift in response to the weather and soil.  Follow the plants’ lead, tidy up after them as you need, and fill gaps with new plants. It generally takes 2-5 years before the full benefits of your landscaping efforts pay off and wildlife find and use the native plants. An old adage says, “The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps.”  

Bordered patches are commonly found throughout the southwest US and Northern Mexico, but can be found in Kansas through late fall.