Coneflowers: A Lesson in Host Plants

Coneflowers are so emblematic of the prairie. I love to include these prairie denizens in many of my designs. They are quite adaptable and I love the yellows, purples and pink colors of the true natives as they bloom during the summer.  The new cultivated varieties are attractive too. A mass of coneflowers with little bluestem make a nice combination by providing color and texture through the growing season. But right now, many of the plants are full of little black or brown caterpillars that are using Echinacea and Rudbeckia as their food.

Coneflowers as host plants

We are getting calls from our members and customers, and are seeing damage on our plants as well. Coneflower leaves are blackening, getting holes and disappearing. Contrary to how you may feel, this damage is an indication that your garden is functioning properly. Host plants are the vital food source that caterpillars live on. Adult butterflies will seek out these plants to lay their eggs on because they know that the caterpillar cannot travel far and will not survive if placed on a plant that they cannot eat. These caterpillars will eventually turn into checkerspot butterflies or a relative in that family. 

Think differently about your landscape

One of the goals of any garden – besides beauty – is to have pollinators in your garden. Sometimes they might not immediately be in the form you desire. Sometimes pollinators or their caterpillars may eat your plants or deform them.  Don’t be too hasty to spray or remove the culprits. They are doing what comes naturally to them and it is often better to leave the insect. These insects are fantastic food for fledgling birds as well.

Understand the life cycle

The caterpillars eating your coneflowers will make cocoons in a week or so and then turn into butterflies.  We must learn to embrace these caterpillars and accept some damage. The coneflowers will eventually recover. The tradeoff is that we create habitat suitable for butterflies to complete their life cycle. The “ugly, hairy” caterpillars will morph into beautiful butterflies that are equal to the beauty of the flower. 

The key to a successful butterfly garden is to plant both nectar and host plants, so that the butterflies will have a food source in all stages of their life cycles. We often design our landscapes as nectar sources and forget that these pollinators need host plants too. So as you design your landscape, include flowering plants that produce nectar and also double as host plants.

Other host plants

  • Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Gorgone Checkerspot, Bordered Patch butterfly
  • Aster spp. Host plant for: Pearl crescent, Painted Lady and more
  • Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) Host Plant for: Silvery Checkerspot and more
  • Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) Host plant for: Painted Lady, Common Checkered-Skipper and more
  • Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) or Dill (Antheum graveolens) Host plant for: Black Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail and more NOTE: The Black Swallowtail will feed on any plants within the Parsley family.
  • Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Painted Lady and more
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) Host plant for: Monarch
  • Mallow (Malva spp.) Host plant for: Common Checkered-Skipper, Gray Hairstreak , Painted Lady and more
  • Violet (Viola spp.) Host plant for: Great Spangled Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Meadow Fritillary and more

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!

Defining Sun Requirements for Native Plants

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

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

Terminology

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

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day
  • Dense shade – No direct sunlight and little indirect light reaches the ground.

A Closer Look at the Terms

Full Sun

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

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

Kansas Gayfeather in full sun

Part Sun and Part Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Shade

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

Native columbine thriving in the shade of an elm tree

Dense Shade

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

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

Inspiration for a Prairie Landscape

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee, And revery.

The revery alone will do, If bees are few.

Emily Dickinson

Maybe it’s the swaying grasses in a gentle breeze or pollinators clustered on the top of a coneflower on a warm spring day.  A primrose opening in the evening like a beacon in the night.  The vibrant combination of black-eyed Susans and blazing stars growing harmoniously with little bluestem. Or the vital role native plants play in the overall healing of the land. 

Whatever your inspiration for creating a prairie landscape, hold onto that dream, but also prepare yourself for a surprise. In my experience, when working with native plants, the resulting benefits of your effort will surpass anything you can imagine.

Connection to the Land

There is something special about native plants. They grow with you in a sense. As their roots grow deeper, you begin to understand the importance of the landscape you have created.

If you live in the prairie, a prairie landscape creates a sense of place.  It reflects your connection to the native landscape. This connection is good for you, but also good for the land.

Butterfly milkweed and compass plant

Assist the Environment

Over the past decade, there has been a renewed interest in native landscaping. These plants are naturally adapted to our soils and climates. If properly sited, they require less care, have fewer problems, and create habitat and year-round beauty. A prairie habitat attracts many different forms of wildlife, including birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects. 

The prairie is an important part of the web of life in the vast Great Plains.  Your native landscape, though small, is one part of a patchwork prairie that, when pieced together, has tremendous environmental benefits. 

Aesthetics that Reflect the Prairie

There is a paradigm shift happening on what is considered appealing in the landscape.  Not only what is attractive, but what is acceptable to have in your landscape. More and more people are moving away from the traditional lawn by replacing them with vibrant landscapes of diverse wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs. 

Often we start growing a prairie landscape for what it does for us.  However, the special beauty these plants provide will attract a host of other admirers, including our neighbors.

Liatris punctata and Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’

Economic Impacts

It’s difficult to quantify the savings you gain after a native landscape is established.  Savings of time, water, chemicals, and fuel for your mower are long term savings from your investment in native plants.  As these plants work in harmony with nature, you benefit in many different ways.  These plants will bring a smile to your face as you see the beauty and the return on investment they bring.

Each landscape is a personal choice that expresses your interests and vision. Whether you are planting a small foundation bed with natives around your home or reclaiming an overrun pasture, you have decided that you want more from your landscape.  This timeless landscape is so vital to our environment. 

Gaillardia aristata, Blanket Flower

If you are motivated to start a native landscape and need help with your landscape design or have questions about where to start, attend one of our Native Plant School classes or read previous blog posts about design or pollinators.  We would be happy to help. 

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.

Coneflowers: Native vs Hybrid

Echinacea, or coneflower, is possibly one of the most well known prairie flowers. Endemic to North American prairies, it is known around the world for its medicinal properties and its versatility as a cut flower. There are ten distinct species of naturally occurring echinacea, but the horticultural industry has created countless hybrids.
Though native echinacea only comes in purple, pale purple, or yellow, hybridized echinacea can be red, orange, pink, green or even multi-color. But what besides color make these new coneflowers different? And are there any downsides to using engineered plants over natives?

 

Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How They Are Made: Wilderness Vs Laboratory

Most newfangled varieties of Echinacea are from the species E. purpurea. Unassuming and bright, the ‘straight species’ of Echinacea purpurea has long lasting purple blooms that readily self seed in the garden. Insects pollinate these wild coneflowers by carrying pollen (i.e. genetic material) between whatever echinaceas are nearby, producing seeds with mixed traits and variable habits. However, hybrid varieties have much more protected DNA, developed by humans through hand pollinating of flowers with desirable qualities. It can take years to successfully select, cross, and stabilize a genetic line of new coneflowers for the garden market.

This variety of Echinacea called ‘ Cleopatra’ has eye catching yellow flowers. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Pros

Using hybrid echinacea gives you more options. If you like to make bold statements and thematic garden designs, a wider color pallette is always more fun. The hybrid types come in all different sizes as well, meaning customers can choose tall or dwarf types to fit multiple landscaping needs. Native coneflowers, like E. pallida or E. paradoxa, will always be between 1.5-3 ft tall when planted in optimal conditions. Beyond height, genetically modified coneflowers often have better branching and a more compact habit than the native type. They are usually less prone to flopping over, and some even have a longer bloom period. For gardens with limited space, hybrid coneflowers offer lots of color in a more manageable package.

E. angustifolia is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

 

‘Salsa’ Echinacea is from the Sombrero series of coneflowers offered by Walter’s Garden. All of the varieties shown in this post will be available at our fall plant sale!

Cons

Native coneflowers are excellent food sources for pollinators, but the jury is still out on whether hybrids are as beneficial. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggests some single flowered hybrids are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Additionally, some hybrid varieties are sterile and do not produce viable seeds to support seed eating birds. Humans reproduce most hybrid varieties through vegetative propagation, either by tissue culture or by cuttings and divisions. This means they are genetic clones of each other and do not contribute to genetic diversity within the Echinacea gene pool. Less genetic diversity transmitted to the next generation of plants leaves echinacea species’ at risk for disease and decay of their genetic line. Ecological considerations aside, some new varieties don’t seem to be as long lived as the true natives. 

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Whether or not you go with true natives or new varieties of coneflower depends on the purpose of your planting. If you want an ecological planting that increases biodiversity and improves habitat, then stick with Kansas natives. But to simply improve the aesthetics of your landscape and add a splash of color, new hybrid varieties will do the trick. Come to the FloraKansas fall plant sale and get your fill of coneflowers, native and otherwise!






Three Lessons I Have Learned About Native Plants

When I started at the arboretum 18 years ago, I thought I knew so much.  I had book knowledge about horticulture, but I had not learned much about native plants.  In fact, information about native plants was almost non-existent.  My learning curve was very steep those first few years. Even now I continue to learn how to garden with native plants – the lessons just keep coming.  Here are the three lessons I think are essential for a successful prairie garden.

Be Patient

I know this goes counter to our “instant everything” culture, but prairie plants don’t work that way. A prairie garden does not magically appear overnight.  It takes time for those transplants or seedlings to develop root systems that will sustain them during the dry periods of the year.  I remember visiting a prairie reconstruction in Wisconsin several years ago.  It had been established from seed 20 years earlier and they said it was just then really maturing into a true prairie.  I have found that if you are patient, you will be rewarded by beautiful, strong and adapted native plants.

Kansas gayfeather

 

Start Small

Planting too much too soon – I have made this mistake many times.  My eyes get bigger than I can manage.  I like too many of these native plants and rather than working at a project in stages, I plant the whole area.  I then spend the rest of the summer maintaining a planting that is too big for the time I can give it.  It has a tendency to get out of hand in a hurry if I don’t keep up with it on at least a weekly basis.  Plant an area that you can handle with your schedule.

EPS Planting

 

Plan your garden for all seasons of the year

This lesson took the longest to learn, because it meant becoming familiar with the native plants.  I needed to learn all about them – their bloom times, soil conditions they need to thrive, mature height and what they look like when not blooming, including seedheads and forms.  Most of these characteristics had to be experienced over several years.  That information is vital to planning and developing a prairie garden.

Monarch on Aster

 

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie, so you need to plan your garden with a succession of bloom.  Combine wildflowers in such a way that there is always a new set coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Grasses can be strategically incorporated as a backdrop or to highlight interesting seed heads and to add texture and movement during the winter.

With each new season comes new revelations about native plants.  They are so intriguing and diverse.  There really is a plant for just about any area if you match the plants with your site.  The key to understanding the prairie landscape is to keep learning.  I know that I still have much to learn and experience.  Each day is a new opportunity.






Five Surprises from our Prairie Garden

I know it is cliché to say I have been busy, but I have been busy.  We are all busy these days.  It seems that is just a fact of life.  You are not living if you are not busy doing something or going somewhere.  We are moving so fast that we are too distracted to notice the little things.  However, something happened to me the other day that I can’t stop thinking about.

I had been working around the greenhouse and stopped for a few minutes to rest.  If I had not stopped, I would have missed it.  A ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from the hummingbird mint.  I was mesmerized as I watched him flit from flower to flower only three feet away.  It was amazing how something so small could capture my attention.  But the key to seeing it was stopping what I was doing and observing what was happening around me.

Male_Ruby-Throated_Hummingbird_1

That hummingbird was my first surprise, but more have followed over the past few days.  I noticed a large black and yellow bumble bee that was climbing completely inside the Penstemon cobaea.  He would almost disappear as he searched for the nectar deep in the flower.  He would climb out and go to the next flower as he tirelessly worked each bloom for food.

 

The stately beauty of Indigos has taken me by surprise.  They rise early in the season to put on a show and then persevere through the summer, ultimately turning black as the weather cools.  The vibrant blue and yellow flower spikes stand out in the sea of green prairie grasses.

Spring Flowers

 

The birds feeding their young is another surprise.  Where do they find the food for all those hungry mouths?  They are constantly searching for food.  Whether robins or cardinals, they do what needs to be done to keep their brood happy and healthy.

A nest of robins in a hawthorn tree.

A nest of robins in a hawthorn tree. Photo by Cheri Kaufman.

 

The intricate beauty of a Pawpaw tree blooming caught my attention.  The reddish-brown flowers held upside down drew me to the tree like a magnet.  I had seen these trees bloom before, but there was something different this year that made me stop.  It was something special.  It was interesting and beautiful – worth the time to witness.

Asimina_triloba_kz1

These are just a few things that caught my attention.  I know there are many more surprises out there to discover.  Should these types of things surprise us?  They would surprise us less if we took time to observe more, but we are distracted too much.  Stop and take in what is happening around you in your garden.

Hopefully you, like I, will be rewarded by observing the landscape, by taking the time for quiet reflection in your prairie garden – leaving you with a mental note that will bring a smile to your face during your busy day.

I can still see that hummingbird around those flowers.  What is your hummingbird moment?