Garden Retreat

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

Mi Garden et Su Garden

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

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

What a WAMmy of a Retreat!

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

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

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

Wetland Wildflowers

With the recent rainfall, I have been reminded that native plants are a wonderful and underused means to create a natural setting around a water feature or low area in your landscape. Most prairie wildflowers and grasses don’t do well in soggy soil and excessive moisture results in rot and other deadly diseases. However, there are a handful of plants that grow in wet areas within a prairie or along pond margins. These wetland wildflowers appreciate wet feet and some even thrive in standing water. Rather than radically altering the drainage of a soggy, poorly drained site within your garden, try some of these plants that grow well in such conditions. 

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

As the name implies, swamp milkweed prefers wet locations in full sun to partial shade. Here at the Arboretum we have it growing next to the pond and stream. In the wild, it is found in prairie seeps and potholes, at the edges of marshes, and in wet ditches. Swamp milkweed grows 3 to 4 feet tall and blooms from July, August and early September. The vanilla-scented flowers are typically pale pink to rose-purple and are a favorite for migrating monarchs. 

Swamp Milkweed in bloom

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum)

This tall, native perennial is found in moist meadows and marshes. The attractive leaves and purple spotted stems fill out this 6 foot tall wildflower. The rosy-pink bloorms in mid to late summer are a favorite of many pollinators. Joe Pye weed performs best in moist to wet soils in full sun. Smaller forms like ‘Baby Joe’ and ‘Little Joe’ are nice alternatives if you don’t have much space. 

Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’

Blazing Star- (Liatris sp.)

You don’t typically think of blazing star as a wetland wildflower, since most species prefer dry sites. However, there are several species of Liatris that can handle wetter conditions. Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) and dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) are typically found in moist prairies and meadows. These blazing stars grow 3 to 4 feet tall with narrow, lance-like leaves and blooms in mid- to late summer.  The pinkish purple flowers grow on 12- to 18-inch-long, upright spikes.  Flowering begins at the top of the spike and moves down the stem.   

Liatris pycnostachya and gray headed coneflower on the pond edge

Other wetland wildflowers

  • Acorus calamus – Sweet Flag
  • Actinomeris alternifolia – Wingstem
  • Aster novae-angliae – New England Aster
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum – Common Boneset
  • Filipendula species – Meadow Sweet
  • Galium odoratum – Sweet Woodruff
  • Helenium autumnale-Helen’s Flower
  • Helianthus angustifolius – Swamp Sunflower
  • Hibiscus species – Rose Mallow
  • Iris virginica – Southern Blue Flag
  • Lobelia cardinalis – Cardinal Flower
  • Lobelia siphilitica – Blue Cardinal Flower
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia Bluebell
  • Monarda species – Bee Balm
  • Physostegia virginiana – Obedient Plant
  • Pycnanthemum tenuifolium – Narrow Leaved Mountain Mint
  • Ratibida pinnata – Gray headed Coneflower
  • Senna hebecarpa – Wild Senna
  • Thalictrum dasycarpum – Purple Meadow Rue
  • Tradescantia sp. – Spiderwort
  • Verbena hastata – Blue Vervain
  • Veronicastrum virginicum – Culvers Root
  • Vernonia noveboracensis – Ironweed

Native grasses are quite adaptable, but several grasses and sedges can grow well in moist to wet soils. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), switch grass (Panicum virgatum), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) can be found in roadside ditches, prairie bogs, and along pond edges. There are many native sedges such as gray’s sedge (Carex grayi) that perform well in moist soils in partial to full sun as well. 

If there’s a drainage problem in your yard, you may be inclined to install a dry creek bed or a French drain. But don’t be too quick to go to all that work. An alternative route is to simply use plants that prefer to live in wet areas. Match plants that are native and naturalize in wet conditions. Wetland wildflowers have adaptations to grow in wet soil, so they are effective landscaping solutions for areas with drainage issues.

Wildflowers for Low Maintenance Areas

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

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

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

Black-eyed Susan

Clasping coneflower (Dracopis amplexicauslis)

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

Showy evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

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

Showy Evening Primrose Photo by Emily Weaver

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

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

Columnar coneflower photo by Emily Weaver

Other wildflowers

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

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

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!

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!

High Demand for Native Plants

Micro chips, new cars, used cars, houses, lumber, bikes, bike parts, energy,. . . and native plants. People really want these things right now. As vaccinations liberate Americans from their COVID hermitage, we get to see many distinct examples of high demand leading to short supply.

We learned during our recent Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale – when we moved ~16,000 plants over a four-day period – that there is a really high demand for native plants right now. Folks have spent more time in their home landscapes over the last year and are looking to practice ecological landscaping in levels we’ve never quite witnessed. It is fun for our staff to see this high demand for plants that please both wildlife and the people who plant them. FloraKansas is at the top of our list of events that help Dyck Arboretum of the Plains fully engage our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

A wildflower bouquet from my spring garden including columbine (pink), salvia (purple), rose verbena (light purple), golden ragwort (yellow), ‘Major Wheeler’ honeysuckle (red), and snowdrop windflower anemone (white) helps me appreciate native plants indoors too.

But our staff also experienced the stressful side of high demand and inadequate supply, as many wholesale plant orders either didn’t arrive as planned or came incomplete with numerous backorders occurring. Like never before, we had to scramble and pivot to convince members to consider options B, C, and D of a particular grass, wildflower, sedge, shrub or tree to replace option A that wasn’t in stock.

Calm before the storm – early morning light in the greenhouse before the first day of the plant sale.

We typically order most of our native and adaptable plants for our FloraKansas sale from wholesale providers that can produce the number of plants we need much more efficiently and cost effectively. However, during times like these when wholesalers are unable to meet demand, our thoughts turn to a couple of different methods of production on our own.

Digging and Transplanting

When a plant thrives in a given location and establishes a substantial root system, it will flower, set seed, and distribute new seedlings to its nearby surroundings. It will also often spread vegetatively via roots and develop a larger diameter crown. Both of these forms of reproduction offer us and you the opportunity to produce new plants.

Here at the Arboretum, weeding beds of grasses and wildflowers offers many opportunities to dig and transplant seedlings to new locations. Our grounds manager and horticulturalist, Katie Schmidt, is always plucking native wildflowers and grasses that are spreading where she doesn’t want them and either transplanting them to new locations or bolstering our plant sale.

An aspen grove has established nicely north of our Prairie Pavilion. But as clonal species do, it is now sending up unwanted root sprouts in adjacent wildflower beds as far as 20-30 feet away from the original trees. These are perfect candidates for digging and transplanting.
Yellow coneflowers that have spread in a bed will be potted and find a new home via our fall plant sale.

I like to divide older, established plants and move divisions around my yard. This establishment of new beds in my never-ending quest to reduce square footage of lawn takes physical effort, a good soil knife, regular watering in the first year, mulching and lots of weeding. But I enjoy the process, end result, and seeing the wildlife it attracts.

Plants that I transplanted from elsewhere in my yard have established nicely in less than two years: (counterclockwise around tree) coral bells (red leaf), narrow leaf coneflower, catmint, purple poppy mallow, mountain mint, and beardtongue penstemon.

Seed Collection and Germination

Our Dyck Arboretum Prairie Window Project reconstructed prairie was planted in stages from 2005 to 2010 with local ecotype seeds. The 120+ species planted include many great wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that are not always commonly available through the landscaping trade or even through our plant sales. This reality, and subsequently an opportunity, became apparent to me as I observed and photographed the following flowering species over the last couple of weeks following our sale.

I will be watching over the next few weeks for these species to be setting seed and monitoring the right time to collect these seeds. With proper storage (i.e., cool, dry place in paper bags), stratification (i.e., cold/wet treatment for 60-90 days for most species), and hopefully good germination in the greenhouse next spring, I hope that we will be able to offer these species to you next spring.

You too can be on the lookout for seed from unique and interesting species to add to your landscape, and you don’t need to follow the labor intensive approach just outlined. Simply scatter your collected seeds into your intended planting area in the fall and let nature (i.e., gravity, freeze/thaw action, precipitation, and typical winter conditions) do the work for you. While the outcome of this approach is less certain than options described above, it is certainly easier and can add an element of surprise to your gardening adventures.

Soil Is Alive

“ . . . most of us rarely give any thought to the fact that the ground beneath our feet is a complicated, ever-moving tangle of rocks and animals and plants and water and chemical compounds that rivals the ocean as a wild, dark mysterious, and inscrutable realm.”

Farming with Soil Life. https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/19-051.pdf

Many of us garden for wildlife, choosing native plants that provide vital shelter, food and habitat for a diversity of species. However, the soils in which our native plants grow also play an important role in the success of our native gardens. Soil is alive! Let’s dig deeper into this “wild, dark, mysterious, and inscrutable realm that is soil.”

Soils Function

  • Soils are a medium for plant growth, anchoring roots, and also soaking up the nutrients, water and air that plants need to grow. 
  • Soils store and filter water. The pores between soil particles, created by roots and animal tunnels, capture and hold precipitation, where it is available to plant roots. The water-holding capacity of soils is also important in reducing erosion and flooding. Soils also filter water, degrading and removing contaminants as it moves downward through soil layers to become groundwater.
  • Soils recycle and store organic material. Bacteria, fungi, insects and a host of other organisms decompose once-living plants and animals, producing organic material that can be used by living plants and animals for growth, maintenance and reproduction. Organic materials also store carbon, sometimes for centuries! This function helps mitigate climate change. 
  • Soils are habitat for wildlife. From large to small, many animals burrow, nest or hibernate in soil. Animal movements in soils contribute to soil health by continually aerating, churning and mixing. 
  • Soils are an engineering medium. Humans use large amounts of soil for construction and engineering projects. Little construction could be done without soils.

Soil Composition

Soils are composed of both living and non-living elements. Non-living minerals and rocks – soil particles of silt, sand and clay – intermingle with living elements to produce a unique mix of physical, chemical and biological properties that vary from region to region. 

Soil Life

A teaspoon of healthy soil holds more living organisms than there are people on earth – 700 billion plus. Moreover, there are more different kinds of living organisms in the soil under our feet than there are living on top of the ground, from the microscopic to large insects. Together these soil organisms form a complex food web that makes life more livable for all of us.

Let’s take a look at some of these “little things that run the world.”

Bacteria. Microscopic soil bacteria are by far the most ubiquitous organisms living in soil. Bacteria play important roles both in decomposition, and in fixing nitrogen.

Free-living soil bacteria

Rhizobial bacteria live in nodules on the roots of legumes (pea and bean family), converting atmospheric nitrogen into compounds that the plants use. In return, rhizobium receive sugars from the legume – a symbiotic relationship.

Rhizobial nodules on the roots of a legume.

Protozoans. Living in the water film surrounding soil particles are single celled protozoans. As predators, decomposers and consumers of bacteria, protozoans are important in nutrient cycling.

Single celled protozoan between soil particles

Fungi. Soil fungi are diverse in shape, size, form and function. Some are single-celled, others are multi-cellular. Most are beneficial, contributing to decomposition and nutrient recycling.

Mycorrhizae on roots. Note the web-like extensions that absorb water and nutrients from the soil.

One noteworthy group, the mycorrhizal fungi, live symbiotically with roots, enhancing nutrient and water uptake in the roots. In return, mycorrhizae receive sugars.  More than 80% of the plants on earth have relationships with mycorrhizae.

Tardigrades. Also known as water bears, tardigrades are as big as the period at the end of this sentence. Tardigrades are predators and omnivores.

Tardigrades generally live in leaf litter and the top 1-inch of soil.

Nematodes. Nematodes can be predators, fungivores, bacterivores, omnivores, or plant parasites. They also disperse bacteria, carrying and excreting bacteria as they move through the soil. Nematodes tend to be found in water films within soil.

Beneficial nematodes

Mites. Mites are important predators and decomposers. They break leaf litter down, making it available to smaller organisms. Mites are abundant and diverse and can be found from the soil surface to deeper soil layers. Depending on the species, mites feed on everything from bacteria, fungi, algae, and dead plants and animals, to insect eggs, nematodes, other mites and springtails. 

Soil mite diversity

Dwarf millipedes. Dwarf millipedes are decomposers, fungivores, herbivores and scavengers. Moving through pore spaces in the soil, they are typically found around roots. 

Dwarf millipede

Springtails. Springtails come in all shapes and sizes. They feed on dead plant and animal materials, often in the top layers of soil and in leaf litter. They are so named because of their tail-like structure that enables them to jump a short distance. As decomposers, they contribute to nutrient availability in soils.

Earthworms. Earthworms are perhaps the best known of soil creatures, and their contributions are well-known: mixing and aerating soils, and distributing nutrients and minerals in their waste. 

Worldwide there are more than 7,000 species of earthworms.

Centipedes. Centipedes are predators, and they are fast runners, sometimes chasing their prey. They eat earthworms, and other insects, large and small, injecting venom to paralyze and kill their prey.

Centipedes can be found in shallow to deep soil layers.

Spiders. As predators, spiders are important in controlling other insect populations. Underground dwelling spiders also contribute to soil mixing and aeration.

Wolf spiders live underground. Females can carry up to 100 young on their backs.

Beetles. The tiger beetle is just one of a host of insects that spends the larval stage of its life in soil. Both larva and adult are predators. Larval tiger beetles are predators, feeding on other insects on the soil surface. Tiger beetle larval burrows can be 18” deep.

Tiger beetles are fast-moving hunters, chasing prey on the ground surface

These are just a few of the millions of organisms that live in the soil under our feet. All are important in maintaining healthy, productive soils. 

Here are four tips to support underground wildlife, large and small, in the soils in your garden:

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible. Tilling and digging disturbs and damages the soil food web.
  2. Grow a diversity of plants. Different species of plants add and remove different compounds from the soil, creating more diverse conditions for the organisms living in the soil
  3. Keep living roots growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible. Roots feed living organisms in the soil.  
  4. Keep the soil covered with dead plant material. Mulch not only protects the soil from drying out fast, but it also feeds the decomposers, which are then eaten by other living things.  If you want healthy soil, you should not see it very often!

Soil wildlife makes your prairie garden grow. Protect it! 

All photos courtesy of USDA Soil Resources Conservation Service.  https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/photogallery/soils/health/biology/gallery/?cid=1788&position=Promo

Reference:

Hopwood, Frische, May and Lee-Mader. 2021. Farming With Soil Life: A Handbook for Supporting Soil Invertebrates and Soil Health on Farms. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/19-051.pdf

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!