Plant Profile: Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

There are quite a few native wildflowers that everyone knows – coneflowers, gayfeathers, prairie clovers, evening primrose and so on. But when I tell folks to try some rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, I get the blank stare, or the proverbial crickets in the room sound. What does that do? What does that look like?  True, it is one of the lesser known wildflowers, but I contend that it is just as attractive as some of the common wildflowers.

Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, gets its name from the belief that the roots have the ability to heal snake bites. In today’s world, I would stick to the true antidotes. Often the root was dried and used in bitter teas as a supposed cure for maladies such as venereal disease, liver problems, impotence, expelling worms and to induce vomiting. It makes me thankful for modern medicine, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries many herbs from the prairie were used to cure a variety of ailments because they had nothing else.

This unique wildflower’s scientific name comes from the close resemblance the leaves have with a yucca plant. The sword-like leaves have soft tiny barbs along the edges that make it easily recognizable. In the summer, the white thistle-like flowers develop atop the stout upright stems. Even though it looks like a thistle, it is actually a member of the carrot/parsley family. Rattlesnake master ultimately reaches about three to four feet tall with a spread of one to two feet. I like to combine them in groups of three in the middle to back of the flower bed.

In the landscape or in a prairie, it is quite a striking plant. The grey-green foliage and one inch diameter flower heads make it stand out in the garden as an accent plant. The flowers slowly dry and become yellow-brown later in fall and into the winter. The stalks are sturdy and remain well into winter, providing interest in the landscape. We have even used them in dried flower arrangements.

Plant them in full sun or part shade for best growth. They are quite adaptable, but prefer a medium to dry soil. I have planted in spring and fall with easy establishment either time of the year. This is a plant that should be used more in roadside plantings, prairie restorations, prairie landscape settings, and in your wildflower garden.

You may never need a rattlesnake master for a snake bite, but you do need some rattlesnake master in your garden. Its attractive appearance and resilient beauty are outstanding. Plus, pollinators love it too.  You may have just found your next favorite plant.

Eco-Friendly Lawn Replacement

Anyone who has ever been in the car with me, driving through a city or suburban area, has been subject to my rant about turfgrass. My friends and family have come to know this argument by heart. I love a nice green lawn as much as the next person, but with pollinator habitat disappearing by the acre and freshwater around the world becoming ever more precious, I can’t help but be a little critical of them. The fact is, a nonnative grass monoculture (area of only one species of plant) of bluegrass or fescue is something of a pollinator desert – offering no larval host plants or flowering food sources. And beyond that, they can take a lot of chemical and water input to keep them green and weed free. There are so many more interesting, attractive and ecologically friendly options for lawn replacement!

 

This home in southern California is making smart water choices  by using slopes and drainage to their advantage. Drought tolerant plants like russian sage and agastache reduce water cost and uncut red fescue forms an attractive, wavy mat. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WS-outdoor-west-gallery-40_(32751871504).jpg

Ditching your front yard isn’t a new trend – it was hip in the middle ages too! The historic home of Anne Hathaway (wife of Shakespeare) has a beautiful and diverse front yard cottage garden. England has long been famous for their colorful cottage gardens. By Richard Peat [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So Many Reasons, So Little Time

Between homeowner yards, business fronts, and miles of narrow hellstrips along city streets, our love affair with turfgrass runs inexplicably deep. And we have much too much of it here in Kansas – in 2011, Kansas had 495,000 acres of lawn, slightly more than the acreage of wheat but less than our acreage of corn. But there are so many good reasons to rethink our grass obsession and transition to more productive landscapes:

  • native grasses/garden provide larval host plants and habitat for overwintering insects
  • native plants produce seeds and berries for birds
  • deep roots of native plants enrich soil and are resilient against drought
  • dense garden spaces provide carbon sequestration and help to cool the air

I won’t tell you transitioning from a lawn to a prairie garden is easy. It takes lots of time and a fair bit of labor. I see it as trading one type of work for another. Instead of mowing every week, you will mow it down once a year. You save money on fertilizers and herbicides, but you spend time planting and weeding. I find gardening much more enjoyable work than traditional ‘lawn care’, and all the less tedious because I know the work is part of responsible resource use and providing habitat.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) makes a great substitute for turfgrass in shady areas. It creeps along the ground and has small cupped flowers. https://www.wildflower.org/gallery/result.php?id_image=21411.

But even I am not a purist here; I will always have a little bit of grass lawn in my landscape. I have a dog who loves to play frisbee and roll in the grass, so that space gets well used. Additionally, you can use small areas of green grass to give the eye a rest in an otherwise diverse and colorful landscape. There is a whole spectrum of choices: you can go gung-ho and convert all your grassy areas to garden spaces, or you can simply commit to decreasing your square footage of turfgrass while still keeping certain areas for recreation and aesthetics.

Go All In

If you are ready to swear off weekly mowing, regular applications of fertilizer, aeration, and all the other tasks that lead to a perfectly green lawn, consider a total transformation. Who says a garden has to be relegated to a small corner of the back yard? Make your lawn into a pollinator paradise with flowering natives. To keep the space looking organized and intentional, plant in masses or clumps. Following a landscape plan that draws the eye through the landscape with repeated colors and shapes also helps.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways and decorative rocks. The sidewalks keep things looking tidy and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Starting Small

Perhaps you, like me, still need some green lawn for your dog or space for a game of horseshoes. There are lots of ways you can decrease your ecological impact and create habitat without giving up your grass completely. Wide grassy pathways with curved edges create a fun, natural looking space that still provides room to play. Alternatively, think about areas of your landscape that are already divided up – do you have a sidewalk or fence that separates one part of your yard from this other? Commit to converting on of those spaces to native garden while the other can remain grass. This method allows you to learn as you go instead of being overwhelmed by an entire yard full of new plant material.

Internationally, people are leaning towards less grass and more flowers! This garden in the Czech Republic is a great example of how to use small areas of grass to keep garden beds contained.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:7.d%C3%ADl_html_4ae5ed86.jpg

If you are thinking of making changes to your yard, big or small, Dyck Arboretum can provide landscape designs and choose native species that will thrive. The birds and butterflies you attract will be happy to see a yard full of food and color!

What is the Key to Native Plant Happiness?

One of the questions we get every year at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, is “why didn’t my ___ come back this year?” It is a great question. Every year at the Arboretum, we ask the same question with some of the plants we establish and want to grow. I wish there was a right answer for every situation and every scenario, but every landscape is unique. Here’s the hard truth that many gardeners don’t often want to hear: the key to native plant happiness lies in identifying this uniqueness and finding the right plants for your plot.

Coneflowers blooming in the lush prairie garden

Match Plants to Your Site

Your landscape is a micro-climate all its own. The soil, sun exposure, orientation to your house, root competition from trees, and many other factors make your garden special. Even your neighbor overwatering their lawn can impact what plants grow best in your scene.  There are hundreds of factors that relate to the happiness of your plants and whether or not they will thrive.

The most critical step when establishing your native plant garden is matching the plants with your site. Sometimes I want to try a certain plant in a certain spot that has no business being planted there. I have done it too many times to mention and the result is always the same. I am left holding the hand of a struggling plant that would be much happier someplace else. In the end, I either move it or lose it.

Summer blooms of Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Do Your Homework

If we are honest, I think we have all planted before preparing. The wilting plant in the flower bed is a constant reminder to me that I didn’t do my homework.  Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?

Become familiar with prairie plants that grow in similar situations and evaluate the elements that will impact their survival. Choose plants that will thrive in the micro-climate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. If your flower bed receives less than 6 hours of sun, look at more shade-loving natives.

A thriving landscape begins with matching plants to your one-of-a-kind area. For a lower-maintenance garden, choose plants that occur in the same or similar prairie climates.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort to keep alive.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a Missouri evening primrose in a bog will never work.

Butterfly milkweed on a well-drained slope

Learn From Your Mistakes

Good gardeners have lost their share of plants over the years, but what makes them good gardeners is that they learn from their mistakes. With lots of trial and error under their belts, they/we should make better choices…in theory at least.

Other design elements such as succession of bloom, patterns, year round interest, heights, and visual elements become less important when your plant is unhappy in its current location. You must get the right plants in the right place and the other elements will come much easier. A healthy garden begins with a connection to your landscape personally. As you watch and learn  what your landscape needs and what it can sustain, you will be able to link the appropriate plants to the location. This important step in the design process allows you to spend more time enjoying and less time “working” in your garden.  We all want that from our gardens.

Just one more thing…

Sometimes plants, through no fault of our own, defy all of the above-mentioned rules and simply don’t return. Even in the prairie, plants are ephemeral and rely on self-seeding to continue to grow in an area.  As you become more familiar with native plants (and I’m still learning too), you will be able to identify these species.  It is their nature to be short lived. True native coneflowers have this characteristic.  They are worth planting, but may need to be supplemented with new plants from time to time to keep the area full.

Pale coneflower

Imposter Plants: What it Means to Be Native, Part II

This post is the second installment of the Imposter Plants series. In the first post I discussed the differences between native and adaptable, while also trying to clear up the confusing descriptor ‘naturalized’. Here I will dig into the details on what it means to be invasive, noxious, weedy, alien or exotic.

Garden Bullies

On February 3rd 1999, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that was meant to protect the US from imminent invasion – plant invasion! Non-native plants that become out of control can affect agriculture, ecology, endangered species and human health, and the President was right to be concerned.

There are many definitions for what an invasive plant is, and some are contradictory. Here is my simplified aggregation of the most prevalent ones on the web: a plant is invasive if it is non-native to the region and spreads aggressively enough to displace native plant populations. These plants are not only bullies in the home landscape, they can easily escape into the wild and begin reproducing. Harkening back to the previous post, non-native plants that reproduce on their own in the wild are ‘naturalized’, but the important distinction is that naturalized plants do not degrade habitat and cannot outcompete natives for nutrients, water or sunlight. Invasive plants certainly do, often causing damage to the local flora and fauna.

 

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive plant as well as a noxious weed. Brought here from Eurasia, it quickly adapted to the North American climate and is pervasive enough to choke out native plants and hinder agriculture.

 

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is a beautiful native species, but spreads aggressively and can take over your garden. Even so, this is not technically an invasive plant.

Weedy and Noxious

I truly despise the term ‘weedy’. Not only is it vague, it is completely subjective. One person’s weedy plant is another’s favorite flower! The true definition of a weed is merely ‘a plant out of place’; a weed can be any plant, native or non-native, that does not belong in its current place. We use this word to describe the behavior of the plant more than the plant itself. Does it pop up everywhere? Does it come back even after you pull it? Well, a gardener might call this plant a weed, even if they once planted it there themselves. But since it only describes the action of the plant and not the legal status or origins, this word doesn’t hold much weight with me.

Brad Guhr captured this delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan) enjoying the bloom of a native thistle, Cirsium altissimum. People often confuse these with non-native thistles classified as noxious weeds. Our native tall thistle is important to pollinators.

 

Regal fritillary on native tall thistle. You can identify native thistles from the noxious by their leaves – Cirsium altissimum leaves are green above white and woolly underneath. To learn all the details on native and non-native thistles from Brad Guhr, click here.

A noxious weed is a different story. Noxious is a legal term and its definition is closely tied to agriculture. Per the 1974 Federal Noxious Weed Act, “a plant that directly or indirectly injures crops, other useful plants, livestock, poultry or other interests of agriculture, or the fish or wildlife resources of the United States” is considered noxious. Confusingly, native plants can be noxious weeds. A noxious weed grows aggressively, multiplies quickly without natural controls (such as herbivory) and threatens agriculture. The USDA regulates these plants and monitors their populations.

Extraterrestrial and Just Plain Weird

Lastly, let’s tackle a few terms that arise occasionally to confuse and befuddle. Though we call some plants ‘alien’, this doesn’t mean they have invaded from Mars. We can use this term interchangeably with ‘non-native’; both mean that a given plant is not naturally found in the area. You may also hear a plant called ‘exotic’. What comes to mind might be tropical, rare, or expensive specimens, but in fact this is just another name for a non-native plant. An exotic plant has origins in another place, perhaps on another continent. Exotic and alien are often bundled together with other terminology – exotic introduced (a non-native plant brought to a new place), an alien invasive (a non-native plant that harms local ecosystems), an exotic naturalizer (a non-native that reproduces in the wild but doesn’t cause major problems) … and so on!

Tamarix is an exotic species native to Eurasia and Africa, but is now spreading aggressively over many parts of the US. So prevalent in some areas, it can lower the water table and deposit large amounts of salt in the soil.

Whether a plant is invasive or naturalizing, native or weedy, can often change based on who you are talking to. Some of these terms overlap in definition, leaving much to argue about. There is even scientific interest in finding a new way to classify these plants to help dispel the confusion. By educating yourself on correct classifications, you can help friends and neighbors understand why they shouldn’t plant invasives that ruin our wilderness. You can also help at our FloraKansas Plant Festival, teaching others that native plants are not just pretty ‘weeds’.

Know Your Native Plant Families

As we approach our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium on February 24, where speakers will tell stories about their favorite native plants, they may make reference to using certain families of plants. Thinking about the organization of plants in this way makes landscaping with native plants even more interesting.

In a way, native plants are like people. The closer people are in genetic relation to each other, the closer they resemble each other. Family members share skin color, body type, hair texture, and facial features. While a unique name is given to each person to recognize their individuality, part of that name is kept the same and recognized both with close and distant relations. These closely-bonded people develop similar habitat preferences and interact with their environment in similar ways.

In 1758, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a Latin naming system for plants and animals. Each plant or animal was given a “genus” (generic name) and “species” (specific name). Plant families include genetically related plants share floral structures, leaf arrangements, and stem shape. Multiple genera can make up a family. Along with the scientific name, people have also given each plant species many common names or nicknames.

Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed or marsh milkweed, is a member of the DOGBANE FAMILY.

For example, plants in the DOGBANE FAMILY have five-parted flowers, opposite leaves, and a milky juice in the stems and leaves with a bitter-tasting, toxic compound that protects the plants from being eaten by insects (excluding monarch butterfly larvae). In this family, the milkweed genus (Asclepias) has 22 different species in Kansas. You may not recognize from their common names that butterfly milkweed and green antelopehorn are related, but when you see their Latin names, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias viridis, you will know better.

Kansans have many good reasons for landscaping with native plants. Some of the best benefits are: 1) they provide natural beauty throughout the seasons, 2) they attract pollinators and other wildlife that are part of the food chain, 3) they offer drought-tolerant, environmentally-friendly plants to work with, and 4) they represent our state’s rich prairie natural heritage. By learning more about native plant families, you can add more diversity to your garden, creating a wider range of habitat for wildlife.

Additional plant families commonly found in the prairie, which are well represented at our plant sale, include:

SUNFLOWER FAMILY

Includes the largest number of species in the prairie; many flowers or “florets” in one head with both inner disk florets and outer ray florets.

Echinacea pallida, otherwise known as pale purple coneflower, is a member of the SUNFLOWER FAMILY.

BEAN FAMILY

These “legumes” have a distinctive five petal flower, form bean pods, and fix nitrogen into the soil thanks to special bacteria living on the roots.

Baptisia australis, also known as blue wild indigo or blue false indigo, is a member of the BEAN FAMILY.

MINT FAMILY

These plants have square stems and opposite leaves that create aromatic oils. Most garden herbs are in the mint family.

Salvia azurea, also known as blue sage, is a member of the MINT FAMILY.

GRASS FAMILY

Flowers are colorless and wind pollinated, and stiff fibrous stems help carry fire when dormant. Most agricultural crops are in the grass family.

Schizochirium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is a member of the GRASS FAMILY.

 

Each summer at our Earth Partnership for Schools Institute, we begin our week-long K-12 teacher training with an introduction to plants through an exercise called “Plant Families”. This is a great way to give some organization to the understanding of how plants are named and classified. I think you will enjoy having access to this resource – check it out and have fun while learning your plant families! (Plant Families EPS Curriculum Activity)

Teachers examine grass flowers while learning about plant families.

 

The Trade-off Plants Make to Survive

Gardening is a learning process.  I have been working at the Arboretum for nearly 25 years and I am still learning new things.

Wildflowers and grasses, as it turns out, live in communities. They grow best surrounded by plants that coexist well and rely on each other. My designs have focused on individual plants grouped together for dramatic effect, but they would be much happier bunched with native grasses like little bluestem.  It is a subtle change in design approach, but can make a tremendous difference in the overall success of the planting and give plantings a much richer sense of place.

Another epiphany has come with the realization of the trade-off that plants make in the landscape. We tend to automatically believe that just because we put a plant in the landscape it will be happy. I have killed my share of plants by making this assumption. We manipulate the soil and install irrigation with the hopes of keeping the plants chosen for the site alive and thriving. Instead, we should be searching for the right plants for the landscape that do not have to be coaxed to grow. Although there are thousands of plants available, only a select few will grow freely under these specific conditions.

This is the trade-off. Plants cannot move and are bound to where they are planted. They have to survive in the soil, light, nutrients, water, pH and temperature of that particular site. They have to tolerate these conditions to grow and reproduce. If any of these resources is lacking in any way, the plant will give up something to continue to grow. The leaves will curl, plant growth will be stunted, flowers will be smaller or if it needs more light, the stems will be elongated. The plant is not growing as it should because it lacks one or all of these important resources or conditions.

Our natural response as gardeners has been to supply these resources by changing the conditions, which keeps these plants on life support. I have come to realize there is an alternative. The importance of matching plants up with the site is vital to the success of the landscape design. There are plants that thrive in our gumbo clay soils here in Kansas without organic matter amendments. For centuries, plants with deep roots that can punch through the dense soil for extra moisture have prospered without supplemental help.

Think of the landscapes and gardens we love. They seem to thrive effortlessly. They have constraints and can be harsh, but they are lush and beautiful too. They create a sense of place and thrive regardless of the conditions.  Stress on plants helps define what will grow in a particular landscape. It makes us choose wisely the plants that we incorporate into our designs.

 

As you plan for spring and begin to choose plants, be conscious of the land. Ask yourself what plants will thrive in this garden? What plants were not happy last year? Make a concerted effort to understand the plants you specify for your landscape. As I have said time and again, match the plants up to your site. I just have to take my own advice. If you are looking for a few plants for your area, find them at the 2018 FloraKansas Plant Sale.

Little Known Natives

Our FloraKansas Plant Sale is the largest native plant sale in the state of Kansas. We do our best to provide a wide selection of native and adaptable perennials that will grow reliably, but will, over time, use less water and fertilizer. Using native plants in your landscape helps to build back some of the native habitat that our cities and neighborhoods have paved over and shoved aside.

While planning out our inventory for this year, I was struck by how many amazing North American natives we offer that get overlooked. Why are these dazzlers not flying off the shelves? I’d like to introduce our readers to some of these lesser-known native showstoppers.

Linum p. Lewisii– Flax

Linum, also known as blue flax, prairie flax, or Lewisii flax (named for Meriwether Lewis) is one of the few “true blue” flowers out there. It has dainty blooms on stout stems and thin, grey green foliage. According to the USDA link, it is native from Kansas to California and Texas all the way to the far reaches of Northern Canada. Linum does not tolerate prolonged wetness; good drainage and a somewhat rocky environment suit it well. At the Arboretum, we have a very old blue flax specimen growing out from between a couple of limestone slabs in a rockwall. It blooms every spring like clockwork!

Flax is a great native addition to any dry, full sun garden.

 

Ipomopsis aggregata– Scarlet Gilia (Biennial)

Beloved by hummingbirds, scarlet gilia is a dry-loving plant, native to the western half of North America. Just missing the western Kansas border, this plant makes its home in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California – you can tell from that list that it likes a high-and-dry soil climate with excellent drainage. Gilia will likely do well in a sunny rock garden.

Scarlet Gilia has dainty red blooms but a tough, drought tolerant root system.
     Photo by Jerry Friedman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Packera obovata– Golden Ragwort

Native from Kansas all the way to the Atlantic ocean, this woodland species is a colorful ground cover that spreads via seed or rhizome. It appreciates a shaded location, but is very low maintenance once established. Usually blooming mid-spring, it is a welcome sight for hungry pollinators!

Bright yellow flowers of Packera obovata, great for cutting!

 

Talinum calycinum– Rock Pink

Rock pink, also known as fameflower, is a sweet and petite succulent that loves hot sun. Native from Nebraska to Texas and Colorado to Missouri, this species loves rocky, gravelly soil and dry conditions. Brilliant purple flowers contrast with bright yellow stamens in the center. These look great next to low growing non-native companions such as hens and chicks, annual rose moss or ground-hugging sedums.

Talinum is a native succulent with wiry purple stems and bright blooms.    Photo by Corey Raimond (Largeflower Fameflower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stylophorum diphyllum– Celandine Poppy

Found mostly east of Kansas in Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, celandine poppy is a cheery yellow spring bloomer that often goes dormant during the hot summer months. It has lobed leaves and hairy stems which support large, yellow, poppy-like flowers.

Celandine poppy gives bright yellow blooms early in the growing season.       Photo by R.W. Smith, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 

Carex brevior– Plains Oval Sedge

Okay, so this isn’t a blooming show stopper, but it is a must-have nonetheless! The weedy, invasive sedges give a bad name to the genus, but Carex brevior, and many other well-behaved sedges are superb for filling in gaps in the garden, creating a lush, verdant look. Deep green arching blades and a compact form make this sedge a hit in a part shade setting.

Berlandiera lyrata– Chocolate Flower

Chocolate flower is one of my personal favorite natives. It truly smells (and tastes?) like chocolate, a unique and tantalizing scent for your garden. Plant in large groups to maximize the visual impact and aroma. Also known as greeneyes or chocolate daisy, they are beneficial to pollinators and can grow in dry, shallow soil. They are native to Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

Chocolate flower is irresistibly cheery and smells uncannily like warm chocolate. Photo by Kaldari (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring is just around the corner – soon our greenhouse will be bursting with all these species and many more! Not sure how to incorporate these plants into your garden? Come to our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium to hear about the experiences and techniques of native plant gardening from beginners and veterans alike. I hope to see these beauties in more landscapes soon, for their own uniqueness and for their contribution to the ecosystem.

Make Your Garden Welcoming to Winter Birds

Something that amazes me every year is how birds survive the winter. Somehow they are able to find the food, water and shelter they need each day. Just the other day, I watched a pair of cardinals foraging in the buffalograss and eating seeds from the Maximilian Sunflower outside my window. They find a way to survive, but it can’t be easy.  I believe we can do a few things in our yards to make their lives a little easier.  Here is a list that will help them survive the cold weather and give you more up-close encounters with birds.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Leave prairie plants up through the winter

Winter is a desperate time for birds.  They spend a tremendous amount of energy each day searching for food. Their winter food comes from a variety of sources, but one of the first places they search is in and around meadows and perennial borders.  By leaving these areas undisturbed through the winter, birds can find bugs, seeds that are highly nutritious in the seed heads, and tufts of grass near the ground.

Create a wildlife border

The more diverse your plantings, the more diverse the types of birds your landscape will attract. Think about different layers of plants, including trees and shrubs, that produce fruit and nuts that birds need.  Incorporate a few evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs, because the winter foliage provides extra protection from the elements and predators.  These layers mimic the natural areas birds flock to during the winter.

Create a compost pile

All those leaves that are blowing all around your yard make wonderful compost. They also make a nice place for bugs to hide. I have seen birds completely destroy a compost pile searching for insects and seeds.  Those leaves will also become next year’s soil amendment for your garden.

Make a brush pile

Our brush pile at the Arboretum is huge, but it is always filled with birds. It provides shelter from winter storms and protection from predators.  Even a small pile with logs, sticks and branches will provide the safety and security many birds need.

Provide Food for Birds in the Winter

The key to feeding birds in winter is to give them options. A diverse selection of seed, suet, and peanuts will entice many different types of birds. Locate feeders in areas out of the wind but within viewing distance. Hang some from tree branches and others on the ground.

Provide Water for Birds

Birds need ready access to water in the winter.  Bird baths, a puddle, or a stream are great options as long as they are not frozen. Heating these water sources will allow birds to find the water they need for survival especially during freezing weather.

Make plans to help

If you don’t have these key features in your garden already, create a design that favors birds and other wildlife.  Include grasses and perennials that produce seeds birds prefer. Establish shrubs with persistent seeds and fruit that birds can utilize in the winter.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that may help you create your plan:

Common Feeder Birds

Kansas Birds Checklist

How birds survive the winter in simply amazing. Helping to welcome the boreal birds to your backyard can be quite enjoyable for you and for them. By providing the habitat and food they need, your landscape can become a bird sanctuary and a haven that gives them food, water, and shelter to endure the winter.

An Annual Dilemma

A recent September Dyck Arboretum trip to Kansas City and the home of Lenora Larson spurred for me a dilemma regarding landscaping with non-native annual plants. I have typically spurned the use of annuals for reasons I’ll elaborate on more later. But Lenora makes a very compelling case for using more annuals in the home landscape.

Front walkway to Lenora Larson’s home

“Best Butterfly Godmother Possible”

Lenora Larson is indeed a master gardener with a mastery of providing host and nectar plants for a great variety of insects. Her father was a botanist and her mother was a landscape designer, so she certainly has a lineage for creating interesting and beautiful gardens. She was a microbiologist before retiring; with a scientist’s curiosity, she keeps alive a keen interest in learning more about the natural world (especially plants and insects) around her. This passion was evident during her “Gardening for Butterflies” winter lecture talk at the Arboretum in March this year, and it was especially apparent as we toured the gardens around her home.

Lenora Larson giving a tour of her garden

Lenora hates planting and, therefore, smartly touts the use of long-lived perennials as well as self-sowing annuals. She is a hard-working gardener, and loves spending 6-8 hours per day weeding and mulching during the growing season. She breaks down by hand all the vegetation on site to keep around the seeds and insect eggs that will keep the cycles going next year. Lenora is an artist who has a genius eye for aesthetics, composition, texture and color. Not only are her gardens graced with “plant art”, but many permanent art installations of sculptures, trellises, paths, and walls are carefully and purposefully included as well. Her gardens are visually stunning.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

To an ecologist’s eye, Lenora’s gardens are fascinating. The numbers of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, and insects in general were incredible and so interesting. She could recognize and identify practically every insect we saw and her stories extended to amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and more. Lenora’s planting formula is generally to plant about 50% native perennial host plants for hungry insect larvae, and then as many flowering nectar plants as possible (annuals included) for the adult insects. Thanks to the annuals, Lenora’s gardens feature flowers from April through November. Lenora is willing to use glyphosate (e.g., Roundup) herbicide carefully to keep her paths looking clean when needed, but as you might imagine, she is staunchly against the use of insecticides.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

My Historical Context for the “Dilemma”

Allow me to give a bit of background on why landscaping with annuals even poses a dilemma for me.

I have been a bit of a snob in the past about planting only native perennial plants. With a fresh background in plant ecology and ecological restoration when I came to the Dyck Arboretum nearly 14 years ago, my focus was all about trying to mimic native plant communities while conducting prairie restorations, improving the ecology of my own back yard, and providing others with landscaping recommendations. This included not only the exclusive use of species with historic presence in south central Kansas, but trying to stick to local ecotype plants of those species as well whenever possible. Native annuals such as annual sunflower, and a couple of different ragweed species are important ecologically in their functions of holding soil and providing lots of seed food for wildlife. However, they generally aren’t appreciated in landscaping applications, because they are aggressive and/or aggravate allergies.

These “native only” ideas were fairly compatible with the mission and focus at Dyck Arboretum, which are firmly rooted in landscaping with native plants. In Central Kansas, that means using plants of the prairie. This approach is what sets us apart from other plant nurseries. It feeds our mission of education and stewardship, and it connects us to a sense of place by embracing historical plant communities important to our Kansas cultural and natural history.

But while this restrictive approach of “natives only” had its merits in designing, collecting seed, and planting our Prairie Window Project prairie restoration at the Arboretum, I quickly learned that this ivory tower mentality was not held by most other people. It also wasn’t a very sustainable approach for an organization engaging the general public on environmentally-responsible landscaping.

So, in addition to promoting use of native plants, our mission also embraces the use of adaptable perennials that may have originally grown elsewhere, but are still adapted to grow well in our soils and climate. Today, in a cosmopolitan world where information and biological organisms are shared easily around the globe, it seems impossible to take a natives only approach.

 

Using Annuals

One of the main reasons I’ve been biased against annuals for landscaping is their regular need for water. Annuals have shallow root systems compared to perennials. Dry, hot Kansas summers are not always conducive for growing annuals from places in the world with cooler and wetter climates.

Lenora Larson’s house sits next to a well-fed pond that she uses for her irrigation needs. Cosmos and zinnias have done well as part of our community garden vegetable plot, because we water them regularly. And we do enjoy the abundance of butterflies they attract throughout the summer. I’m just not sure if I want to commit the time and environmental/monetary costs to keeping annuals alive around my home too.

But in 2018, I have decided that I’m going to give this annuals approach a try to supplement my native perennial gardens. I plan to follow Lenora’s succinct 3-page guide, in which she summarizes her gardening approach and offers her favorite self-sowing annual plant species choices with descriptions of each. For many of these species she recommends, I’ve searched online and provided photos of the flowers below. Maybe you are already implementing many of Lenora’s annual species suggestions and seeing the rewards. If not, consider joining me!

Cosmos bipinnatus

Zinnia angustifolia – Profusion Orange

Nicotiana alata

Ricinus communis

Four O’Clock

Celosia cristata

Cleome spinosa

Impatiens balsamina

Tithonia rotundifolia

Verbena bonariensis

Lenora’s Self Sowing Annuals Guide

Photo Credits

What Are The Benefits of Hedges?

As you design your landscape, one of the first questions to consider is the need for screens and hedges. Do you need to block an undesirable vista or define an area? Do you need to line a path or camouflage a utility?  Hedges help outline boundaries. Instead of a rigid wall or fence built with wood or brick, why not create a living wall or screen using a variety of plants?   A living fence will provide much needed wildlife habitat while slowing the wind, improving air and water quality and beautifying the landscape.

Here is a mixed planting with taller shrubs/trees in the background.

 

When I think of hedges, my mind automatically pictures shrubs neatly trimmed and closely spaced, but it can be so much more diverse. A non-traditional hedge can be created with many different types of plants. This approach creates layers of varying heights that naturally block the view or envelope the space. The key is matching the plants to your site and grouping plants in informal clusters rather than in predictable rows. Hedges can be an essential element in a sustainable landscape design.

Blackhaw viburnum and Dallas Blues Switchgrass

Diversity is the key to the longevity and success of any hedge. If you drive through the country, you see screens and windbreaks that were planted with only three to four species in rows, and have, over time, been devastated by decay and disease. Who knew that pine wilt or tip blight would kill so many pine trees 50 years ago? A diverse selection of evergreens, deciduous trees, understory trees, and shrubs, grouped together in irregular patterns, would allow the removal of a dead or dying plant without compromising the whole planting. This large scale example can be incorporated into a smaller back yard planting. By using a wide variety of plants, you will avoid this lack of diversity pitfall.

Buffer planting along a driveway.

Typically, hedges are made up of evergreens or shrubs, but even wildflowers and grasses can be mixed together to produce an attractive screen. Tall grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem, along with wildflowers like New England aster and culvers root, become intertwined and dense, creating an informal hedge that provides valuable habitat and season-long interest. Intermingling shrubs with blooms and interesting foliage contributes additional food, nectar and shelter. The varying heights and undulating forms boosts the wildlife attraction and overall beauty of the planting. In instances where space is an issue, again, avoid planting in rows. Instead, plant in groups of three or five and add as many different plants as possible.

Prairie Dropseed, Giant Black-eyed Susan and yellow coneflower

Here are some examples of plants we recommend for hedges:

Evergreen choices

Eastern red cedar (Juniperis virginiana), ‘Caneartii’ or “Taylor’, Arizona Cypress, Southwestern White Pine, and Leatherleaf Viburnum

Native grass recommendations

Switchgrass-Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’, Panicum ‘Northwind’, Indiangrass-Sorghastrum nutans, Big Bluestem -Andropogon gerardii

Wildflower recommendations

New England aster, culvers root, penstemon, bluestar, bee balm, black-eyed susan, blazing star, beardtongue, coneflowers, goldenrod, and blue sage

In my own yard, I have a cedar fence to keep my dogs from escaping. However, I have softened the fence with an assortment of flowering shrubs and mixed prairie plantings in the front of it. These buffer areas are much more appealing than the stark vertical fence.  The benefits of a living screen or hedge in the landscape are many. These natural plantings provide privacy, protection against wind, reduce noise, enhance energy conservation, create wildlife habitat, increase species diversity in your neighborhood, beautify the landscape and screen unsightly elements.

Hedges can do so much to improve your landscape. Why not take a second look at some of these areas in your own yard?  A few additions could make a tremendous difference.

Additional resources

Recommended Trees of South Central Kansas

Native Shrub List

Native Plant Guide