What Will This Year’s Monarch Migration Bring?

Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.

(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)

Monarch Fallout

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

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

Big Numbers

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

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

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

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

Fallout Location

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

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

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

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

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

Predator Story

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

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

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

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

Monarch Toxicity

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

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

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

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

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

Plant Milkweed

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

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

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

Great Plains Skink

Great Plains Skink (adult form) from my urban garden in Newton, KS (May 28, 2009)

Increasingly, I find enjoyment in the wildlife attracted to my native plant gardens. One species I’ve especially loved seeing has been the Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus). For at least 13 years (since I took the above photo), I have observed this species coming and going from under my garage or deck, around the foundation of my house, and to and from my native plant gardens. The combination of these habitats appears to provide suitable cover, food, and thermoregulation for this ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptile.

Identification

The adult Great Plains Skink averages 7-9 inches in length (as large as 13″) and is the largest, most common, and most widespread (nearly throughout the entire state) of the seven skink species in Kansas.

Great Plains Skink range map from the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas

Coloring ranges from tan with dark brown markings to light gray or olive. The following photos show some of the variations in colors and markings for this species from juvenile to adult.

Natural History

In addition to my urban gardens, it is referenced in the book Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas (Collins, Collins, and Taggart, 2010) that the Great Plains Skink commonly inhabits open, rocky hillsides with low prairie vegetation. Their diet consists of spiders and a variety of insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

Breeding occurs in May after which pregnant females dig deep burrows under rocks and lay 5-32 (average of 12) eggs. After a 1-2 month incubation period, hatched young skinks may take several years to reach sexual maturity.

Diversity in the Home Landscape

Landscaping with native plants leads to attraction of a variety of wildlife species. This bigger picture food chain or ecosystem connection between plants and the animals they support has become one of the most interesting and satisfying incentives of incorporating as much native plant diversity into my home landscape as possible. Whether these plant-animal or predator-prey interactions attract butterflies, monarchs or birds that eat them, birds in general, large beetles, fireflies, cicada killers, preying mantids, bats, or skinks, I’m intrigued with observing every single connection and the underlying story it tells.

I’ll leave you with the following observation…from just last night. We added a red fox to the list of species that has visited our urban home landscape. It spent about an hour in a tussle with a flexible plastic downspout tube in one of our gardens. This particular shade garden is where I have most recently seen a skink in recent weeks. Was “skink-in-a-tube” the cause for this entertainment? Will I see the skink again in this area? Whatever the case, I will enjoy continued observations and looking for answers.

Is there still a skink somewhere in this photo?

The first year: Getting native plants established

Originally published on May 27, 2020

The prairie communities we see are diverse and complex.  Plants, intricately woven together, crowd out weeds and harmoniously coexist.  When you look at a prairie, you only see about 1/3 of the plant.  The root systems that sustain these native plants make up the remainder, because they reach deep into the soil.  The first year is so critical to the whole process of getting native plants established. Developing these root systems properly is vitally important and the establishment period takes time.  Here are a few steps I take to get my new native plants started. 

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

I like to lay out the entire area by placing the plants where they are supposed to be planted.  This does a couple things: first, it helps with proper spacing of the plants and second, it helps to visualize the final outcome.  Think about mature size, rather than what the plants looks like in its infant state. 

Now that we have the plants laid out, we can start putting them in the soil.  It is critical to not plant them too deep.  In our heavy clay soils, it is best to plant them level or slightly higher (1/8 to ¼ inch) than the soil line, especially in heavier clay soil.  This keeps the crown drier, which is important for disease control.  Over time, these natives will develop at the depth they prefer to grow in. 

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

Now that the plants are in the ground, they need frequent watering until they get established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered daily until they begin to root and connect with the soil around them. Keep in mind that improper watering is the most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period. 

For me, I water each new area by hand rather than with a sprinkler. It helps me control the amount of water each plant receives and directs it to the intended plant.  I water every day for the first two weeks depending on the weather.  After that first two weeks, you should start to see new growth. 

For the next few weeks, I water every other day or every third day as needed, monitoring the planting each day for signs of stress/wilting. 

Even after this month long process of establishment, each plant must be monitored and watered through the following summer, fall, winter and spring.  Native plants are not established until the second summer. 

Remember, it takes a few years for those roots to fully develop.  If your plants are properly sited, you will not need to water much after the first full year.  However, if you must water your area during a dry period, natives will appreciate deep and infrequent watering. 

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

People ask me all the time about fertilizing native plants.  As a general rule, I don’t fertilize our native plants especially during that first year. Think about those small plants in the ground and what will happen to them if they are fertilized. They will have tremendous top growth that is not sustainable by the small root system. This will put the plant under stress and slow its progress. 

Natives are resilient and adaptive. The deep roots most often will find the nutrients and moisture each plant needs.

Mulch

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants. There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds. 

These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

If you decide to mulch your display beds initially, only place one to two inches of mulch down and keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established. As they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch.  Something to think about is whether you have seen mulch in the prairie?  No, the plants eventually co-mingle and intertwine to push out weeds.     

Creating a native landscape takes time.  With each new plant established comes an expectation of a brighter future. Often, we garden and landscape our yards with the anticipation of what we will get rather than what we are giving back.  By adding native plants to our gardens, we will help make our gardens not only beautiful, but also productive and full of life.

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

We encounter many enthusiastic new gardeners at FloraKansas who have heard about the importance of planting native plants, but don’t yet have the knowledge base needed to establish a successful planting. If you’re dreaming of a flourishing prairie pollinator garden, let me unpack the why behind the what of a few more horticultural terms for you.

Host Plants

Often, the focus for our gardens is on blooms and succession of blooms, more so than host plants.  Beautiful gardens in full bloom are what we see in catalogs, magazine and books. It is natural to gravitate toward these flourishing gardens that nectar-seeking butterflies need to sustain themselves. However, host plants (food for butterfly caterpillars) will keep them coming back to your landscape for years to come.    

It’s important to plan for the entire life cycle of a pollinator. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs.  Think of host plants as the baby nurseries of the garden. Female butterflies will flit and flutter through your garden looking for the right plant to lay their eggs. Some will lay their eggs on stems, or on the underside of leaves, hidden from predators. If you have a variety of host plants, you will attract a variety of butterflies. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Ultimately, the goal of any habitat garden is to provide everything those butterfly species need to complete their life cycle. Food for all stages of their life cycle, protection, and water are needed at different times throughout the year. The tiny larvae (caterpillars) will emerge and begin eating on the host plant. As they eat, they grow until they leave the plant and form a chrysalis. It is a fascinating process that you can watch unfold in your own garden. 

Here are a few host plants and the pollinator they attract:

  • Wild Lupine – Karner Blue butterfly
  • Golden alexander – Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • New Jersey Tea – Spring Azure butterfly
  • Columbine – Columbine Duskywing
  • Smooth Blue Aster – Crescent Butterflies
  • Little Bluestem – Leonard’s Skipper
  • Prairie Violet – Fritillary Butterflies
  • Pearly Everlasting – American Lady
  • Milkweeds – Monarchs
  • Paw Paw – Zebra Swallowtail butterfly
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly on Pawpaw tree at the Arboretum, photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Resource: Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe, and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press, 2014.

Sunlight Defined

Knowing how much light you have within your landscape is an important piece to a sound design. By simply watching sun patterns throughout the year, you will be able to determine how much sunlight your garden receives. Industry standards and labeling can then be used to assist in selecting the right plants for your landscape conditions. Here are some terms worth knowing since all plants require sunlight to grow, but differ in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. 

  • 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

Full Sun

Not surprisingly, this type of light describes what most prairie plants need. They enjoy open, bright sunny locations with direct sunlight for most of the day. This could also be morning shade/afternoon sun or vice versa, as long as there is at least 6 hours of continuous sunlight. Most of these plants have deeper root systems or adaptations that help them endure this light intensity for the growing season. 

Let experience be your guide when situating plants. Yes, some plants can handle full sun, but need protection for the hot afternoon sun. Or they can handle full sun with consistent moisture. This is the other reason to understand your site, including soil moisture, soil type, root competition and drainage.  All these factors directly affect plants too.  

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

These light definitions are quite a bit different than plants for full sun.  Plants for part sun and part shade obviously require less light, more importantly, the light intensity is a key factor for their endurance and success.  Filtered sun for most of the day or morning sun afternoon shade fit the bill for situating plants.  Too much direct sunlight for too long a period will stunt plants needing part sun or part shade. 

There is often a fine line between getting too much sun that the plants suffer and getting too little light that the plants don’t bloom. For either group, providing direct morning sun is often the best choice.

Full Shade

Most shade plants require anything from the dappled shade found under deciduous trees, indirect light found on the north side of the house or deeper shade found under evergreens. In our area, growing shade plants can be a challenge because we are trying to grow shade plants in what was once a prairie environment with intense full sun. True shade plants often perish because they get too much sun, too much hot dry wind and/or too little moisture.

To successfully grow shade plants in our area, they need protection and consistent moisture. Any shade gardens must mimic the woodland environment. Loamy soils with leaf litter, consistent moisture – but not too much! – and protection from drying winds. It can be a challenge, but shade gardens can be carefully created with the proper light conditions, too.

Dyck Arboretum woodland garden with columbine, woodland phlox, white woodland aster and solomon’s seal

Defining Common Horticultural Terms

There are many horticultural terms that get tossed around in casual conversation. We hear these words or phrases in presentations, and read them in books and seed catalogs. Presenters often assume that everyone knows what they mean without much explanation. Here are a just a few words I use from time to time that I would like to define for you.

Xeriscape

Denver Water coined the term xeriscape in 1981 by combining landscape with the Greek prefix xero-, from (xēros), meaning ‘dry’. Xeriscaping = water-conserving landscapes. This landscaping concept focuses on several water conserving measures such as:

  • Planning and design that matches plants to the site
  • Water-efficient plant materials, especially native plants
  • Efficient irrigation systems including drip irrigation
  • Use of water-conserving mulch or densely planted gardens
  • Soil preparation only if necessary
  • Appropriate turf since it can be very water consuming

Something to remember: a xeric garden can still be a beautiful garden. It will just require less water over time so it’s a win, win situation.

Xeric garden at the Arboretum

Habitat

A habitat garden is a garden that mimics the natural landscape while also providing food, shelter and potentially water for wildlife, including pollinators. A habitat garden has layers of plants and a succession of blooms. It is a very intentional way of landscaping focused more on giving back rather than taking something from your landscape. Don’t get me wrong, a habitat garden can still be beautiful, but it will certainly give you much more enjoyment as you attract a host of pollinator, birds and other wildlife to your yard.

Stratification

One of the most interesting processes I learned when I first started working at the Arboretum was the process of stratification. It intrigued me that I could collect seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse simply by simulating the chilling and warming that seeds would endure if left outdoors for the winter in their native climate. This chilling and warming that seeds are exposed to breaks down natural germination inhibitors until they are ready and able to germinate the next year.

This process is so important for plants and their survival because it keeps seeds from germinating the same year of development. They must go through a cold period such as winter before they are able to germinate. This does two important things: keeps seeds from germinating in the fall and allows the seeds to be worked into the soil over the winter with the natural freeze/thaw of the soil so they can germinate in spring.

If a seed would germinate in the fall, that tiny plant would not have enough time to develop a sustaining root system. The tiny seeding would not survive the winter. The natural process allows a seed to lay dormant all winter and germinated in the spring when conditions are more favorable for survival, it would have the entire growing season to develop a healthy root system.

This process of stratification is why we encourage people to scatter prairie wildflowers and grass seed in November and December. It allows time for this process to occur so the seeds will germinate the following year.

Hopefully, this is helpful. I will discuss some other terms in upcoming blogs.

2005 seed mix of wildflowers and grasses scattered on the Prairie Window Project at the Arboretum

Dividing Perennials

A perennial border is evolution on fast-forward, a watercolor in the rain, changing weekly as various species segue in and out of bloom – and yearly as its constituents dominate or yield, flourish or succumb, according to their natures.

John Friel from Friel World in Green Profit

Friel perfectly describes a native perennial border. Each plant grows according to its nature. Some are spreaders while some stay put or fade with competition. To keep all these plants happy and harmoniously growing together, a few plants may need to be thinned from time to time – divided so that they don’t dominate too much.

Front entrance sign will be updated with division of plants, especially grasses and asters.

When to Divide Your Perennials

As we move into spring, March and April is the best time to begin dividing perennials. You can divide in August and September, but excess growth and heat may hinder success. Dividing perennials can be stressful on the plants so dividing during times with cool, moist conditions will reduce shock. Another thing to keep in mind is that native grasses will not start to actively grow until soil temperatures reach at least 60 degrees. Grasses are often the last plants I divide in the spring. It’s good to wait until they are starting to show signs of life.       

Which Plants to Divide

  • Yarrow
  • Asters
  • Coral bells
  • Joe Pye weed
  • Liatirs
  • Monarda
  • Rudbeckia
  • Coreopsis
  • Spiderwort
  • Sneezeweed
  • Goldenrod
  • Echinacea purpurea varieties
  • Vernonia
  • Sunflowers
Black-eyed Susan is one of the easiest perennials to divide. (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Native grasses often form a “donut” – the center dies back with active growth on the outer edges. 

  • Panicum
  • Little Bluestem
  • Big Bluestem
  • Indiangrass
  • Sideoats
  • Blue Grama
Grass that would benefit from being divided

How to Divide Perennials

  • Dig the Clump

After you have identified the plants that need to be divided, the next step is to dig the entire clump out of the ground.  If the soil is dry, it is beneficial to water the area a few days ahead to soften the soil.  With well-established grasses this may be a challenge, but it is important to work at it until it is removed. Grasses are resilient and can take much abuse in this division process. I have even worked at removal with a pick axe. Remove the clump/clumps from the hole and set it aside. Brush off excess soil to reveal the growing points.   

  • Separate the growing points/crowns and replant   

Some plants are easier to pull apart than others. For instance, asters are easier to pull apart than switchgrass. Usually, I break these clumps in to 1/16th, 1/8th or ¼ pieces. Each clump needs to have a few leaves or healthy growing points and roots in order to grow. Then, replant the divisions as soon as possible so the roots don’t dry out. I put them back into the same hole from which they were removed. Plant at the same depth as before and water well. Cover any bare soil with mulch to help conserve moisture while your new divisions become established. Left over plants can be shared with friends or composted. 

  • Water well

Reestablish these divisions as you would any newly planted perennial. Water daily depending on the weather for the first two weeks. Once you see new growth, reduce water frequency to every other day or every three days. You have removed much of the supporting root system so it will take at least a season to get that back. Also, I would not fertilize the new transplants, because it will encourage top growth that is not sustainable with the new root system.

Which Plants to NOT Divide

While most perennials benefit from being divided every few years, there are a few perennials with deep taproots that are better left alone. You will be more successful planting new seedlings than trying to dig these plants out of the ground. In my experience, it is easier to start with a plant than to remove these plants. Too much damage is inflicted on the taproot. Avoid dividing these varieties:

  • Baptisia
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
  • Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea paradoxa)

We have divided and transplanted hundreds of plants over the years and I don’t believe I’ve ever lost one. Native perennials are resilient and recover from being transplanted in about a week. They may look rough the first year, but they will really come to life the next year. Go out in the next few weeks and identify a few plants that would benefit from a fresh start.

Looking forward to spring! (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Fall Checklist for a Wildlife Beneficial Landscape

Each fall there are a lot of articles and checklists outlining what you need to do to make a healthy garden – a whole stack of chores that take so much time and effort. Who are you tidying for? Is all that raking, cutting, hauling, tidying, trimming and pulling necessary this time of year? I’m here to tell you to stop and take a few steps back before doing much yard and garden clean up this fall. Here’s my fall checklist for a wildlife beneficial landscape:

Habitat=Wildlife 

First, all that tidying is destroying habitat and making it more difficult for backyard wildlife to survive the winter in your landscape.  Leave your perennials and grasses standing through the fall and winter.  These plants are resources for wildlife, offering shelter, overwintering sites and sometimes food. Cut back perennials and grasses in early spring. 

There is one exception – if you have diseased plants, cut them back now and dispose of the debris, but not in the compost pile.

Blackhaw viburnum with fruit and switchgrass in the fall

Mulch

DO spread mulch around trees and shrubs. A fresh layer of mulch insulates the soil from weather extremes. Two to three inches of mulch helps conserve water and control weeds. Too much mulch though can be a real problem as it seals off the soil from air exchange and makes soil go into an anaerobic state too wet for plants to thrive. Mulch is a good way to keep mowers and string trimmer away from the trunks and stems.    

Walk about

DO take a walk through you garden and label any plants that you are thinking about moving in the spring. Look for signs of drought stress in your landscape and remember plants that have struggled this year. Unhappy plants may need a new home and would benefit from a space with more sun, more shade, or more or less water. By flagging them now, you will save yourself some time searching for them next March or April. Use durable labels with pencil markings or waterproof pen that will not fade from the sun to mark their location. Keep in mind that some of these plants may be very difficult to identify next year.   

Ponder

DO assess your landscape as an ecosystem. Do you have the habitat that attracts pollinators and wildlife? Are there plant layers of trees, shrubs and perennials that mimic natural areas around you? What plants have you noticed are missing from your landscape? What is the starting point to create beneficial elements, layers and habitat in your landscape? Each different layer provides habitat and resources for different wildlife, so plan to include any missing layers in the spring.

Layers of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees

Look up and observe any pruning that needs to be done. Look for dead or diseased wood in your trees and shrubs and take note of path encroachment by neighboring shrubs. During winter, when these plants are dormant, is the best time to prune for best plant health. 

Leaves

DO leave fallen leaves in place whenever possible. Don’t let them smother your lawn, but rather mulch them into the lawn with several passes of your mulching mower. If you are inundated with leaves, collect them and use them in plant beds. Leaves make excellent compost and add organic matter to the soil. It is often overlooked that leaves offer overwintering sites for invertebrates and other critters that are part of healthy ecosystems. Remove only as much as needed.

Just think of all those pretty little insects tucked snuggly into bed for the winter in your landscape. (Photo by Brad Guhr)

This whole growing season you have created habitat through the use of native plants. You have been careful to avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides as much as possible. Bird baths, feeders, brush piles, and nectaring plants have helped build up populations of bees, butterflies, bugs, birds and other wildlife. 

You have created habitat so why destroy all that hard work by tearing it all down right now? Let the wildlife you have attracted to your landscape survive through the winter. Embrace a little untidiness. It will be worth it.  Wait until March or early April to get your landscape ready for another growing season. 

Reasons to Leave Ornamental Grasses In Winter

The use of ornamental grasses in the landscape has become more popular than ever, and for good reason. The allure of ornamental grasses is that they are tough and easy to grow. Their resilient nature reflects our prairie landscape in our own garden. They are a nice visual contrast to many other plants like perennials, shrubs, trees and even other grasses. A bonus is the beauty and movement they add to the winter landscape.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

One of the questions we get this time of year is whether or not to cut ornamental grasses back to the ground for winter?

In the fall, ornamental grasses are in their full regalia with their attractive seed heads. From short to tall, these grasses put on quite a late season show. As we transition into fall, the colors they develop are another reason we use them in our landscapes. However, these fall colors fade and we are left with dull shades of tan and brown. Is it best to leave these grasses now or remove them? Generally, we leave them through the winter, and cut them back before they begin to grow next season. In Kansas, this task can be done in late February to early April.

Here are some of the advantages of leaving grasses for the winter and waiting until the spring to cut them back

  • Grasses provide form and texture in the stark winter landscape of withered perennials and deciduous shrubs. These qualities stand out in the frost or snow and low winter sunlight.
  • Mix well with perennial wildflower seed heads
  • Provide movement in the garden. The tawny stems and seed heads move with the gentlest breeze.
  • If used as a screen, they can be left up just before they start greening up again in the spring.
  • Most native grasses can provide habitat and shelter for birds and other small animals along with overwintering sites for insects and pollinators.
  • By waiting to remove the previous year’s growth until late winter, the crown of the grass is more protected from the elements.
Little Bluestem and Coneflower Photo by Emily Weaver
Switchgrass capturing snow

How do I cut back my grasses?

After leaving the stalks up through the winter, they are drier, more brittle, and easier to cut back. I like to cut tall grasses like switchgrass and big bluestem down to about 2-3 inches off the ground. I do this with a hedgetrimmer by moving it back and forth across the stalks a few inches at a time. We used to completely remove these stalks and haul them away. Now, we let the clippings lay as mulch around the plants. These stalks may still have overwintering pollinators in the stalks that are left in the garden for next season. By spreading the cut stems around as mulch it helps to break down more quickly too. I shape smaller grasses like prairie dropseed with a pruner or hedgetrimmer. Again, I like to cut them back to two to three inches from the ground.

Over the years, we have found it very beneficial to leave ornamental grasses standing for the winter. You’ll be creating a habitat for birds, insects, and small animals. The rustling grasses will remind you of the successful season past and the promise of spring yet to come.

Switchgrass cut back in late winter ready for spring

Landscaping with Plant Communities in Mind

This blog post is updated and republished. Previously published as “The Social Network for Plants” in September 2017.

One of the landscaping concepts I touched upon in my recent Matrix Planting class is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them. More importantly we begin to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

Seeded Prairie Checkup

I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.

Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.

Species Identified

A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.

Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.

Weed Management

Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.