Road Trips: Visiting Three Great Gardens Open to the Public

I haven’t written much this summer, but I’ve been thinking about gardening the whole time. Our travels took us north, to cooler weather, and gave us the opportunity to visit some wonderful gardens that are open to the public.

The first of these was the Allen Centennial Garden, a smallish “teaching” garden on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This garden surrounds a house, the Queen Anne-style (sometimes called Victorian or Gothic) Agricultural Dean’s Residence.

Although this is a public garden, the presence of the house gives it a residential feel, and helped me envisage how the plantings could work in a yard. The garden has six areas. Some emphasize different design styles, and “trace the origins of modern garden design, from the formal and romantic to the whimsical, exuberant, and ecological.” These include Japanese, New American, French and Italian, and English gardens. Other areas emphasize plant adaptations that allow them to survive in unusual conditions: Rock Garden, Pond Garden, Gravel Garden, and Dwarf Conifer Garden. If you’re curious, this video from a 2012 episode of The Wisconsin Gardener shows more.

Something about this segment seems dated to me, I’m not sure what exactly—although they talk about some then-trends that are now familiar, like square foot gardening. I wonder which of the practices we’re excited about now will seem dated in ten years.

Someone posted this wonderful image on Facebook in the Kansas City Area Gardening Group. Where did it come from originally? I searched Google Images but couldn’t discover the source.

Next our travels us took us to Denver, where we visited the Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street Location. These twenty-four acres feature many themed gardens, countless collections, and millions of plants.

There’s also a tropical conservatory, worth visiting any time of year. 

Denver Botanic was my favorite of the gardens I visited this summer, but strangely, I don’t have much to say about it. It’s a mature organization, as we say about nonprofits, operating at a high level and involved in many horticultural and ecological initiatives. With so much to look at, I stopped taking notes just took pictures.

One of my favorite sights was of three friends, gray-haired women in their seventies, celebrating one’s birthday at a spot overlooking the Monet Pool. They decorated their picnic table with a Pierre Deux tablecloth, silver cutlery, and floral centerpiece, and they toasted their celebrant with rosé in Reidel glasses. Charmed, I thought of Karen Blixen arriving in Kenya with her china.

Monet Pool

Here’s a tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, be sure to reserve tickets in advance. As of this writing, tickets are not available at the door.

When we were in Vail a few days later, we stopped at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. At 8,200 feet, these bill themselves as the highest botanical gardens in the world, with 19 areas showcasing plants from alpine regions including the Eastern Himalayas, Patagonia, and the Scottish Highlands. However, the focus is primarily on the Rocky Mountain West. A gravel trail takes visitors up, down, and through the different areas, over man-made waterfalls and bridges.

I give this garden extra credit for their excellent signs, which give the plant’s Latin botanical name, popular name, and place of origin.

While we were there, the Ford Amphitheater next door hosted an “exclusive donor event,” a brunch, for patrons of the Vail Dance Festival, which took place while we were there. Former First Lady Betty Ford was passionate about dance, even serving as an understudy for Martha Graham, who called her a “very great gift to us in America.” 

A walk through this garden mimics the feeling of being on a hike above treeline, but takes less exertion. I prefer taking the hike, but appreciate the help identifying the many tiny plants that survive in those inhospitable conditions. I have a great wildflower handbook but seldom stop to consult it when hiking.

The prospect of gardening in poor soil without supplemental water is something more of us will have to face in the future. Did you seen Margaret Roach’s recent column about Crevice Gardening? It features many images from the Denver Botanic Gardens. I wonder if she took the same trip I did.

Why You Should Try Crevice Gardening: ‘This Is the Future’

Now we’re back home, and fortunately not too many plants died in the heat, although some did. This is a good time of year for my wild garden, with the rudbeckia blooming, and blue wasps, bees, and butterflies buzzing around the milkweed. I can report that Rabbit Scram did not work, but fencing off the beds did. Next up, I have big plans for fall planting season. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed) in my yard!

Bright spots in a tough week: free plants and progress fighting pests

Today’s post reports on two developments: how I came into more free plants and some progress fighting pests. Regular readers of this blog know I loathe spending money on annuals, so I was excited yesterday when I visited the Kauffman Gardens (where they’ve ripped out most of the mostly native bed along the north wall, I don’t know why). I discovered a bin full of discarded annuals in the parking lot.

They were pot-bound and yellow-leaved, no doubt rejected for that reason, but other than that seemed fine. I filled a flat with zinnias, salvia, and flowering vinca and—because walking across the Plaza carrying a flat of flowers seemed eccentric, even for me—came back to get them later and helped myself to a second flat.

Why should I have all the luck? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some plan for these, some way for anyone interested to take advantage of this bounty? An announcement someplace, or a volunteer willing to provide the necessary TLC and re-home them?

I planted them in the bare patch by our front sidewalk—a spot so hard-baked even weeds don’t grow. Voilà. Instant garden! They already look happy to be freed from their little pots.

They’re not exactly the look I’m going for, but they’re better than the bare dirt. What is the look I’m going for? Right now I have the garden equivalent of a garage sale, with stuff I’ve found, stuff I’ve been given, stuff I’d just as soon throw away. I’ll have more to say about this as the fall planting season approaches.

I will say that just about everything I’ve sown from seed this year has been eaten by rabbits—which brings me to my next topic, pests. You may have read my earlier post about the reproductive cycle of rabbits. In our yard baby rabbits are like plastic balls on a trampoline, shooting in every direction. The current crop of kits are so tiny, they easily slip through the holes in the wire mesh I’ve put around everything and munch the plants down to stalks. They even ate the hyacinth bean, which was leafing out so nicely and twining around its trellis. I don’t know how they managed to get to this sunflower. They’re like Houdini.

I tried so hard to protect this from rabbits!

I’ve lost coneflowers, rudbeckia, lilies, marigolds and zinnias, phlox, larkspur, and asters. (Some of the damage may be due to chipmunks. I can’t tell.) Dousing plants with animal repellant hasn’t worked, as you can see from this photo.


Yesterday I broke down and spent $30 on Rabbit Scram.

Yes, I won’t spend $4 on full-price petunias but will fork over $30 for a bucket of Rabbit Scram.

Apparently rabbits dislike this mix of dried blood, pepper and garlic, although chipmunks, squirrels, dogs, and flies seem attracted by it.

I haven’t seen a rabbit since I put it down. They were so plentiful before, I almost miss them. Sometimes I struggle to balance my desire to welcome little creatures into the garden with my equally strong desire to see plants survive. Posts on Facebook tell me others struggle with this dilemma, too.

Last week I wrote about the misery of Japanese Beetle season, and I’ll spare you photos of ones I’ve drowned in soapy water. So far that infestation doesn’t seem as bad as in previous summers. I’m reluctant to divulge this, but I tried an experiment that may have helped. Last fall, I was dismayed by the number of grubs I was finding. Little white crescents studded every shovelful of dirt, like blueberries in a muffin. I knew what they were.

Sometimes no-pesticide resolutions can be tough to keep. This is the time of year when lawn services apply grub control, because the adult beetles feeding on our flowers are also laying eggs, and the eggs turn into grubs. I have two unopened bags of Bug Blaster sitting my garage that I don’t want to use. Looking for alternatives, I learned about Milky Spore and parasitic nematodes. I decided to try grubHALT! from Gardens Alive, which contains BTG, “a naturally occurring soil organism that is harmless to people, pets, bees and birds.” I discovered it in Joe Lamp’l’s article Japanese Beetle Prevention and Control. I am not recommending it; I’m just saying I tried it.

Did it help? I think it did. The one grub I dug up yesterday when I was planting those zinnias reminded me how plentiful they were last fall. I’m picking tens of beetles off the hibiscus, grape, and astilbe—but not hundreds. Of course, I can’t get rid of them entirely. They fly in from other places. But so far, we’re holding steady. We don’t have the turf damage we’ve had in previous years, and we still have plenty of flowers. I think trimming off any beetle-damaged foliage is a good idea because I understand that some chemical in the beetles’ saliva attracts more to the spot.

Bee on a coneflower

Wherever I’ve found beetles, I also find bees. This summer has been great for them, and for other insects. Maybe that’s a little cause for optimism? I’ve seen fireflies, hummingbird moths, cloudless sulphur butterflies, and Monarchs laying eggs. Everyone stresses the importance of accepting a few damaged plants, knowing that not-spraying saves more life in the long run. Ecology is is a long game. Evidence of changing attitudes is all around. Did you see the Rewilding Britain Landscape that won gold and the overall Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?

With a little encouragement, good ideas can spread.

I hope you all have a fun, safe Independence Day. Thanks for reading.


Missouri whine: meet the beetles

What I love best about June is nectarines and getting out on a lake, although here in the garden it’s a busy time. We’ve entered the pruning-watering-weeding time of year, with fabulous, abundant life existing alongside heartbreak and disappointment.

Someone on Facebook posted yesterday that he’d seen his first Japanese beetle of the year, and today I found mine. (I drowned it.) More are on the way. They turn up around the first week of July and devour, if not everything, then a lot of things. They’re kind of biblical. In our garden they prey on roses, hibiscus, and a grapevine.

That’s a grape growing along the back fence. We planted it around the same time the beetles first arrived in the area, 2014 according to the Star, so they’ve grown up alongside each other. Grapes grow well here. After eating dinner at a friend’s table beneath a pergola with bunches of grapes dripping down, we were entranced. Around that time, I was going through old issues of Gourmet, reading the articles I’d skipped originally while looking for chicken recipes, and discovered this exhaustive Wine Journal piece by Gerald Asher from April 1993.

The article and the purchase it inspired. Experts recommend aging Norton 8-10 years, so we should have drunk this 7 years ago.

This article, called “The Return of the Native: Missouri’s Vintage Grape,” deserves more comment. Asher visits Hermann, Missouri’s Stone Hill Winery and enthuses about the Nortons, saying, “I was astonished to find the wines so remarkably good. They were more meaty than fruity, with something of the Rhone about them.” Asher then recounts the history of viticulture in the Midwest, beginning in the early 1800s in Ohio, followed by the establishment of Hermann’s vineyards in the 1830s by German settlers fleeing “revolutionary disturbances.” A first, two kinds of grapes, Catawba and Norton, vied for predominance. Catawba was used to produce a sparkling wine, while Nortons are rich reds: “an indigenous American grape that might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.” Winemakers produced sparkling wines from Catawba quickly, while Norton requires aging for four to five years—“as do most potentially great red wines”—so early growers emphasized Catawba to maximize profits. However, Catawba is vulnerable to mildew and rot, common conditions in our humid summers, while Norton is tougher, better suited to our weather extremes. Ultimately, Norton won out, and in the 1870s, wines produced in Hermann were winning gold medals in international competitions.

Missouri’s wine industry never fulfilled its early promise. Labor costs and the temperance movement chipped away until the passing of the 18th Amendment finally killed it. Plus ça change. Asher describes links between Prohibition and racial prejudice, showing how the movement exploited anti-German sentiment. Reborn in 1965, Missouri vineyards have continued to grow, although slowly. While it may not have the cachet of a tour of Napa, visiting Hermann is definitely a thing, as the drunks I sat with on the Amtrak during Oktoberfest can attest. Asher says this:

Tens of thousands of visitors come to the town every year, and, although they arrive expecting little more than a jolly picnic, a hop to a polka band, and a few bottles to take home, most leave with a greater appreciation of the state of Missouri; possibly with a broader feel for its history; and, especially at the time of the fall grape harvest festivals, with indelible memories of the Missouri River valley’s beauty.

(Read more about Missouri grape varietals on the Missouri Wine website. If you’d like to read Asher’s entire article, let me know in the comments and I’ll send you a pdf.)

So, what does all this have to do with gardening? Energized by this new knowledge, we bought this Vitis labrusca ‘Reliance’ at Soil Service. (These are table grapes, for eating, not for winemaking.) My husband built a trellis along the south end of our yard, we planted the grape, then sat back and waited for our vine to bear fruit.

The south end of the yard does not get as much sun as I’d anticipated, and the grape struggled. The west side is shaded by the neighbor’s oak leaf hydrangea, so it’s kind of spindly there. The east side is sunnier, so it grew in that direction. I don’t know why, but this year it found its moxie and has sprawled beyond the trellis onto the fence.

The vine is bare for much of the year, which isn’t great to look at, but it leafs out nicely every spring and big clusters of green grapes begin to form. The birds and I watch them carefully as they ripen. Then, all of a sudden, they vanish. In all these years, have never eaten a grape grown on this vine.

So much promise

This is happening now. The back fence has been twitching with birds lately, finches and cardinals. I thought the feeders had attracted them, but went out to take a look and found the great green bunches growing.

For the last two or three summers I’ve tented them with black tulle. Tulle is the net fabric used to make ballet tutus, and I bought a bolt for about twenty dollars. The holes are too small for the beetles to pass through, and birds can’t penetrate them, either. I tossed the fabric over the blueberries this week to protect them from the birds, so you can see what it looks like.

It’s not the toughest fabric and has deteriorated in the sun, so it’s shrinking in size as I cut off damaged sections. The blueberry looks like a ghost. Nevertheless, the tulle is pretty effective against beetles and birds, and if those were the only pests, I’d recommend it.

But those aren’t our only pests.


While birds and beetles bombard from above, chipmunks climb up and chow down on those grapes. A quick internet search turns up many suggestions for controlling chipmunks, so I suspect none work. We ran into this recently with Carpenter bees, which were tunneling into our porch roof. I was going to write a post saying I’d found the perfect pesticide-free remedy, but nothing deterred them. Squirting citrus oil just agitated them. Plugging the holes with steel wool meant cleaning clumps of steel wool off the porch every morning. I think if something really works, there will be a consensus. Everyone will mention it. That’s not the case with chipmunk strategies.

Besides, the grapes have another, more insidious problem. Black Rot is a fungal disease that mummifies the fruit, shriveling it and turning it black. Probably this is the “mildew and rot” Asher blames for destroying the early grape industry in Ohio. Apparently it is controllable with appropriate pruning and properly applied fungicide, neither of which I have done.

Let It Be

This morning I snipped off the clusters that had black spots, and tied paper bags around the ones that didn’t. I know, this will not work. I’ve tried the paper bag method before. The birds (or squirrels) just slash them open. The best thing to do, at this point, is nothing. I’m going to sit on my hands and watch the critters eat, enjoy the things that aren’t having problems, read up about pruning, and dream about next year.

Bed without serious problems (yet): hosta, brunnera, geranium, penstemon, Stachys ‘Hummelo’


“Japanese beetles have finally arrived in KC.” Kansas City Star. June 17, 2022.

Gerald Asher. “Wine Journal: The Return of the Native Missouri’s Vintage Grape.” Gourmet. April 1993. 42-48, 252-253.


Black Rot.

Ellis, Michael A. Controlling Grape Black Rot in Home Fruit Plantings. Department of Plant Pathology The Ohio State University/OARDC.

Late spring topics: peonies, rogue trees, and new plants

I haven’t written about my own garden for a while and I thought that, since so much is blooming, this would be a good time for an update.

About to bloom 
And exhale a rainbow
The peony! 
– Buson 

Peonies: roses without thorns

This year has been great for peonies. I was going to write a research paper-type post about them, but found this site that answers all my questions.

This blog for a nursery in Connecticut goes deep into subjects like the etymology of the name peony, peonies in Chinese and Japanese art, medicinal uses, and a list of notable of collections in the US. The list includes the tree peonies at the Linda Hall Library.

Bradford pears: “rogue” trees

Last week my semester ended, I hopped on a plane for a short trip to the Bay Area.

Proof we were really there

We came home to this.

While we were gone, this Bradford, or Callery, pear fell on our house. We’re lucky. Nothing was damaged; no one was hurt. Today we’re getting rid of the tree entirely.

I understand there have been some metro-wide (both Missouri and Kansas) programs that encourage people to chop down their Bradford pears by offering a native tree as a replacement. Called the “Callery Pear Buy-back Event,” sponsored by the Missouri Invasive Plant Council, the idea is that someone cuts down their Callery pear, submits a picture of themselves standing by the stump, and they can get a free native tree, such as serviceberry, river birch, green hawthorn, or chinkapin oak. This story from KCUR explains the program, as well as the problems associated with the trees, in more detail. (Check out the images showing how quickly the trees have spread.) They call them “rogue trees.”

I’m afraid the deadline has already passed for 2022, but this nuisance tree is still worth getting rid of, as our experience shows.

Good news: new plants

I tried growing several things from seed this year and I’m happy to report some success. These foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) aren’t native, but I stuck the seeds in some dirt last spring and waited.  They don’t flower until the second year, but here it is, year two, and they look great (although they’re taller than I thought they ‘d be). I hope I can move them after they finish blooming, as I understand the foliage looks scraggly as they go to seed.

Forest of foxgloves

I also have these experiments going: Penstemon ‘Dazzler blend,’ “a wonderful dwarf”; Verbena ‘Brazilian Vervain,’ and Salvia ‘Blue Victory.’

Here they are in real life.

To achieve rhythm and repetition, a garden requires many plants. Many plants require lots of money–unless they don’t.

One thing I’ve learned, if you have friends who garden with native plants, and if you walk by while they’re outside working, they may give you plants. This is what happened last week when I walked by my friend Richard’s. He was busy pulling an invasive pea-looking thing out of his poppy mallow and we got to talking. The natives on his property are happy, some too happy, which turned out well for me. I came home with Eastern Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), spiderwort, and Bottlebrush Blazing Star.

Richard’s plants are much more developed than the ones I bought at plant sales this spring. See how the other amsonia looks kind of sickly in the foreground? His have blooms. I transplanted them on a hot day, and they didn’t even wilt.

Then I was wishing for something tall and viney to cover a bare area along a fence when my neighbor Carole offered me Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia tomentosa). It sounds delightful but will need a stout support, so I’m waiting to transplant until I’ve built one.

I like the idea that gardening is taking place outside the domain of commerce and money, the usual ways we assign value. These gifts made me so happy, I’m resolved to pay things forward by giving away some seedlings of my own. I have Sweet Coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), which is great but tall; Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), also tall; and oregano I just can’t seem to eliminate. I’m going to leave these on a table later today at the park at 50th and Rainbow.

Tomorrow I plan to visit the Union Hill Garden Tour, one of my favorites. Perhaps I’ll see you. Thanks for reading!



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 – a conversation with Mackenzie Adkins

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.