PRAIRIEFORM

Everyday excursions in the urban landscape

Plants as magnets for the good and bad

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Observing the Joppa Avenue Landscape in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for bees, butterflies, and bunnies
Lounging and observing the laboratory

The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.

Here is our run-down:

BEE/POLLINATOR MAGNETS
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source

MONARCH MAGNETS
Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it

RABBIT MAGNETS
Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims

Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.

John Kamp

New artifacts, new ruins

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Bug hotel and habitat for solitary bees in the Netherlands.
A bug hotel in Hoofddorp, Netherlands

We like to think of how bug hotels might become contemporary artifacts. If many generations from now someone came upon this structure, in the middle of a clearing – or perhaps amidst woods, if we know anything about plant succession – it would be in some state of decay, with plants growing within and out of it, and they would have to deduce what it meant and what it was for. If they did their sleuthing well, they would surmise that despite a propensity for humans at that time to work against the forces of nature, there were perhaps a small few who in their own odd and idealistic ways tried to push the tide in the other direction, and so they created these structures, to house the little critters being crowded out by so many greater forces. Or perhaps by that time these critters had won, and thus this bug hotel was only a remnant, a thing they no longer needed, as the world had once again become theirs?

Bug hotels

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bug wall, bug hotel, landscape design, habitat, pollinators, bees, colony collapse

One of the biggest shifts in landscape design and creation in the past decade has been a move away from creating spaces that are exclusively for humans or exclusively for wildlife and towards making spaces that accommodate for both. Enter the bug hotel, or bug wall (shown above). These structures not only serve as sculpture and structure within the landscape but double as habitat for all manner of bugs, amphibians, and other little critters. They also give the effect of a new kind of human artifact that says much about the turbulent but hopeful times we are living in. For an exhaustive look at bug hotels around the world, click here. For information on construction, click here.

Diversity does not mean ‘native only’

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nepeta x faasenii 'walker's low', prairieform, joppa avenue landscape, pollinators, diversity, native plants, landscapes, landscape design
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ with a mix of other cultivars and prairie natives in the Joppa Avenue Landscape

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that pollinators are drawn to areas with a diverse variety of flowering plants they enjoy dining on. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report on the matter, and the findings further underscore the importance of plant diversity for encouraging pollinator subsistence and survival. However, some have seen fit to take this evidence and create a causal relationship that the research conclusions do not: plant only native plants, as if ‘diversity’ and ‘native plants’ were one and of the same. They are not. Rather, diversity, simply implies a large array of plant species that, in this case, are concentrated in one area that pollinators like. Plant 100 plants endemic to your region but then add one cultivar that pollinators also love, and just by sheer numbers you have created more plant diversity in your landscape than one with just those 100 native plants alone.

We take Nepeta x faasenii ‘Walker’s Low’ as a case in point. In the Joppa Avenue Landscape (which has become a bit of a testing grounds for the plants we choose to use or not use in other landscapes we do) we have planted over 15 Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ interspersed with other cultivars, and plants of the Minnesota prairie. Since the Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ began blooming over two weeks ago (while none of the plants of the Minnesota prairie we have planted have yet), we have observed in considerable numbers the following flocking to the plants: over five kinds of soliary bee, various varieties of hoverfly, honeybees, multiple varieties of bumble bee, hummingbird moths, hummingbirds, ants, and pollinating wasps. And no, we didn’t somehow trick them into coming to the plants; they came of their own accord. The plants have served both as an early source of color and a wonderful stand-in for pollinators before the huge flush of native plants of the prairie make their big emphemeral show in July.

One could make the argument that cultivars and exotics end up “crowding out” native species and thus should be avoided. We do buy this argument in the case of a habitat restoration project; in a garden or landscape settting, however, we do not. Gardens and landscapes are by their very nature intentional spaces and the human hand in their creation is real and always evident (even however slight at times). As such they are enhanced or magnified versions of nature, containing groupings and mixings of plants designed to please the eye and that would not otherwise occur in a purely natural setting left to its own devices. Cultivars and exotics are not breaking any proverbial “rules” by their presence in the landscape. Additionally, It is a misperception that most cultivars and exotics are invasive and/or weedy. University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Horticulture Jeff Gillman conceded this point recently in a column on native plants in the StarTribune. “There are many exotics, such as Japanese maples and most crops, that are well-behaved and stay right where they’re placed,” said Gillman. Added to that list would also be Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low.’ It won’t spontaneously take over your landscape with seedlings sprouting up everywhere but will simply grow in the place where you have planted it. And there are many more like this that are well-behaved and attract endless numbers of pollinators when many native plants of the prairie aren’t in bloom.

At the end of the day we are really advocating for people to graduate from the notion that landscapes can only be one of two things: all cultivars and exotics, or all native. As if there was nothing in between. There is, and the research on plant diversity in the landscape supports such hybrid, mixed landscapes. Finding the right mix depends on the particular landscape, the tastes of its creator, and the type of wildlife you seek to attract.

So, plant and landscape enthusiasts the world over, go forth, diversify, mix, and be merry.

Wildlife-friendly an approach, not a style

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The prevailing wild, somewhat unkempt, style of the wildlife-friendly landscape

“I get immensely frustrated with the notion in the Phoenix area that a garden that uses a healthy dose of native and/or desert-adapted species must be planted in a naturalistic style. It certainly does not, and although that is a fashionable and certainly pleasing style, it is only that – one style.” – Mary Irish

The prevailing opinion amongst so many proponents of the wildlife-friendly landscape is that the landscape must look “wild” in order to be wild. However, what we know about attracting wildlife to a landscape – particularly pollinators – is that these critters have few opinions regarding design and aesthetics. We take native bees and their tastes as a case in point: they don’t like pavement and they seek diversity, namely a diversity of pollen sources. That diversity of sources can be arranged in a grid, in rows, or along another such geometric pattern. Or it could be a hybrid of a more rigid and a more relaxed structural approach. Whatever the case, the bees ultimately don’t care as long as they have plenty to pick from and from spring through fall. In this way, wildlife-friendly, or pollinator-friendly, is not an aesthetic or style but rather an approach to landscape creation. The style, on the other hand, is the personality one infuses into that landscape. Wild and rambling is a style; gridded and modern is a style. Neither is more valid than the other and each and everything in between could be merged with a wildlife-friendly approach to landscape creation, with the end result being the same: wildlife in your landscape.

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