How to Create a Beautiful and Sustainable Garden

With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them?  What would it take to begin to change their minds?

We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.

Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits.   Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant.  I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden.  If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall.  It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true.  These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants.  The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.

If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact.  We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.

Steps to a beautiful and sustainable landscape

  1. Evaluate your landscape
  2. Plan, plan, and plan
  3. Define your edges
  4. Choose the right plants that match your site
  5. Establish plants correctly
  6. Observe Best Management Practices
  7. Enjoy!

 

Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.

Add Your Piece to the Patchwork of Prairie Gardens

We are experiencing a paradigm shift that is sweeping across the country.  People are becoming increasingly aware of the natural world and their ability to impact it.  If we begin establishing landscapes that appeal to us aesthetically, but benefit wildlife ecologically, we can have the best of both worlds.

Each of us has the opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design your garden in such a way that attracts pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space for depleted and endangered native bees and Monarchs to find the food they need to survive.  This is a small way you can show you care.  It is one way you, along with others in your neighborhood, can develop prairie gardens that are refuges for these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.

(If you are interested in or are searching for native plants, peruse our 2017 Native Plant Guide and Plant List and plan to attend our 2017 Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale.)

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline. If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Pollinators

The plight of the honey bee and the loss of entire hives has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  The use of pesticides and insecticides, habitat loss, along with the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Many different pollinators face these realities.  Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems they face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing prairie gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens.  Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them.  You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

The Bees’ Needs: Garden Tips for Creating Habitat

Last month the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bumble bee use to roam the vast grasslands of the Midwest, sipping on endless nectar supplies of prairie wildflowers. But the land has changed, and with it a way of life for this little critter.

There are many factors contributing to population decline of this bumble bee and many other native bees – healthy prairies are harder and harder to find, urbanization gobbles up grassland nesting sites, agriculture employs potentially harmful pesticides and land management practices, and pathogens/fungal disease prey on their already weakened populations. What a nightmare for our flying friends!

Though these problems sound insurmountable, there are many things gardeners can do to help save these important insects from extinction.

Rusty patched bumble bee queen (Bombus affinis) – who couldn’t love that face?  Photo By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The namesake of the bee, a distinctive dark, rusty ‘patch’ on the its back. Queens do not have this marking. By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Flower Choice

When planning your garden, be sure to choose flowers that are useful and nutritious to bees. In this regard, all flowers are not equal and some are even deadly! Rhododendrons produce toxic nectar. Some exotic tropical plants (such as Heliconia, “false bird-of-paradise” or “lobster claw”) can be lethal to our North American bees as well.

Hybrid flowers can also pose a problem – they are bred for beauty and not nectar production, resulting in little usable nectar for visiting bees. If the flower has been so hybridized that its shape has been altered it may be impossible for a bee to reach the nectar. For example, ‘double flowers’ that do not occur naturally make it impossible for a bee’s tongue to reach past the inner petals. Be wary of using too many hybrids in your garden without doing some pollinator researching.

Click here for a list of native plants that are pollinator favorites. This link will allow you to choose your region and see native plants best for your area.

Plant for the Long Season

The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the first to break dormancy in spring and last to hibernate, which means we need to provide nectar sources for the sparse times. While there are many popular flowers blooming in mid-summer, the earliest parts of spring and latest parts of fall can be difficult times for bees to find nectar. Incorporating early blooming spring flowers as well as lingering fall bloomers will ensure the bees have food when they need it most.

Early Spring Bloomers: Baptisia australis, Dodecatheon meadia, Hammamelis virginica, Pulsatilla patens, Mertensia virginica, Lupinus perennis, Hellebores

Late Fall Bloomers: Salvia sp., Rudbeckia triloba, Echinacea, Aster novea-anglea, Aster oblongifolius, Solidago sp. 

To enhance the mid-summer buzz in your garden, consider Monarda fistulosa, Silphium perfoliatum, and Liatris spicata/Liatris punctata.

Many of these plants are available at our spring and fall FloraKansas native plant sales here at the Arboretum. If you don’t have a perennial garden, here is a list of popular annual plants that bees love!

Bumblebee (probably Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen from Senecio elegans flower. Wellington, New Zealand. I, Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nesting Habitat

Bumble bees need safe places to nest and overwinter. Skip the fall raking and mowing in a part of the yard to provide protected area close to the ground. Leave your grasses and flower stems standing all winter to provide protected hollows and nooks for bees to hibernate in. Many types of bumble bee like to nest underground in abandoned rodent dens or other areas of undisturbed soil, so be sure to leave an area of the garden untilled.

The Midwest is no longer a giant grassland pollinator paradise, and the bees need our help to ensure that they get the food and shelter they need to carry on. Every garden counts!

Click here for more information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what you can do to help save the rusty patched bumble bee!

 

Shrubs for Bees

A well-designed garden has many different forms, colors, heights, bloom times and textures.  Plants are integrated in ever-changing combinations that should be appealing to us and the wildlife we are trying to attract.  Obviously, pollinators depend on diversity of plants and being able to find the food they need.  Shrubs are an important nectar source for many different pollinators, particularly for bees.  By including just a few of these in your own landscape, you can have a beautiful and productive garden that makes a difference in their survival. Here is a list of shrubs for bees to feast upon.

Small Deciduous Shrubs (1-3 feet tall)

Black ChokeberryAronia melanocarpa-The tiny white blooms of this ornamental shrub attract many different types of bees.  The black fruit is a bonus to be eaten fresh or left for wildlife.  Look for varieties like ‘Autumn Magic’, ‘Iroquois Beauty’ or ‘Viking’ to add to your garden.

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Black Chokeberry

Western Sand CherryPrunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’-This wonderful, easy to grow landscape plant has an abundance of sweetly scented flowers in the spring followed by black cherries in the summer.  The glossy green leaves turn shades of red and purple in the fall.  It only grows to 18 inches tall by 4-6 feet in spread making it a fantastic ground cover.

CoralberrySymphoricarpos sp.-This is a shrub that is grown for its ornamental berries.  However, the tiny blooms are gladly used by bees.  The summer’s flowers swell into pinkish white pearls along arching stems.  The fruit is persistent well into winter.  “Candy™’ or ‘Galaxy™’ are forms with great fruit clusters.

Lead PlantAmorpha canescens-This is a great butterfly bush alternative.  The purple flower spikes in late spring atop the silvery gray foliage are extremely attractive.  Bees cover these plants while blooming.  It is a native wildflower that thrives in a sunny spot.

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Lead Plant

Medium to Large Deciduous Shrubs (4-10+ feet tall)

ButtonbushCephalanthus occidentalis-The unusual, fragrant flower balls of this native shrub are magnets to a host of pollinators.  I have seen up to two dozen swallowtail butterflies on one plant when in bloom.  ‘Sugar Shack®’ is a shorter form that works well in the landscape.

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Buttonbush

ElderberrySambucus canadensis-As you drive the highways in summer, this shrub is everywhere.  The creamy white blooms pop out of the landscape especially against the glossy green foliage.  These flat topped clusters of flowers make great landing pads for bees.  The fruit is tasty and very high in antioxidants.  ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are native forms selected for their larger fruit.  Other non-native forms like ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Lemony Lace’ are more refined alternatives for the landscape.

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Elderberry

SpicebushLindera benzoin-We have had success growing this as an understory shrub.  The tiny yellow flowers attract bees and the leaves have a spicy smell when crushed.  Plants develop a nice yellow fall color.

Viburnums-There are too many of these shrubs to mention, but I will highlight our native to Kansas varieties, which have beautiful white flowers in the spring followed by clusters of purplish fruit that develops later in the summer.  Viburnum prunifolium has smaller oval leaves that develop reddish-purple fall color.  Viburnum rufidulum has shiny leaves that turn burgundy-purple fall color.  Each of these shrubs can grow to 12 feet tall.

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Blackhaw Viburnum-Viburnum prunifolium

Certainly, there are other shrubs for the landscape such as Beautyberry-Callicarpa americana, sumac (Rhus sp.), Roughleaf Dogwood-Cornus drummondii, American plum-Prunus virginiana, Clover Currant-Ribes odoratum, and serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) that deserve more use in landscapes.  Many of these shrubs have been pushed aside for ornamental varieties that are nice to look at, but offer nothing to wildlife because the flowers are sterile.  By strategically choosing plants that are both beautiful and alluring to bees and other wildlife, your garden will become a haven for pollinators.

Shrubs for Bees Photo Credit

Plant Profiles: Butterfly Milkweed

As I drove through the Flint Hills this week in late June, there were orange dots among the prairie grasses that caught my eye.  Few plants found on the prairies of Kansas are as readily recognizable as butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  This classic prairie plant found throughout the eastern two-thirds of Kansas blooms from late May into August.

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Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep, coarse, fibrous root system.  Flowers range from deep orange-red in the eastern part of its range to lighter orange and finally yellow farther west and south in Kansas.  Unlike the numerous other milkweeds found in Kansas, butterfly milkweed does not exude a white milky sap when the stem is cut or a leaf is removed.

Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed

Generally available in garden centers and nurseries as well as our FloraKansas Plant Sale, butterfly milkweed can easily be used in a perennial border or in wilder, more naturalistic plantings.  Somewhat slow to establish because of the coarse roots, butterfly milkweed is a long lived plant and an excellent competitor in the garden when challenged by more vigorous plants.

While it prefers full sun and good drainage, it will tolerate light shade.  It is also very drought tolerant once established.  Several cultivated varieties of butterfly milkweed have been developed.  These include ‘Gay Butterflies’, a mix of red, orange, and yellow flowered plants, and ‘Hello Yellow’, an exclusively yellow flowered selection.

Flying Flowers of Kansas

Hello Yellow Butterfly Milkweed

The common name is derived from the blossom’s ability to attract butterflies and a host of pollinating insects.  The complex flowers actually have pollen sacs attached to a y-shaped structure or stirrup.  These structures attach to visiting insects and are consequently carried off to the other flowers in the vicinity, allowing cross pollination to occur.  Fruits are long, skinny pods, typically three to six inches long. These contain many seeds, each having a tuft of white, silky hairs.  As the pod dries and splits in the fall, the seeds are carried away by the breeze, each equipped with a tiny parachute-like structure.

Do your garden a favor and include some butterfly milkweed.  Its many ornamental and functional assets, plus its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come.  Plus, you will be rewarded as pollinators such as Monarchs seek out this beautiful native wildflower.

Six Ways You Can Help the Pollinators

Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week (June 15 – June 21)? Whether it is with bees, butterflies, birds or beetles, pollinators are extremely important and provide valuable services.

Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.  Think of all the food crop production that would not be possible without the help of pollinators.  We rely on these small, seemingly insignificant pollinators for the food we eat.  If they are so valuable, then they are certainly worth recognizing and saving.

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We saw it this morning as we walked the arboretum – we found three caterpillars munching on the milkweed leaves.  Not only that, but every blooming wildflower was covered with a host of insects.  The wildflowers are the buffet. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

 

2. Plant for a Succession of Bloom

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Sulphur on Cardinal Flower

Cloudless sulphur on Lobelia cardinalis, or cardinal flower – photo by Brad Guhr

 

3. Provide Habitat

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind along with nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies and bees. Even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea - photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

 

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

 

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

HummingbirdMoth on liatris

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

 

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  What do they need?  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their lifecycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

 

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

 

Five Benefits of Native Plants

The prairies of the Great Plains are diverse and complex.  They are often overlooked and taken for granted.  They are subtle in beauty, but resilient.  Because of the many benefits the prairie provides to us and the environment, it is an ecosystem worth saving.  Here are five benefits of native plants – though there are certainly more that we will experience as we begin to utilize these plants in our landscape:

  1. Low Maintenance

    There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Native plants still need some care, but compared to a traditional landscape with a lawn, tidy shrubs and a few trees surrounded by perennial beds, native plants are extremely low in maintenance. Native plants are adapted to our climate and can grow in the toughest environments. Once established, their deep roots take them through prolonged periods of drought.  It was great to see native plants blooming in the fall of 2012 after so many days of scorching heat.  The blue sage, heath aster, goldenrod, little bluestem, and switchgrass brightened up our prairie reconstruction.  It was a testament to their toughness. The slide below illustrates exactly why native plants are so much more resilient than the typical lawn – notice the difference in the root system of turf grass (far left) to many of the most common wildflowers and grasses of the prairie.

  1. Saves money

    There are obvious savings associated with a native landscape compared to maintaining a traditional landscape. A native landscape uses less water, little or no fertilizer and no chemicals or pesticides, which in turn saves you time. I am frugal and a native landscape is a low cost alternative to a traditional lawn-dominated landscape.  Conservation and stewardship are trends that help you and the environment.

  2. Water

    We have seen an increased interest in native plants because of the water they save once established. Many homeowners are decreasing their lawns as a way of saving water and money.  Most roots on a fescue or bluegrass lawn are only three to four inches deep compared to prairie wildflowers and grasses that develop extensive root systems several feet deep.  Big Bluestem grass for example establishes roots up to ten feet deep.  With a shallow root system, a typical lawn requires ten gallons of water per square foot through the summer to keep it looking green.  If you minimize your lawn, you will begin to diminish your dependence on water.  Click here for an example of a Waterwise Landscape Design.

  3. Beautiful plants

    If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place.

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

  1. Attract pollinators and wildlife

    Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have wildflowers you will have butterflies. There have been over 20 documented butterflies in the arboretum during the butterfly counts.  They seek out our wildflowers and utilize them throughout the year.  Monarch populations are declining.  They need milkweeds, and since we have milkweeds in the arboretum, they show up.  Read this article on how to encourage and sustain the monarch butterfly population by planting milkweed varieties.  Also, just like the Monarchs, songbird populations are declining.  They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.

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Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed

 

There are more reasons to grow native plants, but you get the idea.  Prairie is good, not only for you, but also for the environment.  The many benefits far outweigh negative perception.  When you plant native wildflowers and grasses, you will be rewarded time and again for your prairie habitat.  I don’t know how we got away from our regional identity of a prairie landscape, but it is essential to who we are and what grows best here.

Join us in re-establishing some prairie roots in your own yard, and then spread the word by sharing this information with your friends.

 

Is Your Yard Pollinator-Friendly?

It is true that pollinators are important for many reasons, including food production. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council in a report from March of 2011, “more than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by bees, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds.  U.S. honey bees also produce about $150 million in honey annually.”  It is also true that populations of pollinators are declining throughout the world.

There are many reasons for these declining populations, but what can we do to help them?  A few simple steps can be taken in our own gardens, landscapes, and neighborhoods to create healthy ecosystems for pollinators to thrive.  Our own backyard can provide the safe habitat they need to rebound from these startling declines.

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Tiger swallowtail and bumble bee on Liatris pychnostachya

 

5 Key Elements of a Pollinator-Friendly Landscape

1. Plant a variety of flowering plants:

The importance of flowering plants, especially native plants, to pollinators is well documented.  Pollinators seek these plants out in the landscape.  A recent butterfly survey for Harvey County found 17 of the 22 recorded species at the arboretum.  We attribute this to the many native plants we have growing here.  They don’t have to search to find food.  They can find food throughout the year because the prairie is continuously in bloom with overlapping wildflowers blooming from early spring to late fall.  Other low maintenance perennials add to the diversity of nectar-rich plants utilized by pollinators.

2. Water, Water, Water:

A water source gives life to pollinators.  It can be a bird bath, pool, water feature or small stream.   The type of source is not as important as its location.  Place your water source in a semi-shaded area protected from wind along with a place to land and sip up the water.  Any water in close proximity to the food they need will reduce stress on pollinators.

3. No Pesticide Zone:

This seems obvious, but it is important to note.  When our plants are being eaten by insects or foliar diseases appear, we often grab the spray can to immediately solve the problem. Here at the arboretum, we spray as a last resort.  By spraying sparingly and infrequently, we minimize the risk of harming pollinators in the garden.  Think carefully about when, why and how you spray.

4. Provide shelter:

Pollinators need easy access to protecting habitat.  Evergreen trees and shrubs with layered vegetation within easy flying distance from flowering plants is an ideal habitat.  The layered plants provide protection from the wind and predators.  This protecting habitat is a great place for pollinators to make their homes.

5. The more, the merrier:

If you are the only garden in your neighborhood that is pollinator-friendly, it is a start.  But just imagine your landscape connected with your neighbors’ gardens, which are connected with hundreds of others within the community – a giant ecosystem that can be freely navigated by pollinators.  Pollinator-friendly gardens can have a tremendous impact on reversing the decline of pollinators.  Educate your friends, neighbors and children about what can be done to positively impact pollinators.  It has to start somewhere, why not with you?

Dyck Arboretum photo

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata