Put the Hose Away, Go Native
America loves lawns. If you live in a house, whether it's in St. Paul, Richfield, or Moorhead, you most likely have a lawn. Lawns are a guaranteed sight in most parts of the country, but our lawns are not perfect. No, it's not because you haven't mowed yet. It's because we expend a great deal of energy and resources to keep our lawns manicured, even if we live in a climate that doesn't naturally support a lawn. More people are starting to realize this, and a nationwide movement advocating native landscaping has been growing alongside the native plants they love.
One of the workshops at the Living Green Expo focused on native plants and Minnesota's ecosystem. The presenter, Julia Vanatta, is a gardener with a passion for native landscaping. She came from the local chapter of Wild Ones, a prominent national group advocating for native landscaping.
In Minnesota, landscaping with native plants means planting indigenous prairie grasses instead of non-native turf grass. The most common type of turf grass in Minnesota is Kentucky bluegrass. Despite its name, this grass is not native to America, let alone Minnesota. It is very aggressive, and flourishes in cool, moist regions, which explains its dominance in America's northern states. It makes a dense lawn with a short root system and relatively high water demand. Most lawns in Minnesota, especially ones older than 35 years, are composed of Kentucky bluegrass, according to the University of Minnesota.
In her presentation, Vanatta gave many reasons to landscape with native plants, like brown-eyed susan and purple coneflower. One reason was the resource-intensive maintenance of lawns. According to Vanatta, 600 square miles of lawn are being added in America each year. A NASA study puts this in perspective with its conclusion that America has at least three times as many acres of lawn as we have acres of irrigated corn.
Just as we use water to grow crops, we also use water to keep our lawns green in what amounts to a major use of water in our country. According to the National Wildlife Federation, 50-70% of our residential water use is dedicated to landscaping, much of which is simply watering the lawn. Since we have no widespread adoption of recycled water use for our lawns, the water we use is clean drinking water. Unlike most of our lawns, native plants don't need any more water than they get from the natural cycle—barring long-term drought—because they adapted to this region long ago. Native plants still require maintenance, but they are not as resource intensive as turf grass.
Another very important reason for planting indigenous species is to prevent (or at least lessen) the spread of invasive species. Some of Minnesota's infamous invasives, like Buckthorn and Crown Vetch, were intentionally brought to the region for gardening and landscaping. It was a rude shock when these species started spreading rapidly throughout forests and prairies, out-competing the native plants. Buckthorn is now classified as a restricted noxious weed, and it is illegal to sell, import, or transport in Minnesota.
Though Minnesota has restrictions on invasive plants, not all of its municipalities are friendly to native landscaping. The cultural standard of manicured lawns has found its way into ordinances across the state. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, grass and weeds can be no higher than eight inches. In Richfield, the maximum is six inches. Woodbury has an ordinance that seems friendly to 'natural landscaping', until it delves into a confusing set of rules about areas of the lawn that have to meet an eight inches height restriction. It varies by city, but these height restrictions do not always prohibit native plants. Wild Ones has an ideal ordinance for cities wishing to accommodate native landscaping while maintaining reasonable yard standards.
Admittedly, native landscaping's upfront effort and costs combined with the social lawn mandate can make the process seem daunting. The Department of Natural Resources has made it easier with its guide for Minnesotans. Organizations like Wild Ones make it easier with their advocacy. This type of landscaping makes your yard a lot more environmentally friendly, and even one corner of lawn devoted to native landscaping means more native habitat and less lawn to mow. Wildlife like it too.