Preparing to Establish a Landscape with Native Plants

It’s obvious to me that interest in landscaping with native plants continues to expand.  More and more people are reconnecting with the natural world through their native landscapes.  Besides creating habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and insects, these newly developed gardens conserve water, reduce chemical and pesticide use and beautify the landscape.  As you think about preparing to establish a landscape with native plants, here are some things to consider.

Analyze the Location

You know your garden better than anyone. You know the soil type. Does it stay wet or is it extremely dry or something in between? You know how much sun your area receives during the day and throughout the year. You know where the water flows. Are there areas that you can utilize as a background or backdrop?  Is there something you are trying to screen? Is there an area you are trying to develop? These are important questions that ultimately determine the types of plants you will choose.

Prepare the Site

Site preparation doesn’t have much to do with plant selection, but it is an important step to consider any time you are preparing to establish a landscape. You need to get perennial weeds such as bindweed and Bermuda grass eradicated before you plant your garden. If these weeds are not eliminated, they will overrun and out compete anything you plant. Trust me on this. I am still fighting these weeds in certain areas in my yard because I didn’t complete this step.

It is also good to define the area with some kind of border. Start by laying out a garden hose and moving it around until you settle on size and shape that seems appropriate for the space. I recommend starting small. Develop an area you can manage and fits your lifestyle. You can always expand, but a bed that is too large can quickly become overwhelming. Once you have defined the border, I use metal edging, brick, limestone or landscape stone as a buffer for a mower or weed eater. Edging makes your native garden look intentional.

Choose the Plants

Once you have gathered all this information about your site and all the initial work has been done, you are ready to decide which plants will grow well together. The most important step in the selection process is matching plants to the site. There are a group of plants or a plant palette that will grow in your site with little or no water once fully established. You need to become familiar with every aspect of the plants through investigation, research and experience. I often start with one or two plants I know will grow in this location. Once I have established them as the foundation, the other plant combinations come easier.

I design each landscape with the finished picture in mind. I consider heights, bloom time, habit, forms and textures. We often only think about these plants when they are in bloom. But don’t forget their other qualities, such as seed heads that provide visual interest in the winter months. It provides you an opportunity to highlight these qualities with another perennials or native grasses (e.g. coneflower seed heads against little bluestem). 

I group plants together for visual affect and stagger blooms throughout the season. Conceptually, I lay out plants in such a way that plants with different bloom times are next to one another. For instance, I would not plant two spring bloomers next to one another, but rather a spring bloomer next to a fall bloomer next to a summer bloomer. I even like to mix some grasses with certain perennials so you have the structure of the grasses propping up the perennial. Also, you want something coming into bloom and going out of bloom from spring through fall. Grasses add wonderful texture and movement to the garden during the winter months.

Maintenance

One of the misconceptions about native plants is that you just plant it and forget it. That is generally not the case. Establishing native plants in your garden or landscape usually requires putting extra work in those first few years. It takes time for those root systems to fully develop. Over time, you will begin to reap the benefits of native plants, especially if you have done your homework before you put the first plant in the ground.

Those tiny plants are most vulnerable during the first two or three weeks after planting. You must water them daily and sometimes twice a day in warm, dry seasons until you start to see some new growth. There is a fine line between over watering and under watering. Generally, you try to rehydrate the potting soil of those plants each time you water. Many maintenance practices used for traditional cultivated plants also work for native plants.

The first couple of years, I try to keep the tags around the plants so I don’t accidentally pull a small wildflower or grass. Pull all the winter and summer annual weeds when they are small and certainly don’t let them go to seed. February or March is the time to prepare your bed for spring. 

Northwind Switchgrass cut back and ready for spring

Your native landscape connects you to the land. The economical, ecological and beautiful garden you create can be enjoyed for years to come. I predict that your native landscape will be a hub of pollinator and butterfly activity. It will be an important link to other gardens in your neighborhood. It may even inspire you to establish other prairie gardens in your landscape. 

Your success may influence others to follow your example. A native plant garden should be cherished, because you are helping the natural world in so many far-reaching ways. Believe it or not, your garden will have a positive impact. So get started! Let your imagination and creativity inspire your design.

Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen. Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Photo Credit

Garden Spotlight: Backyard Meadow in North Newton

At FloraKansas it’s always a pleasure to hear from members who are renovating an entire landscape in
native and adaptable plants all at once. Dramatic transformations have a wow factor about them, with the instant gratification of an “extreme makeover”. However, so many Dyck Arboretum members have been tending and transforming their gardens over several years or even several decades. This is the case with Ron Flaming’s backyard meadow.

As a Harvey County Master Gardener, Ron’s front garden is immaculate. A well-tended quarter acre of lawn is framed by several foundation beds of carefully-selected shrubs and groundcovers. A small planting of wildflowers surround a weeping understory tree at the curb. But it’s the back garden that really takes you on a native plant journey.

Several river birch trees surround a puddling water feature and a rock garden by the patio. A few hummingbird feeders round out this pollinator sheltering space. Just a step beyond the rock garden, a small bridge flanked by formal native plantings, leads you to an arbor and a winding path through a meadow planting.

At the time I visited in early June, the meadow featured mixed-grass prairie species. I was able to recognize little bluestem, side oats grama and prairie dropseed, as well as a smattering of wildflower blooms mixed in: common milkweed, penstemon, and baptisia. Several complementary non-natives like delphinium gave a
nice pop of color as well. The path curved around the back side of a rustic garden shed. Behind the shed is a rare wooded microclimate, which allows understory shrubs and woodland wildflower species to thrive.

Ron’s many-layered meadow garden gives me hope as I grapple with my own yard. Once shaded by an 80-year-old American Elm, my backyard now bakes in full sun, presenting a new challenge. But I am inspired by Ron and am reminded that it’s amazing what a gardener can accomplish over the years with a lot of persistence, creativity and grace.


The act of curating an inviting outdoor space for oneself, one’s family and for wildlife is something I’d like to draw attention to over a series of “Kansas Garden Success Stories” to share with our followers. If you are a member of the Arboretum who would like to share the story of your garden and your journey with Kansas native plants, please send me a message at arboretum@hesston.edu with the subject line, “Garden Spotlight”.

Saturated Soils and Wilting Plants

This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”

Saturated Soils

The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.

Will the wilting plants recover?

A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.

Liatris wilting

Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.

If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.

This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.

Yellow Leaves

Echinacea turning yellow from too much water

Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.

I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.

To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.

If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.

The first year: Getting native plants established

Originally published on May 27, 2020

The prairie communities we see are diverse and complex.  Plants, intricately woven together, crowd out weeds and harmoniously coexist.  When you look at a prairie, you only see about 1/3 of the plant.  The root systems that sustain these native plants make up the remainder, because they reach deep into the soil.  The first year is so critical to the whole process of getting native plants established. Developing these root systems properly is vitally important and the establishment period takes time.  Here are a few steps I take to get my new native plants started. 

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

I like to lay out the entire area by placing the plants where they are supposed to be planted.  This does a couple things: first, it helps with proper spacing of the plants and second, it helps to visualize the final outcome.  Think about mature size, rather than what the plants looks like in its infant state. 

Now that we have the plants laid out, we can start putting them in the soil.  It is critical to not plant them too deep.  In our heavy clay soils, it is best to plant them level or slightly higher (1/8 to ¼ inch) than the soil line, especially in heavier clay soil.  This keeps the crown drier, which is important for disease control.  Over time, these natives will develop at the depth they prefer to grow in. 

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

Now that the plants are in the ground, they need frequent watering until they get established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered daily until they begin to root and connect with the soil around them. Keep in mind that improper watering is the most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period. 

For me, I water each new area by hand rather than with a sprinkler. It helps me control the amount of water each plant receives and directs it to the intended plant.  I water every day for the first two weeks depending on the weather.  After that first two weeks, you should start to see new growth. 

For the next few weeks, I water every other day or every third day as needed, monitoring the planting each day for signs of stress/wilting. 

Even after this month long process of establishment, each plant must be monitored and watered through the following summer, fall, winter and spring.  Native plants are not established until the second summer. 

Remember, it takes a few years for those roots to fully develop.  If your plants are properly sited, you will not need to water much after the first full year.  However, if you must water your area during a dry period, natives will appreciate deep and infrequent watering. 

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

People ask me all the time about fertilizing native plants.  As a general rule, I don’t fertilize our native plants especially during that first year. Think about those small plants in the ground and what will happen to them if they are fertilized. They will have tremendous top growth that is not sustainable by the small root system. This will put the plant under stress and slow its progress. 

Natives are resilient and adaptive. The deep roots most often will find the nutrients and moisture each plant needs.

Mulch

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants. There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds. 

These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

If you decide to mulch your display beds initially, only place one to two inches of mulch down and keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established. As they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch.  Something to think about is whether you have seen mulch in the prairie?  No, the plants eventually co-mingle and intertwine to push out weeds.     

Creating a native landscape takes time.  With each new plant established comes an expectation of a brighter future. Often, we garden and landscape our yards with the anticipation of what we will get rather than what we are giving back.  By adding native plants to our gardens, we will help make our gardens not only beautiful, but also productive and full of life.

The New Kansas

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

View from the observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

Understand Your Microclimate

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

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

Native vs Near Native

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

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

Crank up the Chainsaw

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

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

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

The Right Plants for the Right Place

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

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

Seeded Prairie Checkup

I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.

Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.

Species Identified

A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.

Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.

Weed Management

Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.

Putting Your Garden to Bed for Winter

It seems that winter has come earlier than expected this year.  I don’t know about you, but I have been caught a little off guard.  I wish I could say we have everything ready for winter, but that would be untrue.  In preparation for colder weather, I have put a simple checklist together for putting the winter garden to bed.

Perennials

Every year we receive quite a few questions about when to cut back perennials.  As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the winter garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a backdrop of little bluestem.

I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Black-eyed Susan with Switchgrass. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Lawns

Fall is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees, the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Leaves

I purposefully don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Clean and sharpen tools

I often overlook this step in the fall garden prep checklist.  A little time cleaning your tools like shovels, spades and other digging tools will give you a jump start next season.  This simple practice will prolong the life of your tools.  Doing this will prevent rust and deterioration.  I like to use a wire brush in the cleaning process before I sharpen each tool.  By cleaning off dirt and debris and applying a thin coat of oil, you will extend the life of each tool.

Store power tools

We always have trouble with our gas powered tools in spring.  We forget that they need to be drained of standard pump gasoline before being stored for long periods of time.  Today’s gas deteriorates relatively quickly and gums up the carburetors.  Empty your fuel tanks into storage containers of fuel, oil, and fuel mix if you are not going to be using the equipment in the next 30 days.  We add fuel stabilizer to the stored fuel over winter.  We like to run the engine completely out of fuel before we put it away. 

Disconnect and drain garden hoses

Obviously, garden hoses that remain attached to the spigot during cold weather will create problems. This connection and the trapped water in the hose will freeze not only the hose, but the spigot on your home.  I have seen these freeze and then burst as they thaw out.  It can be a mess and quite costly. 

Drain garden hoses before you store them for the winter.  It is best to bring them inside so they are not deteriorated by the winter sun.  Extreme winter conditions also break down the inner lining of the hose, weakening it over time.  We like to loop each hose into two to three foot loops. Create flat stacks of coiled hoses.  Hanging hoses will put stress on the areas where they are attached to the wall.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Spring is only six months away!

Finding Value in the Undesirables

It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.

In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.

In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:

  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!

Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.

Ailanthus webworm moth – an introduced species that uses the invasive exotic tree-of-heaven for its host plant. Unfortunately, this tree is showing up all over our neighborhood and it makes sense that this little moth is around now too.

Plenty of Moisture

Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.

15+ inches of rain in the last six weeks has made the garden quite lush.

Herbivores and Carnivores

I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).

Our big brown bat population (up to 16 at last count) eats loads of insects around the yard.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.

With monarch populations on the decline, regular monitoring of this species is more important than ever.

Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.

Landscape Scale Prairie Gardening – Thinking Bigger

If you follow our blog, you are probably thinking about creating a prairie garden, are in the process of creating one, or have already done so. One of the reasons you might be participating in this enjoyable ritual is because you want to increase wildlife habitat for insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles in your home landscape. Indeed, if you increase native plant diversity in your landscape, you will attract more wildlife.

I want you to consider going a step further and thinking about how your landscape, which is increasing in biological diversity through your prairie gardening habits, relates to the greater landscape of your neighborhood. The study of landscape ecology tells us that ecological function generally improves as you increase the size and diversity of a particular ecosystem. For example, three landowners in succession creating prairie gardens will create more storm-water holding capacity and wildlife attraction than only one of those landowners doing so. And if those three adjacent landowners happen to be situated next to a stream, a park, a hay meadow on the edge of town, etc., the ecological function of those combined green spaces will increase.

In her 1993 book Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards, Sara Stein tells inspiring stories about how she converted from traditional chemical and water-intensive suburban landscaping to a style that included more native plants, more habitat for wildlife and more connectivity with other green spaces. She promotes contiguous greenway corridors that allow for greater wildlife diversity and freer migration through urban areas. This was a very influential book that helped push me toward the pursuit of an advanced degree in ecological restoration.

I recently learned about an intriguing resource created through a collaboration between two entities I greatly admire – The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Habitat Network brings people together to explore the effects of new conservation practices in urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. The Habitat Network website is a free citizen science resource that invites people to map their outdoor space, share it with others, and learn more about supporting wildlife and improving backyard habitat in cities and towns across the country. It takes the concepts of powerful GIS mapping software and puts them into a user-friendly, public platform that anybody can use. This looks like a great tool that I look forward to exploring and reporting on in future blog posts.

 

A captured image that helps describe the Habitat Network mapping process.

So, while I start mapping habitats and measuring the ecological value of Dyck Arboretum of the Plains and my home landscape, consider picking up a copy of Noah’s Garden and spend some time with Habitat Network yourself. Let’s think bigger, explore how we can document and expand our beneficial ecological footprint through landscape scale prairie gardening, and consider ways to convince others to follow our lead.

This is a conversation to be continued…