Who doesn’t love the American dream of a lush, green lawn? But, did you know you can use native grasses and flowering plants to bring unique variety and beauty to your home? (Figure 1)
Taking care of flower gardens and lawns can be tough when you have to deal with things like droughts, insects or soggy, flooded yards. Using natives can help. Have a soggy section of your yard that can’t seem to grow grass or is a pain to try to mow? There are beautiful wetland grasses and flowering plants that would love that spot and add dimension to your yard.
Is there a shady spot that is a little bland? There are many woodland plants that will be perfect there. The best part of using native plants is that they are already well suited for the climate and may withstand the winters and summers better if you choose the right plants.
Need I mention the expense of lawn up-keep? Between mowing, fertilizers, watering, and buying annual plants, you’ve spent a pretty penny. If you have a large yard and are tired of spending your whole weekend mowing, try planting some prairie grasses and flowering plants in interesting landscaping designs that add dimension to your property and reduce mowing area (See Figure 2).
Native vs. Non-native Plants
Some of the non-native plants we love are highly invasive and are wreaking havoc in our forests and grasslands. So what do I mean by a native? A native species is one that evolved in an area over a long period of time. It is adapted to the environment and is a part of the local ecosystems.
A non-native species is deliberately or accidentally introduced to an area where it did not evolve. Some non-natives don’t survive in the new environment. Some barely hold on or need us to keep them going and don’t reproduce much on their own. However, others thrive and can become an invasive species causing real damage to the local ecosystems. A prime example is Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) (See figure 3).
It smells good and is easy to grow, but it is everywhere and harmful to our native plants and wildlife (Figure 4). It’s also tough to get rid of, but it is possible. For more information please visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website on Bush Honeysuckle Control.
Although using native plants can decrease the amount of work, it doesn’t rid you of it completely. Shrubs will still need some pruning to enhance their beauty and maintain size and shape. Grasses may need to have old stems cut off in the spring. Overall though, I’d say benefits outweigh the work involved. For example, choosing to plant native species can help our pollinators like bees, moths, hummingbirds, and butterflies (Figure 5). It may even add a patch of habitat for other wildlife if your property is large enough. If you have large patches of tall grasses, birds like Bobolinks and Meadow Larks might nest in the area. Finches will no doubt love the seeds that the flower produce (See Figure 6), but be sure to keep cats away from susceptible nests and birds. (Cats/dogs and wildlife might be an interesting topic, leave a comment of what you think for that).
Remember that not all native plants are good gardening plants. Some require specific soil types, and may not do well in a yard or urban environment. Some may grow like crazy and overtake your yard. Others may be poisonous or not very attractive, so be selective in your native gardening.
For ideas on how to get started and what plants to choose, check out www.prairienursery.com. You can put in your soil and light conditions and get some suggestions.
For lists of native shrubs check out this pdf on Native Shrubs of the Midwest for the Home Landscape.
I also cannot stress enough that you should never go and dig up native plants to bring home. Always purchase your plants from a respected nursery to preserve wild populations.
For lists of nurseries and landscapers in Illinois check out www.findnativeplants.com. If you are in the Midwest but not in Illinois, check out this website for nursery listings in your state www.grandprairiefriends.org.