A Four-Season Garden

As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on.  If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”

– adapted from an English nursery rhyme

That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:

Add a variety of plants

Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.

Summer Prairie Garden

Plants out of bloom

It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.

Coneflower seed heads and little bluestem

Create layers

Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.

Summer border. Photo by Brad Guhr

Do your home work

It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.

It’s not easy being brown

Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden. 

Switchgrass with snow

Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden.  Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away.  I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window.  The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too.  I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.

A Look at the Past, A Glimpse of the Future

Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office.  It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed.  I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time.  Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed. 

Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come.  Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.

The Vision

Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape –  a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection.  The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs.  Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.

First Tree (Bur Oak) planted on October 10, 1981
Aerial view of the Arboretum and the walking path around the pond , early 1980s
Picture of the island , early 1980s
Bald cypress near the bird watch area, early 1980s
Kansas Wildflower Exhibit and Prairie Shelter, 1990s
Island Planting in summer, 1990s
Harold and Elva Mae Dyck, early 2000s

A Living Prairie Museum

“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself.  The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”

“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.”  (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)


A New Mission for a Lasting Vision

“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”.  Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming.  Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, 2014
Insect sweeping activity, Samplemania 2012

I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings.  With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape.  We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden. 

An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie.  Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level.  Their vision seems to have come full circle.

How to Increase the Value of Your Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens have become increasingly popular over the past ten years as homeowners and businesses seek to directly reverse the trend of prairie degradation.  Using prairie plants in the landscape is one way you can implement small-scale conservation and stewardship practices and become a part of a growing patchwork of prairie gardens in the Great Plains region. 

These patchwork prairies will not replace what has already been lost, but can begin to help raise awareness about conserving any remaining prairie remnants.  Hopefully, we will no longer take for granted the prairies around us and work toward managing and conserving this landscape that is quickly vanishing.

Aquilegia canadensis, columbine

You may ask yourself, “Can a backyard prairie garden really make an impact?  How do I increase the value of my prairie garden?”  The value of a small prairie garden seems minuscule compared to the large prairie tracts that are being lost each year. 

Here are a few things you can do to maximize the impact of your small patchwork prairie garden and further your backyard conservation efforts.

Plant a diverse prairie garden

As you design your garden, look to include as many different species as possible.  It is important to have a succession of bloom from spring through fall.  Include some of the native grasses to provide vertical elements and alternative textures. These elements will support and frame some of the native wildflowers.  Your garden can become a conversation starter within your neighborhood.  Your neighbors’ perspective may shift as your intentionally “wild” and slightly “messy” garden creates habitat for wildlife and pollinators.  People will notice the difference. Your garden, along with many other prairie gardens throughout neighborhoods, will add value to the environment and broaden the conversations we can have.

Fall Blooming Asters with Little bluestem

Connect with where you live

For many of us, we take for granted the prairies around us.  Even though we have some of the largest tracts of prairie like the Flint Hills at our doorsteps, we often don’t see the peril they face.  So in light of these difficulties, it is imperative that we use native species from our region.  Create a sense of place by incorporating as many plants of a local eco-type as possible.  These plants are adapted to your climate and soil.  Cultivated varieties and hybrids give us consistent characteristics and qualities. However, they often lack the same landscape value to pollinators as the true species and are most likely not from your region.  Choose your plants wisely to maximize the impact they have to the garden aesthetic and the wildlife that need them.    

Create an immersive experience

Layers of plants from different perspectives or vantage points will offer you the most enjoyment from your garden.  As you are drawn through the landscape, surrounded by lush plantings, you can enjoy the changes from season to season.  Sunlight, texture, color, and varying heights combine to provide unique encounters with your landscape.  The value of these experiences for your body and soul cannot be measured.  Quiet reflection can calm you after a hard day or bring you some perspective in your life.

Early summer in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Most gardens will never be as perfect as we want them to be, but they still have value for us and our environment. They are valuable to wildlife and pollinators. Valuable for the broader conversation about stewardship of the land.  Valuable to us as we become more aware of the role we can play in conservation and as we develop a relationship with the land. 

Don’t sell short the importance of the prairie, no matter how big or how small. Every step taken, every wildflower or grass propagated, every patchwork prairie garden planted has value.

Finding More Meaning in Our Food

We talk quite a bit about landscaping with native plants in this Dyck Arboretum blog space. Native plants have productive flowers and fruits, which benefit our sustainable landscape aesthetics and provide habitat for wildlife. The initial establishment process of prairie garden planting, watering, mulching, and tending is very similar to food gardening. I spend a fair amount of time gardening with both native plants and food, and I’m wondering why we don’t utilize more of both in our landscapes.

The practices of raising native plants…                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

…and food plants are not all that different.                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Everybody needs, wants, and loves food. Most of us in the U.S. eat food three times per day, if not more. The amounts and kinds of food we eat relate to our culture, income, and health. Food is critical to our human physical well-being, and I would even argue that food is an important part of our emotional and mental well-being. Agriculture is also deeply related to the health of our Kansas environment and economy. Food just plain matters.

Searching for Meaning

I view eating food on a spectrum of connection and enjoyment. On the least connected and lowest enjoyment end of the spectrum, I would order from a fast food pick up window or open a can of tuna and loaf of bread to gain quick, easy calories for a meal. On the other higher connection and enjoyment end of this spectrum, I would grow/raise, sometimes home preserve, prepare, share, and eat a meal over a couple of hours with family and friends. And I would enjoy all the love that went into that meal – from the garden to plate. I definitely find more happiness, meaningfulness, and even entertainment in the latter end of the spectrum, but it also requires more effort, education, and time. In this regard, I think our society, in general, would benefit from doing more rituals of hunting, gathering, growing, and preserving of our own food.

Food acquisition and preservation rituals can bring people calories and joy.  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Every calorie we eat has its own story and sum of energy required to get it from farm to plate. We learned a great deal about this topic during our spring 2011 Locavores on the Prairie Symposium. Barbara Kingsolver explores this topic in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Few of us in this world of increasingly accessible food will spend an entire year eating food raised from within a 100-mile radius of where we live as the Kingsolver Family did.  But doing so would certainly cut down on the size of our carbon footprint and add to our enjoyment of food if we could eat food sourced as locally as possible.

The Problems – Poverty and Disconnect

Poverty – The U.S. may be a developed country, but poverty and/or a variety of other barriers here (disabilities, single parents working multiple jobs, substance abuse, etc.) lead to food insecurity and prevent families from getting adequate, quality food. In my home City of Newton, KS, 80+ percent of kids in a number of the elementary schools qualify for free or reduced fee breakfast and lunch programs. Backpack food assistance programs organized by the Kansas Food Bank and supported by local churches and organizations try to help fill some of the calorie voids for families with elementary-aged children. However, these backpacks do not meet all nutrition needs and are filled with mostly dried or preserved foods that can sit in storage for long periods of time until consumed. The adults in these homes may not have the resources or abilities to grow/raise/hunt/gather/buy adequate supplies of food nor model those healthy behaviors for the children in the household. Not only are these children not getting the calories they need, but they also are not learning the good food-raising habits to pass along to future generations either.

Disconnect

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” ~Aldo Leopold

Advancing technologies in agriculture, transportation, and food preservation make it even easier for people in urban areas with adequate resources to have food wherever and whenever they want it. There is a tradeoff though…people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food they consume. The first food-related part of Leopold’s famous quote above is coming true. We know less and less about the origins and journeys of our food.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” ~Wendell Berry

Aldo Leopold biographer, Curt Meine, introduced me to this Wendell Berry quote at a 2017 Land Ethic Conference in Baraboo, WI entitled “Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide”, and it certainly resonates with me. According to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report, 81% of the U.S. population is urban, and 19% is rural. This disparity continues to grow. This statistic tells me that fewer and fewer people (including children) know where their food comes from. Fewer and fewer people (including children) know how the growth, transport, production, and processing of that food impacts their environment and their health. But everybody (including every child) wants a clean environment and personal health. There is a growing disconnect here.

Can we fit more food plots into the human part of this spectrum?             Photo Credit: Curt Meine

There Is Hope

Schools would be an excellent place to teach some of these important life skills of growing food. Schools can help empower students to combat the food-related problems created by poverty and disconnect. Growing food plants alongside native plants in school gardens would not be very different from what we already promote through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. Growing Kansas-adapted flowering prairie plants that can attract beneficial insect pollinators and predators next to tomatoes, squash and peppers – while adding pleasing aesthetics – can only be a good thing, right?

Fortunately, we do not need to start from scratch in this endeavor, because inspiring examples are already out there to guide us. The following people are passionate and experienced in their successful efforts to teach kids and local communities how to grow their own food.

Stephen RitzGreen Bronx Machine, New York City, NY – “We are a whole school approach to education rooted in health, wellness, and mindfulness.” By getting kids to grow, consume, and distribute food using school gardens, he is helping improve student grades, attendance, and performance. Through the Green Bronx Machine, Stephen is cultivating minds and harvesting hope. Using urban agriculture aligned to key school performance indicators, the program grows healthy students and healthy schools to transform communities that are fragmented and marginalized into neighborhoods that are inclusive and thriving. A visual component of their gardening projects includes vegetables growing via indoor towers.

Stephen Ritz                      Photo Credit: Green Bronx Machine

Will Allen – Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI – The story of Growing Power is an interesting one. Former professional basketball player, author and genius grant winner, Will Allen, grew up on a farm in Maryland. Through the entity Growing Power, which he started with the priorities of growing compost and mentoring youth, Allen became one of the most influential nationwide leaders of the food security & urban farming movement. Turning vacant lots of Milwaukee into vegetable-growing gardens, Allen’s organization successfully raised compost, worms, tilapia through aquaponics, bees, chickens, goats, and more. Growing Power dissolved in 2017 due to mounting debt and Allen’s retirement, but for more than 20 years, through workshops, internships, and leadership programs, Growing Power inspiringly trained and exposed thousands of people to a more community-based relationship with their food.

Will Allen                    Photo Credit: Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Michael HowardEden Place, Chicago, IL – In the Fuller Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Michael Howard has helped turn a former dump site into an oasis of food production and biological diversity that promotes nature conservation and urban agriculture. Their story is helping transform the conversation in this area from lead poisoning and urban blite to nature conservation and urban agriculture. Environmental education at Eden Place focuses on undoing cultural disconnect and scars of the past through hands-on food production and habitat restoration. New funds and programming are focused on bringing stronger science proficiency for students, teachers, and families.

Michael Howard                      Photo Credit: Mike Nowak

Jared Hall – Coleman Middle School, Wichita, KS – An inspiring local example of kids learning about community-based food systems can be found at Coleman Middle School in Wichita. 7th Grade Science Teacher, Jared Hall, makes science fun with hands-on, project-based learning endeavors, including a honey-making beehive in the classroom, vegetable gardens just outside the door, and chickens and rabbits on the playground. Hall is teaching economics, entrepreneurship, botany, and ecology in the process and his students are having a great time while learning.

Jared Hall                           Photo Credit: Coleman Middle School

I attended the Kansas Rural Center 2018 Farm & Food Conference last week and learned that there are many more inspiring sustainable food examples out there to learn about and emulate. Mary Hendrickson, Rural Sociology Professor from the University of Missouri, taught us about the sustainability of Community-Based Food Systems. Donna Pearson McClish of Common Ground in Wichita taught us about food deserts in south-central Kansas and what she is doing to combat them. Terrell Dyer and Aaron Marks of Project RALLY in Kansas City presented about how their urban gardening program is focused on Respect, Accountability, Love, Leadership, and Youth.

The Future of Food

There are good ecological reasons for mixing native plants with food plots as highlighted in the Xerces Society Book, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

Polyculture farming solutions have been a successful message of the Land Institute for decades. But these are topics for future blog posts.

Stay tuned for possible food-laden tweaks to the Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools Program in the future.






How to be a Good Steward? Start with One Thing

Over the past year, we have been digging deeper into “Why” the Arboretum exists.  There have been some lengthy conversations about events, classes, native plants, and relationships between people, plants and the land.  One of the questions we kept coming back to was “What can one person do?”  This idea that people change their perspective, build relationships, and/or develop empathy for the land one decision or choice at a time is an important concept for us to consider.  So with that in mind, what is one thing you can do today to make our environment more sustainable?

These are just a few things we can change that will have a positive impact.  There are hundreds more that are specific to your lives.  Start with one thing.

  • Ride your bike or walk to the store.
  • Convert a portion of your lawn to native plants.

  • Plant a vegetable garden each year.
  • Turn the lights off when you leave the room
  • Pay attention to how much water you use both in your home and in your yard.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle.
  • Create a compost pile and use the compost in your garden.
  • Maintain your car and properly inflate your tires.
  • Use LED bulbs in your home.

  • Make sure your house has the appropriate amount of insulation.
  • Realize you can make a difference.

We all have choices to make when it comes to helping the planet, but I believe environmental stewardship starts at home.  If we choose to manage what we have in a way that saves us money and limits the negative impacts on the land, it is a win/win situation.  This is my epiphany – small incremental changes in my lifestyle will do something good for the environment.  I could always do more, but it starts to move the needle in a positive direction.

Maybe you are somewhat like me and find changing your behavior difficult, or you think stewardship is for someone else. That is not true.  Small changes in the things we do combined with thousands of others making positive choices can make a profound difference in the long run.  Don’t think of it as a compromise, but rather an investment in the future that allows future generations to live the same lives we now enjoy.

Start with one thing.






Be an Advocate for the Prairie

At Dyck Arboretum, we focus a lot of our energy on spreading knowledge and appreciation for the prairie. We love Kansas’s natural landscape and we are alarmed by how little native prairie is left intact. The prairie needs more advocates – people who will stand up for its preservation and defend its value to native wildlife and community health. Most of our direct efforts target land owners – people who can plant native prairie gardens and landscapes at their home or school. But these are not the only people who can make a difference! Here are a few ways you can be a prairie advocate even if you aren’t able to plant a prairie of your own:

Community Involvement

I enjoy attending my local city council meetings to keep tabs on what is happening in the community, especially in regards to environmental issues. Most city council meetings have a citizen comment session at the beginning or end of every meeting. This is the perfect platform to express your thoughts on community green spaces, roadside prairie preservation and responsible neighborhood development. Letting your local government know you want to see more natural prairie in and around the city could inspire big changes!

Encouraging your city to adopt sustainable land management policies can create pollinator habitat, help clean stormwater run off, absorb carbon pollution from the air, and much more! Carpenter Bee on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea)

Volunteerism

We say it all the time, but it deserves repeating — Dyck Arboretum couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If you are passionate about prairie preservation and live in the area, consider volunteering for us! Here at the Arb, volunteers do everything from mow lawns and pull weeds to answer phones and process memberships. When you give your time to an organization, you free up the staff to focus on the heart of its mission and widen its impact. Search VolunteerKansas.org to find a place near you to volunteer your time and advocate for native landscaping, environmental education or sustainable agriculture.

Volunteers often help out on the grounds, planting new flower beds and maintaining old ones. They keep the Arboretum looking beautifully managed!

Membership

Lastly, if you don’t have lots of time in your schedule to attend community meetings or volunteer somewhere, don’t fret. The simple purchase of a membership to an organization you support can make a big difference. The Dyck Arboretum, and other non-profit organizations like us, depend on memberships as a large portion of our budget. Membership gifts also support our programming and events. We use membership numbers to gauge whether our message resonates with the public. It is always so encouraging to see that number grow, one membership at a time! Becoming a member tells us that you support the work we are doing and that you want us to keep it going. If that is how you feel about Dyck Arboretum, become a member and a prairie advocate here.

Staff and members get to know each other at the annual Summer Soiree, an evening of fine food and entertainment.






How to Beautify Your Home Habitat Garden This Fall

I have said over the years that fall is a great time to plant just about anything.  I will not go into why fall is an ideal time to plant because you can read it here.  Whether you are creating a “new front yard” without turf grass or just supplementing your existing landscape, you will be rewarded in spring with healthier, heartier and well rooted plants that jump out of the ground.  The new fledgling plants you get from our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival will create a habitat garden that will be beneficial and attractive to wildlife as early as next spring.

The “New Front Lawn”

People are increasingly aware that the traditional front lawn is only marginally beneficial to wildlife compared to a habitat planting with wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.  This is an important paradigm shift as we think critically about how our landscapes can improve habitat loss.  By replacing small sections of turf with deep rooted plants, you reduce the need for water, create islands that wildlife, including pollinators, can use while increasing the overall aesthetics of your home.  This alternative to the traditional lawn starts with a thoughtful design followed by the removal of the turf you want to transition to native plants.  The area needs to be free of vegetation and problematic weeds.  Think about how you will be viewing your new landscape (from the kitchen window or from the street or both).  This process will help you lay out and stage your plants.

 

 

This gentleman is defining the new garden with a garden hose. Over the next year, he will dig up the grass and plant potatoes in the area while continuing to dig up any sprouting bermuda grass. It is a slow process, but he is able to develop a new garden without spraying. He gets nice potatoes too. A year later the area is ready for native plants.

Just a few additions

Fall is a great time to fill in some holes that have developed this summer.  Here at the Arboretum, the landscape is constantly changing.  As the landscape evolves and matures, new plants are added that complement the existing landscape.  I like to ask the question, “What is missing?” Do I need some structure plants, or wildflowers that bloom at a specific time? Do I need plants that can withstand a certain environmental condition unique to the site?  Asking these questions now provides you an exciting opportunity to add just the right plant(s) to round out your yard and help develop habitat.

Blank slate

I have done several designs this year and most are starting with new gardens. By starting from scratch, you have so many options available to you.  Homeowners want to make the switch and establish an alternative landscape.  Plan your garden, choose plants that fit your site, and get them established properly.  If you are not ready to plant the entire area this fall, I recommend getting the bones of the garden established.  Plant a cluster of grasses along the foundation of your home, a few shrubs in the center of the design, or a grouping of wildflowers along the perimeter. This will make it easier to fill in the holes and visualize the mature landscape next spring.

Photo by Brad Guhr

New garden ready for planting

Selecting plants with wildlife value and natural beauty will transform your landscape from dull and drab to dynamic and beneficial.  To see dragonflies, monarchs, other pollinators and birds being supported by your landscape is an inspiring experience.  Offering an attractive mix of drought tolerant plants will create the habitat these creatures seek to inhabit and use it.  Diversity of plants attracts a diversity of wildlife. Your garden can be part of the solution as we work to find balance in the world around us.

Habitat creation – the ultimate goal of any home landscape!






Let’s Talk about Mulch

It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add mulch around your plants.  Mulch is a great insulator, because it modifies the soil temperature.  It reduces erosion, prevent weeds from germinating, retains soil moisture, provides a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems, and increases the aesthetics of the overall landscape. As you add mulch to your garden, here are some things to know:

How much mulch is enough?

Mulching is not an exact science, but as a general rule, we try to apply 2-3 inches of mulch consistently throughout the landscape.  This depth of mulch will control weeds by decreasing sunlight exposure, which prohibits seeds in the soil from to germinating.  More than three inches of mulch seals off the soil and suffocates your plants.  It is extremely important that the plants are able to get the oxygen they need.  Spread the mulch evenly and don’t build a mulch volcano around the base of the tree.  Since mulch decomposes slowly, it is good to periodically check the depth and add some as needed.

Mulch volcano at base of tree. A big no no!

Nicely mulched new planting

What is the best way to mulch?

We start by laying out a garden hose, which allows you to visualize the curves and width of a bed.  You can either spray the area inside the hose or dig up the vegetation and let it slowly die.  When the area is cleaned up, we begin applying the mulch and leveling it to the desired depth.  Keep in mind that too much mulch will encourage growth of the roots into the mulch, where it will be susceptible to freeze damage.  The ideal 2 to 3 inch depth of mulch will keep the roots in the soil.

When is the best time to mulch?

We are mulching throughout the year, but direct most of our efforts in the spring or fall.  As we clean up our display beds in the spring, it is always a good time to freshen up the mulch, too.  At this time of year, soil temperatures are beginning to warm and a new layer of mulch will slow down the warming process.  A new layer of mulch will also cover seeds that may have landed in the mulch and covering them now will prevent germination.  We mulch anytime a new tree or shrub is planted.  This practice will keep the soil cooler, help retain moisture longer and insulate new roots from the cold weather. Some thicker mulch areas may benefit from being fluffed from time to time.  Simply take a rake and loosen up the top few inches of the mulch.

What type of mulch is best?

We use whatever is available to us.  Mulch is not cheap, so we use chippings from the tree trimming service.  We have used semi loads of hardwood mulch, which is expensive. It is not as important what you use, but how much you use.  Even free mulch can look attractive and function just like the most expensive mulch.  For sloped areas, the larger and heavier mulch works the best.  It is not as susceptible to runoff or wind displacement.  Smaller or finer mulch decomposes quicker too.  The bottom line is use what is available to you.

Our mulch pile of chipped up trees

River rock as mulch with blackeyed susan and prairie dropseed

Can I use plants as 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.

Lenora Larson’s Garden with dense plants that smother weeds

A few final thoughts:

Purchase a heavy duty mulching fork and stiff garden rake for leveling.

Essential mulching tools: Silage fork and stiff leaf rake

Insects can be a problem in mulch, so keep it away from the foundation of your house and base of the plants.  Termites generally like larger pieces of wood but can even live in the finer mulch, especially if it is too thick.

Landscape fabric under mulch is something we avoid.  It only keeps weeds out for the first few years and then the decomposing mulch turns into compost, which is ideal seed bed for weeds.  It is also hard to transplant into it and often suffocates the soil.  We have purged the Arboretum of just about all landscape fabric.  Save your money and buy more plants.

You can use rock as a mulch, but don’t buy the recycled rubber mulch.  The rubber mulch may last forever but it does nothing great for the soil or the plants around it.  In fact, the compounds and residues that leach over time may do more harm than good.

Happy Mulching!






Five simple ways you can make a difference for wildlife

In the grand scheme of things, we have a tremendous capacity to impact our surroundings for good or bad.  A few changes in how we approach and look at our landscapes can make a real difference to the future of the wildlife we enjoy and care about.  Here are five ways you can positively impact wildlife and create something you enjoy too.

Increase vertical layering

Having tiers of plants from the largest trees to the lowest grass and everything in between is the perfect habitat for wildlife. Plants of varying heights and forms create interest in the garden, but more importantly these diverse plants provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for beneficial insects, birds, small mammals, and other wildlife. The use of native plants will only attract more wildlife.

Provide water

Water is an essential part of any diverse wildlife habitat. Just like us, wildlife need water for their survival. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A birdbath, small pond or bubbling fountain will be like a magnet for all sorts of wildlife. Besides, there is something soothing about the sound of water moving.  We may need it for our own healing.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Reduce your lawn

Invariably as we have done insect sweeps over lawns versus prairies, we always catch more insects and pollinators in the prairie. It makes perfect sense. The shortness of the lawn and lack of diversity of plants repel rather than attract more insects and birds to the areas that are more diverse.

Limit the use of chemicals

Obviously, chemicals were created to eradicate pests. However, chemicals adversely affect not just one pest but also many non-targeted species. In addition, the chemical residue can remain active for an extended period of time, lengthening the impact. Here at the Arboretum, we use chemicals sparingly and as a last resort. A diverse planting attracts a host of insects, including predator insects and birds that feed on the problem pest.  A pristine landscape with whole leaves and little insect activity is not natural. Some pests are inevitable and are usually controlled by other wildlife.  It is important to wait for the natural processes to take place.

Become a citizen scientist or naturalist. Be aware of wildlife and its needs.

The more you know about the wildlife in your landscape, the more you will understand what they need for their survival.  Knowledge is power. Monitor what is happening in your yard. Create habitat by establishing trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that attract a host of diverse wildlife.  The awe that many of these critters invoke naturally creates within us a desire to learn more about them.

The most important thing to remember is that you can make a difference. Even a few small steps over the next few years will have a positive impact. While it might not seem like your small space is that important, imagine your landscape connected to hundreds of other patchwork gardens throughout the town. These gardens will make a difference, over time, on the wildlife we seek to help. No small change is too trivial—so pick one of these ideas today and take action!






Plant Profile: Mountain Mint

Mountain mint plants are underused in the landscape. With dainty white blooms, a clumping habit and tons of genera to choose from, mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) can fit in any style of garden. P. tenuifolium, P. virginiana, P. flexuosum, and P. muticum are the species most often available for purchase at FloraKansas. I always wonder why they don’t fly off the greenhouse bench at our sales – it must be because people don’t know enough about them!

Virginia mountain mint is an attractive species, in the garden or out in the prairie!

Piqued for Pycnanthemum

All species in the Pycnanthemum (pick-nan-the-mum) genus are native to North America. They are in the mint family, so the leaves have that delicious, refreshing mint aroma when crushed. They spread via rhizomes and left unchecked can cover ground fast, though not quite as aggressively as other members of mint family. The blooms attract a wide array of pollinators. It is a special favorite among bees, flies and wasps, though swallowtails, grey hairstreaks, buckeyes and skippers often visit them as well. Ironically, mountain mints most often thrive in meadows and grassy prairies, not in alpine situations.

So Many Mints, So Little Time

There are lots of varieties of mountain mint out there, but the various species can be tricky to tell apart for the layperson. The blooms are all very similar: round and clustered, whitish to light purple, with spots. However, the leaves do have distinct shapes that vary between species. My favorites are the thin leaved species such as P. virginiana and P. tenuifolium. 

P. tenuifolium, narrowleaf mountain mint. Photo credit: Nelson DeBarros, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

P. muticum is easily recognized by its teardrop-shaped leaves, much wider than the other species. Found from Texas and Missouri all the way to Maine, this native grows in moist meadows and woodland areas. Like all mountain mints, it likes full sun to part sun and average soil moisture.

The short, stout leaves of P. muticum. I, SB Johnny [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

P. flexuosum is not native to Kansas, but still grows well here. This plant grows wild in the Carolinas, Florida, and west to  Mississippi and Alabama. Thick, lance-shaped leaves set it apart from the others. As New Moon Nursery describes it, “Pycnanthemum flexuosum is an aromatic perennial wildflower.  This mint relative bears oval toothed leaves on strong square stems.  In summer, plants are topped by dense frizzy ball-like clusters of tiny white to lavender tubular flowers.”

Appalachian mountain mint, P. flexuosum By Photo by David J. Stang [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

P. tenuifolium By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Slender Mountain Mint) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountain mints are easy to care for and will spread fast in the garden, filling in the gaps and looking lush all season long. The densely clustered flowers of this pollinator powerhouse will add beauty and wildlife value to your landscape. Be sure to ask for mountain mint at the next FloraKansas!