Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spring Cleanup or "Dang, my back hurts...."

Spring cleanup in the landscape can be a tedious chore as we work to remove the previous season's growth in an effort to make things more presentable for the coming growing season. I can't help but think that our human desire for the neat and tidy makes this job harder than it should be. If we could just relax a little, the chore might not be as hard and the ecological benefits could be greatly increased.

A prairie-themed landscape bed at the Waverly Intermediate School - before cleanup.
Something that's always bothered me is how we tend to haul away so much of the spent herbaceous material that we cut down. Putting it in a compost bin is one thing, but hauling it to a landfill is clearly working against natural processes that would normally break the material down and return its minerals and other elements back to the soil right where it grew. We've also learned that many important insects are overwintering as eggs or other forms in this material and we are effectively hauling them away as well. Not good.

In an effort to be more ecologically responsible, build the soil, reduce energy inputs, aid insects and mostly reduce some of the hard work, I like to try and leave as much of last year's perennial material in place as I clean up. It would be nice to use fire to burn the matter back and break it down quickly, but since that is rarely possible in a community setting, I try to do the next best thing and shred it down as fine as possible. My tools of choice include a mower, an industrial wheeled string trimmer and a hand held string trimmer often fitted with a steel blade.

After my patented "three step" cleanup method.
For prairie themed gardens that might include many thick or stringy stems prairie grasses and other robust plants, I often start with the bladed trimmer to knock things down. I then go over the entire area with the wheeled trimmer to shred and shorten the stems enough that they'll fit under a mower. I then go over the area with a mulching mower to reduce the debris even further. This typically leaves the planting area with a one to two inch layer of chopped herbaceous mulch that breaks down fairly quickly over the coming summer.

Tools of choice.
This kind of maintenance doesn't leave the perfectly tidy look that most people prefer, but I've figured out over the years that once things start growing again in earnest, its really hard to tell the difference from more manicured landscapes. Short of using fire or grazing animals, this is the next best thing to mimicking the natural process of Mother Nature that I have found. I do hope that some day someone will invent the "Brush Gorilla 2000" - an all-in-one robotic machine that I can turn loose on a planting and it watch it do all the work while I watch the ball game and drink a cold beer. On second thought, maybe that's not a good idea.

Justin Evertson

Monday, February 20, 2017

Gayfeathers and Blazing Stars

If you’re looking for pollinator-friendly prairie wildflowers you can’t beat the gayfeathers. Also called blazing stars, these butterfly magnets are known for their “feathery” pink to lavender (sometimes white) flower spikes that sit on stiff stems covered with slender, grass-like leaves. Their featheriness is often more pronounced in the fall after the flower-spikes transform into fuzzy white to light-grey seed heads that dramatically extend the ornamental benefits of gayfeathers well into cold weather.
Dotted Gayfeather - Liatris punctata

There are over 40 different species of gayfeather (genus Liatris) across the eastern two-thirds of North America including seven species native to Nebraska and the surrounding Great Plains. All gayfeathers help feed and shelter a wide variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects as well as several species of small birds. Butterflies attracted to blazing stars include monarchs, swallowtails, skippers, sulphurs, hairstreaks, fritillaries, painted ladies and red admirals among others. No pollinator garden is complete without one or more species of Liatris and here are six that deserve to be planted with abundance in our region.
Buckeye on Liatris
Monarch on Meadow Blazing Star

Rough Gayfeather (Liatris aspera) was relatively common in the tallgrass prairie of the central US including eastern Nebraska. Also called button snakeroot, the plant grows 2-3’ tall and is distinguished by its zigzag flower clusters that resemble small brussels-sprouts before they open in late summer. The species name "aspera" is Latin for "rough," which refers to the short stiff hairs on the central stem and the narrow basal leaves, which are very rough. 

Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis) is primarily native to the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains where it is also known as Rocky Mountain blazing star. It’s also native to very southeast Nebraska and parts of Missouri. Meadow blazing star is similar to rough gayfeather, but with more widely spaced flower bracts.

Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata) is one of the most common gayfeathers across the central US and occurs in nearly every county in Nebraska. Named for the dot like bumps on its leaves, this species grows from a taproot that can reach 15’ deep giving it amazing drought tolerance. Dotted gayfeather is a shorter species often blooming on 6-10” stems in the western part of its range while reaching up to 2’ tall in the east.  The flowering period is late, typically from late summer to frost.  

Dotted Gayfeather in Kimball County

Thickspike Gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) is a majestic species of the tallgrass prairie known for its spectacular spikes of tightly bunched lavender flowers growing atop 4-5’ tall stems. The plant is native to southeast Nebraska and goes by many common names including prairie blazing star, button snakeroot, cattail gayfeather and Kansas gayfeather. The name pycnostachya is from the Greek for "crowded" referring to the densely crowed flowers which begin blooming at the top and work their way down the stem.
Thickspike Gayfeather in Union Plaza, Lincoln

Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa) is more of a southern plains and southeast US native but is also found in Nebraska’s Sandhills and northern tier counties. Named for its distinctive scaly and elongated flower bracts, this blazing star grows up to 2’ tall and blooms in late summer. Scaly blazing star is typically found on hot, sunny and barren soils making it a good choice for Xeriscape plantings and rock gardens.

Spike Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) is actually an eastern US native typically found in moist meadows and marshy areas. Also called dense blazing star, button snakewort, and marsh blazingstar, this plant is perhaps the most common gayfeather sold in garden centers, often under cultivar names like ‘Kobold’ and ‘Floristan Violet’. Similar in appearance to Liatris pycnostachya this species can grow 3-5’ tall and typically blooms in late summer and fall. Spike gayfeather is a good choice for rain gardens and other moist areas.

Justin Evertson

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ten Trees to Plant More Of        
For those who haven’t heard, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) has been found in Nebraska. More information on the insect can be found all over the internet (including http://nfs.unl.edu/nebraska-eab) but suffice it to say that EAB has been heading our way for the last 10-15 years and it has now begun its devastation of Nebraska’s 40 million+ ash trees, including over a million planted in communities. It’s too early to say how quickly EAB will move across the state (it doesn’t move very fast unless hitching a ride with humans), but forestry experts expect it will kill most of the state’s ash trees in the coming years.

One strategy to help deal with the problem is to begin earnestly planting new trees that will be ready to take the place of our ash trees as they go away. It’s important to remember that species diversity is the key to a healthy and resilient community forest. Ideally no single species should make up more than 10% of a community’s tree canopy and yet many Nebraska towns are overstocked with just a few species, including green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). To help whet the appetite, here are ten underutilized species that grow about the same size as ash and which deserve to be planted more.

Bur Oak in North Platte, Nebraska
1. Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa): As bold as the prairie-land it comes from, the bur oak is a wide-spreading tree that shrugs off the worst of our climate extremes including drought. The tree supports an incredible variety of wildlife and generally lives much longer than most trees when properly planted and cared for. One of the best things about bur oak is its shade-casting ability. Though only growing 50-60’ tall it can grow up to 100’ wide when room allows and shading an entire back yard.

2. Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is nearly as tough and adaptable as bur oak, but is a more upright tree growing 50-60’ tall and 40-50’ wide. This woefully underused tree is named for it unique chestnut-like leaves.

3. Elms (Ulmus spp). There are several new disease-resistant elms available that are easy to establish, fast growing and which cast good shade. Better types include Princeton American elm, Triumph elm, David elm and Frontier elm among others. Elms are pioneering species that generally won’t live as long as an oak, but our communities need such species as well. Size ranges from 50-80’ tall and 50-80’ wide depending on type.

Pecan in Kearney, Nebraska
4. Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is one of the best trees for general landscape use, growing fast and tall and tolerating a wide range of soil conditions and weather extremes. Although it produces those delicious nuts, the pecan is generally not messy as the squirrels and birds clean them up about as fast as they mature. Ultimate size is 60-80’ tall and 40-50’ wide.

5. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis). Native to the oak woodlands of eastern Nebraska, the bitternut hickory has proven to be relatively tolerant of urban conditions. The tree is great for wildlife, turns a pleasing yellow in the fall and grows relatively fast to 50-60’ tall and 30-50’ wide.

Bitternut Hickory fall color
6. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). It seems that everyone wants a maple, especially the many red maple hybrids and cultivars such as ‘Autumn Blaze’ which are quickly becoming over planted. A good alternative is the sugar maple which is actually more acclimated to the Great Plains climate. There are many good cultivars available including the ‘Caddo’ variety from Oklahoma which shows amazing heat and drought tolerance. Sugar maples will grow 40-70’ tall and about as wide.

Caddo Sugar Maple fall color
7. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a tough-as-nails Great Plains native that is relatively common in communities throughout the region. It used to be planted in great abundance, but fell out of favor in recent decades and thus is slowly disappearing from communities. Although we shouldn’t plant them at the pace we used to, we should always be planting a few of them. Hackberry grows 50-70’ tall and 50-60’ wide.

8. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is native to eastern Nebraska woodlands but is almost never used as a landscape tree. That’s too bad as this tree has a lot to offer including nice spring flowers, good fall color, feeds a variety of birds and other wildlife, is relatively drought tolerant and is fast growing when young. The tree grows bigger than most cherries reaching 40-50’ tall and 25-40’ wide.  

9. Meyer Spruce (Picea meyeri) is very similar in color and form to the Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) but is considered to be more tolerant of high-humidity and warmer nights, which could be a good advantage for this tree as our climate shifts to a generally warmer pattern.

10. Swiss Stone Pine (Pinus cembra) is a five-needle pine native to the Alps of Europe where its large seeds have long been consumed as food. The pine is somewhat reminiscent of the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) commonly found in our area, though not growing nearly as large (typically 30-40’ tall and 20-30’ wide).

There are dozens of species, hybrids and cultivars of trees that have proven adaptable to our region so there is no reason our community forests can’t become much more diverse. A good place to learn more about these species is via the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, either by visiting an affiliate site or by exploring several tree lists available on line at www.plantnebraska.org. 

Justin Evertson, Green Infrastructure Coordinator

Friday, January 27, 2017

Trees vs Prairie

Lincoln Nebraska's community forest from State Capitol looking south.

Trees vs Prairie
I started to write this article about the value of the community forest here in prairie/farm country. But as I started to write, I found myself thinking about the seeming contradiction of the work we do in promoting both trees and native plants in our planted landscapes.  How can we be promoting both prairie and trees when they don’t coexist well? Prairie requires abundant sunshine while the trees grow tall and cast a lot of shade.  They can certainly be in conflict with each other in our communities.

'Hessei' Common Ash - northeast Lincoln
The reason we promote both prairies and trees is that they’re both incredibly important to community vitality and environmental well-being.  It’s a sad reality that most of the tall grass prairie and much of the mixed-grass prairie throughout the central US, including Nebraska, was long ago lost to farming and community development. The prairie was teeming with life and served as a great sponge soaking up the worst of rainstorms while at the same time being incredibly resilient to drought. With loss of prairie came a significant decline in important animal species that rely on the prairie including the Monarch butterfly, regal fritillary butterfly, several bee species, and various birds among many other creatures. In a state like Nebraska, we need to work hard at preserving and restoring prairie all around us, including within communities.

And yet, within our communities, it’s quite clear to me that trees, especially the big ones, are doing treemendous good (pardon the pun) in making our communities more livable. The trees around us provide wildlife habitat, improve stormwater capture and add tremendous visual interest. But most importantly, trees help soften the worst of the Great Plains climate by blocking cold winter winds and by providing shade and cooling relief in the heat of summer. Our utility bills are significantly lower by having trees around us. Just imagine what our communities would feel like without our trees. I would not want to live here if that were the case.
Prairie plants at Union Plaza, Lincoln
I regularly find myself thinking about how to accommodate both prairie and trees in the community. My opinion is that we should work to grow significant tree canopy across our communities while at the same time preserving pockets of open space that can accommodate prairie and other sun-loving perennials and ground covers. Trees should be prominent in residential neighborhoods, especially along streets and on the south and west sides of buildings to take full advantage of their shade. If we’re trying to make our communities walkable and pedestrian friendly, summer shade is incredibly important to that endeavor.
So then where do we put prairie? In most communities, over 80% of the greenspace is mowed throughout the growing season. The rest is landscape beds, gardens or shaded areas. A great opportunity exists to take a sizable portion of the mowed ground (lawns) across a community and restore at least some of it to prairie. It’s hard to mimic true prairie in relatively dense housing areas, but many prairie plants lend themselves well to use in traditional landscape plantings. In sunny pockets where we might have planted roses, daylilies and catmint, we could instead plant some little bluestem, sideoats grama, prairie coneflower and gayfeather.
However, the best opportunities for more meaningful prairie exist on larger properties especially public spaces like roadsides (ROW), parks, school grounds, cemeteries and golf courses. Private acreages and larger commercial properties also lend themselves well to a prairie-style landscape. In these larger areas, it would be possible to plant native species so that they truly mimic a natural prairie. Dozens if not hundreds of species could be utilized and the ground could be managed by mowing, haying, grazing or possibly even by burning.
We really do need to make an effort at including more prairie in our communities. With over 98% of tall-grass prairie already lost, our community landscapes can become refuges for prairie plants and the many important insects, birds and other wildlife that they support. But let’s also keep working hard at the tree side of the equation.