When you look at a virgin prairie (one that has never been tilled), you quickly discover a tremendous diversity of plants. Each square foot has many different species vying for sunlight, moisture, and space. Species change throughout the prairie as well from high to low, wet to dry, sun to shade, and vary even with soils. This diversity contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of the prairie landscape.
One of the keys to successfully creating a prairie garden is including a diversity of plants suited to your site. Time of bloom and aesthetics are often considered first, but including variety is an essential element in the process too. It’s also important to think about diversifying trees and shrubs. Let’s look at some reasons why diversifying our home landscapes to include more species is so relevant.
A Diverse Landscape is a Resilient Landscape
While each landscape is different, they all face an array of environmental pressures, such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases. A diverse landscape is more adaptable and resilient, able to endure these environmental hazards. We have all seen shelter belts and monocultures decimated by drought, pests or disease-leaving large holes in the landscape. If you think about it, single species or similar species landscapes are vulnerable to eradication in ways that diverse landscapes are not.
A Diverse Landscape Attracts Diverse Wildlife
Building season long blooms benefits wildlife. Plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom mimics the prairie ecosystem. If you watch any prairie throughout the year, there are always a new set of plants blooming every few weeks throughout the growing season. Beyond building resilience, a diversity of plants attracts a diversity of pollinators and wildlife allowing them to complete their lifecycles. This is so crucial for their survival. Patchwork prairies can serve as harbors, offering food and shelter to a broad range of wildlife.
A Diverse Landscape is Visually Interesting
As I said earlier, often our first consideration when choosing plants is aesthetics or ornamental characteristics. I don’t want to downplay this step in the process, but I do want to encourage you to try many different types of plant species. By varying plant species, you provide visual interest, which adds character to your landscape. Some of the most inviting spaces have diverse colors, shapes, blooms, textures, layers, and heights of plants.
A Diverse Landscape is a Dynamic Plant Community
A diverse plant palette suited for your site can look formal, but it generally requires more effort on our part to keep it looking kempt. However, an informal planting can be just as attractive. It depends on your maintenance style and preference. No matter how you want your landscape to look over time, we must prioritize the careful selection and planting of diverse prairie species.
It can’t be overstated – diversifying landscapes in the urban setting is so important. Diversity in the plants you include in your landscape attracts diversity to your landscape. This thoughtful approach to design not only enhances the beauty of our gardens but also strengthens their resilience in the face of environmental challenges. It also promotes sustainability, conservation of natural resources, and enriches our experiences with nature.
Fall is the best time of year to admire the beautiful regalia of native grasses. During the spring and summer, these grasses blend into their surroundings. As autumn deepens, the wonderful fall color and attractive seed heads of these grasses are on full display.
One of the most talked about grasses this fall has to be pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). A few years ago on the sidewalk in the northwest corner of the Arboretum, we established a couple groupings of these plants. This year, these swaths are topped with vibrant pink blooms.
Pink muhly grass is not only a beautiful ornamental grass, but it is also low-maintenance. We have not done much to keep these grasses going this growing season. It gives you the best of both worlds, a showy plant that doesn’t require much time and attention.
These plants establish relatively quickly, either planted in the spring or in the fall. If you are planting in the fall, plan ahead by getting them in the ground at least a month before the expected initial frost. They are a warm season grass that needs soil at least 60 degrees to continue rooting.
In the spring and summer, the rounded, slender, long shoots of grass are dark green in color. As fall approaches, the plant produces soft, fuzzy flowers in pink or pinkish-red hues, with an appearance resembling cotton candy. As winter grows near, the flowers lose their color, but the dried plumes are still attractive.
Muhlenbergia capillaris grows well in sandy or rocky woods and clearings with good drainage. It is native to Kansas and states south and east. We grow the straight species, but the cultivar ‘Regal Mist’ is another popular variety. Other beautiful cultivars include ‘Pink Flamingo’ and ‘White Cloud’. Planting in large drifts is breathtaking.
While not as well-known as some of the other native grasses, it should be used more in landscapes because of its tolerance to poor soil and dry conditions. It needs good drainage especially during the winter, but is quite adaptable once fully established. As the clumps develop excessive thatch after three or four years, division may be helpful. Perfect for slopes; great in a container; beautiful when tucked into cut-flower arrangements.
For next spring, put this grass on your bucket list. You will not be disappointed. The soft watercolor effect will stop you in your tracks.
I can’t seem to go on vacation nowadays without being stopped in my tracks when I see examples of habitat gardening. I don’t know if it’s just a result of working at the Dyck Arboretum for over ten years, or a function of having been bit by the native plant bug (pun intended). Either way, I want to share with you an excellent example of drought-tolerant, wildlife-friendly plants being utilized in an urban setting.
This summer I visited Vienna, Austria and the surrounding areas, and was struck by several really well-designed perennial gardens. For example, while waiting for a bus, a matrix planting along a hospital accessibility entrance ramp caught my attention.
In the 10 minutes we were at the bus stop, my mind (and my camera) took in as much as they could. I immediately set out to identify how the landscape architect had successfully employed the design principles I’ve heard repeated time and again by my co-workers in their Native Plant School classes.
If you’re not familiar with matrix planting, it’s a landscape design style, popularized by Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf. Famous North American gardens using matrix planting include public garden spaces such as “The High Line” in New York City and Lurie Garden in Chicago.
In this particular landscape, I could easily identify the three layers of the matrix: the structural layer, the seasonal interest layer and the ground cover layer. In the structural layer, several small shade trees and a few larger perennials anchored the corners of the planting and in some cases softened particularly sharp edges of the hardscaping.
The seasonal interest layer included repeated blocks of switchgrass, feather reed grass, black-eyed susan, yarrow, asters, ornamental onion, tickseed, and others. Groundcover plants were interspersed throughout for weed management, particularly along the edges of the walkway.
In addition to its visual impact, I also couldn’t ignore the sensory and emotional function that this garden was fulfilling. As my friends and I waited for the bus, we couldn’t help but walk over to feel the softness of the grasses. This planting certainly engaged multiple senses of passersby – providing a welcome contrast to the hardness of the concrete structures that surround it.
There was also a rooftop garden that I imagine is a spacious area for visitors and patients to relax and connect with nature. I didn’t have enough time to run up to it, but I was able to identify switchgrass and Mexican feathergrass from below.
I was so very encouraged by my habitat garden sighting in Vienna. It’s a wonderful feeling to travel and see examples where someone, at some point, must have had the courage to speak up and say “Why don’t we plant a habitat garden here?” It will have a positive impact on our public and our neighborhood, but also on the environment.
We continue to receive more inquiries here at the Arboretum from all sorts of places: not only homeowners and homeowners associations, but also from for profit and not for profit business entities, and from churches, libraries and schools. The collective impact you are making in your communities is awe-inspiring. Keep it up and continue to share with us your habitat gardening challenges and successes!
Portions of this article can also be found in our Summer 2023 issue of the Prairie Window Newsletter.
Having a summer intern here at the Arboretum is a lot of fun. Not only because I have someone to commiserate with when the temperatures are unbearable, or someone to laugh with when everything goes wrong, but also because they always ask “why?”
Why did we cut it by hand instead of mowing? Why did we move those leaves or add mulch? Why do we maintain this garden different from the next one?
The answers to these questions almost always center around priorities and purpose. To curate an Arboretum, we manipulate our natural environment in different ways, with goals in mind for each specific area.
Is the purpose of this garden to attract butterflies? Then we don’t do any trimming during peak caterpillar hatching time.
Are we hoping to encourage lightning bugs to nest here? Don’t rake away the leaf litter.
Is the goal of this space to be symmetrical, patterned, or have a certain color palette? Then we weed more frequently and stick closely to the original design.
Knowing your priorities and the purpose of a space easily guides your decisions.
Traditional landscaping has one job: to look pretty. We started creating ornamental gardens at castles and estates to signify wealth and create beauty. Several hundred years of horticulture practice have passed with little change. These human-centric values still have a stronghold on the landscaping industry. The typical shrubs, trees, and perennials installed around a newly built home in an American suburb are purely ornamental, with no relation to wildlife, climate, or geographic region.
Their purpose? Purely aesthetic. And so all the future decisions must serve that goal. Heavy chemical use to maintain the green lawn? Yes, to preserve the aesthetic. Constant trimming and shaping of shrubs? Yes, to make them look different from their natural shape. Overuse of water to keep non-native species green in a climate they did not evolve in? Of course. This is not a sustainable option, and at its worst is an outdated practice steeped in vanity and classism. Thankfully these priorities are beginning to shift to a more sustainable model of landscaping.
Find Your Purpose
Everybody has to decide for themselves, and for each unique space, what the purpose and priorities are. If the goal is to teach students about native plants, then we should prioritize plant labels. spacing, and good organization in the garden. If the purpose is to increase habitat, then prioritize ecosystem function — high plant diversity, dense, layered planting, less structure.
There is no “one way” to successfully use native plants. Some of our members are looking to decrease water usage, but keep their landscaping looking traditional and tidy. In this case, we might suggest using some cultivated varieties of natives that don’t spread or seed out much, but are very drought tolerant. For folks hoping to restore a prairie plot for conservation purposes, we would recommend straight species only and help them find an appropriate ratio of grasses and flower species native to their region, or even their county.
The plants chosen for each new project should be chosen with clear purpose in mind. A few years in, when you are adding new plants to the garden or making tough decisions, remembering your purpose and priorities will help keep you on track!
A big thanks to our grounds interns present and past, who have all asked excellent questions and contributed their talents to the Arboretum. You challenge us to always think critically about our priorities and purpose!
Over the 26 years that I have been at the Arboretum, I have made my share of mistakes. Some examples include planting prairie dock in a formal garden design, starting a garden too fast, and/or not knowing my site. I had book knowledge about horticulture, but I had not learned much about native plants. Through trial and error – mostly error – I learned some hard lessons and even killed a few plants along the way. I am still learning, but here are seven lessons I believe are essential for a successful prairie garden.
1. Perennial and annual weed control
I have made this mistake too often. In a rush to plant, I don’t get problem weeds like bindweed and Bermudagrass under control before planting. I am still fighting this issue to this day in some of these landscape settings. However, when I take the time to properly eradicate these weeds, the overall long-term success of the garden increases and the work to maintain it decreases. A little work at the beginning will save you many headaches down the road.
2. Plants should match your site.
This is the most important principle to follow in developing a successful landscape. Take a critical look at the area you want to landscape with native plants. Is it sunny? It is shaded for part of the day? What type of soil do you have? Is there a microclimate? Is it exposed to wind? All these factors will guide you as you select plants for your site. This step requires some research and time as you familiarize yourself with the qualities and environmental needs of native plants.
3. Succession of Bloom
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. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses.
4. Plan your garden for all seasons of the year
This lesson took the longest to learn, because it meant becoming familiar with the complete life cycle of each native plant. I needed to learn all about them – their bloom times, soil conditions they need to thrive, mature height and what they look like when not blooming, including seedheads and forms. Most of these characteristics had to be experienced over several years. That information is vital to planning and developing a prairie garden.
5. Be Patient
A prairie garden does not magically appear overnight. I know this goes counter to our “instant everything” culture, but prairie plants don’t work that way. It takes time for those transplants or seedlings to develop root systems that will sustain them during the dry periods of the year. I remember visiting a prairie reconstruction in Wisconsin several years ago. It had been established from seed 20 years earlier and the prairie manager said it was just then really maturing into a true prairie. I have found that if you are patient, you will be rewarded by beautiful, strong and adapted native plants.
6. Start Small
Planting too much too soon – I have made this mistake many times. My eyes get bigger than I can manage. I like too many of these native plants and rather than working at a project in stages, I plant the whole area. I then spend the rest of the summer maintaining a planting that is too big for the time I can give it. It has a tendency to get out of hand in a hurry if I don’t keep up with it on at least a weekly basis. Plant an area that you can handle with your schedule.
7. Remember Why!
Most times we create something for our own enjoyment. A properly designed native garden can be very attractive to you aesthetically. What we often forget, but are quickly reminded of, is that native plants attract many different pollinators and other wildlife to our landscapes. If you plant them they will come.
Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. Pollinators seek out the wildflowers they need and utilize them throughout the year. Monarch populations are declining. They need milkweed, and since we have milkweed in the Arboretum, they show up. Also, just like the monarchs, songbird populations are declining. They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.
Obviously I have not figured everything out. Learn from my mistakes and maybe a few of your own. Gardening is not an exact science. What works for you may not work for me. Your site may be totally different from mine. The key is to keep learning. Try plants you believe will work in your landscape.
Besides learning lessons the hard way remember to connect with your WHY! The “WHY we do something” gets lost in the tasks of creating something new. I need to be reminded “WHY” from time to time to reset my focus. We each have our own unique perspective and motivation, but reconnecting with your “WHY” will move you ever closer to your native plant gardening goals.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”
The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.
Will the wilting plants recover?
A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.
Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.
If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.
This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.
Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.
I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.
To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.
If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
Down time over the holidays while turning the calendar to the new year always feels like a good time to set sights on things I want to do to make my life more enjoyable and feel more meaningful. Planning for and embarking on challenges can be a way of establishing new habits. This year, I would like to focus more on the Land (as defined in The Land Ethic) and my connection to it. I will call them ecological resolutions and delineate them into three categories.
From the Dyck Arboretum grounds to a number of public and private lands in Harvey County, there are seemingly endless opportunities to practice ecological restoration on remnant or restored native plant communities. In a grassland ecosystem, those opportunities mostly involve reversing the progress of invading woody plants through wood cutting, prescribed burning, and mowing. Woody plant invasion is a real threat for prairies today that involves regular maintenance and effort.
Luckily, the action of wood cutting means being outside, getting exercise, creating firewood, and having fun in the process. I have fond memories of firewood cutting outings as a kid with my siblings, parents, and grandparents. While I don’t currently heat my house with wood, I have friends that do and perhaps we’ll work out some sort of bartering arrangement.
Such efforts also liberate prairie. The subsequent vigorous flowering response of grasses and wildflowers once they are released from the stifling effects of shade is what we are ultimately trying to achieve. That is probably for me the most gratifying part (even if it takes a year or two) of the whole process.
Selective removal of invasive/exotic wildflowers or grasses, brush mowing, conducting prescribed burns, collecting seed, and planting seed are also very worthwhile land restoration activities. This would be one of my top resolutions and a realm in which I would like to spend considerably more time in the coming year.
In a native plant garden or seeded restoration plot, we have some idea of what plants to expect to see blooming and setting seed because of our own work and preparation. The wildlife attracted to these developing plant communities, however, is much more of an unknown occurrence. I am fascinated by and motivated to learn more about the wildlife species attracted to native plant communities.
It has been incredible to see cause and effect play out so clearly with regard to planting native plants and drawing in wildlife. These host plants and their flower nectar and seeds really do attract critters. From small gardens to larger restoration prairies, I’ve observed the influx of insects, small mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, both plant-eaters and predators, in a relatively short timeline. Even when that short timeline is years in the making, the reward of seeing those wildlife species come in makes me want to install even more native plantings.
Just like anything else, building skills and knowledge in wildlife identification takes time and practice. But learning and appreciating the visual, auditory, ecological, and life cycle traits of wildlife species can be so interesting and rewarding. So then is the photography and story-telling of these species to try and inspire other people around you to plant native plants and try to attract wildlife to their landscapes as well.
I participate regularly in two events happening locally with regard to data collection of birds and butterflies. They are the Harvey County Christmas Bird Count and the Harvey County Butterfly Count. You can read more about each via the respective links and we are always welcoming new folks interested in participating. Experts lead the two counts that are great events for novice participants to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. Organized by the National Audubon Society and North American Butterfly Association, respectively, bird and butterfly counts can be found abundantly in nearly all 50 states.
Not only do I want to commit more time to bird and butterfly citizen science, but I would like to invest more time studying insects in general. Heather Holm has published excellent books on pollinators, bees, and wasps that are educational and inspiring.
To be inspired by a great prairie ecologist that photographs and writes about wildlife regularly, I would highly encourage you to follow a blog produced by Chris Helzer of the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Urban Native Landscaping
Enhancing the urban landscapes in which we live, work, and worship with native plants can be perhaps one of the easiest and most rewarding of activities we promote here at Dyck Arboretum. I could always enjoy spending more time on this particular resolution. Adding a handful of native plants to even the smallest of areas can do wonders – both for increasing biological diversity in your landscape and for increasing your connection to the land.
Dabbling with native plant gardens in my home landscape is a labor of love in almost all months of the year. Of course, you have the popular processes of planting and watching for pretty flowers that everybody loves. But I also enjoy the time spent in these gardens weeding, mulching, picking flowers for bouquets, collecting seed or dividing plants for friends, chopping down the old vegetation, and building garden borders. It is time enhanced with the delights of observing all sorts of plant-animal interactions. I am outside and unplugged. This practice during the pandemic has been critical for helping me stay sane and grounded.
If you follow our Dyck Arboretum blog, you hear plenty on this particular ecological resolution, so I’ll keep this one brief. If you are new native landscaping, or are looking ways to enhance your native gardening process, consider following some of the best management practices suggested HERE.
Perhaps you would care to join me on any part or all of this quest? I’m always looking for prairie restoration and wildlife watching companions. Spending time with these ecological resolutions will add value to your life and may even enrich the natural environment around you in the process. You won’t regret it.
“Ecological restoration also involves restoring our relatedness to the wild.” ~Dwight Platt
The wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees at Dyck Arboretum have mostly slipped into dormancy here in mid November and the activity of insects they support has greatly diminished. As a result, I often turn my attention this time of the year to wildlife. This week I am focused on the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio).
The attention to this species started when colleague Katie Schmidt recently alerted me to a head poking out of a wood duck box installed along our west border this spring by member Woody Miller.
According to Kansas birding experts Bob Gress and Pete Janzen from their book The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots, this small species (8″ tall and with a wingspan of 20″) is typically found in wooded habitat and is common in urban areas throughout Kansas.
Trees are essential habitat for eastern screech owls where they roost/nest in cavities and cache extra food when plentiful. Woodpecker holes, spaces of wood rot, abandoned squirrel cavities, and boxes built for purple martins or wood ducks all make for suitable abodes for the eastern screech owl. They prefer an open understory and will also make use of open parkland, farms, and suburban areas as hunting grounds.
Eastern screech owls will nest once each year and lay two to six 1.3-1.4″ long white eggs. In Kansas, they nest in spring. The incubation period takes 26 days with the female sitting on the nest while the male hunts and the young will fledge roughly a month after hatching. The young depend on their parents for food and learning hunting tactics for roughly 8-10 weeks after fledging.
Their diet includes just about any small animal including rodents, birds, frogs, lizards and even smaller prey such as insects, earthworms, crayfish and tadpoles. I even spotted one early on a summer night in my backyard waiting on a tree branch and intently watching my bat house 10 feet away, which was squeaky with big brown bat activity before a night of hunting.
Attracting Eastern Screech Owls to Your Landscape
As with any segment of wildlife, you will greatly increase your chances of attracting eastern screech owls to live near you if you provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Having trees with cavities will certainly help your case and putting up a nesting box certainly won’t hurt either. Then, as we promote with so many of our posts, create as much diverse native plant habitat as possible. This habitat will attract the insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that owls love to eat.