We’re finally feeling some hot days in the Kansas Flint Hills. In the Meadow, we have already cut back growth three times, in an effort to keep weeds in check as the native species grow in. I describe this to passerbys as allowing the growth above ground to catch up to the growth underground. Many studies have shown the effective growth pattern of perennial native prairie species, which tend to first put down deep roots to ensure survival, rather than showy growth above ground in the first season.
Thanks to the heat wave, I had a chance to reconnect with the Meadow while watering Saturday morning. Watering time allows me to closely observe species growth, to reflect on Meadow maintenance, and to observe visitors to campus using the newly installed Meadow Benches. In the morning, several people came through and paused on the benches; traces left by other visitors were evident. I had taken this photo the evening before:
Over the past week, I noted three new species in flower: pitcher sage, butterfly milkweed, and wild petunia.
Beyond watering (which has been occasional since August–just in response to the sustained, dry heat) and cutting back, some other maintenance is needed. We will put out a call for volunteers, soon, asking for those who may be willing to gingerly hand weed from the edges of paths. Hand weeding is an excellent chance to learn plant identification. For the upcoming volunteer day, we will have at least two K-Staters on hand to help identify native plants. Stay tuned for date and time.
In closing, please join me in making this week a grassroots “grounds crew appreciation week.” The Meadow benefits greatly from the continued guidance of Joe Myers, KSU Physical Plant Supervisor, Facilities Grounds Maintenance. He and his colleagues have helped the project in numerous ways through their generosity of knowledge, time, and skill. These are some of the people who make our campus beautiful.
Dispatch from the Meadow on a rainy day: Despite the weeds (weed tree seedlings and pigweed–amaranth–being the most noticeable), quite a bit of positive growth is occurring for native plants. Grasses seen taking hold include little bluestem, american beakgrain, and hairy wild rye. Forb juveniles seen in abundance include the annual plains coreopsis (which will bloom, even if we top it off, due to lateral growth), sweet coneflower, purple coneflower, and purple prairie clover.
Of our very recently seeded edges, the buffalo grass germinated almost immediately–many small seedlings can be seen. Now we need some good, hot weather to help it grow! Meadow-helpers Troy and Richard seeded the buffalo edges, along with a swath of side oats grama along the sunny part of the ‘humped edge.’ Allow me to explain what the ‘humped edge’ is: the northwestern edge of the side, most prone to erosion, is still protected by a compost berm created by piling up sod stripped from the site. Side oats grama was also seeded around the water connection, to restore the area disturbed by a leak and then replacement of the hookup. The side oats grama has germinated well and is filling in. Our erosion control measures continue to hold up well.
The last area to be planted will be the shady edges, which include several areas, one being the compost berm nearest the museum. Typically, we would not plant the cool season natives of this mix in high summer. Had I known we’d be seeing 60s and 70s in July, I might have tried it! But a more rationale approach is to seed these areas in the fall.
We had a surprise last week: learned that a new utility may be routed through the Meadow site in the spring. We have received assurance that any disturbance will be restored. Apparently the need for this utility came up rather quickly, in the last two months. I will keep you posted as we learn more.
The plan for August is to weed wack the lushest areas back to about six inches high, in order to control weedy growth. Also, hand weeding from the edges will be done, strictly for cosmetic purposes. So in about two weeks, it should look a bit more tidy. Please keep in mind and pass the word that “messiness” is part of the game in the first two years. We knew this, expected it, and will manage weeds with planned mows and weed whacking while the native plants slowly grow in. Case in point: A typical little bluestem juvenile can put down 2 feet of roots in the first year, even though above ground it may only grow to 4 or 5 inches.
Last but not least at all, two architecture students have been busy working on custom benches from the hackberry logs under the guidance of LARCP faculty, Josh Cheek. The benches will be minimalist forms featuring the beauty of the hackberry grain. Photos of the raw logs and the work in progress will follow in another post, soon!
Three weeks since broadcast seeding two custom mixes of native plant seed (one for shade, one for sun), there are signs if germination and growth at the Meadow.
Several species of seedlings and juvenile plants have been identified, including little bluestem, prairie dropseed, american beakgrain, purple prairie clover, purple coneflower, and plains coreopsis. More are to come in the next week. Thus far, we have identified only those plants we can see from the paths, as we are careful to avoid damaging the young plants by walking in the site.
If you’re on the K-State campus, maybe you have observed our team at work. Since seeding, we have planted about 350 live plant plugs, focusing on areas where the native grasses need an extra boost to out-compete weeds. We have also begun to plant the very edge of the site, focusing on seeding a buffalograss mix at sunny edges. Shady edges will be seeded with a different mix in the fall. In general, current planting and weeding has occurred gingerly from the edges. For now, weeding is limited since we cannot walk over the small native plants.
“So what is the plan to keep weeds in check?” you may wonder. Very soon, in about four weeks, the site will be mowed to a height of six inches in an effort to suppress many annual weeds by preventing seedhead formation. This mowing will also knock back the tree seedlings we see growing in some areas.
We’ll continue to keep the young, growing plants and their weedy competitors mowed back to six inches throughout this first season. Some desired plants may not emerge until next spring’s greening in mid-May. Next season, we will continue the mowing and may begin more hand weeding, depending upon the hardiness of the native plant stand.
To all who have volunteered, thank you! Your hard work is already paying off.
Katie Kingery-Page is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University. Kingery-Page has studied sculpture, art theory, ecology, and landscape architecture in the United States and Brazil. Her design work includes streetscapes, school yards, and stormwater meadows. Kingery-Page is focused upon art as a mode of knowledge for landscape architects, meaning both humanities research and design as a conceptual art practice.
Living in northeast Kansas can be a constant aesthetic and intellectual experience with the Flint Hills. The tallgrass prairie landscape of the Flint Hills is rare, globally-speaking, and is both challenging and satisfying, aesthetically. The Flint Hills (and indeed other grasslands) challenge conventional wisdom regarding landscape aesthetics. For decades, professional evaluation of a landscape’s scenic value (such as that conducted by the National Forest Service) has been based upon notions of diverse visual experiences.
Quoting the Forest Service Manual, a “Class A” landscape scores high in the “…visual perception attributes of variety, unity, vividness, intactness, coherence, mystery, uniqueness, harmony, balance, and pattern.” While “variety” and “vividness” in landscape scenes may work very well as criteria for evaluating forest, mountain or seaside landscape, I argue that these criteria are inherently less relevant to the aesthetics of the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills can be understood as scenes of unity, intactness, and subtlety.
When observing the Flint Hills up-close (the immersive experience of walking through the grassland) what strikes me is the bodily experience of topography and the limitless complexity of tallgrass species which hold in tension visual unity and (yes) variety: look ahead and see a unified sea of grasses and forbs, look down and see the many structures of individual species. This tension of unity and complexity is what my colleagues and I have begun to term “meadow-thinking:” an ability to move seamlessly between the whole and its parts, between detailed concerns and the big picture.
As a native planting designer, I was mentored early in my career by landscape architects, a landscape ecologist, an agronomist, and landscape design professionals. I mention my mentors because I value the informal learning that occurs when designing and building landscapes. The first native plants establishment I designed and helped to install (advised by Dr. Tim Keane and Dr. Clenton Owensby) is a large seeded and plugged landscape near Olathe, Kansas, now in its sixth season of growth. This planted prairie gives a hint of what’s to come in the Meadow.
As the Meadow at K-State lies dormant, just beginning to show its life through sprouts of new grass and wildflower shoots, it’s difficult to visualize the intended aesthetic of the Meadow. Over the next two years, the Meadow’s maintenance regime will require it to be mowed to six inches height. It won’t be until the Meadow’s third growing season that the aesthetic created by plant selection, planting strategy, and path design will be fully visible.
So, I reveal a bit of the aesthetic intent here. The Meadow at K-State (just through the Beach Museum of Art archway) is designed to be a unified landscape fabric of grasses and wildflowers, all less that 40 inches in height. This fabric is incised with a simple system of crushed limestone paths. The path color will contrast strongly with the green, summer growth of the Meadow, but in fall and winter, the effect will soften as the plants mature to tan and rust colors.
Because the Meadow site is relatively small and surrounded by a diverse scene, a simple, unified design seemed best to achieve our goals. These goals include creating a quiet place for restful contemplation and setting the stage for close observation of plants and processes in the Meadow. Aesthetic decisions have been made in context of the Meadow planning team discussions and charrette, considering diverse viewpoints. Many functional, pragmatic factors (which for sake of focus, I have not discussed here) have affected the team’s decisions. Guiding all decisions has been a conscious appreciation of the minimalist landscape aesthetic of the Fint Hills eco-region.
Last Friday and Saturday, dedicated and generous volunteers enjoyed a morning learning to mix and hand broadcast seed. The weather was hot, but the company was stellar!
Thank you to all our volunteers and participating project team members:
Cornelius A. Hugo
Richard Dean Prudenti
We accomplished seeding the vast majority of the site with 20 different plant species. These species were divided into a sun mix and a shade mix, combined with sawdust to bulk up the mix for proper distribution, and broadcast by hand. The planning team selected a June planting because this timing tends to favor growth of warm season grasses over cool season weeds. The site will now be watered periodically throughout the growing season.
Sunday morning, just hours after seeding, we received plenty of water from a rain and hail storm. A few small areas of seed were washed out by the rain, but most survived. We expect to see the first seedlings in about a month.
Now we need to come up with a name for the Meadow’s volunteer cadre, because it’s clear that involvement with the Meadow may be habit-forming. The Prairie Hearts? Meadow Tenders? …something better? Please post a comment with your suggestions.
There are many ways to prepare a site for seeding with native plants. Catherine Zimmerman, in her book Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces, outlines many approaches and practices that can be used. Choosing a method (or methods) of site preparation depends upon the context of the site, budget of the project, value stance on chemical herbicide use, and intended aesthetic outcome.
For The Meadow at Kansas State University, the planning team decided it was essential to kill off or remove existing cool season turf grass and weeds prior to seeding with native species. The site is a high profile location at a gateway between campus and community (just through the Beach Museum arch). While some weediness in the first few years is to be expected and will be controlled as possible through mowings and hand weeding, starting with a strong stand of native growth in the first year is the goal.
The planning team is aware of recent research on glycosophate herbicides (known by several trade names). Notably, these herbicides may be more environmentally persistent and more damaging to long term soil health than was previously thought. The planning team devoted considerable time to researching alternate methods of turf and weed removal. Kirby Barrett (Master of Landscape Architecture graduate 2011), Dr. Rhonda Janke (Horticulture, Forestry and Recreational Resources), Katie Kingery-Page and Lee Skabelund (Landscape Architecture/Regional and Community Planning), and Zakary Ratajczak (PhD student, Division of Biology) helped develop the site preparation strategy.
The result is a mixed methods approach that uses the resources available at K-State and minimizes the need for herbicides. Throughout the planning and site preparation, K-State Grounds Maintenance has been an essential partner. Jackie Toburen, Assistant Director, Facilities Services in charge of Grounds, and Joe Myers, Physical Plant Supervisor, reviewed plans for the Meadow as members of the K-State Landscape Advisory Committee. Jackie and Joe continue their work by organizing work crews to help with site preparation.
Grounds crew members, Jim Hartford and John Harper removed two unhealthy hackberry trees and trimmed dead tree limbs to make way for the new limestone path at the meadow. Jim and John also removed existing sod, hauled excess soil, and salvaged tree trunks for repurposing.Delmar Westover and Matthew Heatherly removed sod and excess soil from the site. Joe Myers, in addition to being the “how-to” orchestrator of the strategy, spot sprayed for weeds in small areas inaccessible to larger equipment.
K-State Grounds crews and equipment provide a welcome donation to the construction of the Beach Meadow, a project sponsored by the Hummel family in memory of Professor William C. Hummel and Sara T. Hummel.
Look for future posts on the planting design and maintenance plan for The Meadow!
Site preparation for The Meadow included the removal of two over-mature hackberry trees. The trees, which had been badly damaged by successive storms, were removed by KSU Grounds Maintenance. While we are glad to have potential hazard trees removed, conscientious re-use of the hackberry wood is a priority. The hackberry limbs will be repurposed for the growing of shiitake mushrooms, sections of the trunks will be used as teaching tools, large segments of trunk will be used to create seating on site, and the sawdust from stump grinding will be used as a bulking medium for The Meadow seed mixes.
Hackberry trees, which are native to Kansas, are most often found growing along streams and rivers. According to Kansas City-area naturalist Catherine Bylinowski, hackberry wood is popularly known as “biscuit wood,” owing to early settlers recognition of its value for even-burning, cooking fires.
Most of the hackberry wood has been moved to the KSU Willow Lake Student Farm, for shiitake mushroom inoculation under the guidance of Dr. Rhonda Janke. Architecture students, Jake Hofeling and Landon Hubbard will use the APDesign shops to craft temporary seating from the largest hackberry logs. Look for these custom-designed additions to The Meadow soon!
All other trees on The Meadow site, which is a remnant of a larger, historic arboretum on the campus, will be maintained. These trees provide valuable shade for visitors to The Meadow and pedestrians using adjacent paths. The mosaic of shade to sun conditions created by the remaining trees allow The Meadow to feature a diverse mix of full sun to shade tolerant prairie plants.
Following removal of existing turf grass and successive measures to kill remaining turf and weeds, protection against soil erosion was needed at The Meadow site. Boy Scouts from Manhattan, Kansas area Troops 74 and 75 collected old T-Shirts which were then sewn into recycled erosion socks by Troop 75 and stuffed with mulch by Troop 74. Both Troops gathered to install the socks. The project has allowed the boys to learn more about soil conservation, gain service hours, and complete activities for Soil Conservation, Plant Sciences, and Camping Merit Badges.
Many thanks to scout parents Kathrine Walker Schlageck (senior educator at the Beach Museum), Kimberly Kramer (of Architectural Engineering and Construction Science) and David Kramer!