The joy of letting native plants take over your yard

Richard Doak wrote a great piece in last Sunday's Des Moines Register urging readers to "plant the seeds of a more eco-thoughtful Iowa." Seeding native plants along roadsides has helped the state Department of Transportation save money and labor while user fewer chemicals.

Highway officials cite a long list of other benefits, such as controlling blowing snow, improving air quality, reducing erosion, filtering pollutants and providing wildlife habitat. They're even said to improve safety by reducing the effects of highway hypnosis, delineating upcoming curves and screening headlight glare.

Doak wants to see much more native landscaping in Iowa:

To set the example, let's have every school, every courthouse, every park, every hospital, every library set aside at least a patch of space for wild indigo, prairie sage, golden Alexanders, blackeyed Susan, pale-purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, prairie larkspur, shooting star, compass plant, partridge pea, spiderwort, ironweed, blazing star, smooth blue aster or any of hundreds of other flowering plants that were native to the tallgrass prairie. [...]

It's estimated that up to one-third of residential water use goes to lawn watering, and lawn mowing uses 800 million gallons of gasoline per year, including 17 million gallons spilled while refueling. Some 5 percent of air pollution is attributed to lawn mowers.

Native plants require no fertilizer or herbicide, no watering and only enough mowing to mimic the effects of the occasional wildfires that kept the prairie clean of trees.

Interest in reducing pollution and conserving water and energy should be reason enough to switch to native landscaping.

About ten years ago, our family stopped trying to grow a grassy lawn in our shady yard. After the jump I've listed some of the benefits of going native.

We have a beautiful yard. While some people might not appreciate the collective of native Iowa plants (weeds) in our yard, we would never trade it for a monotonous expanse of grass. A decade into our experiment, we have more than 15 types of wildflowers on our property. The landscape changes throughout the spring, summer and fall. Our kids enjoy exploring the yard and get excited whenever a new type of plant starts blooming or getting tall. They love seeing butterflies or other pollinators on the plants too.

We save time. As Doak writes, our yard requires almost no maintenance. It needs mowing about three times a year.

We save water. We have never watered our lawn since deciding to go native. The plants in our yard tolerated a long dry spell a couple of summers ago very well compared to the grassy lawns in the neighborhood.

We save money. We don't buy grass seed, fertilizer or herbicides, and our water bills are lower than if we were trying to maintain a grassy lawn.

We don't use chemicals. The only time I can remember using herbicides in the last decade was when we had a small patch of poison ivy sprayed near our front sidewalk. We can let our dog and kids run around the yard without worrying about the chemicals they will track in the house afterwards. I've never understood why so many Americans spray their lawns and then encourage children to go outside to play there. Kids put their hands in their mouths frequently.

Ditching our grassy yard was easy. We are fortunate to live near woods, so we didn't incur any "startup costs." We just stopped trying to grow a grassy lawn and let nature take over from there. Gradually plants from the woods covered almost the whole yard. Most homeowners would have to spend some money for native landscaping, but reduced maintenance in subsequent years should compensate for the initial cost.

For Iowans who want native plants on their property, Doak passes along this advice from Loren Lown, natural-resources specialist with the Polk County Conservation Board.

-Talk with people who have prairie plantings. They can steer you to sources of seed and expertise. Attend workshops.

- Choose plants adapted for your site. There are 1,500 native species of vascular plants in Iowa, but not all will thrive in all locations. You'll need different species for a sunny hillside than for a soggy low spot. Species for a rain garden would differ from species for a butterfly garden.

- Use native plants for accent or a centerpiece, but not for the entire yard. Keep mowing the turf around the prairie plantings to establish a border for them and to make it clear the native patch was deliberately planned, not just lawn gone wild.

- Be patient. Most native plants are deep-rooted perennials. They will spend a couple of years establishing roots before they blossom.

After that, said Lown, people will have a planting that requires no spraying, no watering and no maintenance except cutting once a year -"and it will live longer than you will."

My advice is to make that native patch as big as possible. Once you get used to the variety of shapes and colors outside your window, you won't miss your Kentucky bluegrass at all.

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