Buffalograss Seeding Experiment

Buffalograss gets its name from the “buffalo” that once roamed the Great Plains and foraged on this dense native turf.  As a component of the shortgrass prairie, early settlers used sod, held together by buffalograss, to construct their sod houses. Prairies were woven together with buffalograss and that’s why it makes such a nice lawn option.

Shortgrass prairie in Finney County, KS-Photo courtesy Craig Freeman
Buffalograss lawn at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, Hesston, Kan.

Background

Buffalograss is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. The male flowers held above the foliage are on small, comb-like spikes. Female flowers cluster on short stems down in the leaves closer to the ground.  From seed, you get both male and female flowers.  Like blue grama, I find the male flowers attractive enough that I leave them when I can.  They can be mowed off for a look that’s more formal, manicured turf grass.

Regular Seeding

Typically, we seed buffalograss in the summer when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees.  In South central Kansas, it is recommended that seeding of buffalograss be completed no later than August 15.  Later seeding is not very successful because the newly germinated seedlings do not get fully rooted before winter.  That has been a good rule of thumb, but requires so much water in the summer to get the seeds to germinate.

Dense seeding of buffalograss

Our Experiment

This winter we will be trying a new seeding technique with buffalograss.  We have our area prepared and ready for planting. This November, we will seed annual ryegrass with buffalograss seed.  The ryegrass is a cool season grass that prefers cooler weather.  Once germinated, it will hold the soil through the winter while the buffalograss seed is naturally planted with the freezing and thawing of the soil.  The round seeds will not germinate because soil temperatures are below 60 degrees.

Area to be seeded with annual ryegrass and buffalograss

Next Year

In the spring, the buffalograss seed will germinate as the soil temperatures warm. By May, the new seedlings will benefit from spring rains and the buffalograss will begin to spread under the canopy of the ryegrass. As the temperatures warm into the summer, the annual ryegrass will begin to fade and the buffalograss will become more prominent. By the end of the summer, a new thick buffalograss planting will be fully established, spreading and healthy.

This is an experiment. We will keep you posted on the progress of this planting. I believe it has real potential because it uses natural processes to plant the buffalograss seed. We will use less water compared to germinating the seed in the summer and the ryegrass holds the soil to prevent erosion.  It sounds good in theory but it has yet to be tried. 

Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) fun facts

  • It is a larval host for green skipper butterflies.
  • The genus was named for Claudio and Esteban Boutelou, 19th-century Spanish botanists.
  • The specific epithet, dactyloides, means fingerlike, which refers to the inflorescences.

Predator Profile: Praying Mantis

The Carolina mantid (Courtesy of Hebard and the Illinois Natural History Survey) from An Introduction to the Study of Insects

The praying mantis is a medieval-looking predator of the garden that could just as well be a source of a horror film. Females are known to bite the head of their male partner during copulation to prevent his premature flight and then proceed to eat him after his job is done. If newly-hatched nymphs don’t find enough insects to eat shortly after leaving the nest, they start cannibalizing their own siblings. After watching my grasshopper-eating video at the end of this post, even some meat-eaters may swear off KFC for a very, long, time.

Carolina mantid cleaning its legs (video by Henry Friesen Guhr)

Identification

Praying mantises or mantids have compound eyes in freely moving heads on a pronounced neck and are the only insect that can “look over their shoulder.” Their front legs are muscular viselike appendages with spines held in front of them. They lie in wait, ambush their prey, and then hold and eat them alive.

Chinese mantid with a grasshopper

Kansas has five different species of mantids. There are three native species and two introduced. Of our native species, two are small, uncommon, typically found in prairies, and described in Insects in Kansas (Salsbury and White) as follows:

Descriptions of our two Kansas prairie mantids

For the remaining more common three species in Kansas (Carolina mantis, Chinese mantis, and European mantis), the following is a description of each provided courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation (mantids) with bugguide.net links to photos of each individual species:

  • Carolina mantis (Stagomantis carolina). Native.
    • Pale green to tan or mottled gray
    • Adult length 2–2¼ inches
    • The combined length of the head and thorax is about as long as the abdomen.
    • The middle pair of legs are about twice as long as the antennae.
    • Females are essentially flightless, as their wings are relatively small — when folded, they do not extend as far as the abdomen tip; usually only about three-fourths of the way down the body.
    • Males may have the wings extend beyond the abdomen tip and may fly to lights at night.
    • There is a black patch on the outer pair of wings.
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes: in this and other Stagomantis species, it is long and narrow (in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes).
    • Egg cases are somewhat flattened, elongated, teardrop-shaped structures.
  • Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Nonnative. Very commonly encountered.
    • Tan to pale green; tan individuals often show a stripe of pale green on the side (it’s the borders of the green front wings)
    • Adult length 2¼–4 inches or more
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes): in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes (in our native Carolina mantis, it is long and narrow and lacks stripes).
    • Flies well, often attracted to lights at night.
    • Egg cases resemble tan toasted marshmallows. They are fairly round, about as long as wide, Ping-Pong-ball size; usually attached to twigs of bushes and small trees.
    • Native to east Asia. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1896. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. Among the many insects it consumes are our smaller native mantids, and it may be playing a role, in some regions, in the declining populations of the Carolina mantis. Because the Chinese mantis has been widespread in our country for so long, it is difficult to determine what its ecological impact has been on native ecosystems. Because of the females’ large size, they have occasionally been recorded eating small vertebrates, including small reptiles and amphibians and even hummingbirds, but these seem to be relatively rare occurrences that do not have a significant impact on populations of those species.
  • European mantis or praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). Nonnative; probably the least encountered of these three.
    • Yellowish green, cream-colored, or tan.
    • Adult length 2–3 inches
    • Diagnostic feature is a round black dot on the underside of the basal joint (coxa) of the forelegs. Sometimes this black dot has a white center. This spot can be hard to see when their “arms” are held together.
    • Egg cases are rather egg-shaped, distinctly layered structures.
    • Native to Europe. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1899. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. People may still introduce them occasionally.

For a visual comparison of the ootheca for these three species, HERE is an article with photos.

Reproduction

Once the female has been fertilized and consumes the male as a “last supper” of sorts, she develops and deposits her eggs to complete the life cycle before dying herself.

Mating Carolina mantids – completion of a life cycle before the carnage

The female mixes the eggs with a frothy, protein-based material called spumaline and extrudes them onto a stem or building. This mass hardens to form a strong Styrofoam-like casing or ootheca that helps keep up to 200 eggs from drying out over the winter.

Chinese mantis “toasted marshmallow” egg casing on a goldenrod stem

The nymphs that emerge from the ootheca in spring do not have different-looking larval stages like many other insects. They resemble adult forms throughout their entire juvenile development.

Mantid nymph (dime-sized) found during an insect sweeping activity

Biological Control

It would seem just as appropriate to name this creature the “preying” mantis. I have seen many instances of mantids munching on moths, butterflies, bees and more and recently captured video of a Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper (see end of blog).

Mantids are touted as biological control agents to get rid of pest insects in gardens and greenhouses. However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable. While they efficiently prey on insects, a small release of mantids cannot possibly control all the insects that humans consider to be crop pests. Complicating their effectiveness, mantids also indiscriminately consume insects that we consider to be beneficial pollinators as well. And since nonnative mantid species are those most commonly distributed for biological control, some rightfully worry about the impact their continued introductions may have on smaller native mantid populations.

However you find and observe mantids in gardens and natural areas around you, observe and enjoy the habits of these fascinating creatures.

Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper at Dyck Arboretum

Controlling Weeds in Buffalograss Lawn Areas

There has been recent renewed interest in establishing buffalograss lawn areas as an alternative to conventional fescue. Buffalograss is a native sod-forming grass species that is well adapted to our climate.  It is a nice choice for open, sunny areas. As a warm season grass, it uses water efficiently and effectively, even during periodic and prolonged droughts. This fine textured prairie grass spreads by both seed and stolons (runners), which take root and produce new plants.  We have buffalograss varieties of Cody, Sundancer, Legacy and Bowie growing on the Dyck Arboretum grounds. 

Thick weed free buffalograss

Weeds

One of the drawbacks of buffalograss is that it susceptible to weed infestations. Crabgrass and foxtail are problematic summer annual weeds and henbit, dandelion and chickweed are broadleaf weeds that regularly infiltrate buffalograss.  Each of these types of weeds requires monitoring and sometimes control measures.

Timing

Usually in late October to early November, we spray for broadleaf weeds in our buffalograss lawn areas.  We have several acres of buffalograss, so we hire someone to spray for us.  Choose a day that is 50 degrees or higher. The better the weed is growing, the more weed killer will be moved from the leaves to the roots. Cold temperatures will slow this process, but these products will still work at lower temperatures.

Weed Control

Here at the Arboretum, we are seeing henbit germinate and dandelions greening back up due to earlier rains and cooler temperatures.  These perennial and winter annual weeds usually have germinated by October, but they may be later this year due to the lack of moisture.  However, we are seeing some winter annual weeds. 

It is best to control these young plants when they are small before they get fully established. We use herbicides such as 2,4-D or Trimec blends with 2,4-D, MCPP and Dicamba. By spraying now, these weeds uptake the chemicals and move it from the leaves to the roots readily. This process of translocation is naturally occurring with most plants resulting in a more complete kill of the plant including the roots.

Buffalograss and low growing natives. It’s not just for lawns.

Pre-emergent Weed Control

One of the practices we have tried on smaller areas of buffalograss is the use of pre-emergent herbicides in the spring. This is primarily to control summer annuals such as crabgrass and foxtail. Barricade (prodiamine), Pendulum Aquacap (pendimethalin), Dimension (dithiopyr), Specticle (indaziflam) are recommended pre-emergent herbicides on established Buffalograss stands. Read and follow the chemical label application instructions for best results.  Pre-emergent herbicides can also be applied in the fall to control that pesky weed, little barley.

Is all this worth it?

We encourage people to use buffalograss despite having to spray it occasionally.  Newer varieties are vigorous growers and require little to no water once established. Compare that to a traditional fescue lawn, which needs one to two inches of moisture per week to keep it alive in the summer. These newer buffalograss forms stay green longer in the fall and green up earlier in the spring.  If kept relatively weed free, they require less frequent mowing. Buffalograss need little to no fertilizer and overall will reduce your maintenance.    

It is not my favorite thing to do, but we have seen real benefits from these regular spraying and pre-emergent applications. Before we sprayed in the fall, we were mostly mowing weeds the next spring, especially henbit. In early spring, the henbit was flourishing, but the buffalograss had not started actively growing.  Dandelion, chickweed, and bindweed also had free reign. We made the decision to spray in the fall and it has made such a difference the next year.

By the way, it’s not too late to prepare your landscape for a buffalograss lawn planting next year.

Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

How to Add Native Plants to an Established Prairie

As we wind down the growing season, now is a great time to take stock of your new prairie garden or established prairie landscape.  Which plants have done well?  What has struggled?  What needs to be moved?  Which plants need to be added?  These questions will help guide your efforts this fall and especially next season. 

If you have an established prairie, it can be challenging to make some desired changes.  To add a few plants to a mature landscape takes some forethought and planning.  The deep rooted natives have a distinct advantage over the immature perennial you are trying to get started.  Here are a few simple steps to help give these new plants a fighting chance.

Choose spots

Maybe you want to add some wildflowers into a prairie setting dominated by native grasses.  Visualize where you want these new plants.  Remember, a prairie has subtle splashes of color.  Sprinkling in a handful of wildflowers will look more natural. 

This couple is slowly adding a few native wildflower into their meadow. Some have even started coming in on their own.

Prepare the soil

With your spots chosen, now it is time to make room for these additions to your prairie.  We flag the spots and then spray them with Roundup.  These spots are usually not more than one foot in diameter.  If you want to avoid spraying, cut the area down to the ground and cover it with heavy cardboard for several months or over winter.  Secure these one foot areas with several inches of mulch or stones. 

Two or three inches of mulch will hold down the cardboard and smother out the existing plants.

Choose the right plant

I keep circling back to this point because it is so important.  If plants have struggled in an area, it is usually because either the soil or the plant is out of balance. Typically, the soil is not to blame. It is more likely that the soil and plant have not been correctly matched. Observe soil, sun and drainage issues and match the proper plant to your area. It is good to have a sense of how some of these natives grow naturally in community.  The more you know, the more successful you will be.   

Establish your plants

After waiting several months or over winter, it is now time to plant.  Establish plants using this method in either spring (April/May) or late summer (August/September).  If you sprayed the small areas, you can simply plant right into the open weed free soil.  If you put down cardboard and covered it with mulch, you can pull back a little of the mulch and slice through the cardboard. Put the plants into the ground and water daily.  Leave the cardboard and mulch to decompose over the next few years, as this will give the new plants a little room to grow with less competition.  The cardboard and mulch will ultimately disappear.

Next Steps

Over the next few years, it will be necessary to monitor these new plants.  It generally takes two to three years for the root systems to get fully established.  Remember to:

  • Water deeply as needed.
  • Make sure they are not getting too crowded by other vegetation. 
  • You may need to cut back nearby grasses so these new plants get enough sunlight.  This will only be necessary during this establishment phase. 
Native grasses are wonderful but a few wildflowers in the prairie make it even more beautiful and dynamic.

This process is not guaranteed to succeed, but we have used it successfully to add some diversity to an established prairie.  This approach can also be used to transform a smaller intensively planted display bed. Either way, plan now so you are ready to plant next season. 

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.