Protecting our pollinators on Earth Day and beyond

Cut an apple in half by slicing it across its midsection and you’ll find a central compartment in the shape of a five-pointed star. If your apple has two seeds inside each point of the star—10 altogether—it was completely pollinated by bees. If there are fewer than 10, not enough pollen reached the flower’s stigma to develop all the seeds. A poorly pollinated flower will develop into an apple that is small and lopsided. An unpollinated flower won’t develop into an apple at all.

This apple is at the heart of why you should care about pollinators. According to the National Academy of Sciences, close to 75 percent of flowering plants on Earth rely on pollinators to set seed or fruit. From these plants come one-third of our food and even a greater percentage of wildlife food.

Yet now, ALMOST everywhere, pollinators are at risk. Honeybees are dying in unprecedented numbers each year. Once-common bumblebees are disappearing across North America and Europe. Monoculture farming and urban landscapes lack the habitats to support the diversity of bees, butterflies and other vital pollinators.

So what can you do to help? Here are some simple and relatively inexpensive ways you can attract, promote and protect pollinators:

  1. Plant a variety of native plants. Think about overlapping bloom times to provide flowers through several seasons.
  2. Protect pollinators’ habitats. One of the easiest ways is to leave it alone! Leave dead trees in the woods; leave some bare soil for ground nest sites; keep overgrown areas natural. Brush piles or rock piles provide cover for pupating butterflies and shelter for over-wintering bumblebees.
  3. Do not spray chemical pesticides!
  4. Make a nest block or stem bundle for native bees to lay eggs in. Sometimes the simplest steps can be the most successful and most satisfying. Wooden nest blocks or bundles of hollow stems attract bees within minutes of installation.

Here at Powell Gardens we make two different native bee nests to attract pollinators into the Heartland Harvest Garden, as shown by volunteer Annette McQuerry, above. Come by the Good Earth Workshop at the Missouri Barn and learn how to make a simple bamboo nest for your yard.

Taking any action, however modest, is better that nothing at all. When it comes right down to it, pollinators only have a few basic habitat requirements—a flower-rich foraging area, suitable host plants or nests where they can lay their eggs and an environment free of pesticides. Providing any of these is a valuable first step.

Visit us from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, April 19, to learn how to make homes for native bees plus learn lots of other sustainable gardening techniques and how you can upcycle cast-offs into some very cool things! See the full schedule here and I look forward to seeing you in the Gardens!

The Early Kobus-Star Magnolias

Our finest early blooming “precocious” Magnolias originate from Japan.  They are from three closely related species the Anise Magnolia (M. salicifolia), Kobus Magnolia (M. kobus) and Star Magnolia (M. stellata). Their early bloom previews our native wild plums and redbuds and their flowers do have some frost resistance so they are not reduced to brown mush after a light freeze as with many magnolias.

Here’s Powell Gardens only true Kobus Magnolia and it’s the variety ‘Borealis’ which is from Japan’s north island of Hokkaido.  It can become a very tall pyramidal tree over time reaching 50-60 feet!  Ours is well on its way and loaded with white flowers of 6 tepals (they’re neither petals nor sepals!).  You can see the Visitor Center in the background.

The Star Magnolia is a rare relative of the Kobus Magnolia found on only a few mountaintops in Japan and is much more shrubby.  It still grows into a small, multi-trunked tree over time, reaching around 20 feet in height at maturity. The flowers are composed of many tepals giving it a “starry” look and its name.  Powell Gardens has several selections of Star Magnolias in its collection and they are currently audibly abuzz with pollinators including 1000′s of honeybees.

This is one of the newer cultivars of Star Magnolia named ‘Lyle’s Legacy’.  It has extra tepals for a full starry flower.  This selection was made from seedlings grown in Maine.  Star Magnolia is one of the hardiest of all magnolias, surviving -30F unscathed.

This is the Star Magnolia cultivar named ‘Chrysanthemumiflora’ for its very full, mum-like flowers.  It is also one of the best pink hued Star Magnolias.  Look for it near the Visitor Center trolley stop.

Kobus and Star Magnolias readily hybridize and their hybrids are named Magnolia x loebneri and display intermediate flowers with more than Kobus’s six tepals but less than the Star Magnolia.

This is the hybrid Kobus-Star Magnolia ‘Dr. Merrill’ which becomes a spectacular upright, pyramidal tree to 40 feet.

Here’s the Kobus-Star hybrid ‘Leonard Messel’ which is perhaps one of the finest hybrid magnolias for our area.  The flowers are produced in abundance, hardy to 28F (they take a frost well) and are so lovely from above (pink) and below (raspberry striped).  This tree will probably mature around 25 feet tall, slightly more vigorous than a Star Magnolia.

This is the new hybrid ‘Spring Petticoats’ which will be, perhaps the finest of all these Kobus-Star Magnolias.  It is softest pink with a decidedly more pink “petticoat.”

Here’s a picture of ‘Spring Petticoats’ from below, the Visitor Center is in the background.  Our plant is only 2 years old but I know some local nurseries are growing this new selection now so it should be more available to all gardeners soon.

This Kobus-Star Hybrid aptly named ‘White Rose’ is another beauty and actually is not fully double, its center of stamens and pistil is just hidden by the rose-like tepals (so it’s still a great plant for pollinators).

Anise Magnolia is the third Japanese Magnolia in the hardy-flowering group and we only have the cultivar ‘Miss Jack’ shown here.  Its flowers may be a bit floppy looking but it is stunning milky white and the fragrance is perhaps the most unusual of any magnolia in our collection: it smells like a wintergreen lifesavers candy!  It most definitely has oil of wintergreen in the fragrance and all true Anise Magnolias have an anise-like aroma when their leaves are crushed.

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of some of Powell Gardens renowned collection of magnolias.  The early flowering cultivars are at peak now and unfortunately a big freeze is predicted for next Tuesday morning which may impact some of the next round of bloomers but we’ll keep you posted!  These are sure to be lovely this weekend before the cold front comes late on Sunday.

Meet An Instructor: Janet Bonsall

This month, I am happy to introduce a new instructor to our line up – Janet Bonsall teaching Photography in the Gardens, Saturday, April 26.

(Photo courtesy of Janet Bonsall)

Janet is well traveled, studying abroad in London and teaching photography courses in Britain, Paris, the Alps, The Netherlands and Italy. Many remember her from her tenure at the University of Central Missouri (UCM) as a photography professor and the Coordinator of Photography, a career lasting 30 years. Her work at UCM included the authorship of the Bachelor of Science major in Photography and the Master of Science degree in Photography. Her passion for teaching others the joy and fulfillment of photography is infectious.

(Photo credit Janet Bonsall)

Aside from her photography and work abroad in Western Europe, Janet enjoys photography adventures in the United States, as well. The past two summers she explored and photographed landmarks and skyscapes in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, contrasting these with scenery from Washington state and Maine. She just returned from a trip to photograph migrating Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and Snow Geese at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City, Mo. Some of her work is on display in the UCM Union and Recreation Center. Janet also is creating a mural for Warrensburg’s City Hall.

(Photo credit Janet Bonsall)

Come learn from a master photographer and photograph beautiful views at Powell Gardens.

Classes this Month:

Taking Gardening to New Heights with Vertical Gardens

Things are looking up at Powell Gardens. With spring just around the corner and green thumbs itching to get growing, we hope you’ll join us this month as we tap into the creative trend of vertical gardening.

Gardening up adds height to a garden and makes plants and produce more accessible and easier to water. Being lifted off ground level also increases air flow to plants, reducing the chance of powdery mildew and other diseases. And if horizontal space is limited, vertical gardening allows for more plants in the same amount of space.

Plus, vertical gardens can add an element of fun to your space. They can dress up a drab fence line, cover a bare wall or other eyesore, create a privacy screen, or even create living walls to create a “room” in the garden.

Beginning March 15, you can see a creative new vertical gardening element on display as the popular “Living” Room exhibit returns to the conservatory. In this exhibit, all of the furnishings are literally alive with color and texture—including the furniture, rugs and wallpaper! The “Living” Room will be open daily through May 11. On May 17, the conservatory will reopen with even more vertical gardening elements to explore throughout the summer.

Visit the Vertical Gardening Discovery Station on March 15-16 to see examples of different vertical gardening techniques and pick up plans for creating your own. From succulents to strawberries, you’ll find many plants are well-suited for vertical gardening.

Here’s a little sample of what you will see in our vertical gardening display:

A framed, shallow box makes a picture-perfect piece of living art to hang on a wall. A burlap “canvas” allows for easy planting of succulents to create a colorful vertical planting. The burlap holds in soil and the rooting plants.

A balancing act of potted plants makes the Tippy-Pot planter both attractive and functional. Those with limited space can lift favorite potted plants, giving a low-growing garden, patio or deck a face lift. Runoff from watering the topmost plants is captured by the lower ones.

A succulent wreath makes a dramatic first impression on a front door or interior wall. A wire frame provides the base to holding the plants and planting medium in place. To water, remove the wreath and lay flat in one inch of water for 10 minutes. Ready for more?

More March Classes and Events 

February Is Bird Lovers’ Month at Powell Gardens

If you fill it, they will come. No, it’s not a memorable line from a Kevin Costner movie, but a promise and a warning for attracting and caring for winter birds. If you fill a seed tray or hopper with seed in winter, birds will come, and they will return. As birds learn to expect food from your generous nature, you need to be sure to keep the feeders stocked.

My family enjoys watching the birds visit our feeders through winter. We have our favorite visitors like that pair of sunflower-craving Northern cardinals which will nest in our forsythia come spring; that flock of worm-hungry American robins passing through; the large red-bellied woodpecker hanging from the inverted suet feeder; and the Eastern bluebird “clutch” that huddle around the heated bird bath on a snowy day. Such a splash of color on an otherwise drab winter day!

At Powell Gardens, we share our love for birds throughout the month of February. Come sit a spell in our conservatory themed to Romance in Bloom. Along with a huge burst of color and fragrance, you will find three inviting seating areas where you can enjoy the birds from the comfort of indoors. A couple of other ways to enjoy the birds this month:

  • Each weekend through February 23 you can participate in Feeder Watch as a citizen scientist: more information. 

Feed the Need

When considering which birds you would like to attract at home, note that not all seed is the same. Stick with “song bird” mixes: those with sunflower, white millet and safflower. Avoid the cheaper mixes with filler seed like red millet and oats that most of the desirable birds spurn. Wasted seed becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which if ingested may harm the very birds you are trying to nurture. But which seed to offer should be just one aspect of your winter bird-feeding plan. Other feeding suggestions:

  • Offer a consistent source of water. Fresh water is hard to come by when temperatures stay below freezing. Offering water in a heated birdbath will attract a wide array of birds, which may drink or even take a dip. 
  • Not all sunflowers are the same. Sunflower is a great, all-purpose feeder seed attracting a wide variety of birds. Black-oil sunflower seed is thinner shelled and easier for many bird species to crack. If your feeders are overrun with European house sparrows, consider offering striped sunflower seed. Its thicker shell makes it a tasty treat for Northern cardinals while keeping less desirable birds at bay. 
  • Mix up your serving styles to attract a wider variety of birds. Larger birds like blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers will visit open, platform feeders. Perching birds such as black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice can feed from tube feeders and seed hoppers. Sock-style thistle feeders are a sure fire way to attract American goldfinches. 
  • Offer suet. Suet can be home-mixed or store bought and provides a high-calorie, high-energy food perfect for wintering and nesting birds. Putting your suet in a cage-style suet feeder keeps hungry squirrels from devouring your bird treat. 
  • Consider mealworms. Dried or fresh mealworms will attract seed-feeder-shy species like American robins and Eastern bluebirds. These can be offered in platform feeders or an enclosed feeder specifically designed to allow small birds like Eastern bluebirds entry while keeping larger worm-hungry birds out. 
  • Keep it up. Your feeders and water supply should be elevated and in an open space. Positioning your feeders low and in a space near shrubs and ornamental grasses is akin to setting the table for the neighborhood cats. Be sure your birds can see your feeders from a distance and are able to see in all directions while at your feeders.

Winter Horticulture Notes

I thought I would share a few of the horticultural happenings at Powell Gardens.  What a cold January it has been with a low of -10F at Powell Gardens’s weather station.  This was the coldest reading in 3 years here, not decades.  This is the 4th time we have gotten to -10F in the past 20 years (1997, 2001, 2011, 2014).

Despite the snow and cold outside, the greenhouses have been sheltering some of our collections.  This is a picture of ‘Frank’s Masterpiece’ Magnolia a new complex hybrid of HARDY magnolia.  The flower is about 9″ across but can reach 11″ and was hybridized by the late Dr. Frank Galyon of Knoxville, TN who just happened to be a horticultural friend of our very own Dr. Henderson responsible for our iris collection.  Doc is 98 years old by the way.  This magnolia is in the greenhouses as we acquired it late and we will often not plant a small tree in the gardens until it gains some size. Continue reading

Powell Gardens Dedicates a Work Day to Our Volunteers

Staff at Powell Gardens know one thing for sure … we couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers! We have asked so much, for so long, of so many volunteers, we decided it was time to give back a little. As a dedication to all of our volunteers, on a recent Saturday 13 of us spent the morning volunteering at Harvesters. Harvesters is our regional food bank that serves 620 area food pantries. On a side note, some of the produce from our Heartland Harvest Garden ends up at Harvesters.

Dale, our custodian, with his wife and grandchildren were a great team.

Sara, our Human Resources manager, and her son wondering where to put those beans. Continue reading