Assigning grades: the best native perennials for a front yard

The garden has peaked. The milkweed has faded, the rudbeckia is shriveling, and while a few flowers power on, the climactic moment has passed. The big show is about over. This is a good time of year for taking stock, as people do. Did projects go as planned? Did I get the results I wanted? The answer is probably yes, and no. I’m taking a moment to review and remember, hoping to inform my decisions as I approach fall planting. September starts tomorrow.

To start, life handed me lemonade by killing the zoysia in our front yard. New planting requires killing what’s there, which now, fortunately, is nothing. I did a poor job digging up the bed in spring, the plants arrived and I had to hurry, and I’ll be paying the consequences for a long time. I see that now. I won’t have that problem this fall. The question is what to plant. I had more flowers in mind, but this area borders our next-door neighbor’s yard, and they spray for mosquitoes. Yesterday their exterminator sprayed clouds of insecticide on their blooming Prairie Onion, kicking up the butterflies and skippers, and I found this in the yard later that afternoon.

Dead Monarch butterfly in grass

I hope to persuade them to try other methods to eliminate mosquitoes. I’ll keep you posted.  However, instead of planting more flowers, perhaps I should plant some kind of buffer. If you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

On a more pleasant note, the big addition to our garden this year, which we began planning last fall, is a bed across our front yard. When my husband suggested a sinuous ribbon, I knew that was exactly the right thing to do. It’s like a contour line on a topographic map. I began by digging a bed beside the driveway, spading it up and removing the turf, and then planted plugs bought from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. The bed was bare and ugly throughout the winter.

Later, I extended it across the yard, and it was bare and ugly then too.

Since this is the front yard, everything needed to be short, under two feet tall, and I wanted to avoid a haphazard groups-of-one look. I created a spreadsheet with plant names, heights, colors, bloom times, and prices from different nurseries. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit this but I suspect some of you do the same.) I wasn’t familiar with some of these plants, I just chose them based on their catalog descriptions.

How did it go? Overall, pretty well. I give the bed a B-plus. It’s been consistently colorful, buzzing with insect activity. Each month brought surprises.

My biggest challenge was rabbits. They were prolific. Instead of a wild garden, this became a caged garden, fenced in by wire contraptions—but that didn’t matter to the rabbits, who ate many plants down to the ground, snapping stems and dropping flowers uneaten on the grass. C’était pénible.

I won’t go on and on about it, but henceforward, right plant, right place means unpalatable to rabbits.

What worked well: A+

Salvias. They’re not native but are much loved by bees, and I like purple flowers. I sowed two types of seed and grew cuttings of another. I’m afraid I’ll get the names wrong but they’re all slightly different. All are wonderful and still blooming now.

Penstemons. Pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) was lovely with white panicle flowers, but Purple beardtongue (Penstemon cobaea) was thrilling. Its big, bell-shaped, purple flowers are dramatic, and its glossy foliage is both soft and slimy, if slimy can be a positive descriptor. I love these.

Purple beardtongue or prairie penstemon (Cobaea penstemon)

Dittany (Cunila origanoides). I forgot what this was; it bored me all year, not even the rabbits liked the little dark green leaves—until suddenly, wow! They burst out with darling little light purple flowers. Note to self: buy more!

Dittany Cunila origanoides.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has been blooming since June.

What didn’t work as well: B – to C+

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolota), a.k.a. rabbit chow. No matter how big they grow, they get eaten. On the other hand, they’re so vigorous, they’re still the primary flowers blooming in the bed. I bought six of each and grew more from seed. However, I don’t need any more.

Spider Milweed (Asclepias viridis). The rabbits didn’t care for this, which is a plus, but it didn’t flower. Maybe next year.

Total failures

Some plants disappeared entirely: Yellow Wild Indigo, Southern Prairie Aster, Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteate), and Obedient Plant (Physostegia angustifolia). All vanished, eaten by rabbits. I bought three Wild Pinks (Silene caroliniana) which had sweet little flowers early on, but only two survived, I’m not sure why.

I’m not crazy about Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).

Some plants volunteered, like comfrey (I believe) pictured below, and a moonflower. The seeds may have been in the compost I used to fill the trench left by removing the grass.

Possibly my experience will help some fellow Kansas City gardener select a few natives for a visible, unforgiving, full sun location infested with rabbits and crickets. In any case, that’s all I have for this week. I’ve ordered some shrubs to pick up at the Deep Roots sale on September 9 at Anita Gorman, and I’ll be back in a week or two to tell you more about those. Thanks for reading!

Comfrey is native to Europe and Asia

What killed my lawn? How to make organic lawns look good

Michael Pollan says the garden is more an arena than a refuge, and this month finds me facing off against a killer. My grass died. I don’t know why. It’s been green and growing—not spectacularly, but well enough—for the fourteen years we’ve lived here. Then suddenly, this summer, it died. What used to be lawn is a dirt patch overrun with rabbits and twitching with crickets. What happened?

brown patch of dirt instead of lawn
Dirt patch

Replacing lawns with plants with more ecological value or transforming them into meadows is much discussed these days and I love this idea, but for many of us getting rid of our lawn entirely isn’t a realistic option. We’ll always need to have some grass, even if it’s just mowed strips between the other plantings. I would like that grass to look good.

To start with, our lawn was mostly zoysia. It’s a tough turf, native to Korea, that was popular during the fifties and sixties when it was refined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). It spreads on runners, forming a thick mat over the driveway if I don’t cut it back regularly. It turns brown in the fall and greens up late, so each spring we worry it has died, but usually it thrives during the summer heat. The slope it covered is baking hot, which is supposed to be the perfect environment for it, but not this year.

zoysia growing in a crack in the gutter instead of in the lawn
Grass grows everywhere except where I want it

Before I exert myself toward fixing this, I need to understand what happened. I headed to Soil Service. There I learned that zoysia is struggling throughout our area.  In fact, Soil Service has a handout describing a problem called Zoysia Patch Fungus, complete with a picture that resembles our yard. However, one characteristic of Zoysia Patch Fungus is orange-colored patches, which I do not see.  Nevertheless, I do think a fungus could be the killer.

A post about lawn fungus might not have broad appeal, but it is a problem many of us have ahd more will have if it keeps raining like it has been. I turned to Joe Lamp’l’s website, my go-to for information about organic gardening, where he has step-by-step instructions for how to renovate an existing lawn—which I will follow in September. The first thing he recommends is getting a soil test.

It’s always good to get more than one opinion, so I visited the Grass Pad (which, according to its website, has been selling Olathe’s best sod since 1983). It is far. But I was satisfied with the advice I received. I spoke with a guy named Dave, who had the air of someone who’s seen everything. When I ask a question, he hesitated before answering, “It depends.” I could imagine the flow chart of possibilities developing in the air over his Grass Pad cap. Do I want to reseed, or get rid of the zoysia altogether? If yes, I will need to get rid of the existing turf. If no, I can proceed to the next step.

Here is what I learned about renovating the lawn

  1. Now (August) is the time to prepare by destroying existing turf. See methods below.
  2. Renovation should begin in September. The window is September 1 – October 15, but the important thing is to avoid days with highs in the nineties. However, a few spikes into the nineties might not do much harm.
  3. Start by verticutting.
  4. Then fertilize. More on this later.
  5. Spread seed.
  6. Water one inch per week until established. Dave recommends using a sprinkler, not a hand-held wand, and that’s good for me because I’m looking at a large area.

Destroying the existing turf

The existing turf must be removed. Ways to do this include soil solarization, tilling, digging, and spraying with glyphosate, which is what most people recommend for a large area, like a lawn. I felt like a spy because I nodded while listening to Dave discuss the merits of different sprayers instead of telling him I would not do this. He prefers ones with metal nozzles.

However, whatever I’m fighting got rid of the grass for me—so I score! In some spots some grass still clings to life, but most of it is dead. In September, I can rake it away and move on to step three. I may not need to kill the fungus if I replace the zoysia with bluegrass or fescue (probably fescue for my dry, hot site).

Verticutting gives the seeds places to settle, which aids germination. The sprouts may look like a hair transplant at first, but eventually they will fill out.

This is all exactly what they told me at Soil Service, what Joe Lamp’l says, and what I already knew or suspected. I used to follow Soil Service’s Lawn Care Program and the yard looked great, but I stopped a couple years ago when I went completely organic. I took my leftover bags of Bug Blaster to the hazardous waste dropoff site and look what happened!  Now I’m eager for September to come so I can start working on the lawn. 

The bed across the front looks great, but I’m not making a compelling argument for gardening with native plants if the yard is ugly and the grass is dead.

Soil Service does have a “natural” program that uses organic products, so I guess I’ll try that next year.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Thanks for reading!

Dreams come true: visiting the chateaux of the Loire

Closing out June, I’m looking back at a great month. The tiny plants I put in last fall and spring have powered up and are looking more like a garden every day. The tour gardens for International Master Gardener Conference were amazing sources of inspiration. But without doubt, the month’s main highlight for me was our trip to France. We spent a week bicycling and visiting chateaux in the Loire Valley, something I’ve always wanted to do. Although not exactly gardening-focused, the trip could be considered gardening-adjacent, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it. After all, the Loire Valley is known as the garden of France.

Over the course of a week, we biked from Blois to Azay-le-Rideau. Our routes took us through farmland, charming villages, and on a trail beside the Loire. Here’s a typical sight.

Scene on the road

You can see some other cyclists in the photo. The Loire à vélo is popular, especially with French people of retirement age. Everything was lovely; however, France is experiencing a drought. We couldn’t walk across the Loire, as was widely reported last August, but a bare band of sand along the banks showed that the water level was lower than normal. The air was hazy and colors wan. We cycled through vineyards, yes, but also through fields of bush beans—haricots verts, although they were more haricots jaunes, it appeared to me.

Although many of the villages had signs saying they were Ville Fleurie, I don’t think this meant they were full of flowers but rather that they offer a high quality of life.

Out of the 300-something chateaux in the Loire Valley, we visited Blois, Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Villandry. I’ve heard that for some people, chateaux get similar after seeing a couple, but for me that was not the case. Each was fabulous in its own way, and each was different. The first we visited was Chambord, where we ran into a crew filming the second season of the Starz drama The Serpent Queen, about Catherine de Médicis. I saw but didn’t photograph Samantha Morton dressed in black velvet, waiting in the heat. The crew spent 45 minutes setting up for three seconds of action. Here are the horses and carriages.

Film crew at Chambord
Crew filming The Serpent Queen at Villandry

The show is mainly filmed on location. We’ve watched a few episodes and recognize many of the settings. Sometimes a scene will take place in a room we remember from Chenonceau, and then cut to an exterior from Villandry.

I’m not sure why I took these photos of Chambord’s kitchen, but I was excited when it turned up in the program.

All the chateaux (except Azay-le-Rideau) had gardens in the famous French-renaissance style: symmetric, bare of shade, with elaborate parterres enclosing lots of roses—the opposite of my wild garden. Sometimes the gardens’ most impressive quality was their size. A friend pointed out that they weren’t necessarily meant to be walked through, but to be viewed from a window.

Although visiting the chateaux wasn’t repetitive to me, this style of garden was. They were hot. We crowded into patches of shade. This photo captures the feeling of touring one after riding our bikes for twenty miles.

The Floral Workshop at Chenonceau

All these chateaux and gardens have been widely written about, so I was prepared for what I saw. However, I surprised and delighted by the flower arrangements at Chenonceau. They were incredible—amazingly varied and lush.

They’re the work of florist Jean-François Boucher, whose many awards include the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” and who has led the chateau’s floral atelier since 2015.

Boucher oversees preparation of bouquets for nineteen rooms twice weekly—about 200 bouquets each week. When possible, he sources many flowers from the chateau gardens and grounds, as you can see in this video, which also shows him working on a composition.

I like that he smiles so much.

Boucher mentions Arcimboldo as an inspiration, as well as his grandmother, who was also a florist. Formerly owner of his own shop in nearby Tours, he says he’s happy to be liberated from commercial pressures. He isn’t free of constraints, however. Each room has a predominant color scheme that influences the arrangements, like the blue velvet bed hangings in the chambre de Diane de Poitiers, the gold and wine tapestries decorating the chambre de Catherine de Médicis, and the black-and-white floor in the gallery over the River Cler.

Bouquets of flowers beneath a painting of Diane de Poitiers as Diana, goddess of the hunt

The chateau’s interiors were largely empty, with just a few pieces of period furniture, and the flower arangements brought suggestions of life and death, and intimacy into the formal rooms. The effect was astonishing. Boucher posts pictures of his creations on Instagram, a twice-weekly, and his photos are much better than my snapshots. If you’re thinking of visiting, the atelier offers workshops and master classes. I believe Christmas is a special season for them. Also, last year (2022) the chateau hosted the Grand Concours Floral Interflora, an international floral exhibit and competition.

As I’ve mentioned, I spent some time in France after college working at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s cooking school in northern Burgundy. This was a fabulous experience, but I haven’t traveled much throughout France, and I haven’t been able to return until now. I have been hearing about the Loire Valley chateaux since I started studying French in sixth grade, and have always longed to see them in person. Now I have!

Update: how my garden is growing

Here at home, our ribbon of flowers is filling out. We got our first compliment the other day when somebody walking by said he liked it.

We’re not going to win yard of the month, however. The grass has just flat-out died. The lawn is a dirt patch. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I can do anything about it until temperatures drop.

I have learned a couple things. The rabbits are delighted to find so much delicious food , and they are responsible for the gap in the middle of my idea. The ate the Rudbeckia hirta and Coreopsis lanceolata down to the down to nubs, helped by their pals the chipmunks.

At any time of day, there’s a rabbit sitting in the middle of the yard, munching.  You know the t-shirt cannon at the baseball games? I imagine one under our bushes shooting out rabbits. It’s so frustrating. I’ve doused the plants with cayenne pepper, mulched with human hair. My neighbors must think I’m growing wire cages. My dad asked, “Do those things work to keep the animals out?” Sadly, no.

If I had it to do over, I’d plant more of the things the rabbits do not like: Eastern Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), Hairy Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis), and Calamint (Clinopodium arkansanum), which had lovely, tiny lavender flowers. The salvia, although not native, doesn’t interest them and is crawling with bees.

For the most part, these are good times. So far I’ve only seen one Japanese beetle! In July I plan to concentrate on watering, pruning, and watching birds eat my grapes. I’m happy to share.

Thanks for reading!

Brilliant French idea!

A conversation withTalis Bergmanis

Have you ever passed a private garden whose interesting street edge told you it was hiding something special? I knew about Talis Bergmanis’s garden long before I met him and was able to see it in person. The plantings along the street are so striking, almost other-worldly, with chartreuse ‘Tiger Eye’ sumac standing out against a backdrop of silvery spruce and dark pines. Rising above them are some unusual river birches, Betula nigra ‘Little king.’ He prunes them to a single trunk so the new growth is a green tassel at the top, like a Dr. Seuss tree.  We can see between the thin trunks, but they still form a border, like a widely spaced picket fence.

This is where I found Bergmanis last Friday morning, wearing a faded orange t-shirt and standing on a four-foot stepstool. I’d invited myself over to see his peonies, which are especially lush and vigorous this year, but there was much more to see.

The shrubs and trees lining the street embrace a wide bed planted with sun-loving plants that like good drainage. Ice-blue amsonia and irises were blooming when I visited, with butterfly milkweed powering up for later in the season. In the front of the bed grow variegated irises, big patches of silvery Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), and bright yellow sedum. To make the bed, Bergmanis dug out two feet of clay and replaced it with a mix of topsoil, gravel, and sand. Bordering the garden in every direction are interesting small trees and shrubs, like shrub Japanese maple, blooming bottlebrush buckeye, and purple beech.

Photo by Han Mellenbruch

The pea-like flowers of a Kentucky Yellowwood brightened a dark corner. (I found this tree so unusual I bought one at a plant sale the next day.) A dwarf gingko, intended to be two feet high, is so happy in this spot, it tops out at almost ten feet tall.

Around the corner of the house, the backyard spreads beneath dappled shade provided by an enormous ginkgo tree. A wide bed along the western edge of the 1.3-acre property is devoted to peonies, all in bloom in different shades of pink, coral, and magenta. It’s a spectacular show if you love peonies, which I do. Bergmanis is an aficionado, a collector who grows many different varieties, often identified by metal markers.

Bergmanis joined the Heartland Peony Society at a member’s suggestion, and served as its president for several years. He estimates he has over 100 peony plants, and is so knowledgeable about them, I imagine he could fill in all the details about each one’s appearance and habit and tell stories about how he acquired them.

“Peonies are not only beautiful, they’re tough,” he said. “Pass any old homesite in Kansas, and two things will mark the spot where the house once stood: a clump of orange day lilies and a blooming peony.”

Two types he recommends for our area are Peony Coral Charm and a tree peony named Hana kisoi—which means Floral Rivalry.

Bergmanis’ background is in photography. For many years he worked for the Star, and accompanied columnist Marty Ross for the newspaper’s weekly gardening section. “The other photographers weren’t crazy about photographing flowers,” he laughed, “But I liked it. That made everybody happy.” 

The people Ross interviewed and introduced him to were all distinctive. “If she was doing a story about someone, it was because they were doing something noteworthy. They were all knowledgeable and experienced. It was a good education.”

His interest ignited, he began gardening in this location twenty-three years ago, which makes this a relatively new garden compared to, say, great gardens in England, where he loves to visit. He pointed out that some royal gardens in Japan are tended through generations, the position of head gardener passed on from father to son. But compared to most in our area, Bergmanis’s garden is mature. Conifers and evergreens give the garden structure. Every view has depth and complexity. One plant will have another rising up behind it, and another, taller one behind that. The effect is rich and layered. The sinuous curves of the beds are an argument to never again plant anything in rows.

Bergmanis says the beds get larger every year, and the strips of grass between them get narrower.

When asked if he’d noticed any new trends since he began gardening, he mentioned the last six-to-eight years’ emphasis on native plants and helping pollinators.  “Like Doug Tallamy says, if you want to have birds, you have to have insects. That really stood out to me.”

This marks a shift in focus for many people like him who love exotic or unusual plants that are “beautiful, but not useful,” as Bergmanis said. While he isn’t pulling anything out, most of what he’s adding now is native, drought-tolerant, and beneficial to insects. He is still on the lookout for new and unusual plants, however, like a new Haas Halo Hydrangea , developed at Mt. Cuba, “a knockout that offers the perfect combination of horticultural excellence and pollinator value.”

Bergmanis is generous with his garden, frequently opening it up for tours, like one for members of Gardeners Connect in 2022 commemorated in this Facebook slideshow, and to registered attendees of the American Conifer Society’s Central Region Conference in June.

A visit to this garden is an extraordinary opportunity not to be missed. I feel honored to have visited and to have met Talis.

Thank you for reading!

Photo by Han Mellenbruch

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Still waiting…(It’s spring, but doesn’t feel like it yet)

Yes, spring has sprung—yesterday marked the vernal equinox, when day and night are almost equal in length—but the pace of change has slowed.  Sure, we have green tufts of foliage sprouting (these remind me of Patrick Mahomes’ hair), and I find more new growth at the base of last year’s stalks each day. Nevertheless, this progress feels undramatic. Many days are still cold. Most of what I see is brown. I waited all winter for March. Now it’s here and all I want is for it to be April.  

What have I been doing since I last posted?

Battling rabbits, a huge part of gardening here. When I was growing up in Houston, I do not ever recall seeing a rabbit. Here, they’re an infestation. This year, instead of littering my flower beds with Irish Spring and encircling them with unsightly wire, I created this frame.  

Rabbit repelling fence

I am very pleased with the result of my little building project. I like the way they impose a little order on the chaos. I also like not worrying if the tulips are being gnawed to stubs.  

Speaking of tulips, for the most part I’ve given up on them and switched to planting daffodils, which rabbits don’t care for. However, I did plant some in this pot, following Monty Don’s suggestion, and look what’s happening. 

Future tulips

Speaking again of rabbits, once again some enterprising expectant mother rabbit burrowed a softball-sized hole at the base of this tree, planning to plant her baby there.  

Rabbit nest

The same thing happened last year in the same spot. As I talked about in this post from 2022, Rabbits 101, rabbits dig shallow depressions and line them with fur from their bellies. Then they hide their babies in them.  

This particular location is not good. The dog was very excited about last year’s kit, and killed it with curiosity. This year I filled the hole with dirt and surrounded it with wire fencing. Later I found this in the front yard. 

Another rabbit nest. Mother rabbits pull fur from their bellies to line these shallow depressions where they hide their newborns.

What is this rabbit thinking? This is a horrible place to hide. It’s a miracle any survive. 

How are my plants doing?

As planned, I drove out to Burr Oak Nature Center in Independence on March 11 to pick up my order from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.  

Many of my plants are still dormant. I may have bought boxes of dirt—but I remember last year I worried the same thing. Tiny wine-colored knobs on the base of some of the stems could be new growth. I run outside every hour or so to check on them. 

The native wildflower seeds I planted in January are still out there and—big news—the Rudbeckia hirta has sprouted. I almost need a microscope to see the tiny leaves so I’ll wait to share a picture, but I’m encouraged. The rest, alas, show no signs of life yet. 

My seed starting setup

I planted seeds indoors, too: violas, pansies, forget-me-nots, and lavender. Look how great they look!  

Being the penny-pincher I am, I added up the price of the seeds and seed-starting mix and calculate that the cost of each plant to be thirty-one cents.  

Why do I need so many plants?

Once again, I was inspired to emulate this photograph, this from a TV show.  


Le voilà. Here is our new bed. We’re trying to smother the existing turf using the cardboard method. (I described this in an earlier post Dig, till, smother: How to remove sod for a new bed.)


So far all we’ve accomplished is irritating our neighbors when the cardboard blows into their yards. I have a feeling I will end up doing a lot of digging before I next post.

In the meantime, Remain in Light! 

Wintry mix: first signs of spring

Welcome 2023! For so long winter has felt like it just wouldn’t budge. Then, all of a sudden, it budged. Birds are back. Finches are at the feeder. Yesterday I saw a dove. The first green spikes of daffodils have poked through some brown oak leaves.

Today is dreary and cold, but the sky is lightening in the morning when I get up, and graying in evening when I drive home, and the effect is energizing. We gain two-to-three minutes of light each day. That’s right, the rate is not steady. It picks up in February and drops off again in May, according to Almanac:

  • By mid-January, the increase jumps to about two minutes a day.
  • By the 20th of February, daylight speeds up to three minutes per day! On the 20th, daylength is 10 hours, 53 minutes and on the 21st, it’s 10 hours, 56 minutes.

Here’s a link to a cool tool that calculates sunrise and sunset times, based on your zip code.

What have I been doing since I last posted in December?

To be honest, not much. For most of January I battled a cold and was happy to do nothing. On MLK Day I roused myself to perform a one-woman service project and picked up garbage from the banks of Brush Creek on the corner of State Line and Shawnee Mission Parkway. I don’t know why, but something about that corner inspires drivers to chuck their trash out the window—but for one day, there was none. I went down the banks and filled two big trash sacks with plastic bottles, food wrappers, and Styrofoam cups. I saw ducks swimming in the water and tree trunks that had been gnawed by beavers.

Gnawed by a beaver?

The next day, I spotted plastic bottles in the gutter, just as if I’d never been there.

(In case any of you are inspired to do something similar, I don’t recommend doing this alone.)

A few days later, a gardening friend told me she had sowed some native wildflower seeds. Suddenly jealous, I ordered some for myself from Missouri Wildflower Nursery. I read Margaret Roach’s “winter sowing of native plants, with heather mccargo of wild seed project” and tried to follow their advice. I used old plastic plug containers and built a frame covered with netting to deter birds, like the one pictured in the article.

Future native wildflowers

Everyone says the best time to plant native seeds is the fall, but the package said they need three-to-four weeks of freezing temperatures, and I think they’ll have that. Did you know Kansas City has a 185-day growing season? Our last frost date is usually around April 15.

It looks good, doesn’t it? Just like Margaret Roach’s, except her seeds had sprouted. Mine have not. Yet.

What am I doing now?

Besides walking around the neighborhood, snapping pictures of green daffodil foliage spearing through brown leaves? Very little. I’ve begun some of the cleanup I avoided doing in the fall. The recent snow flattened the grasses and toppled the stalks, so I’ve started cutting these back to about a foot. There are a lot to cut. Everybody says to leave them standing over winter to serve as habitat for insects, but that it’s okay to remove flopping ones. Roy Diblik recommends cutting back perennials by mowing them in the spring and I love that idea, but I’m going at them with clippers and will let the debris lay around the plants.

How does my garden grow in winter? With bamboo poles and wire netting. The moment I remove them, the rabbits munch every greenish thing down to the ground. The other day I noticed this picture in a garden design book I picked up last fall at an estate sale.

Wow! I was so excited. This is what I need—a more permanent and less unsightly rabbit barrier. I started building my version out of scrap wood and screws.

It’s still a work in progress. The ground is frozen so I haven’t been able to put it in place, but I’m optimistic that my garden will look as lovely as the one in the photo come August.

What do I plan to do next?

It’s time to order plants, but I’m still working on designing some new beds (although it’s generous to call what I’m doing designing).

Once I’ve decided, I’ll place my orders. The dates for Deep Roots’ native plant sales are online now, and it looks like there’s an early one at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center on March 11 that isn’t on their list.  

I wholeheartedly support these local nurseries and organizations; however, I will also order a tray of six species for $159 from Prairie Moon Nursery in Wisconsin. It includes 38 plants, which comes to about $4.20 a plant.

Then the real work begins, bed prepping.

I guess I’m like a plant, breaking dormancy in response to warmer temperatures and increased light. Wise folks say to appreciate winter as time for recuperation, but this gardener will be really, really glad when winter is over. Dogs, however, don’t seem to mind it at all. Thanks for reading!


Saving pollinators, one yard at a time

Welcome to what will be my final post of 2022. Now that I’ve been at this a while, the pace of my revelations has slowed somewhat, but I’m still learning new things all the time. Sometimes I think might skip posting for a month, but then I happen upon something that interests me and I want to share. This happened recently with a couple articles from the New York Times. One, “They Fought the Law. And the Lawn Lost,” describes a Maryland couple’s fight against their homeowners’ association over their pollinator garden. Guess what happened? The second, “The Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood, Mapped,” isn’t about gardening at all, but is germane to my interests, and possibly yours too.

Because you might not be able to read the article without a subscription, here’s a quick summary. Janet and Jeffrey Crouch began planting a pollinator garden in their suburban front yard in the early 2000’s.  They live in Beech Creek, outside of Columbia, Maryland.  In 2012, their next-door neighbor began complaining. He couldn’t “enjoy his own property, he wrote, due to the ‘mess of a jungle’ next door.”  Nancy Lawson, who blogs as the Humane Gardener and is Janet Crouch’s sister, says the HOA’s letter criticized the “plantings which grow back every year.” The HOA demanded the Crouches yank out their garden and plant grass, so they sued. The HOA countersued. Ultimately, this led to the passage of a state law prohibiting Maryland HOAs from restricting “low-impact landscaping”: rain gardens, pollinator gardens, xeriscaping, and the like. Yay!

Text of the bill:

Read Lawson’s play-by-play about the fight here.

Photo of the Crouches’ garden from the Humane Gardener website. Used by permission.

One thought. Pollinator gardens are not going to appeal to everyone, as the Crouches’ experience shows. As this image of their delightful yard shows, they’ve incorporated many cues to care: clearly delineated beds, layered plantings, mowed paths. I continue to hope that the best way to persuade people to stop using chemicals is by showing them alternatives they find attractive, but most people like what they’re familiar with. The passage of this bill is an important step, and gives gardeners arguments to build on if they need to step things up.

How many states have passed laws like these? Sixteen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Pollinator Health page.

Dozens of states have passed legislation to promote the health of pollinators, which include bees, wasps, bats and butterflies.

Are Kansas and Missouri included among these dozens? No. States that have “enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to pollinator health” include California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington. “Legislation related to pollinator health” can include anything from banning pesticides to naming an official state pollinator (Texas), or creating special pollinator license plates.

States with Laws Addresing Pollinator Health 2019 © National Conference of State Legislatures

Would you look at this image? A white band of apathy spreads across the Midwest, where we find the largest concentration of neonicotinoids, a particularly harmful insecticide widely used in field crops (soybean, cotton, canola, wheat, sunflower, potato, and many vegetables). Neonics may also be found in ornamentals sold by retailers, although this article says large stores like Walmart, True Value, Lowe’s, and Home Depot began phasing out their use in 2017. This article from a Salem, Oregon newspaper does a good job explaining the impact of neonicotinoids, and how to avoid using them.

Neonics have been banned in the EU, Canada, and some states, and in the US a nation-wide ban has been proposed. That seems more significant than having special license plates, but like signs in yards, these can help raise awareness. I imagine that many people who are inclined to feel positively about pollinators still spread Bug Blaster on their lawns.  They just haven’t thought about it. Although we have lots of specialty license plates in Kansas and Missouri, I don’t see one advocating for pollinators. Maybe some of you will be inspired to write your legislator.

The second article of interest, sobering but interesting, concerns the Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood.

Above is a screenshot of Kansas City’s map. Can you see where you live? Visit the New York Times to experience its interactive features.

Researchers have discovered that dense inner-city neighborhoods have the lowest emissions per household. They’re green on the map.

“Households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases, on average, than households in the rest of the country. Residents in these areas typically drive less because jobs and stores are nearby and they can more easily walk, bike or take public transit. And they’re more likely to live in smaller homes or apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.

Emission rates are much higher in the suburbs. Bigger houses require more energy to heat and cool. Residents drive longer distances, and have more of everything—electronics, appliances, vehicles.

The maps aren’t based on emissions but consumption, a combination of electricity use, driving, income levels, and more. It’s one measurement where we don’t want to be above average, but we are. If you look at the map, you can tell exactly where your neighborhood fits on this scale. This information may Influence individual choices to recycle, walk or ride bikes, things like that. It may also influence policy makers.

With that thought, I’ll conclude this final post of year I’ll be back in mid-January. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and thanks for reading!


Certifiable:Why you should get a sign for your garden

Here’s a headline from my internet feed: “How do I tell the new neighbors their lawn maintenance is unsuitable?” My neighbors could be saying this about me—or about the St. Peters, Missouri man fined $400 for violating his town’s turf-to flower-ratio, or about Dennis Moriarty, the Kansas City man cited for violating the weed ordinance. People often perceive native plantings as messy—gardening with weeds, a good friend calls it—but we can’t dismiss this opinion easily. If I put in a native plant garden and everybody hates it, nobody wins—not insects, not birds, not me.  

Cues to care help make the unfamiliar familiar

People are more likely to appreciate native plantings if they recognize that they’re intentional. For this reason, experts recommend presenting unfamiliar plantings with familiar elements, called “cues to care.” This term was first coined by landscape ecologist Joan Iverson Nassauer in a 1995 paper, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames.” Cues to care indicate that someone is taking care of this garden, and include things like well-defined edges, mowed paths, and clipped shrubs. We like things tidy. Neatness and order are a sign of intention. People might not recognize ecological function in a landscape. “Without obvious signs of human intention,” Nassauer says, “people are likely to see native plantings as neglected.”

There are things you can do to make native plantings more tidy looking,” says Alix Daniel, native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. “Like keeping nice clean edges.”KCUR

The nice clean edges recommendation isn’t arbitrary, in other words.

Specific cues to care depend on the region and local custom. For instance, most people expect a landscape to contain trees, but in some places—the arid west, for example—growing them may require tons of supplemental water or other resources, and could contradict an environmental and conservation ethic.

I’ll have more to say about this topic as I plan a new planting in our front yard for next year. In the meantime, one thing consistently mentioned on lists of cues to care is a sign.

Why are signs important?

I was not convinced that I needed one, but I am changing my opinion.

These signs from my neighbors’ gardens come from different organizations that certify plantings. Each has slightly different criteria for certification, but all require that the garden showcase native plants, be free of invasive species, and not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Signs show intention. Like election signs, they convey that the homeowner espouses certain values—and that a larger community does, too. Signs may get people wondering, Why do birds need plants? What kind of wildlife lives in a suburban yard? Why are native plants important?

The small fee charged for certifying a garden provides these organizations valuable support, and the signs help publicize their work. Marketers say people need to see a message seven times before they remember it, and these signs are semi-permanent. They’ll still be here after the election is over and other yard signs have been thrown away. Maybe a Monarch Watch sign will awaken some kid’s interest in butterflies, and learning about caterpillars will motivate him or her to help save them. Maybe folks will decide not to spray for mosquitoes next year, and they’ll wear bug repellent instead!

Which certification is best?

Each of these organizations has a slightly different emphasis, but following any of their guidelines will be enough to put your garden on the Homegrown National Park map, which would be really cool.

Homegrown National Park

Perhaps you’ve heard about this initiative, co-founded by Doug Tallamy. If you’re not already a fan, you will be after viewing this video presentation, Nature’s Best Hope, about insects. I was surprised to find myself mesmerized—and it lasts an hour and a half!

This is how we were doing in my area as of yesterday.

County Name: Johnson
Land Area: 306,912 Acres
Total Planted Area: 6.266 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 18
User Count: 37
Plantings Count: 57
County Name: Jackson
Land Area: 394,534 Acres
Total Planted Area: 1.457 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 21
User Count: 42
Plantings Count: 76

If you like interactive maps, and who doesn’t, you’ll love seeing where these pockets of native plants are. The level of detail is amazing. The Homegrown National Park website is getting revamped as I write, but I hope to join the six people in my zip code who are on the map as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s easy to see how many are already on it, but not so easy to see how to add myself. I’ll keep on it and let you know.

Thanks for reading!


Dig, till, smother: How to remove sod for a new bed

Everybody loves the idea of a secret garden, but I’m not exactly sure what one is. What makes a garden secret? How is that different from private? My husband says ours is almost a secret garden because it’s in back and passers-by don’t realize we have such a profusion of flowers and wildlife back here. That’s about to change, though. My October project was digging up a new bed in front. I imagined a relatively formal border of native plants beside our driveway, something like this.

© Mt. Cuba Center

My bed ended up being…different. Shorter. I ordered plants from the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s September 17 native plant sale at the Anita Gorman Discovery Center. Here is what I ordered.

Yes, I did put them into a spreadsheet. Several vendors were selling at the sale, but this time I ordered everything from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.

After I picked up my order, I spread the plants out on my porch to get an idea of what they’d look like. They’re small now but won’t stay that way.

Here comes the how-to portion of the post. This article from Fine Gardening does a good job describing some basic ways to prepare a new bed: digging, tilling, smothering, and spraying. Basically, I’m just going to repeat what it says.

Digging (slicing and loosening) is what I did. It’s the fastest way to prepare a new bed, but it’s hard work. Before you start, water the area. (This tip proved invaluable. I wouldn’t have been able to dig up anything if I hadn’t done this, it’s been so dry.) Using a flat shovel or pitchfork, slice around the perimeter of a rectangle about 12 inches wide by 24 inches. Then slice horizontally with the shovel blade. Peel back the grass and dust off what dirt you can. Then lift out the strips of sod. You might be able to use them in another spot.

This method is fast—it took a couple hours—and it’s chemical-free. However, it is strenuous work.

I don’t know much about tilling, but the Fine Gardening article lists these pros and cons:

Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; permits immediate planting Cons: Is difficult on rocky sites and in wet or clay soils; turns up weed seeds; propagates certain weeds
4 Ways to Remove Sod

Smothering could mean soil solarization, or simply covering the area with something to block the light. Soil solarization involves covering the ground with clear plastic. This traps heat from the sun, and can kill pathogens in the soil. However, the plastic must remain in place for four to six weeks, and the process needs to happen during a hot time of year. The location must be in full sun.

If killing turf is your main concern, not killing pathogens, try smothering the spot with cardboard, newspaper, a tarp, or even thick layer of mulch. I understand that layering on leaves or grass clippings can be helpful for areas with thin topsoil or clay. This is a long process: the turf may take six to eight weeks to die.

Spraying with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, could be useful for large areas, but I’m determined to avoid using herbicides and so far haven’t been tempted. After spraying, the turf still needs about a week to die.

The next part of the process was the most unusual, for me.

The cleared area was a couple inches lower than the surrounding lawn. My wonderful, plant-loving neighbor Carole was moving, and gave me a wheelbarrow full of compost before she left. Composting is advanced gardening to me. I haven’t gotten the hang of it. I’ve dabbled with the idea; I have a bin full of debris that should be turning to compost, but isn’t. I’m not interested enough to investigate, plus I’m trying to follow a “know maintenance” approach, working with existing soil and conditions. And no bark mulch.

In this case, I needed a little something, so I filled the depression with my friend’s compost. It needed to be sieved, and she also warned it might have seeds and other things, but I didn’t listen carefully, I was too busy pushing clods through a piece of hardware cloth. I tossed out a few potatoes and pieces of plastic bags and spread it over my new bed.

Voilà. I made an edge out of some pavers I found lying around, put in the plants, watered once a day for a while, and it’s done. The plants are still small but I’m seeing little leaves, so I think at least some of them have taken root.  I do have lots of weeds, though, little sprouts of I don’t know what.  The seeds must have been in the compost. But it’s not too difficult to pluck them out.

And that’s the story of my October planting I predict that I will regret placing the plants so close together. Also, the area is not a border, just a plot. But it’s a start. Next year I’d like to create a bed like this post’s featured image—along the street, beneath a tree, complete with a rock—but with natives. Small ones. I will try smothering. I have plenty of time.

Can’t wait.

By the time you read this, we’ll have had our first hard freeze, and although temperatures will climb back into the eighties on Friday and Saturday, I didn’t do anything to save my plants in pots. No covering them with sheets or dragging them inside. I’m just letting them die. We’ve had a good run. It’s a shame about the dahlias because some are just getting going.  

Oh, all right. I’ll bring them in. Later in the week we’ll have a few days of warmer weather, so maybe we can coax them into final flower.


4 Ways to Remove Sod

Pollen count: ways to beat seasonal allergies

Fall planting season is underway, and I’ve ordered a passel of plants to pick up at Saturday’s Missouri Prairie Foundation plant sale–but I can barely bring myself to think about them, I’m so tired. I have seasonal allergies. Maybe you do, too? When it’s allergy season, thinking about anything else is tough. What causes allergies? Is that volunteer plant I allowed to mature a culprit? What is that plant, anyway? Is it ragweed?

Ragweed looks like this. From a drawing in ‘Bilder ur Nordens Flora’, Carl Lindman, 1901-1905.

No, no, and no, it turns out. I am not alone, according to this article in last Thursday’s Star: You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season.” Good news: pollen counts will gradually diminish as we head deeper into fall. Bad news: our allergy season starts earlier and lasts longer each year because of climate change. Researchers report that KC’s volume of pollen has increased over the past 15 years. More CO2 in the air means bigger plants and bigger flowers that produce more pollen.

To really get obsessive about pollen levels, check Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page.

Today’s pollen count is high, and the mold count is very high, so no wonder I have the sniffles. I’m writing this on Wednesday, September 14, to post tomorrow, and if you head over now to check the day’s counts, you won’t find them. The person writing the daily comment will be out of town September 15-19, 2022, but will resume updating the data after that.

Children’s Mercy also gives advice about how to deal with seasonal allergies. Here’s a summary:

  • For best results, don’t wait until symptoms start to take medication
  • Stay indoors whenever possible
  • Keep windows closed and run the AC
  • Wipe pets’ feet, and maybe take off your shoes when you come in to avoid bringing allergens into your home.

I have found pretreating symptoms (over-the-counter antihistamines, in my case) to be most helpful.

Want to dig deeper into subject of Kansas City’s air quality?  This site compiles air quality measurements from cities all over the world, including ours. (Even if you don’t live in Kansas City, it may report about yours, too.) Overall, I think Kansas City’s air quality is thought to be pretty good.

Ragweed vs. goldenrod

Most people know that ragweed causes hay fever, and many know how easy it is to confuse with other plants like solidago, or goldenrod, which blooms around the same time. The internet full of good articles about how to tell the two apart, like this one from The Spruce.

My solidago is about done.

Apparently, ragweed has very fine pollen that gets carried far and wide, unlike goldenrod, which has fat pollen too heavy to be carried by the wind.

Compositae and Other Pollen

Ragweed isn’t the only problem. Children’s Mercy lists five common types of pollen that make people miserable:

Unidentified Pollen7315.34%
Compositae and Other Pollen6914.5%

Compositae refers to plants in the daisy family, like asters. Chenopods include amaranth, pigweed, waterhemp, russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, and kochia. Grass and Unidentified Pollen need no explanation. Although the weed on my patio is not ragweed (the white flowers are the giveaway. Ragweed is yellow), that doesn’t mean I’m not allergic to it. It could be boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum L. or Eupatorium serotinum), which Prairie Nursery calls a late-summer standout. Its white, furry flowers are currently delighting a bunch of bees and wasps.

Ragweed may have peaked, but for those of us sensitive to mold, problems will continue, apparently because mold spores thrive on decaying vegetation (fallen leaves). The dew that wets the grass and soaks our socks also encourages Oomycetes (downy mildews).

Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan)

My Wild Garden: How the garden grew

I still have quite a few flowers. The Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan) and zinnias are late-season brighteners, and I have rose verbena is on its second bloom.

The milkweed was fantastic this year. The recent rain made it flop, but we had at least a month of pink flowers and unbelievable wildlife activity–monarchs, swallowtails, wasps, bees. We loved watching them. I found three monarch caterpillars and hoped to write about their transformation, but I lost them. I don’t know if they survived.

Last year I was discouraged because so many of the tall natives needed staking, but this year I like them better. I relocated some, but realize they support one another when planted thickly.

Some neighbors stopped by the other day and were surprised to see so many plants and flowers in the backyard. Not much is going on in front, and most passers-by don’t realize we’ve got all this great stuff growing back here. (Is that like writing blog posts but not sending a newsletter to let people know about them?) That’s going to change after Saturday, when I pick up my plants.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, thanks for reading!


Missouri Prairie Foundation Native Plant Sale 9/17/22

You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season (KC Star)

Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page

It’s not your imagination; allergy season gets worse every year (Vox)

Kids and springtime allergies:  6 mistakes you might be making (Children’s Mercy)–springtime-allergies/

Air Pollution in Kansas City: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map

How to Identify and Avoid Ragweed (The Spruce)