Insects: The little things that run the world

They pollinate 90% of the flowering plants on earth; and they eat plants, the crucial first step in changing plant energy into the fats and proteins that feed hosts of other animals. In so doing, insects sustain Earth’s ecosystems.  They truly are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “The little things that run the world.”

Yet globally, insect populations have declined by 47% since 1974, a loss that translates into a decline in the very ecosystems that sustain all life on earth, humans included! 

https://www.audubon.org/news/yards-non-native-plants-create-food-deserts-bugs-and-birds

What can be done to reverse this trend? By restoring native plant communities in yards and gardens, we can help reverse insect losses and restore ecosystem health to our yards and gardens. 

Why native plants? In study after study, it has been shown that native plants host many times more insect species than do non-natives. 

Which insect groups are most important? In Nature’s Best Hope, author Doug Tallamy suggests selecting native plants that support two important insect groups: large, nutritious insects (think caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and bees. Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets; and native bees perform the lion’s share of pollination. 

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/halictid_bees.shtml 

Where can I find resources for host plants native to my area?

Planting a diversity of native plants chosen for their ability to provide food for caterpillars and flowers for nectaring bees, ensures not only a prairie garden filled with a diversity of insects and birds, but also a garden that contributes to a healthier environment. And it is all happening right outside our door! 

Reference: 

Tallamy, Douglas W.  2019. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Are you ready for the Monarchs?

Spring is coming.  Nature is not locked down, but continues to come to life.  We notice the buds expanding and the crocus blooming.  Leaves emerging from the depths and plants all around us waking from their winter slumber.  As spring unfolds around us, something extraordinary is about come our way again.  The Monarchs are coming. 

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr
A monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Providing for pollinators

The monarch’s annual spring migration north from Mexico has begun.  You can track their progress through Monarch Watch and Journey North.  Each year we take note of when this incredible journey passes through our area.  It is amazing to think that these delicate creatures can make this trek north and south every year.        

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline.

Monarchs also need other blooming native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that provide nectar for the adult butterflies to feed upon.  This habitat, critical to the survival of the monarchs, continues to disappear at an alarming rate.  This natural habitat decline is taking a steep toll on wildlife of all types.

Monarch on New England Aster in the fall. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Plant more than milkweed

Many of us are planting milkweeds and native nectar plants in our gardens to help monarchs survive.  Here is a list of plants from our Native Plant Guide that monarchs prefer:

Perennials

  • Aster ‘October Skies’
  • Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  • New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae sp.)
  • Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
  • Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.)
  • Coreopsis
  • Blazing Star (Liatris sp.)
  • Beebalm (Monarda sp.)
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)
  • Yarrow (Achillea sp.)
  • Eryngium yuccifolium
  • Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
  • Zizia aurea
  • Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’
  • Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers’
  • Prairie clover (Dalea sp.)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp.)

Shrubs

  • Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)
  • Leadplant (Amorpha sp.)
  • ServiceBerry (Amelanchier sp.)
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus sp.)
  • American plum (Prunus sp.)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus sp.)
  • Viburnum (Viburnum sp.)
Buttonbush bloom

Trees

  • Buckeye (Aesculus sp.)
  • Redbud (Cercis sp.)
  • Persimmon (Diospyros sp.)
  • Linden (Tilia sp.)

Stretch the season

A greater variety of plants will attract a greater variety of wildlife, including monarchs.  Try to plant several species of wildflowers with varying bloom times, providing nectar sources that stretch through the season. Different pollinator populations peak at various times through the warm months, so provide for them by having a long blooming garden. Early spring and late fall flowers can help sustain migrating species in the difficult stages of their journey. Research has shown that a lack of late season nectar sources is as crucial to migration success as milkweed. Help these insects get the energy they need all through the year!

If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  Support habitat and other food sources for monarch butterflies and other wildlife by planting native plants.  It is always beneficial to reduce mowing, and limit or eliminate the spraying of herbicides and pesticides.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.  Watch for these incredible butterflies.  They are coming. 

One final thought I came across the other day:

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn

Plant Profile: Possumhaw Holly, Deciduous Holly

If you have been walking through the Arboretum over the past few weeks, you probably noticed the deciduous holly.  Ilex decidua gets so much attention because of its incredibly lustrous fruit of red, orange, and yellow.  As the leaves fall away each year in November and December, the fruit magically appears and remains on the tree for most of the winter. 

‘Sundance’ Deciduous Holly

Fruit

These colorful berries are not a preferred food of birds, but become more appetizing when snow covers the ground.  Often trees are completely stripped of berries in a couple days after a heavy snow, because other food sources are not readily available.  Many birds, including cedar waxwings, flock to these trees to feed on the fruit later in winter.

Deciduous holly requires male and female plants to produce fruit.  Tiny white flowers appear before the leaves in March and April.  We have several male selections planted in close proximity to the female plants to assure the development of the attractive fruit each year.  It is best to keep the fruit producing female plants in the foreground and tuck the male forms out of sight.  We have used the branches with fruit cluster as holiday decorations.

Evergreen wreath
Holly berries as part of an evergreen wreath

Habit and Site Preferences

Deciduous holly, or Possumhaw as it is often called, is a small tree or large shrub that grows 15-20 feet tall. The smooth gray bark of the trunk and branches hold the fruit on the upper half of the plant.  Here in the Arboretum, we have both tree forms and suckering shrubs. Either is attractive and the suckering shrubs making a nice screen. As their name indicates, they are deciduous, dropping the leaves in autumn to fully reveal the berries.      

These deciduous trees grow best in full sun or partial shade.  Trees are more vigorous and produce more berries in full sun.  We have several along our creek channel and some around our parking lot.  They are quite adaptable to wet or drier conditions.

A few selections at the Arboretum:

‘Council Fire’ – An upright, rounded form growing 15′ tall and 10′ wide, this plant is superior for its ample fruit production and retention in clusters along the stems.

‘Council Fire’

Red Escort’ – This is a male selection (pollinator) with glossy leaves and a habit to 20′ tall.

‘Warren’s Red’ – This cultivar grows on the eastern border of the Arboretum parking lot.  It is very hardy and consistently produces fruit.  It is more shrub-like and upright, ultimately reaching 15’ tall. 

‘Warren’s Red’

‘Sundance’ – Nice tree form to 10’ tall and 8’ wide.  It has the longest lasting fruit, which is orange-red.

‘Sundance’

We are planning to have several deciduous holly varieties at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Check out our Native Plant Guide for these cultivars along with Ilex verticillata varieties. Each will give you great winter color and habitat for the landscape. We love their hardiness and toughness as well as the beautiful fruit. Why not give them a try?

Attracting Wildlife Through the Winter

Winter is a great time to curl up on the couch and enjoy some cozy relaxation. But for wildlife, it is a three month battle for survival! There are many ways we can help wildlife get through these difficult months. Of course, the best way to attract and support biodiversity is to fill our landscapes with native plants, providing seeds, host plants, shelter, and an active soil biome. But if you missed the boat on planting this past year, there are still some things you can do today to attract furry and feathered friends.

compass plant with snow
Native plants add beauty and shape to the winter landscape (Photo by Brad Guhr).

Food

I am an avid birder, so I love to put out feeders in winter when food is scarce to witness a diverse set of species as they drop by. Make sure your feeders are hanging high, away from potential predators (read: neighborhood cats!) and that they offer high-value feed like sunflower seeds or suet cakes.

spotted towhee bird
Spotted Towhee on a fence post – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Besides birds, I like to see rabbits and other small mammals hanging around. Toss out food scraps like carrot skins or wilted salad greens, either in a compost pile or along a fence line to attract rabbits and opossums. (Opossums?!? Why would you want them around? Here’s why)

I used to live near a small field that is home to deer. Some people in our neighborhood scatter corn on the edge of their yard to draw them out of the woods. They come out just as the sun is going down, peacefully nibbling the grains.

Water

When the temperatures plummet, puddles and streams freeze over, becoming inaccessible to the animals that desperately need a drink. Heated birdbaths do the trick, but an inexpensive option is to frequently refill a cement birdbath, less likely to crack than porcelain ones. I dump a pitcher of water into my birdbath before I head to work, giving the birds at least a little bit of drinking time before it freezes over again. Easily make your own cement bird bath like this one, a similar process to what we do every year in the EPS summer institute for teachers. I keep my birdbath low to the ground so that it is accessible to birds, but also to other passing friends like rabbits and skunks.

Yes, rabbits can be a bit of a pest, but by providing them with a water source you fortify their place in the food chain, thereby supporting the foxes, owls, and other predators that depend on a healthy rabbit population. By Gidzy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shelter

A brush pile is a great and easy way to create high-quality shelter for birds and small mammals. Find a forgotten corner of the yard and collect sticks, limbs, leaves, and other brush into at least a 3 foot by 5-foot stack. Forget taking all that stuff to your local dump; save yourself the work and create habitat for neighborhood critters.

Additionally, planting a few evergreens in the landscape protects tree-dwelling animals from the icy winter winds. Though eastern red cedar is Kansas’s only native evergreen, I have a few other favorites that do well in our climate. Look for Taylor Junipers at our sale (a cedar selection) for a pencil-shaped evergreen good for limited space. Arizona cypress and Green Giant Arborvitae are good non-native options.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

Plan Ahead

Spring is, remarkably, just around the corner. Start planning now for how you want to improve your landscape with native plants so you are ready when FloraKansas arrives! A garden with food, water, shelter, and a diverse set of native plants will attract wildlife season after season, year after year.

Rethinking Garden Clean Up

It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming.  I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.

Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden.  The grasses are spectacular this year too.   

Monarch on New England Aster

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape.  It will be time for the prairie to sleep.  Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.

Taking stock

I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring.  I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens. 

Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March.  What areas am I going to focus on next year?  Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning?  What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape?  What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife? 

Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized.  Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Your stewardship efforts are making a difference.  Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden. 

Perennials

We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds.  It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem.  Enjoy these autumnal combinations. 

Little Bluestem

Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early.  Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months.   Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds.  Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape.  By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife.  We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch.  Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil.  In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good. 

Leaves

I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.

When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away.  They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.   

Tablerock Sugar Maple

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take note of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Can One Garden Make a Difference?

One of the thoughts that I keep coming back to is this question of whether one garden can make a difference in the world.  This question makes me ask even more questions like: Can it slow habitat loss? Will it really attract pollinators? Can a conservation garden be beautiful and functional? Is encouraging biodiversity important? Can such a small garden mimic essential ecological processes? Will these pocket gardens connect people with nature? Even if only some of this is true, then conservation CAN indeed start at home.

 

Create Prairie Habitat at Home

Creating habitat gardens, prairie gardens, wildflower gardens or whatever we want to call them is now part of the conservation movement. Prairies as we knew them 200 years ago are never coming back to their original form. I would love to see large herds of bison meandering through vast expanses of prairie. We would stand in awe as we looked across the horizon on a rich and diverse landscape that moved with the gentlest breeze. But there remains only a handful of prairies that reflect this bygone era. Certainly, we must protect and try to enlarge these prairie tracts as much as possible, but encouraging the planting of thousands of small prairie gardens is equally important. We must begin at our homes by creating small vignettes that reflect our prairie heritage.

 

Give Back to Nature

It is through human intervention that these new landscapes can bring about change. Nature now relies on us to help more than ever. Conservation is like paddling upstream on a river. Progress happens as long as we keep paddling, but as soon as we stop the river pushes us backward. Incremental change or success is a result of our concerted efforts focused on moving us upstream. We can give nature back as much as it gives us. We rely on each other and we can no longer be separated from one another.

So to answer my question: Yes. Every garden is important in so many ways. To choose to restore, create or protect a habitat makes a difference. Each landscape/garden, no matter how small, can truly have a positive impact on the health of the environment. Imagine your garden habitat connected with hundreds of other prairie landscapes throughout each community, as shown through the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Pollinators and wildlife will benefit and we will feel good about the role we play as we care for nature.

 

Here are a few ways that incremental change can happen:

  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
  • Use native plants as much as possible, because wildlife prefers these plants.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that develop fruit and berries that birds need as they migrate or overwinter.
  • Design a garden that has a variety of plants blooming throughout the year.
  • Incorporate plants that adapt to your site, which makes them low maintenance.
  • Transition parts of your lawn to wildlife habitat.

 

Instead of looking at all the negative that surrounds us daily, let’s focus on the positive role we can have in our neighborhoods.  It is easy to be all doom and gloom, but really we should continue to paddle forward. I believe small, steady changes provide us with a unique opportunity to discover what it means to be a steward of creation.  Who knows? Maybe your garden will be an inspiration that others use to begin their own journey. One garden can make a tremendous difference.

If you live in Kansas and don’t know where to start in establishing a prairie habitat garden, we invite you to further explore our Prairie Notes blog and attend our upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.