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…

Keystone Natives for the Food Web

Last week during my Native Plant School class, I had an interesting question posed to me and it made me pause to think.  The question was “Do you have a list of keystone native perennials for a healthy food web?”  The person obviously had been reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.

The food web includes, plants, insects, pollinators, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and mammals, from rodents up through bears.  Each is reliant on the other for their survival. Tallamy focuses much attention on trees that support the food web such as oaks, cherry, cottonwood, willow, and birch.  However, there are many native perennials that are also key components of this food web. To provide a solid foundation for a healthy food web in your garden, start with this list of native wildflowers to include in your landscape:

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

These summer blooming wildflowers with bright yellow flowers can be striking in the landscape. However, they have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time. The plant is insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar.  In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia.  It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod with red switchgrass

Asters

A diverse genus that supports 112 species of insects, asters are a valuable late-season (September – November) source of pollen for bees and nectar for bees and butterflies. During the summer, the asters are host plants to the caterpillars of some of the crescent and checkerspot butterflies. As summer wanes, asters start blooming with colors of white, purple, and pink depending on the species.  Fall provides a unique challenge for pollinators and asters help with both migration and overwintering butterflies and bees. 

A few of my recommended forms are Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’, Aster novae-angliae varieties, Aster laevis and Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ for sun.  In a shady area, try Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’, Aster cordifolius, and Aster macrophyllus.

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)

There are eleven species of sunflower recorded in Kansas. These wildflowers are not usually fit for a formal garden setting, because they spread vigorously by seeding and rhizomes.  They have a tendency to push out other desirable plants.  However, they support 73 species of insects, so we maybe need to find a place for them. 

I’m not referring to the large-headed annual cultivars you see growing in a field, but rather the true native perennials with bright yellow flowers seen growing along the roadside in the late summer and early fall.  Plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. I would encourage you to try a few sunflowers in the peripheral areas of your yard where they can spread out and have room to roam. 

Maximillian Sunflower and Big Bluestem

Milkweeds

Monarchs are in peril. Milkweeds are one of the answers to reversing their plight. By planting more milkweeds, monarch will find these larval food sources more readily. Milkweeds are larval host plants for Monarch and Queen Butterflies and the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Many bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles visit milkweed flowers for the nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar that it is replenished overnight. Nocturnal moths feast at night and other pollinators flock to these important plants during the day. 

Choose butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or green antelope horn milkweed for your formal garden and common, Sullivant’s, or whorled milkweeds for the outskirts of your property. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.

Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.)

Liatris are very important wildflowers. The vibrant purple blooms in summer support many great insect species. They are quite adaptive with different species growing in dry to moist soil conditions. There is literally a blazing star for just about every garden setting. 

I prefer Liatris pycnostachya and Liatris aspera, but many others, including Liatris ligulistylis and Liatris punctata, are nice too.    

Liatris pycnostachya

There is a growing body of research that touts the benefits of keystone species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses to the food web. According to Doug Tallamy, landscapes without keystone plants will support 70–75% fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone plants, even though it may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area.

Planting just natives is not enough. Garden designs and plant communities must contain at least some keystone plants to positively impact the food web. This is the start of a list, but there are certainly more plants to choose from.  Look for more suggestions in the coming weeks. 

Garden Inspiration for 2021

In this season of overwhelming change and uncertainty, one of the places that has brought me solace is my home and landscape. I don’t believe I am alone in seeking garden inspiration these days.

Many people are discovering the peace that comes from gardening and adding plants to their lives. We have been stuck at home so it gave us the opportunity to focus on the immediate space around us. There’s something satisfying about planting something, tending it and then watching it grow.  It is also very satisfying to create a diverse habitat that brings wildlife to your yard.

In 2021, engaging in gardening activities will continue to be a very important and necessary part of our lives.  Here are a few bits of garden inspiration for this season of change: 

Garden as Teacher

More people than ever got back into their gardens last year. That trend will continue in 2021. Gardening can help us in so many ways and even gardening failures hold important lessons to be learned. New or experienced gardeners will embrace getting their hands dirty while growing their own food, creating a habitat garden, learning gardening basics or creating a landscape design. Many people are turning to their gardens for a place to escape, relax and unwind. 

Natives First

Sustainability has become more important to gardeners.  Gardeners are looking for information about how they can make their gardens more environmentally friendly.  Choosing native perennials that grow best in our region should be the starting point for any new landscape design. Their deep roots and adaptability will conserve natural resources.  It is crucial that you match plants to your site. For example, put plants that need more water in spots where the soil stays moist. Use our Native Plant Guide or the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to identify plants suited for your area.

Enhancing Nature

We are no longer gardening just for our own enjoyment, but also for the restorative effect our gardens can have on nature. Our gardens can become havens for birds, bees, and other pollinators.

Our staff recently heard a presentation from entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. He shared his vision of transforming 20 million acres of North American lawns into a “homegrown national park”.

“…each of the acres we have developed for specific human goals is an opportunity to add to Homegrown National Park. We already are actively managing nearly all of our privately owned lands and much of the public spaces in the United States. We simply need to include ecological function in our management plans to keep the sixth mass extinction at bay.”

Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard

Our gardens, no matter the size, can have an impact in sustaining wildlife and reversing the perilous trends that are endangering nature’s delicate balance.

Growing Food at Home

In this pandemic, growing your own food is both therapeutic and reassuring. Foods of all kinds have been grown is all sorts of spaces: in containers on a balcony, in raised beds, or large garden plots, homeowners are more interested than ever in growing their own food. If you want to learn more about growing your own mushrooms, join our Mushrooms in Kansas Symposium

Going Online for Garden Inspiration

This trend is not going away anytime soon. There is a wealth of information at the click of a button online. Searches can reveal more than you ever wanted to know about perennials, trees and shrubs. With limited in-person learning opportunities such as our Native Plant School classes, you can now learn just about anything from the comfort of your own home.

However, it is important that you be discerning in what you try out in your own prairie-based landscape. Take recommendations with a grain of salt, become familiar with your own piece of land and read critically. Just because it looks beautiful in Virginia doesn’t mean it should be planted in Kansas.

Curbside (Greenhouse-side?) Pickup

It is so convenient to put in an order online and pick it up two hours later at the grocery store. This trend is obviously happening at garden centers and plant sales as well.  We will again be taking orders online for our Spring
FloraKansas Native Plant Festival
. We are committed to providing a safe process for Kansas gardeners to get the gardening plants and supplies they need for their landscape spaces.     

Styles and trends come and go. There are plenty of trends to use in your garden, this year and every year after that. Ultimately, you will embrace the trends that mean the most to you. Hopefully, your garden will deeply inspire and impact you and the natural world in a positive way in 2021. 

Defining Sun Requirements for Native Plants

Knowing how much light a plant needs to thrive should be a simple question, but it is often easily misunderstood. There are so many different descriptions for sun requirements or exposure found on plant labels, but they don’t provide all the information you may need to make the right selection for your yard. Are these descriptions for Kansas or Virginia? Can a plant survive in full sun with 30 inches of average rainfall or does it need 50 inches?  Does it need full sun with protection from the hot afternoon sun? 

Plant labeling has been getting better and more consistent, so understanding a few key terms will assist in selecting the right plant for your landscape conditions. Let’s take a closer look.

Terminology

Every plant in the landscape needs sunlight to grow.  Even shade plants with their adaptations need a certain amount of light to grow and prosper. Plant labels identify the amount of sun a plant requires as full sun, part sun, part shade full shade, or dense shade:

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day
  • Dense shade – No direct sunlight and little indirect light reaches the ground.

A Closer Look at the Terms

Full Sun

Most prairie plants fall into this category of sunlight exposure. This light is bright, sunny for most of the day like in open areas and backyards. These spaces get at least six hours of direct sunlight and need to be planted with full sun plants. Their deep roots and natural adaptations for direct sunlight will help them thrive in this harsh environment. Silver or gray leaves, pubescent leaves, or leaf orientation are adaptations that help them prosper in these sunny areas. 

There are other plants that appreciate some protection from the hottest part of the days, but they still need at least six hours of direct light. Keep in mind that full sun in the Smoky Mountains and full sun in Texas are different.  So, think critically about your local site, because some experimentation may still be needed.

Kansas Gayfeather in full sun

Part Sun and Part Shade

When I think about part sun and part shade, savannah plants come to mind. They are tucked up close to the margins of the forest. They transition from prairie plants to woodland plants. Some will get sunlight for most of the day, but not often. It is not the hottest direct sun. 

Part sun and part shade are very similar, but there are subtle differences. These two terms can be understood quite differently. Most plants requiring either part sun or part shade do well in filtered light for most of the day. In Kansas, a plant requiring part sun or part shade needs to be protected from the more intense afternoon sun. Give it morning sun to keep it happy.

Plants requiring part shade can be quite sensitive to too much direct sun, particularly in the afternoon, and will need shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Plants requiring part sun can usually tolerate more light and need a minimum amount of direct sun to thrive. These plants may bloom poorly if given too little sun.

For either group, providing a few hours of direct morning sun is a good choice.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea-Purple coneflower appreciates partial sun conditions
photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Full Shade

Plants requiring full shade are the most challenging in Kansas. Essentially, we are trying to grow shade plants in a prairie environment with lots of sun and inconsistent moisture. Shaded areas typically stay dry and need supplemental moisture to grow full shade plants. Full shade plants require anything less than three hours of direct light such as morning sun and late evening sunlight. Protection from the hot midday sun is very important.  Filtered light, such as that found beneath a tree canopy, is a good setting for full shade plants. This type of light is referred to as dappled shade and offers many gardening opportunities.

Native columbine thriving in the shade of an elm tree

Dense Shade

Dense shade may occur under a dense evergreen tree against a fence, or the north side of your house protected by a deck. These areas get little if any sunlight throughout the day. These problem areas are usually dark and can stay very wet or very dry. There is not much you can do under these conditions, but maybe a ground cover or decorative yard element would be a good choice. Plants need some light and you are fighting nature by trying to grow something without much light. Rather focus on the areas that do have some light to draw your eyes away from this area. 

It is best to become familiar with sun exposure in your landscape by checking on light conditions throughout the day and over the course of a full growing season. Growing plants in Kansas can be a test of your will, so match plants up to your landscape based on light conditions in your landscape. I have found that if you get this requirement right, some of the other elements like soil, water and fertility will sort themselves out on their own.

Silver and Gold

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

Short-Toothed Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum muticum

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

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

Gray Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus

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

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

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

Goldenrod – Solidago sp.

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

Switchgrass – Panicum virgatum

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

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

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

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