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.

Landscaping with Native Kansas Oaks

Filtered light coming through a stately open-grown burr oak.

There are many appealing reasons to consider landscaping with native Kansas oaks. Oaks are

  • long-lived with strong branches,
  • can grow to be large and stately,
  • provide welcome shade from the hot Kansas summer sun,
  • allow some filtered light to pass through to allow growth of understory vegetation, and
  • enhance the wildlife diversity in any landscape by attracting insects.

Native Kansas Oaks

Kansas is predominately a prairie state. Fire and grazing have helped keep grasses and wildflowers as the dominant form of vegetation for thousands of years. Kansas does, however, get enough precipitation to support trees, especially many drought-tolerant species of oaks. And when they are not being burned or grazed down to the ground on a regular basis, they can thrive here.

With the Rocky Mountain rain shadow influencing the precipitation map for Kansas, we have increasing bands of precipitation moving from west to east across the state.

Trees generally need more water than prairie grasses and wildflowers. Therefore, it is understandable that eastern Kansas climate is most hospitable for growing trees. The following K├╝chler Vegetation Map of Kansas confirms the association between greater precipitation and the historical presence of trees by the location of oak-hickory forests, oak savannas, and other timbered regions in the eastern part of the state.

The trees that thrive throughout eastern Kansas may also be able to grow further west into Kansas, but will be limited to locations near streams or urban landscapes where they can receive supplemental irrigation.

Using the fantastic recently published book, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas by Michael Haddock and Craig Freeman, I compiled the following table of the oaks native to Kansas. I have listed the 12 native oak species in order from most to least common in Kansas. I did this to serve as a guide to the species that generally have the greatest tolerance to drought conditions and that are therefore more likely to succeed even in the drier parts of the state.

Attracting Wildlife

Regarding the benefits of oaks I provided in the introduction, I want to expand a bit on the benefits of attracting wildlife.

Filtered light sustains understory vegetation

Oaks in general and especially more drought-tolerant oaks like burr oak allow more light to filter through its leaf canopy to the understory than other tree species such as elms and maples. As I describe briefly in a post about a local, large burr oak tree, burr oak savanna plant communities of Eastern Kansas were historically able to support diverse arrays of grasses and wildflowers under their canopy that promote a healthy ecosystem of biological diversity. Urban folks can follow this model and grow prairie-like native plant gardens under the canopy of oaks. This also helps explain why it is easier to grow turf grass in the filtered light conditions under an oak than it is under the shadier understory of an elm or maple.

Oaks – the best trees for supporting wildlife

Professor Doug Tallamy in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is a big proponent of using native oaks to attract wildlife. His book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens makes a strong case for using oaks to attract caterpillars, and subsequently birds that feed caterpillars to their young, to enhance the biological diversity of a landscape. His research shows that the oak genus (Quercus) attracts more caterpillars to its leaves, flowers, bark, acorns, and roots than any other genus of trees. In fact, this genus is so important to Tallamy that his most recent book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees focuses entirely on the subject.

Five Favorite Oaks

While I think there are appealing components to all 12 of the native Kansas oaks, I have narrowed my focus for the purposes of this post to promoting five favorite oak species.

USDA maps denote the natural range of each species. A given tree may still thrive in say an urban area outside of this range when offered wind and drought protection from structures, other trees, and/or supplemental irrigation.
This 55′ wide by 45′ tall burr oak outside my office window is great example of how this species takes a wide-open stance when grown in full sun. The root structure cross-section drawing pasted proportionately below this tree was found in the Nebraska Conservation Bulletin Number 37.

Burr oak savannas were part of the focus of my graduate research and I simply love the majestic, strong-branched open-grown shape of this species. The shape and distinct look of a mature Q. macrocarpa specimen in winter is as interesting to me as its leafy green look during the growing season. It is bimodal in its moisture distribution, meaning it can survive in both dry upland conditions as well as low floodplain conditions. Thick, gnarly bark makes this tree more fire tolerant than most, and when top-killed, its taproot allows it to immediately re-sprout. The large acorn fruits (hence the Latin name “macrocarpa“) are food for many insects, mammals, and birds (e.g., turkeys and wood ducks). To appreciate the value of a burr oak to wildlife, click on this Illinois wildflowers link and scroll down to the impressive list of “faunal associations.” Burr oak leaves turn yellowish-brown before dropping in the fall.

The attractive ashy gray bark, toothy margined leaves and stately round shape of the drought-tolerant chinquapin oak make it an appealing landscaping tree. One-inch sweet acorns are a favorite food for many birds and mammals and the leaves turn yellow-orange to orangish-brown before dropping in fall. This species prefers well-drained soils but tolerates a variety of soil textures and moisture regimes.

Dwarf chinquapin oak only reaches a mature height of approximately 20 feet and certainly can be used in different landscaping scenarios than any of the four other medium to large landscaping trees recommended here. You may use it as a featured shrub or planted with many to form a screen. This species prefers sandy or clayey soils whereas the larger Q. muehlenbergii does best in calcareous soils. In spite of its small size, dwarf chinquapin oak can produce large quantities of acorns which along with the leaves and bark provide food for numerous species of insects, birds and mammals. This oak is known to produce underground runners to spread clonally.

Black oak is named for its dark bark color at maturity. It has a deep taproot with widespread laterals which make it a very drought-tolerant tree that is adaptable to a variety of soil types. It does especially well in sandy soils. As described for other oak species, black oak provides food for numerous insects, birds and mammals.

Shumard oak is a popular landscaping tree because of its strong branches, long life and red fall color. It is adaptable to a variety of soils and its acorns provide food for various types of wildlife including insects, birds, and mammals. Although its natural environment is along streams in Eastern Kansas, it is tolerant of drier areas further west in protected urban areas. A shumard oak I planted in my yard loses its leaves late fall, by around Thanksgiving.

Things to Think About

Tree size/location

When locating a tree, leaving room for the eventual size of the mature tree will save you or future caretakers time and money. Conflicts between growing tree branches and buildings, utility wires, city code street clearances, and branches of other trees can lead to tree trimming headaches, so consideration given to a tree’s height and spread is important. Also, the closer a tree is to a sidewalk or driveway, the more likely its roots are to alter the grade of and contribute to the cracking of that concrete.

How long will it hold its leaves?

Some oaks lose their leaves in fall, but others hold onto them until spring. I can think of a couple of reasons this may be important to you. If you like to do your leaf raking in fall, don’t choose an oak that holds leaves till spring. If you want your oak to cast shade in summer but not winter, be sure to choose an oak that drops its leaves in fall. For example, this may be an important consideration for a tree that shades a house in summer, but allows solar panels to work in the winter.

Oak leaves are slower to decompose

Know that oak leaves have higher tannin content than many other tree species, and therefore, take longer to decompose. I like to use all my tree leaves for garden mulch and since the oaks I’ve planted in my landscape are all pretty small still, this has not been a big concern. However, if you compost your leaves or have heard the myth that tannin-rich oak leaves will make your soil more acidic, read this article.

Slower growing trees still provide rewards

A common complaint I hear about oaks is that they grow too slow. Therefore, folks may opt for the short-term gain of quick shade provided by a poplar or silver maple instead of a longer lived oak. A poplar lifespan may be 30-50 years, a silver maple 50-100 years, and an oak 150-250 years. But what you gain in quicker shade with the poplar and silver maple, you give up in durability, attraction to wildlife, and passing along quality trees to future property owners. The above recommended oaks all would be considered slow to moderate rate growing trees. Do know that you can increase the growth rate of an oak with mulching, supplemental water, and fertilizer. Maybe it is the skewed perspective of an oak lover, but I would think that oaks even improve property value. And remember, a tree is planted for the next generation as much as it is for you.

Celebrating Earth Day Through Native Plants

Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. For a half century, April 22 has been a day when we celebrate a connection with our planet and pause to think about how we can be better earth stewards. I would like to state the case for having native plants be central to this stewardship focus.

Earth Day in 1970 mobilized 20 million Americans to unify in support of environmental protection. The energy of this movement led to a greater awareness of and protection for natural elements important to humans, including clean air (Clean Air Act of 1970), clean water (Clean Water Act of 1972) and biological diversity (Endangered Species Act of 1973).

My 50th Anniversary Earth Day Flag – an adapted version of John McConnell’s Earth Day flag adorned with the spring blooming native plants (clockwise from upper left-golden alexander, vernal witch hazel, Missouri evening primrose, and rose verbena).

Native plants and their ecosystems are closely connected to the health of air, water, and biological diversity. Native plants photosynthesize, produce oxygen and sink atmospheric carbon. Native plants buffer streams, hold soil, and filter moving water. Native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife of all kinds. For the more than one billion people that will recognize Earth Day around the world today, celebrating native plants could easily be central to this celebration.

So, to celebrate the 50th Earth Day, I would like to recognize some of the spring-blooming native plants that are hitting their stride in my home landscape right now.

A favorite garden corner with bloomers from left to right including Major Wheeler honeysuckle, roundleaf ragwort, ‘Pink Lanterns’ columbine, shortstem spiderwort, and golden alexander.

Spring blooming wildflowers offer the first signs of hope after a long winter. In late winter/early spring, they bait us with anticipation, even when nighttime temperatures regularly dip below freezing and cold winds are not yet inviting us to be outside. Their root systems receive messages from increasing hours of daylight and higher average temperatures. Their green shoots break dormancy and emerge as if they are responding to cheerful invitations of the robins, repeatedly calling “cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o”.

That was the scene in my yard in early March. Fast forward now to mid April through more than a month of pandemic isolation. While I’m captive at home, the need for hope and beauty seems ever greater and the following spring blooming wildflowers are answering the call.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild ginger.

Wild ginger is a creeping wildflower that creates growing ground cover colonies. The roots of the plant smell like ginger. Their heart-shaped close-to-the-ground leaves may be less than striking, but the hidden flowers of wild ginger (pollinated by beetles, flies and ants) are worth the search.

Wild ginger flower.

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Woodland phlox.

The Greek meaning of the word phlox refers to the intense floral color which is evident once you see woodland phlox in bloom. The plant will form a spreading colony. It does surprisingly well in Kansas if you can find a protected place for it. The fragrant and showy flowers attract butterflies, hummingbird moths, and hummingbirds.

Roundleaf Ragwort (Packera obovata)

Roundleaf ragwort.

Once established, roundleaf ragwort establishes a creeping colony and is one of the earliest bloomers in the spring. Roundleaf ragwort flowers attract butterflies, bees, and bumblebees. With an evergreen leaf throughout all seasons, this species offers year-round interest without being invasive to the detriment of surrounding plants.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica)

Pennsylvania sedge.

Pennsylvania sedge is commonly found in the dry to dry-mesic understory of oak-hickory woodlands. It is a nice landscaping choice for a dry, shady yard location in Kansas. While they certainly do resemble grasses in their appearance, sedges, characterized by their triangular stem (“sedges have edges”) are in a family all their own.

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’ (Aquilegia canadensis)

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’.

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions and its flowers attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. The name is in reference to a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia is derived from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together). This pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains!

Spring Bloomers in Your Landscape

Many spring blooming wildflowers are native to woodland understories. Such woodland understories historically would have only been native to Eastern Kansas. Today, urban tree canopies and the north side of fences, garages, and houses all provide great shady habitat to plant spring woodland bloomers like those featured in our FloraKansas plant sale Spring Woodland Kit.

But you certainly don’t need to stop with the species in this kit. See a previous blog post (Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants) featuring additional spring bloomers that you might consider for shady or sunny areas.

Celebrate Earth Day with me. Consider participating in the rewarding ritual of native plant gardening and make every day Earth Day.

Shade Plants in Their Natural Habitat

On vacation in early July, some friends and I explored Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Rocky and rainy, with lushly forested slopes, it is a very different landscape from my beloved Kansas. While hiking I saw many of my favorite shade plants living in situ, outside the confines of our carefully cultivated gardens. To spot them in their natural habitat is always a thrill!

Devil’s Lake State Park offers well kept hiking trails, rock climbing and water recreation.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit was growing along the hiking path ringing the lake. Easy to confuse with poison ivy because of its three leaves, colonies of them grow in part sun locations. In early spring their fluted blooms appear, inconspicuous in yellow and brown. In hot locations they will conserve their energy and go dormant for the summer.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Ferns

Ferns were growing out of every crag, reaching their delicate fronds upward. Kansas does actually have many of our own native ferns, but they are much harder to find than those in wetter climes. I was really having a hard time keeping up with our hiking group because I was so fascinated by the diversity of ferns around us! I saw christmas ferns, lady ferns and wood ferns all in less than a mile’s walk.

The dots on the underside of the fern frond are spore clusters called ‘sori’.

Coral Berry

I also saw groups of coral berry (Symphoricarpos) growing in the understory, their fruits shining in the dappled light of afternoon. There are lots of cultivars of this plant quite suitable for sunnier locations. They make wonderful bushes for foundation plantings or filler amongst other shrubs.

Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Wisconsin to see these beauties. All the plants listed in this post will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival fundraiser! Call or email Arboretum staff for more information.