There’s a growing trend in landscaping across the country: replacing traditional lawns, shrubs and annual bedding plants with perennials that are native to the local region.
Not only are nature preserves like the Kalamazoo Nature Center and Pierce Cedar Creek Institute restoring prairies, wetlands and other ecosystems on their own properties, but individual and corporate landowners are getting in on the act, too, creating native landscapes both large and small. Why? Proponents say native plants are good for wildlife and environmental quality and are easy to care for and beautiful, too.
Tom Small, co-founder of the Kalamazoo area chapter of Wild Ones, a volunteer organization dedicated to restoring biodiversity through education and native landscaping, says this native plant trend is a reversal of what had been happening to the American landscape during the past several decades — development that eradicated natural ecosystems and contributed to the extinction and endangerment of both plant and animal species.
More than 20 years ago Small and his late wife, Nancy Cutbirth Small, gradually began replacing their lawn in Kalamazoo’s Winchell neighborhood with native plants, following their Quaker values of simplicity and stewardship. They were inspired by Sara Stein's book, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards, which Small says makes the case that “we need to create the ark all over again. In order to restore the ecology that we’re losing, we need to bring back as much as possible the species that evolved where we are.”
Small says that native wildlife is most successful in — and in some cases entirely dependent on — a habitat of native plants. He notes, for example, that a native viburnum shrub supports 90 to 100 species of moths and butterflies, whereas a non-native forsythia supports only a few insect species.
“Over the course of tens of thousands of years, an amazing evolutionary process has created relationships that are very specialized and very intricate and really work, and when we disrupt them, then we begin upsetting the balance of species,” Small says. “And as Darwin remarked, take away one species from a whole system, and the ripples go on and on and on. You’ve changed everything just by eliminating that one species, and we’re eliminating them at a great rate. There are natural background extinctions, but most scientists agree that the extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural background rate.”
Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, in Barry County, has converted more than 80 acres of fallow farm field to prairie. “Today less than 1 percent of the original expanse of Michigan native prairie remains,” says Jen Howell, stewardship director at the institute.“By creating prairie habitat, we can provide crucial habitat for many native species and can potentially increase their populations by doing so.”
Sarah Reding, vice president of conservation stewardship at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, has seen this work firsthand on a restored prairie at the center. “The Willard Rose Prairie is one of the most diverse restoration projects in the state, or at least in Southwest Michigan,” Reding says. As a result, “we’re getting birds that haven’t been to the Nature Center ever and some that haven’t been here for a long time.”
Restoring native habitat is important from a human perspective too, particularly in terms of agriculture. With the rise of colony collapse disorder and other threats affecting the population of non-native honeybees, the importance of native bees, butterflies, moths and beetles in crop pollination is greater than ever.
“If we lose our native pollinators,” Small says, “we’ll wind up the way the Chinese are in various areas where they’ve lost pollinators due to pollution and environmental practices, and now they have to go around by hand transferring pollen from one crop plant to another.”
Native plants offer other environmental benefits, like improved soil, water and air quality. For example, prairie plants’ deep roots make them better at carbon sequestration — taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — than shallow-rooted plants like lawn grass. Similarly, wetland plants around shorelines help control runoff of sediment and chemicals from roads and agriculture.
As director of ecological services at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, Anna Kornoelje works with homeowners, corporate landowners such as Pfizer, nonprofits and public agencies to develop native landscapes on their properties. She is overseeing the creation of an Urban Nature Park along Portage Creek in downtown Kalamazoo, an area that is prone to flooding. The park will be festooned with colorful blooming plants such as cardinal flower, but the predominant vegetation will be sedges, grass-like plants often found in wetlands.
“Sedges have dense roots,” Kornoelje says, “and they really hold that soil so when we get floods in that area, it’s going to capture the floodwater and hold the soil.”
Easy to tend
Native plant experts say established native plants are also easier to care for and more economical than conventional lawns and gardens. Just like any Michigander who grew up here, native plants are used to the regional climate, but are better able to weather cold and drought than most humans. Irrigation is unnecessary for them and so is fertilizer, because natives usually do well in poor soil and even improve it themselves.
“One of the really nice benefits about planting natives is that you don’t need to add so much (to the soil),” Kornoelje says. “They take a little while to get established, (but once they are) you’ve got plants that will come back for, some of them, up to 100 to 150 years for a single individual plant.”
Native plants also compete well against weeds. “In a mature prairie we don’t really have issues with invasives,” Howell says. “The native grasses are quite aggressive and hardy and are able to hold their ground against many weed invasions. If you’re someone who spends a lot of time weeding and fertilizing and watering your garden, this is a great alternative.”
Although a bed of native plants can be quite beautiful if planned well, don’t expect a showcase garden overnight. Creating a native garden involves some preparation, like evaluating the soil and other conditions to know what plants will do best and removing unwanted non-native and invasive species before planting.
“If you want a planting that will impress people right away, I highly recommend plugs (seedlings),” Howell says, “but it’s a lot more expensive to do so. If you can be patient, seed is the way to go. Just be aware that it can take five or more years for many prairie plants to establish the extensive root systems required before blooming.”
Planting by seed can also be the best option when dealing with plants that don’t transplant well, like wild blue lupine, which is the host for the endangered Karner blue butterfly. “Sometimes Mother Nature just does a better job, and it’s best not to interfere,” Howell says.
You don’t need to be a master gardener to take up native gardening. The Smalls, who were both retired English professors from Western Michigan University, became self-taught experts and ended up writing an instruction manual, Using Native Plants to Restore Community in Southwest Michigan and Beyond. The book, published in 2011, two years after Nancy Small’s death, includes essays on the Smalls’ experiences as well as practical advice and encouragement, including the whys and hows of growing native plants, lists of plants and resources.
As former teachers, the Smalls even opened up their own yard as a demonstration garden, with informational signs, pathways and seating. “We want this to be educational,” says Small, who is continuing the work with his current wife, Ruth. “Yes, we want some privacy, but people are welcome to come in here, walk around, ask questions, look at things and sit and contemplate.”
Small advises homeowners considering converting yards to natives to go slowly. “Don’t try to do it all at once,” he says. “Start with a 400-square-foot patch or a 20-square-foot patch. See how things go and learn as you go along. Do it bit by bit so that you don’t burn out in the first couple of years.”
Even small native gardens provide needed oases for wildlife in the middle of the suburbs, Small says. “We have these patches of semi-natural areas like Asylum Lake, some parts of Woods Lake and Kleinstuck Preserve here in our neighborhood, but there’s not much connectivity. In between there’s either barren land or conventional landscaping, which doesn’t support much in the way of wildlife.”
You don’t have to restore a whole prairie to benefit nature in some way, and every little bit helps, Kornoelje says. “If you can make it attractive and make your other neighbors think, ‘Oh, I could do that, too,’ then you’re starting to create a ripple effect and make a big impact.”