Insects: The little things that run the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference: 

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

The First Year: Getting Native Plants Established

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.

Three Kansas Garden Kits

Gardens of every size are important to wildlife, including pollinators.  A patchwork of small native plant gardens throughout our cities and towns are the harbor for migrating pollinators or permanent residents to our area. They provide habitat, a safe haven and vital food for survival. 

From vignettes such as balcony gardens or a corner in your backyard to larger prairie reconstructions, each garden can be a critical stopover for wildlife. Large or small, a collective effort to establish native plants in landscapes can make a tremendous difference.    

Besides the good they do for wildlife, native plants build the soil, clean water, and filter the air.  They are good news for everyone and every thing on this earth. For these reasons, we have put together some custom native plant kits for a variety of garden conditions. Whether you are new to the prairie scene, these kits can be used to get a running start on your next native habitat.

Sunny Rain Garden Kit

(full sun, wet to medium soil moisture)

Do you have a wet section in your yard?  These wet-loving natives will do just fine.  From late spring to fall, these wildflowers will provide a succession of blooms and even look attractive through the winter. 

Spring Woodland Kit

(shade/part sun, medium soil moisture)

These delicate beauties are at home in any woodland setting.  We have included a couple groundcovers that will spread to slowing fill in your area.  Be rewarded each year by these spring wildflowers.    

Three Seasons Pollinator Kit

(full sun, medium to dry soil moisture)

This garden will provide season long nectar for some of your favorite butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Some host plants are also included.  Plant these natives in any sunny spot in your yard.     

Whatever your motivations for using natives, you will also be rewarded with a renewed connection with the nature. You will not have an ordinary landscape, but one that helps the birds and pollinators you are concerned about. Why not turn your landscape into something that makes a real difference? 

To order these garden kits and other plants available for pick-up from our greenhouse, visit our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival page. We look forward to helping you get to know these plants!

Inspiring Landscapers

This Saturday, February 24 at our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium, 10 inspiring landscapers will share their native plant gardening stories.

 

A common thread of these landscapers/gardeners (I use these words interchangeably) is that they have each uniquely contributed to my approach and style of landscaping over the years. I have been drawn to their passion for gardening and landscaping. They are botanists, ecologists, master gardeners, landscape artists, and inquisitive students of gardening. Most of them have had successful careers in areas other than landscaping. Yet each considers landscaping a labor of love and finds great joy in working with plants that shape the landscapes around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I look forward to hearing their brief prepared stories with photos all being told in a one day symposium format where they can also answer questions. While it is difficult to fit these individuals into specific landscaping categories, I have generally ordered them in speaking sequence from wild and ecological to horticultural and manicured.

I won’t have time to give them each the full and flowery introduction that they deserve. But I will say a bit about their styles and approaches that have influenced me over the last 25+ years.

The Speakers

 

Dwight Platt was my major professor at Bethel College where I studied biology and environmental studies in the early 90s. He introduced me to Lorna Harder, then curator for natural history at the Kauffman Museum. The two of them were responsible for developing the oldest prairie reconstruction in Kansas on the museum grounds, and I was able to serve as a prairie intern with them before graduating. My appreciation for the diverse ecology of the prairie and how prairie plants can be incorporated into landscaping started with them. They inspired me to pursue further education in ecological restoration and landscape architecture.

Kauffman Museum Prairie

Dwight and Lorna’s home landscapes utilize many native plants with a focus on attracting biological diversity to those landscapes. Bob Simmons carries a similar approach. His intimate knowledge of host plants and what butterflies they attract guides his approach to landscaping as well. All three of these folks are passionate knowledge seekers of the birds and butterflies around them. They are regular attendees of annual bird and butterfly counts in Harvey County that contribute to citizen science.

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

My work at Dyck Arboretum with the Earth Partnership for School (EPS) Program has opened my eyes to the power that native landscaping can have inspiring children. Developing prairie gardens on school grounds offers fun learning opportunities through hands-on, project-based learning. High school science teachers Jay Super (Maize) and Denise Scribner (Goddard) are award-winning educators that have displayed how prairie gardening offers a useful learning tool for their students.

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

Locally grown food is important to our health and well-being and I have long been intrigued by the mixing of vegetables and native plant gardens in our landscapes. The Sand Creek Community Garden in N. Newton has been an example for me in recent years of how growing vegetables and tending native prairie gardens are mutually beneficial. Attracting pollinators and insect predators can only help food plots and they certainly add interest to gardening experience as well. Duane Friesen was the main organizer of this community garden seen as one of the best in Kansas. And as my father-in-law, Duane has also taught me much of what I know about growing vegetables. Joanna Fenton Friesen has a real eye for designing beautiful gardens with native plants and has been an organizer for the perennial flower beds at the community garden. They each have inspiring home landscapes with vegetables and native plants as well.

Sand Creek Community Garden

Pam Paulsen, Reno County Horticulture Extension Agent, is one of the top education resources in Kansas and she has immense knowledge about vegetable gardening, pollinators, and natural pest management. She is also an avid student of the prairie and a great photographer.

Aesthetically arranging native plants in organized assemblages adds enjoyment to landscaping. It also makes native plant gardening, often seen as unkept and weedy, more palatable to the general public. My colleague, Scott Vogt, has a horticulture degree and has helped influence me in this regard by encouraging plantings in groupings. Duane and Joanna with their eyes for aesthetics and surrounding native gardens with edging and mulched trails have also been influential.

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

Two gardens that I have enjoyed visiting in recent years have been the home landscapes designed and tended by Laura Knight (Wichita) and Lenora Larson (Paola). Their displays of not only native plants, but adaptable perennials and annuals too have expanded my understanding and appreciation for sustainable landscaping. They also have an appreciation for art in the garden, beautiful walking paths, water features, and weeding – all elements that enhance the garden aesthetic experience. Lenora also pays close attention to choosing plants that offer either nectar or food for insects.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

I hope you will join us Saturday and experience even a fraction of the inspiration that I have received from these gardeners and landscapers.