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Airport flowers wild by design

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, June 21, 2013, at 7:19 p.m.

Dennis Snyder of Wichita says he has traveled Europe and seen the Alpine flower meadows of Switzerland.

But even they aren’t as thick and pretty as new fields blooming in urban Wichita, he said.

“We were driving an individual to the airport, and I was amazed at the wildflowers,” Snyder said Friday, describing the acres along Kellogg that the Wichita Airport Authority has planted in native grasses and flowers. “I drove back myself the next day with my camera.”

The waves of color — blue cornflowers, yellow and orange blanket flowers, red corn poppies, white yarrow, pink bee balm — were at their spring peak a week ago, but the flowers will keep kaleidoscoping as the seasons change, said Brad Christopher, assistant director of airports for the Wichita Airport Authority at Mid-Continent Airport. Now they’re mainly orange and yellow, providing lovely views even for those whose travel is confined to Kellogg.

“I went by the east field this morning. It was absolutely beautiful,” Julie Koker e-mailed The Eagle earlier this week.

Christopher said he is grateful for the pretty compliments amid the construction of a new terminal at the airport. He said it was his idea to convert some airport acreage to native plants after he saw that Kansas Department of Transportation was doing so along some highways.

“I wondered why aren’t we doing this, why didn’t we think of this a long time ago?” Christopher said. “Anybody, such as the airport, that has vast quantities of open space and ground, it seems like a logical fit.”

Mid-Continent Airport has 4,000 acres, Christopher said. Inside the fence, buffalo and fescue grasses are planted and manicured to keep wildlife at bay. Outside the fence are roughly 1,500 acres of buffer zone. The Airport Authority decided in 2009 to stop mowing about 400 acres of that, giving much of it over to local farmers to harvest for hay, Christopher said.

In the rest of it, wildflowers and grasses began going in. There are now about 70 acres that have gone native, with plans to plant 170 more by 2016, Christopher said.

The plantings that were done in spring 2011 suffered from the drought, but the area planted in spring 2012 – about 30 acres to the east and west of the entrance to the airport along Kellogg – “has just come in beautiful,” Christopher said. “The conditions have been just right this spring.”

No new planting was done this spring because the cost of seed had skyrocketed because of the drought, he said.

The plants are from the Valley Premium Kansas Wildflower Mix of seed that Valley Feed and Seed sells by the pound.

“People just love it,” Danny Linnebur of Valley Feed and Seed said.

The native plantings have allowed the Airport Authority to cut back its mowing from three to four times a year for the old fescue to once a year, in the late fall, Christopher said. The native acres also will be burned every two to three years where it is possible, he said.

“The benefit of this is certainly not only the sustainability, the conservation, and the public loves it ... it also saves us some money,” he said.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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