A deep dive into the subject of mosquito sprays

My heart sank when I came home last week and saw Mosquito Joe signs—five of them—lining my street. I don’t blame anyone for disliking mosquitos, but I wonder if my neighbors know about the objections to these sprays. They don’t just kill mosquitos, they kill all insects, including butterflies and bees. And while we may not think of that as a problem, it is one.

Today I’m diving deep into the subject of mosquito sprays.

Many young families have moved into our neighborhood recently—we have four-year-olds on all sides—and we love hearing their voices as they play. Who wouldn’t want to protect kids from mosquitos? Mosquitos are a nuisance and carry diseases. Nobody likes mosquitos.

However, spraying for mosquitoes kills helpful insects too. These days, many people understand how important pollinators are, and that they’re disappearing. Loss of habitat, disease, loss of diversity, and pesticides are primarily to blame. This is a disaster in the making, because an estimated one-third of our food supply requires pollination.

It’s happening in front of us. For years my family has enjoyed sitting outside in summer, watching the butterflies flit above our patch of native prairie plants. But for the last two years, we’ve barely seen any, I suspect because our neighbors spray.

I feel like I set a banquet and murdered the guests.

Spraying pesticides can have unintended consequences. Remember the food chain? Now the metaphor of a food web is more popular, but the idea is the same: each creature survives by feeding on other, “lesser,” creatures. Plants support insects, which feed birds and bats, and so on.

Most people have also heard that bird populations are declining, but we may not realize the connection to pesticides. Birds eat insects. Fewer insects means fewer birds.

Yellowthroat eating a mayfly. (Photo: Andrew Weitzel, [CC BY-SA 2.0])

The poisons in sprays like Mosquito Joe’s are pyrethrins, which some companies’ marketing materials claim are safe and organic. This is misleading. While it’s true, pyrethrins are a derived from an insecticide extracted from a type of chrysanthemum, it’s not like they’re sprinkling flowers on your yard. Pyrethrins kill insects instantly. That’s the point. They’re also toxic to fish, amphibians, and cats.

But all of this has been said elsewhere. What can we do? Getting rid of mosquitos is a good goal. Encouraging butterflies and bees is a good goal, too. Can we have both?

Ways to control mosquitos without poison

Remove water sources. Mosquitos lay eggs and hatch around standing water. Eggs take seven days to hatch, so once a week, empty any flower pots and saucers, buckets, etc. Make sure your rain barrel is tightly covered.

Turn on an oscillating fan. Mosquitos like stagnant air and dark, humid areas like underneath patio furniture. Blow them away with a nice breeze and enjoy the cooling effect.

Spray bug repellent containing DEET. I know, I don’t like it either, but it works.

Maybe you’ve tried these, but they didn’t do enough. Here are some ways to level up.

Repellent Devices

The New York Times’ Wirecutter recommends the Thermacell E55 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller. It works by emitting an DEET-free, odorless repellent, and covers about 20 feet.

“Its rechargeable five-and-a-half-hour battery lasts long enough to odorlessly keep a bedroom-sized area mosquito-free for an entire evening—as long as there’s no breeze.” (I assume wind blows away the repellent.) The cost is about $40, plus the expense of additional cartridges.

A less-expensive alternative is Pic Mosquito Repelling Coils.

At $7, they’re as effective as the Thermacell E55, but because they’re burned, they emit an odor, which some people dislike. They may be worth a try, though.


These work by emitting C02, which attracts mosquitos and then traps them in a reservoir. A friend recommends Biogent’s BG-Mosquitaire CO2 .

He lives by a creek and had a serious mosquito problem but keeps bees, so spraying was out of the question. He says the trap was effective, and that he removed thousands of mosquitos from it each week. The downside is it’s expensive, $279 on the website, plus the cost of replacement CO2. And it requires some effort to maintain: the trap must be emptied.  Other, less-expensive CO2 mosquito traps are available as well.

What doesn’t work

Bug Zappers. These are great at killing bugs, just not mosquitos, which aren’t attracted to light.

Citronella. If it seems like it works, it’s probably because of the smoke. Smoke works.

Repellent bracelets. These repel mosquitos from your wrist, but they may bite you someplace else.

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator. Some folks on Nextdoor recommended this product, and I’m sorry to disappoint them. This could definitely kill mosquitos—but not as an alternative to pesticides. The active ingredient is boric acid, a lethal insecticide. It claims to attract with sucrose, sodium chloride, and yeast, none of which do anything to attract mosquitos. This product has been accused of making false claims and has been banned in many states, including Kansas. (I verified this through a call to the Kansas State Attorney General’s Office.) This post by blogger Colin Purrington explains in more detail. It’s kind of fascinating. Apparently, people crediting it for the disappearance of mosquitos in their yards are mistaken. The real reason is that mosquitos were killed by insecticides sprayed nearby.

Talk about the passion

While researching this topic, I read about a man in San Antonio who is facing aggravated assault charges after allegedly beating his roommate over an argument about mosquitos. Clearly, this subject arouses strong feelings! It does for me, too. Seeing those signs in my neighborhood left me feeling distressed, and I hope you feel that way as well. If you or someone you know is considering spraying for mosquitos, please reconsider. Try one of these other methods first. Many of us are willing to do things to help the environment, but we need them to be easy, and we need them to work. These might be both!

Save the bees!


Catching up: the new year starts for real

This is a highly miscellaneous post about various excitements. It’s so fun to see things waking up—after four long months seeing nothing green except the fake pine tree cell tower near State Line and 79th Street. Miraculously, many of the plants from last year survived—the agastache, the achillea—although others, I’m sad to say, did not. For instance, I see no sign of life around the Eupatorium dubium ‘Baby Joe,’ which I was counting on to solve my problems: all the benefits of Joe Pye Weed but just thirty inches tall. It’s too early to despair, however. It may emerge late, like the swamp milkweed. That may look dead now but I know better.  

Spring cleanup: still waiting, mostly

I’ve been conservative about cutting down and cleaning up. In past years I’ve killed many things by being too gung-ho too early. I’m also enthusiastic about Roy Diblik’s “Know Maintenance” approach. He recommends leaving perennial beds untouched in winter and mowing them in March, I assume before bulbs sprout. He then leaves stalks on ground to decay around the plants like they do in nature. This makes sense to me. I’ve been hearing a lot about how it’s important to wait until we’ve had a string of fifty-degree days before cleaning up to protect insects overwintering in the stalks and canes. I compromised and sheared back half the switchgrass with clippers and left it where it fell.

Compromise. I just saw a white-winged moth fly out of this.

Although I have ordered some plants from Missouri Wildflower Nursery to pick up at the Kansas City Native Plant Sale on April 16, most of what I plan to do this year is move things. Tiny leaves sprouting around the bases of the rudbeckia signal it’s time to begin this year’s relocation project. I’d like to keep as many plants as possible but move them to the back of the beds—despite warnings from my knowledgeable friend, who insists this variety is the wrong scale for my yard. Rudbeckia subtomentosa reaches a height of 60”. So do I!  The late-summer blooms are fabulous. Even the stems are fragrant. To move the first one, I just dug a hole and plopped it in. I have no concern for it at all. I can see it’s going to thrive. I have probably a dozen rudbeckia plants, plus some reseeded, so I may have some to give away soon.

Only a special kind of person would be interested in these pictures.

Last summer I dug up this milkweed plant and left it sitting in a big hunk of mud on the patio for months while I tried to decide what to do with it. Finally I put it in the ground. I barely covered the roots.. It was so tenacious of life, I felt it deserved a chance. Plus, I don’t know if I could kill it if I tried.


Starting seeds: don’t do it my way

The excitement of seeing seeds sprout is hard to match. I’ve tried a bunch of things over the winter. I scattered wildflower seeds over the dirt in the raised bed, filled flats and set them in the windowsill. I even cut up milk jugs to make a homemade greenhouse thingy. From most, I got nothing. The only seeds that have sprouted were outside in the bed. They’re a green mist, almost invisible to the eye, too tiny to photograph, but so exciting. (The only problem is, I don’t remember what they are.)

Yesterday we were having some people over and as I leaned down to sweep the muddy trays of dirt on the windowsill into the trash, I noticed … sprouts.

These are salvia.

From this it looks like I’m going to have a lot of salvia plants, but I know from experience that they could still die. Usually I drown them. Here’s a question. Why did some sprout and not others?

The ones on the right sprouted. Not the ones on the left. Could it be the seed starting medium? Half are in new and half old. The new stuff from Family Tree was noticeably fluffy, soft as ash. It is also two-thirds Canadian sphagnum peat, so I can’t recommend it, as peat bogs store carbon, which digging up releases. But it’s so magical! I’ll use up this bag and promise to buy no more.  

Now for something completely different: Epicenter 2022

I recently started a new job at JCCC. (You could say I returned to working at JCCC, because I taught there in the early 2000’s.) I was excited to hear about this year’s Epicenter 2022, a free conference focusing on environmental writing. The keynote speaker is Amy Brady, Executive Director of Orion Magazine. It takes place this coming Thursday, April 7, 2022—right down the hall from where I work. It’s intended for high school students, but I asked if I could sit in and they said yes.

I don’t know much more about it other than what’s listed on the website, but I plan to go and will share what I learn.

April could be the cruelest month because of the way it gives and takes. A hard freeze could wipe out all these blossoms. But spring won’t be stopped.

Each Spring is unique, but it’s interesting to compare the years. Are we a little late this year? I passed these yesterday and thought you might like to look back at last year’s show.

Thanks for reading and happy gardening!

Rabbits 101: baby cottontails and what to do about them

At last, warm days have arrived! We may get more snow—in fact, we most certainly will—but there’s no turning back.

Tulip spears are thrusting up, too, but as soon as they sprout, the rabbits eat them—and everything else. Watch out, roses and hostas! My yard is prime rabbit habitat. They fear nothing, hop right up to my patio door, stand on their hind legs, and look inside.

I haven’t seen many lately though, and I wondered if the next-door neighbor’s cat had made an impact, but no such luck. Yesterday an enormous cottontail bounded across the yard from one end to the other before slipping through a hole beneath the fence, just like Peter Rabbit. Last year the garden was an obstacle course of wire cylinders.  Is there anything else I can do?

First, the facts

The rabbits in our gardens are Eastern cottontails, one of the three species of wild hare found in our area. Their range stretches from Canada to Panama. They live in brushy cover, in transition areas between field and forest. An individual rabbit’s range is usually one to five acres. Rabbits are crepuscular, most active during early morning and sunset, although I think the ones in my yard are primarily nocturnal. They feed on succulent green vegetation, like clover and tulips and New Jersey Tea, all of which live in my garden. In hard times rabbits will eat dried grass and bark, just about anything they can find. They also eat their own droppings.

Twigs eaten by rabbits are usually cut sharply, at a 45 degree angle.

But you know all this. What you may not know is that they don’t live in elaborate underground burrows like prairie dogs or the rabbits in Watership Down, but in scratched-out depressions and hollows. They may also occupy burrows dug by other animals. When the time comes, females dig nests for their young that are three to four inches deep, sometimes leaving little tailings of soil. They also pull fluff from their bellies to line the nests, which look like this.

Rabbit nest

As you also know, rabbits are prolific breeders. They breed in mid-February (although they can start later if it’s cold), with litters startingin mid-March, so now. Babies leave the nest three to four weeks later, so look for them around the beginning of April. Litters typically contain four to five young, but may have as many as nine. Females produce as many as eight litters each year. During peak season, May-June, females may be both pregnant and nursing at the same time. Breeding season lasts through September.

Even so, an estimated 44% of baby rabbits die during their first month. Predators include hawks, owls, crows, foxes, coyotes, minks, weasels, dogs, cats, and snakes. We humans kill them by mowing during nesting season and running over them with cars.

I hate rabbits but love bunnies. It’s traumatic to see them killed. This page on the Lakeside Nature Center’s website explains what to do if you find baby bunnies, and demonstrates several methods of protecting nests from dogs and cats.

How do I keep rabbits away from the garden?

Rabbit with wire fencing

Ha! Good one! Strategies for keeping rabbits out of the garden are as numerous as websites explaining them. Methods generally fall into two categories: repellants and barriers.

I’ve heard gardeners recommend sprinkling blood meal around plants, which also raises nitrogen levels in the soil. This is less expensive than products like Rabbit Scram, whose main ingredients are dried blood, white pepper, and garlic. However, all repellants must be reapplied after rain.

I’ve also heard people recommend Irish Spring, ammonia, putting cat hair around the base of plants, and many other things—as in this article: How to Get Rid of Rabbits Ruining Your Yard and Garden.

Although I’ve tried a lot of these things, the only one that’s worked is to surround plants with rabbit-proof wire fencing. It’s unsightly, though. I am charmed by the look of these barriers made of woven sticks, or wattle.

My neighbor Carol made these.

Google wattle fence to find sites and videos about how to build them, like this one: How to Build a Wattle Fence.

I love the Cotswold cottage look. Some of hers are not rabbit proof, however, and may enclose plants unpalatable to rabbits. The internet abounds with lists of these, but it’s too late for me. I’ve invested heavily in hostas, roses, asters, and tulips, all rabbit favorites.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so this year I’m getting my fencing up before those rascally rabbits start eating. I’m going to take advantage of today’s sunshine to install this year’s mesh. Wish me luck. Thanks for reading!


Schwartz, Charles W. & Elizabeth Schwartz. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. University of Missouri Press. pp. 110-121

How to Build a Wattle Fence:

How to Get Rid of Rabbits Ruining Your Lawn and Gaden:

Rewilding: turning lawns into meadows

We made it! March has arrived at last. By now you’ve made your plans, ordered plants, started seeds.  Do those plans include replacing your lawn with something different—something more colorful, diverse, and helpful to the environment? If so, this post is for you.

We hear a lot about how lawns are biological deserts and that meadow gardens are healthy and attractive alternatives, but actual examples of these in front yards are rare. Most of us are accustomed to the crisp, clean look of an emerald lawn and we tend to like what we’re used to seeing. Nevertheless, this jewel of a planting across the street from Loose Park has the potential to transform the way we think about lawns. Called “the fox house,” the corner lot has been transformed into a colorful micro-prairie.

(The micro-prairie isn’t so colorful in this picture because it’s winter, but continue reading to see photos from last summer.)

Last week I met with landscape designer Mackenzie Adkins to talk about how the project came to be. Adkins began working in horticulture about ten years ago after studying film—and he’s been-far more successful expressing his aesthetic flair in this new medium than I have been!

McKenzie Adkins

Working with a palette of native prairie plants, Adkins has achieved an exciting meadowy effect. He began planning the project for the homeowners in winter of 2019. The foundation plantings installed the following spring include a mix of natives and cultivars. As the homeowner’s interest grew, they made plans for a micro-prairie on the southeast corner. A late freeze pushed planting back to fall 2020. Now going into its second year, the garden has been delighting passers-by ever since.

The results are both wild and not-wild. Metal edging, gravel paths, and limestone benches help organize the experience. It’s instructive to see how the plantings address the challenges of scale presented by the suburban setting. The plants are relatively compact, under three feet tall. They fulfill the homeowner’s request that they not block the view of the park.

These issues of scale are important, I’m discovering. As a kid I once got a piece of carpet to use in my doll’s house. The effect was absurd: the pile came up to the poor dolls ‘knees. Proportion must be scaled down to fit the miniature setting. Textures and colors sometimes need miniaturizing too. Adkins found the late spring-early summer palette (yellow achillea, purple agastache, green foliage) too garish (“Mardi gras,” he calls it) and is adding flowers of different colors to temper the effect. He is also adding more structural plants.

I see plants called structural a lot, but I’m not always sure what it means. In a perennial bed where everything dies back to the ground each year, what plants are considered structural and why? In this case, Adkins is adding grasses, baptisia, aromatic asters, and sedges that offer a pleasing contrast to the shapes of the other plants. The original plans called for 50% structural plants. He now says he would increase that percentage to 60 or even 70.

Others are thinking along the same lines. Owen Wormser, author of the book Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape, says, “Grasses are what create the character visually that reads like a meadow.” In this August 2020 interview with Margaret Roach he discusses considerations such as warm vs. cold season grasses, planting seeds vs. plugs, tilling, mowing, and other steps involved in creating a meadow garden.

Noel Kingsbury, writing in Planting: A New Perspective, also talks about the “70 percent rule,” and recommends using “a ratio of approximately seven structure plants to every three fillers.”

Another important consideration is choosing the right plants for the spot, “plants that will more than survive: they’ll thrive,” Adkins says. For those of us who like the meadow look but don’t want it everywhere, working with a landscape designer or experienced person can help us achieve the effects we desire.

Adkins’ attractive website and Instagram feed feature gorgeous photos and planting plans to learn from. We talked about a range of topics, including how to define “native,” beneficial nonnatives and cultivars, ecologically-minded public projects, blowsy roses, and the beauty of minimalistic Japanese gardens. Going forward, he hopes to marry his appreciation of their formality and minimalism with his love of drifts of native wildflowers as he develops his own unique vision.

Today as we drove down a residential street, my daughter said, “Those yards look like they were copied and pasted.” I love seeing people take a chance and try something different. Like with food, exposing ourselves to new flavors—cooking with spices other than salt—can increase our opportunities to experience pleasure. Because it’s in such a visible location, the Fox House Garden may inspire many of us to think, I could do that!

Here’s hoping for better days ahead.

(Photos from McKenzie Adkins. Used by permission.)

Ukranian Sunflower – Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 4.0

Is February the new March?

Hi there! Did you think I’d given up gardening (and blogging)? Like our gardens, I’ve been dormant. February is usually lousy for gardening in Kansas City, and this year started out no different, with temperatures near zero and four inches of snow. For the past month all I’ve done is look at garden pictures and daydream. Today I roused myself from the couch where I was rewatching episodes of BBC’s Gardener’s World and looked outside. What did I see? This is February? Brilliant sunshine, blue sky, sixty degrees?

Is February the new March?

Two images jumped out at me recently. The first was a post in the Kansas City Gardeners Facebook group by a guy who tossed poppy seeds on top of the snow last year. The picture of the beautiful bed of blooming poppies that resulted made my heart beat faster. I could do that! I could be the Johnny Appleseed of perennial wildflowers. It’s novel to think of, but flowers produce seeds to make new plants—at no cost to anyone. Not only that, last fall I walked around snapping twigs and filling my pockets with crunched-up stems. I’ve saved plenty of seeds, stored in envelopes neatly labeled as “Pretty grass” and “Dark pink thing from neighbor’s yard.”

Sowing wildflowers can be complicated, it turns out. I can’t just scatter seeds on the snow and expect future flowers (although I can try). Native plants have evolved many mechanisms to prevent them from dying in our crazy back-and-forth spring weather. Some require soaking; others need to be nicked to remove protective coatings (scarification). It looks like most wildflowers need to experience cycles of freeze and thaw, so it’s best to plant seeds in the fall. Many take more than a year to germinate: propagation is a long game, apparently.

Matching method to seed is not easy. I’m looking here (Prairie Moon Nursery’s blog post “how to germinate native seeds”)and here (American Meadows’ “How to cold stratify seeds”) for step-by-step instructions. I spent a couple hours on Sunday breaking open pods and liberating seeds. Some are so tiny, mere specs, smaller than pepper. It’s amazing that any ever sprout. I’ve also developed new respect for birds. They have to work so hard for such little bits of nourishment. I now understand why they are so small.

White baptista, some kind of coneflower

Much of the information I’ve found about seed starting pertains to vegetables. (Here’s a link to Margaret Roach’s calendar: When to Start Seed. Our last frost date is April 14. And here is KCCG’s planting calendar.) I am trying a couple things, but the stakes are low. If nothing sprouts, all I’m out is a couple plastic milk jugs and some seeds which easily could be mistaken for dirt. I’ll keep you posted.

The second image to make me sit bolt upright was of this garden, designed by Spanish gardener Fernando Martos.

© Fernando Martos / Garden III, Moraleja, Madrid

I know, I’ve never heard of him either, and I don’t have permission to use his photo—but what a website! His gardens are gorgeous. I love seeing how he’s adjusting a new perennial style to fit Mediterranean circumstances.

© Fernando Martos / Garden III, Moraleja, Madrid

This photo is so beautiful it made me hyperventilate. I like having a big idea, some context, a plan. I’m not a pick one plant here and another there, put them in the ground and hope for the best type—although you couldn’t tell from the way my garden looks. I also like purple flowers. I want this, or something approximating it (minus the boxwood surrounding the tree). I have gravel. I have salvia and nepeta. But what is that white flower?

© Fernando Martos / Garden III, Moraleja, Madrid

I Interrupted my professional gardener friend’s beach vacation in Mexico to ask her to identify it.

“Hard to tell,” she texted back, “other than the fact that it is a weedy nasty invasive…”

“Centranthus ruber ‘albus’” she decided later. “Not as weedy as I thought but a bit large for your garden.”

Centranthus ruber forma albus

If that is indeed what it is, sadly, she is correct about the size.  According the Missouri Botanical Garden,

Centranthus ruber, commonly called red valerian or Jupiter’s beard, is a well-branched, bushy, clump-forming, woody-based perennial which is valued for its ability to produce, often in poor soils, a showy bloom of star-shaped crimson, pink or white flowers from spring to frost.  

This sounds wonderful—poor soils, showy blooms—but the height—1.5 to 3.00 feet—is a deal breaker. Nothing taller than 24” is my new mantra. No exceptions. In my yard, plants whose maximum height is three feet generally grow to five. If I’d listened to my friend’s advice in the first place I wouldn’t be in this mess (natives 5-6’high scaled too big for our small suburban lot, lots of money wasted, dashed hopes, etc.).

Since the gardener in me is awakening, I’m going to finish writing and head to the library to check out Small Garden: Contemporary Principles, Planting and Practice, by Noel Kingsbury.

But before I go, I’ll answer my own question. Don’t be fooled by the warm temperatures. No, February is not the new March. Our last frost date is still April 14. I’ll head outdoors and start some projects—trim some hedges, install an edge, slap some paint on our Adirondack chairs. But my big project this spring will be moving things around, and it’s too early to start yet..

In case you’re curious, here are the dark pink things from the neighbor’s yard. When I picked them, the seeds exploded in my hand, like popcorn.

Thanks for reading!


Prairie Moon Nursery / How to germinate native seeds / Prairie Moon Nursery’s blog post “how to germinate native seeds”

American Meadows / How to cold stratify seeds /

Margaret Roach / When to Start Seed / When to Start Seed

Kansas City Community Gardens / Planting Calendar / KCCG’s planting calendar

Fernando Martos / Garden III, Moraleja, Madrid / / /

Missouri Botanical Garden / Centranthus ruber /

How old is your tree?

During gardening season I’m so focused on the plants at ground level, I sometimes forget to notice trees. They’re like power lines, seen but not seen. I like it when the leaves fall, exposing their sculptural shapes..

Kansas City trees: some history

Obviously, trees do well here. I’ve heard that mature trees are so effective at lowering temperature, some old neighborhoods are in different USDA hardiness zones than new ones. Out in the country trees grow in brushy tangles along fence lines or in wide, dark strips beside creeks and rivers. It’s hard to imagine that, before Lewis and Clark’s day, this region was almost entirely treeless. Their diaries tell us they used cottonwoods, which grow alongside rivers and streams, to build redoubts and dugout canoes—but the fields clotted with brush we see today did not exist.

Eastern red cedars growing in a field in Wyandotte County

Eastern red cedars—Juniperus virginiana, so not really cedars at all—are native but aggressive. In the absence of fire, they spread easily, turning grasslands into woods. We’re used to seeing them dotting the fields, but before the 1950s, this would have been a novel and shocking sight.

On a visit to K-State’s Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills several years ago. I learned how under natural conditions fire raked the landscape and prevented trees from attaining much size. They showed us several demonstration beds used to study the effects of fire: one burned every year, one every three years, another five, and so on. The beds burned annually contained mostly native prairie grasses.  The plots burned less frequently were in different stages of succession, with brushy plants like sumac and cedars establishing themselves.  

Konza Prairie Biodiversity Plots E Zambello/LTER Network Office CC BY 4.0

In our area, lightning strikes and Native Americans started intermittent fires that tended to kill most young trees. Ones that survived, perhaps in part because they were already large enough to withstand the heat, often became landmarks for early settlers, rendezvous spots commemorated in place names like Lone Elm and Council Grove.

The end of an era: Dutch elm disease


American Elm growing on private property in Kansas City, Missouri. It is immense. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

It’s hard to imagine our landscape without the trees, but many of us have seen this firsthand and remember the feeling of devastation. In the 1940’s, Kansas City was full of marvelous trees—as Jackson County tax assessment photos show. Most were elms, and by all accounts they were magnificent.

Writer Gerald Shapiro, who grew up in Kansas City, describes their beauty:

All over Kansas City, elms were predominant — American elms, most of them, old and towering things, vase-shaped, luxuriant and stately, some of them a hundred feet tall. In summer, their graceful, leafy limbs bent down over streets and boulevards like dark green canopies, lending an air of grandeur even to sleepy middle-class neighborhoods like mine. When the leaves began to turn their autumn colors, they brought the whole river valley to fire.

Just Before Dutch Elm Disease

The elms may have been towering, but most probably weren’t more than fifty years old. In any case, Dutch elm disease arrived in Kansas City in 1957. Within ten years, the majority of the shade canopy had been wiped out. The beetle-borne fungus killed 70,000 trees, according to the Kansas City Star.

I remember visiting my grandmother in Kansas City in the late sixties, how bare it was, treeless, like the prairie she’d left. I think most of our present-day shade trees were planted after that time. But I wonder, were any of the large oaks in my neighborhood here before that?

The only way to find out for sure is to cut the tree down and count the rings, or take a core sample. However, formulas do exist for estimating a tree’s age.

Formula for estimating the age of trees

  1. Measure the circumference about 4.5’ above ground. (You will have to hug the tree.)
  2. Determine its diameter: divide the circumference by pi (3.14).
  3. Multiply the diameter by the growth factor as determined by species. How do you find the growth factor? This article includes a table: How Old Is My Tree?
  4. Make adjustments for conditions that affect tree growth. For trees in a suburban setting, the article recommends subtracting 25% from the total.

Example 1: Bur Oak

This large oak has a circumference of 117 inches. The formula estimates that it is 139 years old. (117″ ÷ 3.14 = 37. 37 x 5 = 185. 185 – 46 = 139)

Maybe this isn’t a very good formula. This tree’s placement near the sidewalk suggests that it was planted at the same time as the house, in 1927, ninety-four years ago. Many similar trees grow nearby, as well as larger ones—like this one in Prairie Village in front of a house built in 1948, 73 years ago.

I think it’s likely these oaks were planted at almost the same time. The one in my neighborhood’s vertical growth pattern shows it was been forced to compete with other trees for sunlight. Both 94 and 73 are much younger than the formula’s estimate of 139, but no matter how many years they’ve been alive, they’re still impressive trees. The Kansas State Champion Bur Oak, estimated to be over 200 years old, has a diameter of 247 inches, so these have a ways to go.

Example 2: Chinquapin Oak

This enormous tree is unusual in the way its limbs stretch so widely, horizontal to the ground. It covers the entire lot. I believe it is a Chinquapin Oak.

  • Circumference: 148 inches
  • Diameter (DBH): 148” ÷ 3.14 = 47
  • DBH x Growth Factor: 47 x 5.0 = 235
  • -25%: 235 – 59 = 176

Could this oak really have started growing in 1845? I think that’s unlikely. After all, I’m using the same formula that was so obviously off on the other example. However, this tree may have been here pre-development. Many Bur Oaks grow in the neighborhood, but this is the only one of its type. It’s located on the lot line between two houses, not by the sidewalk. (When the trees are growing in a row, you can pretty much be sure a person planted them.) If this one is 176 years old, in 1923, when the subdivision was platted, it would have already been almost 80, so perhaps it was already impressive enough to warrant saving.

Unlike trees growing in forests and crowded neighborhoods, trees on the prairie don’t have to compete for light. This allows their branches to stretch out horizontally.

I think horticulturists would say this oak’s site is degraded. It’s no longer part of a community and natural regeneration is not possible. Few of its ecosystem functions remain intact. Nevertheless, it still provides many quantifiable benefits, and its magnificence is hard to deny.  Each spring the Kansas City Parks Department hangs signs on trees that say how much money they save us, translating their value into dollars. This may be helpful to people who like to measure value that way. But it’s not the only way.

Learn more about oaks

These days, any conversation about oaks must mention Doug Tallamy, whose 2007 book Bringing Nature Home has done so much to raise awareness of the importance of native plants and insects. (No bugs, no birds!) He is passionate about the life-sustaining power of oaks.

Closer to home, this blog post by Brad Guhr at the Dyck Arboretum, A Grand Old Burr Oak, does a wonderful job explaining the history of oaks and their relation to fire. Oaks are resilient, hardy, and likely to withstand extremes as our environmental conditions change.

We’ve lost most connection with phenomena that transcends generations. Artificial light makes it impossible to see the stars. I don’t recognize or know the names of the constellations. The natural features of the landscape have been altered. I orient myself using manmade objects, streets and houses. If those suddenly vanished, I would be completely lost. Both of these trees were growing before most of us were born, and both are likely to outlive everyone who is alive on the earth today. I find that fascinating.

Thanks for reading!

This is the first of three planned posts focusing on aspects of our landscape in winter. Did you enjoy it? What are your thoughts about Kansas City trees? Please let me know! Look for my next winter post in mid-January 2022.


The love and joy of gardening is the doing, not the having

The title of this week’s post comes from Roy Diblik’s YouTube video Garden Design. His work has given me so many great ideas. This fall, one thing I will not be doing is raking and bagging.

Leave the leaves!

I’m glad to see this practice catching on. This week Dennis Patton writes in the Star about the benefit of mowing fall leaves and leaving them on the ground: Put the rake and bag down: Here’s why fallen leaves are pure gold for the garden.

I’m an enthusiastic leaf leaver. When I bought my first house in Kansas City, I spent a chilly day raking leaves and cleaning up the yard, leaving a neat row of stuffed paper bags standing by the curb. I was so proud. When I bragged to a friend, he said, “Mary, go put those leaves back on the ground where God wants them.” I laughed, of course. What did he know? Raking away those brown leaves to reveal the vibrant green grass growing beneath can be such a pleasure.

My friend knew a lot, it turns out, although it’s taken me years to catch on. While we lived in Missouri, I paid Lawn Corps to haul away our debris. Now we live on the Kansas side, where one of our favorite events in our neighborhood has been the annual leaf cleanup. We rake our leaves into long, snaky piles by the curb, and a big truck comes by and vacuums them up. It’s so exciting—and very loud. All the neighbors come out in the morning to rake, or else we do it the night before in the dark, because the truck starts very early. We might be asleep and hear it coming down thea next block, and run out to finish raking.

As I became more interested in gardening and ecologically-minded practices, I discovered Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. Again, Diblik is the nurseryman and designer whose many projects include providing the plants for the Piet Oudolf-designed Lurie Garden in Chicago. The book includes garden plans and lush photos that make my heart thrum—but the comments in the introduction got me really excited: “Here is the default American planting look: word-chip mulch with plants spaced wistfully apart, eliminating the beauty of intimate plant relationships. America the Beautiful is now just the land of the neat and tidy.”

Familiar sights

To discourage weeds, Diblik places plants closer together than is customary. He advocates selecting plants that thrive in the type of soil you have instead of buying expensive amendments. He mulches beds with shredded leaves, but only during the first year or two. After that he mows his perennials in the spring and leaves the debris on the beds. Plants are their own best mulch, he says.

I found this very exciting and started right away. Now I rake my shredded leaves into the flower beds, not out of them. (I should mention that it’s important not to leave leaves in the street, where they can clog the sewers.) I never have enough leaves, and have been known to steal bags from the curb on trash day. (I know other gardeners who admit to doing this too.) I have no idea if they’re improving my soil, but I don’t think my soil is a problem. I mean, my garden certainly has problems, but I don’t think the quality of the soil is one of them.

At first the leaves in the beds resemble the bark mulch effect, like sprinkled-on corn flakes, uniform and tidy, but I have to admit, they look less fresh with time. Last summer in a fit of neatness I blew them all out, but the beds soon filled up with them again, and why fight it?

In addition to adding nutrients to the soil, conserving moisture, and suppressing weeds, I understand that leaf litter sustains many types of helpful bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. I fell asleep watching a program on PBS, My Garden of a Thousand Bees, that had lots of footage of bees nesting in fallen leaves. I suspect many readers will have the same reaction when they hear me touting the benefits of leaf litter, but even if someone can’t get behind slugs, snails, worms, and bees, they might get excited about not having to pick up leaves. Free mulch! Free fertilizer! Basically, that’s what we’re talking about.

Our fondness for green lawns probably has an evolutionary basis. I first learned about this from Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Claudia West and Thomas Ranier. Here’s a link to an interview with West where she mentions the appeal of archetypal landscapes, among other topics.

Evolutionary psychologists have observed that the “preference for savanna landscapes is universal in human species.”

A contemporary analog to African savanna is probably a golf course. And who doesn’t like seeing those green lawns unfolding in the distance beneath the trees? Lawns are ubiquitous, and the problems they represent are well documented. Nevertheless, their appeal is probably inherent, and not just an expression of unimaginative desire for conformity. People naturally prefer what they’re familiar with, whether it’s food, architecture, landscapes, music, you name it. This tendency has a name, exposure effect, and perhaps explains why I sometimes eat at McDonald’s when I’m traveling.

If exposing ourselves to more diversity increases our opportunities for enjoyment of life, this seems to me to be another good argument for planting pollinator garden in the front yard with a little sign. That helps make them, and the principles they represent, more familiar to people — without them having to exert any effort. Incorporating some familiar elements into the unfamiliar helps increase the likelihood people will like something new—so a neat edge to those native perennial plantings or a Monarch Waystation sign can help make them legible and understandable, as with this bed in my neighborhood.

Today these neighbors are adding a new, second garden bed. After solarizing their soil over the summer, they are outside planting new perennials as I write.

Roy Diblik has posted a series of short videos on YouTube about his approach to garden design and plant combinations. The title of today’s post comes from the first one. He says: “The love and joy of gardening is the doing, not the having.” Isn’t that wonderful? Although honestly, the having part is not bad. Even though my beds are full of dried stems and seed heads, they still smell good, like being out in the country.

With winter approaching, I’ll be doing less in the garden, although I hope to keep learning more about things to do in the coming year. Each week I’ve soaked up information from BBC’s Gardener’s World, but last week the final episode of the season aired. They’re taking a break, although they’ll host a few special episodes this winter, and I plan to do the same.

Happy gardening and thanks for reading.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about how enthusiasm for lawns took hold in the twentieth century, this blog post from Scientific American offers a good survey.

What looks good = what’s blooming now

My wild garden had a couple visitors recently, good friends whose opinions about it differed. One thinks my garden is a disaster. The other finds it lovely. Who is right?

Looking over the shagginess, I think they both are. The rudbeckia that bloomed all summer, delighting us with its insect visitors and wonderful scent, is now a stand of scraggly weeds. The milkweed have flopped over. The switchgrass engulfed a blueberry and crowded out some Russian sage. One of my friends works as a professional gardener, and if her clients’ gardens looked like this, she’d be fired. The gist of her criticism, if I understand it correctly, is that the plants I’ve chosen are the wrong scale for my yard. They’re all back-of-the-garden plants, way too big. Not only that, they’re aggressive. Next year they’ll naturalize all over the place.  I can tell she’s right. Rudbeckia is already sprouting in unlikely spots. This means my fantasy of moving them to back-of-the-garden locations is probably just that, a fantasy.

She thinks I should yank it all out and start over.

Could she be wrong? Is she like a jeweler obsessing about tiny flaws that no one else can see? Or could we just have different taste? She likes things tidy, sans weeds.

I think it’s unlikely she’s wrong. She is very knowledgeable. Just following her around the yard, watching while she pinches stalks and plunges her hands into dirt, I learn things. The fact is, once I get over feeling amazed that the little three-inch plugs I planted just five months ago have grown to be six feet tall, I’m dissatisfied too. I love these plants, but I might be happier with plants that are similar to these, but smaller.

Two things I’ll definitely take away from this experience. (I’m writing this down so I won’t forget.) Right now I’m so overwhelmed with plants I can’t imagine ever buying another one, but if I do I’ll probably get them from a local or regional nursery instead of ordering online. I just like being able to see what I’m buying. Plus their selections will be tailored to our region. Also, even though I pored over the pages of Tracy DiSabato Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden that describe pinching and pruning, I was afraid to cut too much. Next year, I won’t be.

And I promise to read the tags.

My other friend reacted to the garden with a sharp intake of breath and a long, “Ohhh.” I suspect she was influenced by the presence of blooms. The asters are misty clouds of purple and white, and in my newly-cleared bed on the east side by the fence I have salvia—red and black-and-blue—and yellow solidago.

Wait until next year!

But most of all, she admired the dahlias. I have two kinds: these symmetric, perfect mandalas, and ones with flowers like Phyllis Diller’s wig.

This is my first year growing dahlias. Some were a gift and others I grew from tubers. Although I tried my best to kill them, drowning one plant in a pot without a drainage hole, they persisted, and although the plants have contorted stems and aren’t going to win any awards, the flowers are amazing.

I understand that dahlias inspire cult-like devotion, and I can see why. They’re not native to our area, they originated in Mexican highlands, but they’re still popular with pollinators, especially big bees. I think they’re carpenter bees. Often I find one motionless in the petals, passed-out in bliss.

What do I know about dahlias that I didn’t at the start of the summer? They need to be staked. I was too tentative and slow doing this, and I lost a bunch of stalks in a big windstorm. They need lots of water—fill until the pot begins to drain out the bottom, my gardener friend says. I suspect they need feeding. At a couple times their leaves started looking pale so I added compost to the pot. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do but they darkened and perked back up.

I’ve found dogs very easy to grow.

The dahlias are great to have this time of year, when most of the prairie flowers have finished blooming. Usually when we talk about plants looking good, we mean flowering, and the dahlias are blooming now. The plant that got submerged is just getting started. I hope to store the tubers over the winter following these instructions. Next year I’ll try planting them in the ground instead of pots, although I liked being able to move them around. I’ll also try pinching and cutting back, like the experts say to do.

My feelings about the cooler weather are mixed. Yesterday I put on a jacket, and I felt like I’d run into an old work colleague, someone I used to see every day and know well but never really liked that much. I haven’t started preparing to bring plants inside, but I’ve started thinking about preparing. This gardenia will need pruning before I can fit it through the door.

When I was growing up in Houston we had a gardenia growing outside our front door, a spindly, weak-looking thing with just a couple stems, but each year it managed to produce a few spectacular flowers. The fragrance greeted us every time we walked inside. I bought this gardenia at a grocery store about twenty years ago. It’s a tree now.

It needs drastic cutting back, but I don’t want to prune while it’s blooming, so I’m waiting until the last minute. I’m also concerned about bringing in whiteflies. They vanished for a while but seem to have returned.

It’s the stock-taking time of year, good for planning ahead and looking back. Even though I don’t love their shagginess, the truth is, I’ve loved these prairie plants and have gotten so much enjoyment out of them this year. I’m even thrilled by how tall they’ve grown. Look! The asters are shoulder-high.  The switchgrass is a tawny gold and as tall as the fence. I can see why they called it the tallgrass prairie. The leaves on the river birch are turning yellow one by one. They drip down onto the patio, reminding me of the snowflakes that are coming.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Did you see this?

At This Renowned English Garden, Getting Your Hands Dirty Is the Point

Meadows. Soil composition. Propagation. Staking and composting. Attending the weeklong horticulture class at Great Dixter is like getting a Ph.D. in gardening.

The Barn Garden at Great Dixter House & Gardens in East Sussex, England. Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Magnificent micro-gardens beautify New York streets

I’ve been traveling this week so I haven’t had a chance to work in the garden, but this turned up in my Facebook feed and I have to share. In New York City, empty tree pits along Sixth Avenue were collecting trash and growing weeds. “Tree pits” is what the city calls the square openings in the pavement where trees grow…sometimes.  Instead of being discouraged, lighting designer David Kass stepped up and began planting mini gardens in the pits.

What a great project! It combines two of my passions: picking up trash and putting in plants. (I love New York, too.) Kass planted his first garden in 2017. Now he tends 22—using his own money, time, and talent. His work delights passers-by and has attracted the attention of the the local CBS affiliate and the Today show.

As he says, “Where else can you have a hobby that so many people can appreciate?”

Most of the tree pit gardens I see in the section of Manhattan where I’m staying have English ivy and begonias. They’re nice, but Kass’ plantings exhibit more variety. I spy cannas, ornamental grass, even boxwood: tough plants than can survive in harsh conditions. If a tree pit along Sixth Avenue isn’t harsh, I don’t know what is.

From the Just One Person Facebook page, October 17, 2020

Kass has a Facebook page called Just One Person that tells more about his project. He has also set up a GoFundMe to help with the expense. Each garden costs about $125.

From Just One Person’s Facebook Page, October 17, 2020

Apparently, tree pit gardens are a thing, according to this article from New York magazine.  While the pits belong to city, anyone can plant whatever they want in them as long as they don’t hurt the tree (if there is one). All these little plantings in the city are the work of motivated individuals.  

If you look hard enough, you might find vegetables or herbs, or even a small fruit tree.

Diana Budds, “New York City’s Tree Pit Gardens”

Kass’ pits along Sixth Avenue didn’t have trees, just trash  

New York has a great tradition of guerilla gardening, I learned when a good friend took me on a tour of a community garden flourishing in empty lots in the East Village. This was in the nineties, but the mature trees showed that the garden had been there for many years.  

6BC Garden

After battling the city and developers for decades, Green Thumb, New York’s homegrown community garden program, is now considered the largest in the country. Read what the New York Parks Department has to say about this community garden movement here.

Many of New York’s parks and green spaces—the rooftop terraces and backyard courtyards—are oases, but private ones, accessible only to a privileged few. Most of us can only admire them from outside the gates. David Kass’s tree pit gardens appeal to me because they’re democratic: anyone can enjoy them. I also like that he takes the initiative and does what’s required himself. Liz Christy of Green Guerillas is considered the founder of the community garden movement. Maybe David Kass will inspire a movement, too.

Wonderful duty: being on the river

This week I’m taking a break from writing about gardening to tell about an experience I had recently picking up trash along the Missouri River. The title of this post comes from Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry:

“The river and the garden have been the foundations of my economy here. Of the two I have liked the river best. It is wonderful to have the duty of being on the river the first and last thing every day. I have loved it even in the rain. Sometimes I have loved it most in the rain.”

If you’re like me and spend a lot of time outdoors walking or running, no doubt you see trash everywhere. Even beautiful neighborhoods like mine have an appalling amount of litter. I make it a point to throw away at least one piece every time I go for a walk. I’ll pick a plastic bag out of some bushes or drop a water bottle into the garbage. Where does it come from? It blows out of the beds of pickups and drops off strollers, falls out of trash bins when the trucks lift them up, and—I hate to admit this but it’s true—gets thrown out of the windows of passing cars. I don’t like thinking that my fellow Americans would do this, but they do. Eventually it all makes its way to our rivers. In 2019 we were walking in Weston Bend State Park after the floodwaters receded and were shocked to see the banks blanketed with plastic bottles.  Before that I knew, but didn’t really know, how immense the problem is. But usually I feel powerless to do much about it.

On Friday I happened to see a guest essay in the Star about Missouri River Relief, a group sponsoring a cleanup of the Missouri River. The cleanup was taking place the next morning. Although registration was closed, I showed up at the River Front Park boat ramp (which I never knew existed before) at the civilized start time of 9 AM to help out.

Since 2001, this group has removed tons of junk from the banks of the Missouri River through organized cleanups. I signed in, received a complimentary water bottle and t-shirt, and headed over to orientation, where a conservation agent was finishing up by saying a tangle of fishing line would take 600 years to decompose.  At the next station, Steve Schnarr, River Relief’s Director, went over some safety rules and prepared us for what we could expect to encounter—how to handle syringes and potentially hazardous chemicals, how to recognize poison ivy. “If you take a step and sink in mud, don’t step in with your other foot,” he said.  Made sense. He warned that river carp are sometimes irritated by the boat motors and may leap out of the water and land in the boat.

We put on life jackets and climbed into a low-floating metal boat, which ferried us upstream to a spot on the bank. Most of the volunteers came from area companies. I tagged along with a group from Bass Pro World. River Relief crew members had scouted the cleanup sites earlier to make sure they were accessible to the boats, weren’t near homeless encampments, and had lots of trash. No problem there. The water seems full of it. Red plastic cups and clear plastic bottles cruised by, carried by the current.

The river was busy with a flotilla of boats. I got out on the north bank just east of the I-29 bridge. Outfitted with a pair of gloves and a blue plastic trash sack, I climbed the bank and got busy. In almost no time, my bag was full. I found chunks of white Styrofoam and white drink cups, plastic water bottles, a piece of an old tarp. Most of the litter was regular household stuff—cough syrup bottles, a full gallon of Arizona iced tea. How did these make their way to the bank of the Missouri river? (See explanation above.)

What I did not find: aluminum cans, cigarette packets, plastic bags. I imagine we’d find millions of those if we picked up later in the year, when the foliage dies back for winter.

The bank was heavily shaded, and I did note some native plants flourishing in the dim light. These sedges resemble liriope and are unpalatable to rabbits.

This was what it looked like beneath the trees with the river in the background.

Notice how beavers have gnawed on this cottonwood trunk.

The banks were brushy with Horseweed and Queen Anne’s Lace. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any milkweed, although I spotted some solidago blooming.

No milkweed and no butterflies. I didn’t see any animals, either. Now home, I see at least three monarchs flitting around my yard every time I look out the window. They remind me of a litter of puppies rolling around, playing. I am constantly surprised by how much more wildlife activity I see in our yard compared to out in the forests. (We live about a mile west of the Plaza.) We have butterflies, bees, wasps, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, opossum, raccoons, and all kinds of birds. There’s always something twitching around out there, but when we go out to the woods, they’re often still.

Whenever I thought I’d finished, that I’d removed all the trash from a section of the bank, all I had to do was stand back and look at it for a minute and I’d see more.  The surface of the water was bumpy from all the debris floating by: new trash is being deposited constantly. I imagine for the fish, the water is an obstacle course of floating plastic.

I only spent about an hour picking up trash before the boat came back to pick us up. (I’d expected to spend longer.) It always feels great to be on water, and the Missouri River is so powerful and mysterious. Now I’ve been out in it on a boat, which I’ve never done before. As the woman operating the boat slowed when we approached the shore, sure enough, an enormous carp leaped out of the water.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture, but this photo from flickr shows what it was like. It looked like shot from a movie.

Back on shore, I nibbled some fried chicken and a biscuit from RC’s Fried Chicken, served up by some Rotary Club members in cardboard containers with no utensils.  I inspected some of the items entered in the Trash Collecting Contest, whose categories included most weird, most likely to be used as a weapon, and most useful—won by an MU fleece blanket.

We’ve only been producing plastic for sixty years, and according to a 2017 article in Science Daily,  “Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years.” For our purposes, plastic is forever: a plastic water bottle could take 450 years to decompose. As I drove home through downtown, watching people walking to lunch and coming home from the farmer’s market, I thought that if I could say anything to them it would be to throw their away their garbage.  Recycling is great but the main thing is to get trash into the trash and off the street. My next thought was that we need more cleanups like these. If every scout troop, church youth group, stroller-pushing parent, jogger, person who strolls along Indian Creek on Saturday morning, if all of us spent an hour picking up trash, sadly it wouldn’t make much difference—but it would get us all thinking about the problem. Problems don’t go away on their own usually. The first step in solving them is understanding that one exists.

For the next two months, Missouri River Relief is celebrating their twentieth anniversary by holding cleanups on the stretch of river between Kansas City to Columbia. The next one will be on August 28 in Sibley, MO, with another in Lexington on September 1, 2021.