Do Native Grasses Help Pollinators?

I love native grasses.  Grasses make dramatic focal points when mixed into garden beds or planted individually.  They pull the landscape design together and provide movement within the garden.

Over the past 10 years, there have been some tremendous advances in landscape quality native grasses.  ‘Northwind’ switchgrass is a perfect example.  It offers great form, a tidy columnar habit, texture and ease of care.  It is a reliable grass with consistent qualities that can be counted on year after year in any sunny landscape.  In my opinion, ornamental grasses should be included in all garden designs because they are easy to grow and provide three seasons of interest.

Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans

Obviously, grasses are gaining in popularity, but one of their most important roles they play in the garden is often overlooked.  Grasses help balance the ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for many different pollinators along with birds and small mammals.  Pollinators need protection from severe weather and from predators, as well as sites for nesting and roosting.  By incorporating different layers of flowering plants and grasses in the landscape, pollinators can find the food and shelter they need for survival.   Pollinators use corridors of plants to safely move through the landscape and be protected from predators.

Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles.

 

Big Blustem

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

These grasses are important for adults but they also serve as larval hosts for butterflies and moths.   Many different butterflies lay eggs amongst the native grasses which larvae then utilize during their development.  Some species of bees need open ground to burrow into the soil, so leave small exposed areas of soil between your plants.  Even a small garden containing native species can make a tremendous difference for insect conservation.

Here is a list of native grasses and the pollinators that use them:

Big bluestem-Andropogon gerardii

Larval host for many species of butterflies (Delaware Skipper, Ottoe, Dusted Skipper, Beard-Grass skippers and Common Wood Nymph).

Buffalograss- Bouteloua dactyloides

Butterfly larval host for green skipper butterfly.

Switchgrass- Panicum virgatum

Larval host for skipper butterflies.  Overwintering host for bees and other pollinators.

Little bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium

Larval host for many species of butterflies and moths (Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Cobweb).

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Indiangrass- Sorghastrum nutans

Larval host for skipper butterflies.

Prairie Dropseed- Sporobolus heterolepis

Prairie Dropseed is of special value as nesting sites for bees.  Native grasses are the larval food plants of the Leonard’s Skipper.

Prairie Dropseed

Native grasses are attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape.  Once established, they help minimize erosion and increase organic matter in the soil.  Native grasses are also vital in the life cycles of many bees, butterflies and other pollinators.  Grasses provide the habitat for overwintering eggs, caterpillars and pupae of butterflies.  The thatch at the base of the grass clumps is ideal for protection from predators and cold weather.

There is a direct correlation between the decline of native grasslands habitats and the decline of many species of butterflies, bees and moths.  Habitat loss is not the only reason for the decrease in pollinators, but it is certainly a factor.  By planting native species of wildflowers and grasses in agricultural, suburban and urban settings, we can help to reverse the population decline.  Even though grasses don’t provide nectar, they are just as important in pollinator gardens as beautiful wildflowers.  So as you plan your pollinator garden, don’t forget to include some native grasses.

Planting for Pollinators

Last week, I was visiting with someone about pollinators or the lack thereof.  It seems that we had an initial flush of monarchs and other beneficial insects earlier this spring, but since then many of the pollinators have become scarce.  There are beautiful wildflowers in bloom but very little insect activity.  We have all seen the dramatic statistics tracking the plight of pollinators and their losses, so what is happening?

That is a difficult question, because there are often a combination of factors that are associated with the demise of many of the pollinators we take for granted.  Pollinators have been impacted by habitat loss, pesticides, pathogens, mites, invasive species of plants, parasites and an erratic climate.  Different species are affected by different forces, but overall the result is the same, fewer pollinators.

So what can we do to help pollinators?  Here is a list of ways that any gardener can have an impact.

Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen this throughout the Arboretum as caterpillars munch on the milkweed leaves.  Other blooming wildflowers offer their nectar to a host of insects.  The wildflowers are the buffet. I like to have members of the aster family such as coneflowers, asters, goldenrods, blackeyed susans and blazing stars.  (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on a Gayfeather. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Plant for All Life Stages

We recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source for adults and their larvae.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.  Maybe plant some dill or Zizia sp. for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Provide Habitat

When you design your landscape, remember to layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind along with nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies and bees.  This created habitat is a safe environment for pollinators to find all they need including food, shelter and water.  Even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bee Hotel. Photo by John Regier.

Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl Crescent Butterfly. Photo by Dave Osborne.

Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their lifecycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. Check out MonarchWatch.org or the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation for great resources.)

Gray hairstreak on Eryngium leavenworthii. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Pollinators live perilous lives.  Their very existence hangs by a thread.  We need them for the food we eat.  Plants need pollinators for their survival.  So much depends on these tiny little insects.  As gardeners, we can support the life cycles of pollinators by including a wide variety of plants in our landscapes. Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  They need our help and you can be part of the solution.  You will be amazed at how many pollinators you will see when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.

Sharing the Simple Beauty of Kansas

I will be travelling this week to the annual conference of the American Public Gardens Association, this year located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which is very far from my Kansas home. Representatives from public gardens across North America will gather to share information about their respective gardens and regions.

Kansas has a simple fundamental beauty that is unique to this state. The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains tries to capture that beauty in the development of our grounds, using plants that are native to the prairie. Contrary to popular belief, Kansas is a special place to live.  The vast open views, unobstructed for miles in every direction, are a hallmark of this state.  Amazing sunsets happen almost every night.  Dynamic thunderstorms and bright white clouds fill the afternoon skies.  Kansas has a beauty all it’s own.

I look forward to sharing with my colleagues why I love living in Kansas, and why the Arboretum’s mission of connecting people with the prairie is so important to our organization and to our community.

Thunderstorm at Chase Co. State Fishing Lake

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills.

Indiangrass

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Russell Springs-Logan County-Photo Courtesy of Craig Freeman

Rocktown Natural Area-Russell County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Ft. Riley near Manhattan-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Chalk Formations-Gove County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Cimarron National Grassland, Morton County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Shortgrass Prairie near Holcomb, Finney County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

Plant Profile: Prairie Clovers

Daleas – now called Petalostemons and commonly known as prairie clovers – is a genus in honor of Samuel Dale, an English botanist (1659-1739).  Sixteen taxa of these hardy legumes are listed in the Flora of the Great Plains.  Few prairie clovers are cultivated, yet they offer splendid summer blooms and interesting, often fragrant foliage.

Purple Prairie Clover

Here are some prairie clovers we have used in the Arboretum:

Petalostemon aurea  – Golden prairie clover

This herbaceous perennial grows 12-30 inches tall.  Its many flowers are on a dense ½ -3 inch long spike.  The specific epithet aurea, derived from the Latin aurum meaning gold, refers to the yellow flower that blooms in June through September.  Golden prairie clover is native to the western two-thirds of Kansas, especially on gravelly ridges and rocky slopes.

Golden prairie clover

Petalostemon candida – White prairie clover

The specific epithet candida refers to the shining of pure white flowers, which appear in mid-June through July.  This species ranges from 12-36 inches tall and can be found growing in the eastern half of Kansas.  Because it is palatable to livestock, overgrazing can cause the elimination of the species from a range.

A honey bee on white prairie clover

Petalostemon multiflora – Round-headed prairie clover

This plant puts on a prolific flower display of white flowers from mid-July to early-September.  The foliage is also quite fragrant, producing a tangy-sweet aroma when crushed.  This species ranges from 12-24 inches tall.  It is infrequent to locally common on dry rocky prairies and roadside banks in the eastern portion of the state and is selectively grazed by livestock.

Round-headed prairie clover

Petalostemon purpurea – Purple prairie clover

This species produces fragrant purple flowers in June and July.  The finger-like foliage and upright habit make this prairie clover one of the best for the prairie garden.  The plants can be 6-36 inches tall depending on the variety and can be found in most prairie types in the eastern two-thirds of Kansas.  Like P. candida and P. multiflora, this species is palatable to livestock.  It is an important component of the prairie hay, is rich in protein, and nutritious to cattle.  It can become rare in heavily grazed pastures.

Petalostemon villosa – Silky prairie clover

This species ranges from 6-18 inches tall with lavender to pink flowers in June through August.  The leaves are covered with soft silky hairs, giving the plant a silvery sheen.  You can find this prairie clover on sandy soils south and west of the Arkansas River in Kansas.

 

Uses

Petalostemons have other uses besides being ornamental and planted in your prairie gardens.  No matter your soil type, there is a prairie clover for your garden.  Pollinators flock to the compact flower cones of these hardy wildflowers.  Melvin Gilmore, in his book Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, says that these prairie clover leaves were sometimes used to make a tea-like drink.  The root was commonly chewed for its pleasant taste. The tough elastic stems were used to make brooms.  Sometimes the pulverized root was put into hot water and drunk to ward off disease.

These are past uses. I would highly discourage you from using these plants medicinally.  Just enjoy these tough wildflowers in your prairie garden.  Once established, they will prosper with little or no care.

Dalea candida

The Resilient Prairie

An interesting thing happened in the Fall of 2012, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record – the prairie bloomed.  The historic drought was harsh and many plants that were borderline hardy in Kansas were lost, but very few of the wildflowers and grasses of the prairie were lost.  Asters, blue sage and goldenrods bloomed in spite of the brutal summer conditions.  The native grasses, though much shorter, survived.

This was a great lesson about one of the ultimate surviving landscapes—the prairie.

Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

Kansas has some of the largest expanses of the tallgrass prairie in the United States.  Less than four percent of the original North American prairie land is left.  This sea of grasses and wildflowers survives floods and drought, high and low temperatures, grazing, fire and many invasive species.  The deep roots and adaptability make it one of the most resilient landscapes in the world.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

This prairie ecosystem manages heat and drought through adaptation.  The deep roots absorb water that other shallow-rooted plants can’t touch.  Plants go dormant during drought to conserve water and maintain growing points just at or below the soil surface.  Once conditions improve, these plants begin to grow again.  Leaves are shiny or have tiny hairs to reduce water loss.  Grasses stay shorter and produce fewer seeds.

Each of these adaptations help the prairie plants survive and use less water.  This diverse ecosystem is resilient – more resilient than many other landscapes and certainly more resilient than a typical lawn.  It provides habitat for wildlife and food and nectar for pollinators.  It is a self-sustaining environment that persists through harsh conditions.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

Those drought years gave us a chance to evaluate what we are doing with our own landscapes and to take a look at the types of plants that will actually grow here with minimal time, water and maintenance.  It provided an opportunity to select new plants that can tolerate adverse weather conditions.  More and more Kansans are choosing plants like little bluestem, switchgrass or prairie dropseed.  Gardeners are filling up their landscapes with wildflowers such as coneflowers, penstemon, blazing stars, goldenrods, asters and milkweeds in smaller “pocket” prairies.  These micro-prairies have all the ornamental qualities of a larger prairie, but on a much smaller scale.

Nature is a good teacher.  These plants, which survived and even bloomed after one of the driest summers in recent memory, are amazing.  I knew that prairie plants were tough, but that season made me take notice.  It made me rethink my own perceptions of what is environmentally-sound landscaping.  We can create sustainable plant communities in our own small landscapes simply by copying what nature has done so successfully in creating the prairie. These are beautiful plants that are diverse in form, texture and color.  Plants that would work well in any sunny location.  The combinations are endless.

 

The prairie has a legacy of resilient beauty.  Embrace what is around you and create a sense of place in your own pocket of the historic prairie land.

Plant Profile: Shortstem Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii)

Garden centers and nurseries carry more native plants each year, because gardeners have caught on to the many benefits that native perennials – such as milkweeds, coneflowers, blazing stars, black-eyed susans, and penstemon – provide aesthetically and environmentally.  One of the best native plants for early spring bloom is spiderwort.  They are fantastic in the gardens right now.  Native spiderworts are excellent alternatives for naturalized or xeric plantings.  Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is the most common, prevalent in much of the Great Plains and eastern United State.  It reaches three feet and has striking blue, rose or white flowers.  Its cousin, shortstem spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) is not as common, but has more ornamental characteristics and growth habit.  It exhibits excellent drought tolerance with minimal maintenance requirements.

Shortstem spiderwort’s low growth habit and diverse flower colors make it a welcome addition to the front of any rock garden or perennial border.  It is a prolific bloomer, covering itself with large three-petaled flowers in April and May.  At least three distinct flower colors exist in our plantings, purple, blue and rose.  I use this plant along the front of our perennial beds with summer and fall blooming perennials, because it does go dormant during the summer as a natural defense against the heat.  I remove the brown leaves in the early summer and it greens back in late August as a rosette of hairy, pointed leaves.  With proper planning, shortstem spiderwort gives the landscape an exotic—yet native and hardy—spring component.  Honeybees and bumblebees flock to the flowers.  The diversity of pollinating insects that this plant attracts is a joy to watch.

Tradescantia tharpii reaches a mature height of 12 to 15 inches and 15 to 18 inches wide in full sun.  This species is multi-stemmed, forming a dense mound of green foliage.  Leaves are linear-lanceolate, pubescent, giving a whitish cast, and have red translucent margins.  The seed heads all seem to dry at the same time so seed collection is made easy, unlike Ohio spiderwort where the seeds ripen over an extended period.  Seeds are oblong, gray and compressed about one eighth of an inch long.

 

It prefers a well-drained soil, but it can adapt to moister locations as long as there is ample drainage.  I have grown it for years in a gravel-amended sandy loam soil with no problems; plants in heavy clay or sites with poor drainage resulted in slow plant growth.  This is one plant that thrives on neglect, as long as it is properly sited.  Established plants are long lived.  Plants in the Arboretum have been growing in established beds for up to ten years.

I have not observed any disease or insect problems.  In the fall and winter, however, rabbits will eat the rosette of leaves, stunting the spring growth.

You can find this plant at our spring and fall sales or produce it through seed propagation.  A warm, dry treatment before sowing the seed in a mixture of coarse perlite and potting soil gives the best germination.  Germination should occur in about 7 to 15 days.  Divisions of existing plants can be taken every two to four years depending on lateral growth.

Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

For the native plant enthusiast who wants to view this plant in a natural setting, Tradescantia tharpii can be seen growing on clay, sand or rocky soils in prairies and open woods.  Native from central Kansas to southwest Missouri and south into northern Texas, it is essentially restricted to the Great Plains.

Plant Profile: Dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana)

When we think of shrubs that grow in the prairie, lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is the first one that comes to my mind.  Rightfully so, the soft gray foliage and lavender flower spikes are a must for any summer prairie garden.  However, its lesser known cousin, dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana) is blooming now in the Arboretum.  It makes you stop and take notice.

Dwarf false indigo can be found growing in the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies throughout the Great Plains. In Kansas, I have seen it growing wild in Clark county.  It is not as widely distributed as lead plant, but I have found it to be quite adaptable.  It thrives in dry, open locations with plenty of sunlight.  Here in the Arboretum, it blooms in May but I have seen it bloom as late as mid-June.

The deep magenta flowers of dwarf false indigo have a sweet aroma like honey.  Each terminal flower cluster is covered in reddish-orange pollen that pollinators love to gather.  The flowers stand out against the bright green leaves.  This prairie shrub should not be pruned in the spring.  It blooms best from previous year’s growth.  A variety of pollinators flock to the fragrant blossoms, but the Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly use the soft leaves as a food source.  After the blooms, the small green seedpods develop, but turn dark brown later in the fall.

The name nana, meaning dwarf in Latin, refers to the shrub’s diminutive size, which ultimately reaches two feet tall.  While short, the deep tap root and finely textured leaves make it extremely drought tolerant.  Plant it en masse or along a border edge so you can enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers.  It prefers a well-drained soil, including clay and rocks.

Companion plants for this versatile shrub would be little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), bottlebrush blazing star (Liatris mucornata), aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), shortstem spiderwort (tradescantia tharpii), narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  This shrub deserves a place in your sunny prairie garden.

Join Us on Friday, May 12.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is offering a free wildflower to the first 25 families or individuals who obtain a new or renewed membership on Friday, May 12, for National Public Gardens Day!

We will also have FREE ADMISSION to the gardens for the day, and coffee and refreshments in the Visitor Center from 9-11 a.m.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO SUPPORTS THE DYCK ARBORETUM OF THE PLAINS!

How to Create a Beautiful and Sustainable Garden

With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them?  What would it take to begin to change their minds?

We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.

Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits.   Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant.  I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden.  If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall.  It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true.  These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants.  The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.

If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact.  We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.

Steps to a beautiful and sustainable landscape

  1. Evaluate your landscape
  2. Plan, plan, and plan
  3. Define your edges
  4. Choose the right plants that match your site
  5. Establish plants correctly
  6. Observe Best Management Practices
  7. Enjoy!

 

Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.

Add Your Piece to the Patchwork of Prairie Gardens

We are experiencing a paradigm shift that is sweeping across the country.  People are becoming increasingly aware of the natural world and their ability to impact it.  If we begin establishing landscapes that appeal to us aesthetically, but benefit wildlife ecologically, we can have the best of both worlds.

Each of us has the opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design your garden in such a way that attracts pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space for depleted and endangered native bees and Monarchs to find the food they need to survive.  This is a small way you can show you care.  It is one way you, along with others in your neighborhood, can develop prairie gardens that are refuges for these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.

(If you are interested in or are searching for native plants, peruse our 2017 Native Plant Guide and Plant List and plan to attend our 2017 Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale.)

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline. If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Pollinators

The plight of the honey bee and the loss of entire hives has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  The use of pesticides and insecticides, habitat loss, along with the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Many different pollinators face these realities.  Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems they face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing prairie gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens.  Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them.  You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Something interesting is happening to our front yards.  They are slowly shrinking.  The typical large expanse of green lawn is being replaced with low-maintenance, drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses.   Homeowners are realizing that this alternative to a mowed lawn has its advantages.  Certainly, this new paradigm will require less water over time, but it can be functional and beautiful as well.  The potential environmental impacts of making this change can be significant.

Shady area at Arboretum converted from fescue turf to columbine, bluestar and other perennials and shrubs.

Lawn grasses such as fescue and bluegrass require more mowing and watering than native landscapes.  Here are some facts about lawns and their impact on the environment:

  • There are some 80 million home lawns across the country
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually
  • Nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • Approximately $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

If you are tired of the traditional front yard and wish to reduce your lawn, a simple landscape design focused on native plants can make a real difference.  With their deep roots, native plants can adapt to the regional climate and ecological conditions, while also addiing diversity, reducing maintenance and attracting a host of wildlife and pollinators.  Use these simple steps as a guide to develop a native front yard.

Step 1: Plan your design, start small

I prefer to lay out a garden hose to get the curves and flow that I want.  It is a great way to “fiddle” with the design before tearing anything up.  Start small by removing a section of lawn that you can manage.  You can convert other areas over the next few years.

Step 2: Investigate plant types

Think about the type of plants that will grow in your area.  I group shrubs, perennials and grasses to add impact in the landscape.  Strategically locating small trees such as redbuds and disease resistant crabapples will give height and take up space in the design. Are there some evergreen trees and shrubs that will give some splashes of green especially in winter?

Investigate the types of plants you wish to include in your yard.  Plan your garden for a succession of bloom to guarantee there are always a few plants flowering throughout the year. These native plants provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  A few plants such as milkweed can provide food for larvae and fruits and seeds will feed the birds.  A monoculture of lawn can be transformed into a landscape alive with diversity and activity.

Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and mixed prairie plantings

Step 3: Find your plants

Find the plants you need for your design by checking with local nurseries, or you can use our Native Plant Guide 2017.  Steal ideas from nature or visit the Arboretum to gather ideas of combinations and groupings that grow well together.  Then purchase the plants you want at our sale in April or September and get them in the ground.

Earth Partnership for Schools Prairie Planting along walkway to school

It will be great to see your front yard transformed into an oasis for pollinators and birds.  You will be able to look out your front window at a diverse and functional landscape that has a positive impact on the environment.  It will be a landscape that fuels pollinators and supports all sorts of birds and other wildlife.  It will be a landscape that is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, but maybe just a smaller place than in the past.*  It is not a bad thing to replace some of our lawn areas with beautiful and attractive trees, shrubs and other perennials.  Just think about the possibilities.

*If you like a larger expanse of lawn, but wish to consider drought-tolerant alternatives, consider buffalograss as an option.