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

The New Kansas

Compared to the average human lifespan, Kansas is old. 160 years old to be exact. But before it was a state, it was just one unbounded part of a vast Great Plains grassland landscape. It was home to millions of bison, nomadic and agrarian Indigenous people, and lots of grass. Before European settlement in this area, Kansas was dominated by grasses. Woody species had little chance of surviving the dry weather patterns and frequent fires. But times have changed. Cities, towns and homesteads come with lots of tree planting and a cessation of the much needed fires that keep the grasslands grassy. Our modern neighborhoods don’t resemble these ancient landscapes. So how can we truly plant native species if much of our garden space doesn’t have prairie conditions anymore?

View from the observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

Understand Your Microclimate

Microclimate is all about the conditions in a very specific area. A microclimate might include your entire yard, or just that one spot on the side of your house. Factors like windbreaks, ambient heat from foundations, or compacted soil from foot traffic mean that your garden spot is completely unique. You may have built-in irrigation, or get extra run-off from your neighbor’s roof, or have a leaky water faucet that saturates the soil around your garden. All this adds up to a very different set of conditions from the historically treeless, windy, dry prairies of early Kansas. Your ‘prairie garden’ might not be right for all true prairie plants.

This graphic is from the great guide, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook available from Island Press. In the book it is used to show the prairie continuum as it moves from prairie to oak savannah habitats. I like to use it as an artistic illustration of time as well. Each box can represent our state at a different time period: at the top is a relatively treeless Kansas with mostly open grassland. In the middle we see early settlement and homesteading with trees planted and less fires, and at the bottom is a depiction of our state today with much more tree cover in our cities, towns, and cleared pasturelands.

Native vs Near Native

Hearing your yard isn’t compatible with plants native to your county or region is a real bummer. But perhaps your garden is just perfect for, say, Ozark native plants. In a medium-to-dry shaded yard with root competition from mature trees, the forest flowers of the Ozarks will perform much better than prairie plants, even though they are not native to your county. Considering how species have shifted to and fro over millennia, these neighboring species are still water-wise and beneficial for wildlife. Maybe your yard is sandy/rockier than expected. Try far western Kansas or Colorado species. Plants in that region love extremely fast drainage and dry conditions. Unless you are a professional conservationist intentionally restoring wild area as closely as possible to its original species population, it doesn’t pay to be too pedantic in the garden.

Packera obovata is native to eastern Kansas, but is more commonly found in the open woods of Missouri and Arkansas.   

Crank up the Chainsaw

If you want to plant prairie species, you need open space and sun. Cutting down trees can make this a reality! It sounds scary, but removing trees from your yard is okay. We have been led to believe, via international tree planting campaigns, that all trees are sacred. But that’s not the case in our area. We should absolutely preserve heavily forested ecosystems that host wildlife dependent on trees. Think: Congo Basin, Amazon, Taiga, etc. But the Great Plains grass-dominated ecosystem functions best with fewer trees.

Our wildlife thrives in a relatively tree-less environment. If you have non-native, unnecessary trees in your yard, consider removing them to create more sunny space for your prairie perennials. Down with invasive ornamental pears and Siberian elms. Yes, even some native Eastern red cedars should be ousted. Unchecked, they are a huge problem for prairies. If this seems too extreme, you can simply limb up your trees to allow more light through.

Good land stewardship sometimes means taking down trees. If those trees are invasive species, diseased, or taking up space where native prairie plants could be thriving, then down they go!

The Right Plants for the Right Place

Folks often ask why we don’t only offer Kansas natives. They also ask why we sell plants with special horticultural varieties as well as the straight native species. Because most of our customers are homeowners aiming to feed birds and provide pollinator habitat, we offer options that will perform well in the reality of residential environments. This might mean their yard isn’t right for what is truly native to a 50 mile radius. Or perhaps the space is better suited to less aggressive, taller/shorter, or seedless horticultural variety that fits their garden dimensions.

We hope to help everyone, regardless of their garden situation, to find beneficial plants that create habitat and bring joy. Offering plants to the whole plant-loving spectrum, from the newcomer planting their first wildflower to the experienced native plant purist looking for local eco-types, we are here to educate and assist.

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)

A Winter Garden to Look Into

This time of year our focus changes a bit as we transition to spending more time inside. You look longingly outside at your garden, anticipating warmer weather and the arrival of spring. We are not restless yet, but for those of us who garden and love to dig into the soil, it helps if we have something to look at through the kitchen window or sitting in our living room. Here are some plants to consider adding as you “look into” your winter garden.   

Form

Flowers fade into buttons, globes, plumes, spikes, daisies or umbels that can be emphasized with the play of light and motion. These expired flowers are attractive even after they are done blooming.  

  • Coneflowers: These dark seed heads are attractive with native grasses and are favorites of overwintering birds.
  • Asters: Swaths of these fall blooming perennials provide structure and decent fall color. 
  • Amsonia: Blue flowers in the spring and attractive color in the fall
  • Prairie Dropseed: This is one of my favorite grasses. Fine foliage, airy seedheads, and golden orange fall color that mixes well with many other shorter perennials.
Coneflowers with little bluestem

Texture

This garden design element refers to the surface quality of the plant. Whether coarse or fine, textural plants combined with interesting forms are quite dramatic in the winter landscape.    

  • Switchgrass: There are so many varieties to choose, from tall to short and from green to red leaved. You really can’t go wrong by adding some of these native grasses to your garden. 
  • Rattlesnake master: This unusual native has attractive gray-green foliage and starry white blooms in the summer. As it transitions into the winter-the whole plant turns tawny gold.
  • Little bluestem: The fine stems of little bluestem add bright color to the stark winter garden.   
Fall color of Amsonia with Northwind switchgrass and Oktoberfest Maidengrass

Fruit/seeds

This element in the garden is often overlooked or removed before the birds need them. For birds that take winter residence in your garden, the right mix of plants creates a habitat that is fun to watch. 

Composite flowers like blackeyed susan, coneflower, blazing star, sunflowers, and goldenrods are vital food that birds seek out. 

  • Crabapples: Most of ornamental trees have persistent fruit that are utilized later in the winter as other food becomes scarce.
  • Blackhaw Viburnum: This native produces abundant fruit that taste like miniature prunes. Birds and other wildlife love them.   
  • Sumac: The reddish fruit atop these native shrubs are a favorite of Chickadee and Titmouse. 
Robin on a crabapple tree (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

Stems

Stems are not noticed until everything is bare, but can provide something interesting and beautiful to look at in the winter.

  • Red/Yellow twig dogwoods: They explode with color especially with snow.
  • Big Bluestem: Forms with brilliant red fall color are the best with regards to standing out in the landscape.
  • Seven-Son Flower: Great exfoliating bark on this fall blooming small tree. 

Shelter

This can be a brush pile or evergreen of some type. Each provide shelter and safety for wildlife during the cold winter months.   

  • Taylor Juniper: This upright form of our native evergreen also has fruit that the birds need. 
  • Alleghany Viburnum: Tall semi-evergreen shrub with attractive fruit and leathery leaves. 
  • Brush pile: Brush piles create shelter that conceals and protects wildlife from predators and weather. Situate the brush pile where you can enjoy wildlife viewing. 

 

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Alleghany Viburnum fruit and evergreen leaves

In the winter, there are fewer times of satisfaction from the garden. If you have only a few plants to watch in the winter landscape, make sure it’s enough to keep it interesting.

Snow captured by switchgrass

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.

Succession of Bloom

Every gardener strives to have a continuous symphony of flowers in their gardens from spring through fall.  However, most gardens, including some of mine, seem patchy in appearance with sporadic blooms from time to time.  Although a continuous floral bloom is the goal, it is often not achieved unless a method called succession planting has been implemented. 

Succession of bloom is used to describe a diverse set of plants in a flower border that will always have interest. At any given time during the growing season there are plants coming into bloom and fading out of bloom.  This consistent bloom is important in a design, especially when using native plants.   

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr

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.

In my opinion, succession of bloom is one of the most important concepts in native plant design, right after site considerations and matching plants up to your site. Take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know, the easier it will be to seamlessly incorporate them into your design. Succession of bloom always provides something of interest in the garden, but it also provides season-long food for pollinators and other wildlife.   

Starting a List

Put together a list of plants that bloom at different seasons and will grow well in your area.  Include early season bloomers, midseason bloomers, and late season bloomers. Select a set of grasses that combine well with those wildflowers or provide backdrop for other perennials in front of them. 

Native Plant Guide
Working on a landscape design for one of our members.

Begin the Design

As you layout your plants in your design, think about heights and layer of plants. Typically, there are only three or four layers of plants.  Plants 4-18 inches tall in the front, middle layers of 18-24 inches and 24-48 and then taller perennials at 48+ inches tall.  These tiers guide how I combine the plants and layout the design. 

Initial planting next to the Prairie Pavilion.
Needs more grasses and wildflowers to fill the gaps and cover the mulch.

Layout

Always think about foliage and flowers. In matrix planting, made popular by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, every square inches is covered with plant material.  From the groundcover layer through the seasonal interest layer and on up through the structural layer, plants crowd out weeds and mimic the prairie community.  Keep in mind, blooms will fade, so foliage is important too. Seed heads can be supported and highlighted with grasses. A striking example is the dark seed heads of coneflowers later in the season with little bluestem.

Little Bluestem and Pale Coneflower seedheads

Plant in smaller groups

I prefer to plant is smaller groups such as five, seven or nine individual plants. Often, I will mix in some native grasses with the wildflowers. A larger swath of something out of bloom leaves a large void in the design, especially if it blooms in the spring. Plant closely enough so that foliage intermingles. If plants are spaced too far apart that there is more mulch or soil than plants, this void will draw your eye to the plant that is out of condition. By planting densely, you will hardly notice a plant out of bloom. 

The example below is simplistic, but the concept is the same. Succession planting combines specific plants for your garden that all look good together and bloom at different seasons. Try to avoid planting two different groups of plants next to each other that bloom at the same time. Those groups will leave a larger hole in the landscape.   

Example: nine coneflowers (pink) with five little bluestem ‘Twilight Zone’ (blue) planted next to seven Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ (yellow) which is planted next to three Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite (purple).

Your pattern can be continued or another set of seasonal plants can be incorporated into the design. This is also a tier in the overall design. They are all about the same heights. Plant something taller behind and shorter in front of these perennials.

Succession planting is very rewarding, and these simple techniques should guide the process. Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses. The more you know the easier it will be to combine them according to bloom time. Succession planting is something that we all respond to, and brings the garden together visually.

Keystone Natives for the Food Web, Part 2

A couple weeks ago, we laid the ground work for enhancing the food web by listing some of the keystone species gardeners should include in their landscapes. When choosing plants to support insects, the foundation of the food web in our gardens, we want to make the most of our space. 

Insects are typically not picky when it comes to food sources, but they do have their preferences.  Here is an extension of that original list to give you more options to diversify your plantings and support a more robust food web in your habitat garden.

Grasses

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

This native bunchgrass can be found throughout the Great Plains. It reaches two to three feet tall and prefers a medium to dry well-drained soil. Give it plenty of sunlight for best growth. It is the larval host for many species of butterflies including Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, and Cobweb Skipper. 

‘Twilight Zone’ is a nice cultivar with purple green foliage during the growing season and good fall color.

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem. Photo courtesy Walter Gardens

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Blue grama forms dense clumps and is extremely drought tolerant. Use in a sunny spot as a ground cover or mix with buffalograss for an easy-care lawn substitute.  The flowers look like tannish eyelashes that are attractive well into winter. There are over 10 butterfly larvae that feed on blue grama, including many skippers, Ottoe, Leonards, and Uncas; but also Mead’s wood nymph and the garita skipperling.  

My favorite cultivar of blue grama is ‘Blonde Ambition’. Several birds have been noted feeding on blue grama seed, including grassland sparrows, wrens and wild turkeys.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition
Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’

Wildflowers

Beardtongue (Penstemon sp.)

To see huge bumble bees crawling into these tubular flowers in the spring is fun to watch. The longer lower lip of the flower makes a perfect landing pad. Many of the species have distinct lines leading to the back of the flower known as nectar guides. These lines act like runway lights, leading pollinators to the back of the flower where the nectar is located. 

Penstemons are a diverse species, but some of our native Kansas species like Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon grandiflorus, Penstemon tubaeflorus and Penstemon digitalis put on quite a show in the spring. My favorite penstemon variety is ‘Dark Towers’.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.)

Black-eyed Susan is one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Its bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity.  Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on their nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter. 

Missouri blackeyed susan and Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ are garden worthy perennials. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.)

There are so many choices when it comes to coneflowers. Oranges, yellows, reds, greens, pinks and every shade imaginable. The options are endless, but I always try to include some of the true native coneflowers in my designs. Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea paradoxa and Echinacea purpurea are all pollinator magnets. Be sure to avoid any coneflowers with double blooms. They may look cool, but they do nothing for pollinators, because they either don’t produce nectar or pollen or, because of their double-decker nature, don’t allow bees access to it.

Native bees (bumble bees, sweat, mining and sunflower bees) along with honey bees and butterflies (monarchs, swallowtails, sulfurs, fritillaries and many others) glom onto these summer blooming (May-August) perennials.  Coneflowers can be quite adaptable, but most appreciate at least 6 hours of direct sun. 

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

The unique globelike blossoms of rattlesnake master attract many types of small native bees and syrphid (hover) flies.  I have seen the tan hollow stems used by overwintering tunnel-nesting bees. Rattlesnake master is the host plant for rattlesnake master borer moth.

Rattlesnake master in full bloom

Narrow-leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

As a member of the mint family, narrow-leaf mountain mint has a tendency to spread, but it is a garden worthy wildflower because of the diverse pollinators it attracts.  Bees, wasps, moths, ants, flies, beetles and many types of butterflies including Ladies and smaller Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Blues, Common Buckeyes seek out this plant’s frosty white blooms.  It also attracts beneficial insects for biological control of pests.

A few others worth considering

  • Campanula         Bellflower          
  • Cirsium                 Thistle  
  • Claytonia             Spring-beauty  
  • Erythronium       Trout-lily             
  • Geranium            Cranesbill           
  • Helenium            Sneezeweed     
  • Heuchera            Coral Bells          
  • Hibiscus                Rose-mallow     
  • Monarda             Bee Balm
  • Oenothra            Evening Primrose
  • Packera                Groundsel
  • Polemonium      Jacob’s-ladder
  • Pontederia         Pickerel Weed
  • Potentilla             Cinquefoil
  • Uvularia               Bellwort
  • Verbena              Vervain
  • Viola                      Violet
  • Zizia                       Golden Alexanders

Solution gardening works to solve a problem with your landscape.  These lists of plants should be considered first to curb the decline of threatened specialist insects. Our goal should be to provide habitat for the largest possible number of insect species and to support a healthy food web. Having most or all of these keystone species in your landscape will make your landscape part of the solution to reversing drastic declines of pollinators in recent years.

Defining Sun Requirements for Native Plants

Knowing how much light a plant needs to thrive should be a simple question, but it is often easily misunderstood. There are so many different descriptions for sun requirements or exposure found on plant labels, but they don’t provide all the information you may need to make the right selection for your yard. Are these descriptions for Kansas or Virginia? Can a plant survive in full sun with 30 inches of average rainfall or does it need 50 inches?  Does it need full sun with protection from the hot afternoon sun? 

Plant labeling has been getting better and more consistent, so understanding a few key terms will assist in selecting the right plant for your landscape conditions. Let’s take a closer look.

Terminology

Every plant in the landscape needs sunlight to grow.  Even shade plants with their adaptations need a certain amount of light to grow and prosper. Plant labels identify the amount of sun a plant requires as full sun, part sun, part shade full shade, or dense shade:

  • 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
  • Dense shade – No direct sunlight and little indirect light reaches the ground.

A Closer Look at the Terms

Full Sun

Most prairie plants fall into this category of sunlight exposure. This light is bright, sunny for most of the day like in open areas and backyards. These spaces get at least six hours of direct sunlight and need to be planted with full sun plants. Their deep roots and natural adaptations for direct sunlight will help them thrive in this harsh environment. Silver or gray leaves, pubescent leaves, or leaf orientation are adaptations that help them prosper in these sunny areas. 

There are other plants that appreciate some protection from the hottest part of the days, but they still need at least six hours of direct light. Keep in mind that full sun in the Smoky Mountains and full sun in Texas are different.  So, think critically about your local site, because some experimentation may still be needed.

Kansas Gayfeather in full sun

Part Sun and Part Shade

When I think about part sun and part shade, savannah plants come to mind. They are tucked up close to the margins of the forest. They transition from prairie plants to woodland plants. Some will get sunlight for most of the day, but not often. It is not the hottest direct sun. 

Part sun and part shade are very similar, but there are subtle differences. These two terms can be understood quite differently. Most plants requiring either part sun or part shade do well in filtered light for most of the day. In Kansas, a plant requiring part sun or part shade needs to be protected from the more intense afternoon sun. Give it morning sun to keep it happy.

Plants requiring part shade can be quite sensitive to too much direct sun, particularly in the afternoon, and will need shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Plants requiring part sun can usually tolerate more light and need a minimum amount of direct sun to thrive. These plants may bloom poorly if given too little sun.

For either group, providing a few hours of direct morning sun is a good choice.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea-Purple coneflower appreciates partial sun conditions
photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Full Shade

Plants requiring full shade are the most challenging in Kansas. Essentially, we are trying to grow shade plants in a prairie environment with lots of sun and inconsistent moisture. Shaded areas typically stay dry and need supplemental moisture to grow full shade plants. Full shade plants require anything less than three hours of direct light such as morning sun and late evening sunlight. Protection from the hot midday sun is very important.  Filtered light, such as that found beneath a tree canopy, is a good setting for full shade plants. This type of light is referred to as dappled shade and offers many gardening opportunities.

Native columbine thriving in the shade of an elm tree

Dense Shade

Dense shade may occur under a dense evergreen tree against a fence, or the north side of your house protected by a deck. These areas get little if any sunlight throughout the day. These problem areas are usually dark and can stay very wet or very dry. There is not much you can do under these conditions, but maybe a ground cover or decorative yard element would be a good choice. Plants need some light and you are fighting nature by trying to grow something without much light. Rather focus on the areas that do have some light to draw your eyes away from this area. 

It is best to become familiar with sun exposure in your landscape by checking on light conditions throughout the day and over the course of a full growing season. Growing plants in Kansas can be a test of your will, so match plants up to your landscape based on light conditions in your landscape. I have found that if you get this requirement right, some of the other elements like soil, water and fertility will sort themselves out on their own.

How to Add Native Plants to an Established Prairie

As we wind down the growing season, now is a great time to take stock of your new prairie garden or established prairie landscape.  Which plants have done well?  What has struggled?  What needs to be moved?  Which plants need to be added?  These questions will help guide your efforts this fall and especially next season. 

If you have an established prairie, it can be challenging to make some desired changes.  To add a few plants to a mature landscape takes some forethought and planning.  The deep rooted natives have a distinct advantage over the immature perennial you are trying to get started.  Here are a few simple steps to help give these new plants a fighting chance.

Choose spots

Maybe you want to add some wildflowers into a prairie setting dominated by native grasses.  Visualize where you want these new plants.  Remember, a prairie has subtle splashes of color.  Sprinkling in a handful of wildflowers will look more natural. 

This couple is slowly adding a few native wildflower into their meadow. Some have even started coming in on their own.

Prepare the soil

With your spots chosen, now it is time to make room for these additions to your prairie.  We flag the spots and then spray them with Roundup.  These spots are usually not more than one foot in diameter.  If you want to avoid spraying, cut the area down to the ground and cover it with heavy cardboard for several months or over winter.  Secure these one foot areas with several inches of mulch or stones. 

Two or three inches of mulch will hold down the cardboard and smother out the existing plants.

Choose the right plant

I keep circling back to this point because it is so important.  If plants have struggled in an area, it is usually because either the soil or the plant is out of balance. Typically, the soil is not to blame. It is more likely that the soil and plant have not been correctly matched. Observe soil, sun and drainage issues and match the proper plant to your area. It is good to have a sense of how some of these natives grow naturally in community.  The more you know, the more successful you will be.   

Establish your plants

After waiting several months or over winter, it is now time to plant.  Establish plants using this method in either spring (April/May) or late summer (August/September).  If you sprayed the small areas, you can simply plant right into the open weed free soil.  If you put down cardboard and covered it with mulch, you can pull back a little of the mulch and slice through the cardboard. Put the plants into the ground and water daily.  Leave the cardboard and mulch to decompose over the next few years, as this will give the new plants a little room to grow with less competition.  The cardboard and mulch will ultimately disappear.

Next Steps

Over the next few years, it will be necessary to monitor these new plants.  It generally takes two to three years for the root systems to get fully established.  Remember to:

  • Water deeply as needed.
  • Make sure they are not getting too crowded by other vegetation. 
  • You may need to cut back nearby grasses so these new plants get enough sunlight.  This will only be necessary during this establishment phase. 
Native grasses are wonderful but a few wildflowers in the prairie make it even more beautiful and dynamic.

This process is not guaranteed to succeed, but we have used it successfully to add some diversity to an established prairie.  This approach can also be used to transform a smaller intensively planted display bed. Either way, plan now so you are ready to plant next season.