When I was at the Kansas 150 Festival last Saturday, covering the sesquicentennial parade, I made a point of checking out the landscaping around what is arguably Wichita's front porch — the Douglas side of Century II, and the environs.
How did Wichita present itself to the rest of the state, the people from out of town who came to represent their region for Kansas' 150th birthday?
I noticed that the plantings around the Garvey buildings across the street from Century II generally improved the surroundings, while the round beds in front of Century II were barren.
Perhaps they'd been stripped of dead plant material (I can't blame any plant for folding it in after the hot summer), or perhaps the beds had been planted or were about to be planted with tulip bulbs, to bloom cheerful and bright in the spring.
But it seems to me the front of Century II should be beautiful year-round, and fountains should be splashing, especially for a big event.
The scene depressed me.
Earlier I had walked to the head of the parade line, past the Sedgwick County Courthouse. I had heard praises about the landscaping that Charlene Schneider and her crew of fellow volunteer master gardeners had provided in two beds at the entrance to the courthouse.
The praises hadn't been overstated.
The beds were colorful and bounteous, grasses bouncing in the wind, contrasts of hues playing off each other, lighting up the gray day. It lifted my spirits.
"I'm a real believer that we need to have more greenery and green space downtown and in all parts of the community," County Commissioner Tim Norton said.
"I'm on the Downtown Development Corporation board and I've been an advocate for downtown areas to take care of their property. Not only take care of the weeds that grow through the cracks of parking lots but keep their beds and planters up to date and learn to plant things that are hardy and not take much water. And I think the master gardeners have shown you can do that."
Extension director Bev Dunning said the partnership began when one of the county's facilities men liked what he'd seen planted by Charlene and her crew of 10 master gardeners at the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road.
When it came to taking on the courthouse project, "I left it up to the volunteers, because they are volunteers," Bev said. "Charlene decided it would be a good educational opportunity to show the right thing planted at the right time in the right place, and she's got everything labeled." By growing some of the plants herself and donating them, "she probably saved the county $500 at least," Bev said.
I'd also gotten a heads-up on beautiful landscaping at the entrances to a few east-side neighborhoods, including Greenleaf at Tallgrass just west of 21st and Webb, and Country Place on 13th Street between Webb and Rock.
Another master gardener was at work there, Debbie Plagmann.
Greenleaf has a combination of evergreen and deciduous shrubs, perennials, roses, grasses and annuals, with rock and stone arrayed for added beauty. Debbie was adding yellow mums to the beds this week to give them new pop for the fall.
I've noticed that red begonias are the flower of choice in many commercial garden beds, and they do punch up a setting, while being easy-care and reliable. Such was the case at Greenleaf and Country Place, where Debbie has planted the Cocktail Red variety.
"In my plantings I always start by considering which Prairie Star Flowers I can use," Debbie said. These are the plants that K-State has tested and deemed easy and reliable in a typical Kansas summer. "I believe in the right plant for the right place, and why not use what has been tested? It sure makes my job easier."
Her favorite coleus — Black Cherry, in deep red with a striking green margin — is a Prairie Star selection.
Black Cherry is a rather compact bush form that doesn't have seed heads, "which makes it ideal for me," Debbie said. That's because it doesn't become top-heavy and require deadheading. When other types of coleus are not deadheaded, they tend to lose their vigor, she notes. She's only been able to find it at Arnold's Greenhouse in LeRoy.
At Country Place, Debbie uses some of the same annuals that she uses at Greenleaf, and lush planter boxes on the sides of the guard house hold Aurora Black Cherry sun coleus, Diamond Frost euphorbia and Blue Wonder scaevola.
At the courthouse, county crews built raised beds for the landscaping, and Charlene Schneider's husband, Bob, volunteered his time putting in 1,300 linear feet of drip irrigation lines. Charlene kept the plant palette simple with five basics:
* Double Knockout Pink and Rainbow Knockout roses. (Rainbow is a very light pink with a yellow center).
* Annual purple fountain grass.
* Assorted sun coleus, including Florida Sun in the south bed and Bipolar By Golly in the north bed, all of which Charlene started from cuttings.
* Vista Bubblegum petunias.
* Dusty miller.
All of the plant material was donated, while the county paid for the drip irrigation and equipment. The 11 master gardeners have also donated their time weeding and sprucing up and otherwise maintaining the beds, in the evening when it wasn't as hot this summer and then on Saturday mornings about every three weeks.
"With the horrendous summer — and the wind down there is ridiculous because it bounces off the buildings and has nowhere to go — I think that area really looks nice," Charlene said.
It's been a good partnership, Charlene said, and the master gardeners have been invited back for next year.
"I don't know what I'm going to plant. It's a surprise to me too," Charlene said.
"My group is getting excited about cleaning up the rest of the beds down there, cleaning up and pruning stuff correctly and cutting perennials and shrubs back. There's leaves, I know, from four years ago."