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!



Native Grasses for Color, Movement and Structure

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

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

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

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

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

Big Bluestem/Turkey foot grass

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

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

Northwind Switchgrass
Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

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Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

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

Indiangrass Seedhead Plumes

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’)      

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


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

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

Blue Heaven’ Little Bluestem


Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

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

Prairie Dropseed with Giant Blackeyed Susan and Yellow Coneflowers

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


New Native Plants: Part II

This is the second post in a two part series exploring new plants available at the spring fundraiser. After 22 years of Florakansas, we are still finding new garden-worthy natives to offer our community, and the commercial horticulture industry is always introducing new plant varieties to try.

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Ornamental onion is a landscaping favorite because of its tidy habit and pollinator-friendly blooms. We will have the native species A. cernuum and A. stellatum available, but when you need a bit more purple punch ‘Lavender Bubbles’ is the way to go. This variety blooms later in the summer than the well-loved ‘Millennium’, and has darker blooms.

Ephedra regliana

Ephedra regalia, known as joint fir, is a diminutive ancient plant that adds some evergreen whimsy to a rock garden or border planting. Photo by I, James Roberts, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tolerant of alkaline soils and extreme drought, this plant can be found growing wild from Kyrgyzstan to China. A relative of ancient conifers, its showy red fruits develop in late summer. It absolutely demands good drainage, poor soil, and full sun. It would fit right in with a cactus garden or desert aesthetic.

Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’

Variegated foliage of Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’. Photo courtesty of Bluebird Nursery Inc.

Eupatorium altissimum is a native Kansas plant that does not get the credit it deserves. It is seen as a tall, gangly plant with small, unimpressive white blooms. I have begun to appreciate it more and more as a drought tolerant back drop plant; something to grow at the back of the garden to add height and greenery. I call the flowers ‘baby’s breath of the prairie’ because they are so useful in bouquets. The ‘Prairie Jewel’ variety has striking leaf coloration that keeps it interesting, even when not in bloom.

Calamintha nepeta var. nepeta

Calmintha nepeta var. nepeta blends into many garden styles and makes a lovely addition to the perennial garden. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a plant I am very excited to try out in my own garden. Its white blooms and puffy habit make for great filler in weed-prone spaces that would benefit from dense cover and competition. Native to Europe, this mint family member carries its well-known pros and cons: it can be aggressive if left to spread unchecked, but it is beloved by pollinators.

Remember, members get first pick of the plants through pre-order services and our special Members-only Day on April 22. If you see some new plants here you just can’t live without, consider joining our growing membership of nature lovers! These plants and many more will be available to non-members April 23-26.

Succession of Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

Starting a List

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

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

Begin the Design

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

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

Layout

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

Little Bluestem and Pale Coneflower seedheads

Plant in smaller groups

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

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

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

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

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

Milkweed for Monarchs

In Kansas and throughout the central U.S. corridor, we need to plant more milkweed for monarchs. Because of human-caused reductions of host plant milkweed species through the monarch migration corridor, this butterfly is in decline. I will summarize the current plight of the monarch, review its life cycle and why it is in decline, and recommend seven milkweed species we should be planting more frequently in our urban landscapes to attempt to aid monarch recovery.

Monarch on swamp milkweed in the Arboretum greenhouse. Photo by Barbara Beesley.

Plight of the Monarch

Experts monitor monarch populations by documenting the extent of area they occupy annually in their Mexican oyamel fir forest overwintering sites. While the numbers are variable from year to year, the overall downward trendline seen in the following graph is discouraging.

World Wildlife Fund monarch data cited in a blog post by Cornell University’s Anurag Agrawal

The following recent announcement highlights that the monarch warrants protection to stop its decline, but that too many other species needing protection are taking priority at the moment.

Monarch Life Cycle

From March to November, eastern populations of monarchs migrate from Mexico to Southern Canada and back every year. It usually takes four generations of monarchs to make this journey – two going north and two going south.

Monarch generations over a typical year from Journey North

Various species of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) throughout the migration corridor of the central U.S. play host to hungry larvae as an essential element of the monarch life cycle.

Monarch life cycle from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Adult butterflies completing the first northern leg of the journey from Mexico to the south central states of the U.S. including Kansas are conditioned to find milkweed plants to lay their eggs in spring. Later generations returning south in late summer are doing the same.

Monarch migration from Monarch Watch

Human Impacts

In a 2013 presentation at Dyck Arboretum, Monarch Watch’s Chip Taylor expressed that a loss of milkweed throughout this migration corridor is one of the top reasons for the monarch’s decline. The advent of no-till agricultural practices has been great for the efficient production of crops, but its broadcast spraying of generalist herbicides like glyphosate (i.e., Roundup) has also been very efficient at killing milkweed throughout the Plains and Midwest.

Acres converted of prairie converted to cropland in monarch flyway from Monarch Watch

Loss of monarch nectar sources through habitat destruction, widespread use of insecticides, and climate change pose additional challenges to the monarch.

More Milkweed Needed

The monarch butterfly evolved along with the presence of prairie milkweed species throughout the Great Plains and Midwest during the 10,000 years since the last Ice Age.

Presettlement extent of prairie from Michigan State University

Just as humans have rapidly reduced the presence of milkweed in the last couple of decades, we should be able to find ways to re-establish milkweed.

In a recent presentation, I promoted the planting of milkweed for monarchs and highlighted the diversity of 19 milkweed species found in Kansas. These species are well-documented in the book Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds by Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman, and Janét E. Bare. Compiling information from Chip Taylor and a 2018 Iowa study in Frontiers of Ecological Evolution on milkweed preference by monarchs, I landed on promotion of the following seven yellow-highlighted species. With high monarch larvae survivorship, and being relatively easy to establish from plugs, these seven milkweed species are good selections to grow in any sunny garden spot.

Milkweed species in Kansas

To make a dent in the recovering milkweed presence throughout the monarch flyway, seeded milkweed re-establishment should be boosted in large-scale habitat areas like in between agricultural fields, along roadsides and in Conservation Reserve Program land just to name a few. But such efforts will require coordination with governmental agencies and lots of planning. What I will propose with the rest of this post will be what we can each do with our own plots of land. Consider planting plants in native plant gardens and collect and spread seed if you have areas that are larger and less manicured.

The following seven milkweed species offer aesthetically pleasing milkweed species that are good larval hosts for monarchs and good nectar sources for a variety of insects. All milkweed photos are courtesy of Michael John Haddock (Source: Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses Website)

Common milkweed can get to be weedy in the garden, but it is easy to pull, so I don’t mind a little weeding because of the immense benefit this monarch favorite offers (prefers dry to medium soil, grows 4-5′ tall, and blooms in June to July with a very sweet fragrance).
Whorled milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Butterfly milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Green antelopehorn milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in May to June
Showy milkweed prefers sandy loam dry to medium soil, grows 3-4′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Smooth or Sullivant’s milkweed prefers medium to medium -wet soil and can be commonly found in the bottom of roadside ditches. It grows 3-4′ tall, and blooms in June to July. While a bit similar looking to common milkweed, smooth milkweeds differs with its smooth, non-hairy leaves that clasp the stem, and with more flat rather than rounded flower cluster.
As the name implies, swamp or marsh milkweed likes its feet wet, prefers wet to wet-medium soil like along a pond edge, grows 4-5′ tall, and blooms in August to September

As tempting as it may be to plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in an annual bed or a pot, try to avoid it. Even though it can host monarch larvae and the flowers are attractive for insects and humans alike. The following article from Xerces Society provides compelling reasons not to plant tropical milkweed in non-tropical areas. Holding monarchs in colder places longer than they should, and exposing monarchs to the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (or OE for short) are two of those reasons.

Come check out our Spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, April 22-26, 2021. There you will find a wide selection of milkweeds and other wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees to enhance your landscape for monarchs and all insects!

New Plants: Part I

There are no new plants; they aren’t flying in on a spaceship from a galaxy far, far away. But when it comes to Florakansas Native Plant Festival we try to keep the inventory fresh by always adding new offerings in our inventory. While we always offer the tried and true natives and adaptable we have come to love, we also want to offer a little something *new to you* every year. Sometimes this means finding a source of more obscure natives, or seeding them ourselves. We also work to get our hands on new commercial varieties of garden favorites.

And while February and March can seem long and cold, they also signal that FloraKansas is right around the corner! There is no better time to peruse the Native Plant Guide and get up to speed on all the goodies available.

Here are a few of the stand-outs (part II coming soon):

Geranium ‘Crane Dance’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Plant breeders cultivate most commercial varieties of Geranium from Geranium pratense, a species native to Europe and Asia. But this one, selected for its brilliant red fall foliage, is derived from the native G. maculatum. The blooms are an electric shade of blue.

Buddleia ‘Grand Cascade’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Easy to grow, with a thousand and one varieties, butterfly bush is a long-time garden favorite. ‘Grand Cascade’ boasts the largest blooms of any variety, with some 14″ long and as thick as my arm. It is not native to North America, meaning it is likely useless as a host plant for our invertebrates. But Buddleia is an undeniable favorite nectar source for many pollinators.

Plant your Buddleia near a window or patio to enjoy their sweet scent, and be sure to install true Kansas native plants nearby to complete the ecological garden trifecta: host plants for larval food, nectar for adults, and habitat to shelter and rest.

Thermopsis villosa

Photo by Bob Gutowski, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Better known as Carolina lupine, Thermopsis villosa is native to woodland clearings in the southern Appalachian mountains. Surprisingly drought tolerant once established, this plant will grace your garden with lemon yellow blooms reminiscent of Baptisia. Because its native range is the eastern US, we can assume it takes a bit more water than our dry, upland prairie species. Place this one in full to part sun, in an area that gets semi-regular watering.

Antennaria dioica ‘Rubra’

Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pussytoes are ubiquitous, native all over the North American continent. In Kansas we most often see Antennaria neglecta, field pussytoes. They are short statured and white-flowered, a favorite for pollinators and a good groundcover, but not a showy garden flower. A. dioica ‘Rubra’ is a nice change of pace — it sports a bright pink bloom that you can’t help but love. Native to Alaska, this species is very cold hardy.

All of these plants and many more will be available at our spring sale. Peruse our Native Plant Guide to get inspired and make your plant list. Dyck Arboretum members may pre-order plants once the 2021 Native Plant Guide is made available. (Later in February.)

The second part of this blog post, New Plants: Part II is coming soon!

Seeding After Disturbance

Dispersal of prairie wildflower seeds after sidewalk construction

I’d like to tell you about our late December sidewalk edge prairie seeding after disturbance following the installation of a new sidewalk right outside my office window.

Preamble about Disturbance

Disturbance is rich with meaning and ever-present.

In humans…

Our lives are filled with different levels of disturbance. While we typically trend toward stability and shy away from disturbance, we know unsettling events will happen. So, we try to be ready for them, use them as a resetting point, and work to make ourselves more resilient as quickly as possible going forward. How we respond to disturbance determines how quickly we recover in that quest to eventually make ourselves better.

In the prairie…

The same goes in native plant communities on the Plains. Disturbance is a natural and important element in maintaining a prairie ecosystem. While fire and grazing are two disturbing elements, they have ironically been prairie stabilizers for thousands of years. Without their occurrence on a semi-regular basis to knock back woody plants, prairies will be invaded by shrubs and trees and transition to woodlands and eventually forests in a manner of decades.

Fire and grazers also expose and disturb soil. In the spring, fire removes a cold-insulating organic matter layer, blackens the soil surface, and heats the soil profile. Hooves of grazers stir soil and buffalo wallows clear existing vegetation. Burrowing mammals of the prairie also stir up and expose soil. All of these activities encourage the germination of early successional forb seeds in the soil seedbank that attract unique species of wildlife in biological diverse prairie. Disturbance is not only good for the prairie, but it is essential.

In this sidewalk-lined prairie garden…

Ever since the new sidewalk was installed summer of 2020, the adjacent soil in 2-4′ zone of disturbance on either side has been bare. The vegetation in these areas prior to disturbance consisted of native prairie grasses and the occasional prairie wildflower. But after this soil disturbance, annual weeds will explode from these areas come spring. It may have been 40 years since this site was a farm field, but I guarantee that the agricultural nonnative and native annuals brought in by years of farming, including species like henbit, foxtail, and ragweed, will profusely germinate here in a few months.

A Unique Opportunity

These sidewalk edges have been an important educational resource over the last 15 years. Thousands of students, from Kindergarten through college-age, have studied them for plant and insect diversity via field trips and labs. School teachers participating in our Earth Partnership for Schools summer institutes and classes of master gardeners and master naturalists have also gotten in on the sampling of these areas each fall.

Field trip students conducting insect studies of sidewalk edge prairie habitat
A science teacher studying sidewalk edge prairie habitat during an Earth Partnership for Schools summer institute

Over these years, I’ve noticed that tall native prairie grasses, including big bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, and eastern gamma grass, have come to dominate these sidewalk plantings, while wildflowers have slowly gotten crowded out. Frankly, these plantings needed some disturbance to break the grass stronghold and provide a window of opportunity for an infusion of new species.

Rather than discourage with herbicides the germination of annual weeds and grasses sprouting from roots along this disturbed sidewalk edge, we decided to plant a native wildflower mix to offer hearty competition. We chose a diverse array of colorful flowering prairie species desirable to human eyes and insect pollinators alike. The sports adage that “the best defense is a good offense” certainly fits our approach to the ecological restoration of this sidewalk edge.

Seed Mix

Sidewalk edge seed mix including 43 species of forbs

Prairie Moon Nursery offers a nice array of prairie wildflowers with historical range into the mixed/tallgrass prairie of Kansas. I went through their seed inventory and chose all the species that I know from regional prairies (with a few exceptions). A nice summary of other seed and plant sources can be found through Kansas Native Plant Society. The developed species list amounted to the following 43 species, representing a variety of heights, colors, and bloom times and should add a nice diversity of plants and eventually wildlife to these areas.

FORBS
Allium stellatumpink wild onion
Anemone canadensisCanada anemone
Asclepias sullivantiismooth milkweed
Asclepias tuberosabutterfly milkweed
Asclepias verticillatawhorled milkweed
Asclepias viridisgreen antelopehorn milkweed
Aster azureussky blue aster
Aster novae-angliaeNew England aster
Baptisia albawhite wild indigo
Baptisia australisblue wild indigo
Brickellia eupatorioidesfalse bonset
Callirhoe involucratapurple poppy mallow
Chamaecrista fasciculatayellow partridge pea
Coreposis palmataprairie coreopsis
Dalea candidumwhite prairie clover
Dalea purpureumpurple prairie clover
Desmodium canadenseshowy tick trefoil
Desmodium illinoenseIllinois tick trefoil
Echinacea angustifolianarrow-leaved coneflower
Echinacea pallidapale purple coneflower
Eryngium yuccifoliumrattlesnake master
Lespedeza capitataround-headed bush clover
Liatris asperabutton blazing star
Liatris punctatadotted blazing star
Liatris pycnostachyaKansas gayfeather
Monarda fistulosawild bergamot
Oenothera macrocarpaMissouri evening primrose
Penstemon digitalissmooth penstemon
Penstemon grandifloruslarge beardtongue
Penstemon tubaeflorustube beardtongue
Phlox pilosaprairie phlox
Pycnanthemum virginianummountain mint
Ratibida columniferalong-headed coneflower
Rudbeckia hirtablack-eyed susan
Ruellia humiliswild petunia
Sisyrinchium campestreprairie blue-eyed grass
Solidago missouriensisMissouri goldenrod
Solidago speciosashowy goldenrod
Tradescantia bracteatabracted spiderwort
Tradescantia ohiensisOhio spiderwort
Zizia aureagolden alexanders
SHRUBS
Amorpha canescenslead plant
Ceanothus americanusNew Jersey tea

I was sure to omit species that would be aggressive as they are in nearby gardens and will eventually invade on their own. The mix for 1,000 square feet was calculated to be planted at a generous rate of 73 seeds/sq. ft. (50 seeds/sq. ft. is what I recall to be a minimum industry standard) This cost us $171.20 including shipping and a $50 mixing fee for orders under $200.

Eye candy from the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog

Planting Process

We pushed to get this seed ordered and delivered as early in the winter as possible. I like to aim for December, but have planted in January also. Different wildflower species require various types of treatment/stratification for best chance of germination, but a general successful approach is aiming for 2-3 months of cold-wet conditions (a typical winter) that will lead to the best rate of germination possible. After receiving the seed, we proceeded as follows…

Seed mix from Prairie Moon Nursery

Mix seed with bulk

We used sand, but mixing sawdust, kitty litter, or other media with your seed will do. The seed will seem like an incredibly small quantity of material to spread over a large area and adding bulk material helps increase the chances that you will cover the entire planting area with seed.

Dividing mix evenly into planting areas

A supply of 5-gallon buckets is helpful to divide the seed/bulk material mixture into even quantities that match the number of even-sized planting areas. To give yourself a reserve quantity of seed, I recommend doubling the number of seed quantities per planting area. For example, we had two sides of sidewalk to plant, and prepared four buckets of seed. Cover each planting area with one bucket and then do the same again with the second bucket. If you blow it with the first bucket and don’t cover the entire area – which is easy to do – then you have a reserve bucket to finish the job.

Raking planting area

Good seed/soil contact is the goal to encourage seed moisture absorption and improve germination once an average soil temperature of 55 degrees F is reached in the spring. There was some dead plant debris covering our planting areas, so we raked the areas before planting.

Raking the planting area prior to seeding

Dispersing seed

Seed dispersal is easy by hand and probably most successful when conducted with bare hands so you can feel the seed mixture, if you can keep them warm on a cold day. But standard handheld or rolling push-behind broadcasters could also be effective. More sophisticated seed drills calibrated to specific seed sizes are not very effective with mixes containing various sizes and textures of seeds like we were dealing with.

A final raking

While not an essential step, we had the human power and time to do a light final raking after planting to barely cover the seed. You want to be careful to not bury small seeds too deeply. Seed planting experts often advocate for allowing nature and its powers of freezing/thawing, precipitation, and gravity to work the seeds into the top 1/8-inch of soil throughout the course of winter.

Follow-up

Moisture and frozen ground are now what we wish for

Most of the work is now finished with this planting and the main job in follow-up as we look forward to colorful, flowering wildflowers throughout the growing season is to have patience. While a few species like black-eyed susan, wild bergamot, and yellow partridge pea may flower in the first couple of years of this planting, most species in the mix won’t flower until year three or longer.

Photo used by permission from Nature Education-1995 Conservation Research Institute, Heidi Natura

It will be difficult to think of this planting as anything other than a complete and utter failure in the first year when all you can mostly see are weeds. However, careful inspection should show in this first growing season that small sprouts of prairie species hidden close to the ground are there. Prairie wildflowers develop deep, 5-15 foot root systems to help them survive for years and even decades through harsh Kansas summers and that process takes time. About all we can do is mow the planting area as high as possible once or twice each year in the first few years to keep annual weeds from going to seed and reduce their competition with prairie seedlings for light and water.

My friend often refers to the sage advice of Frog and Toad after a planting. I will follow her lead and leave you with this message as there is little left to do…