Grass Less: Making the Big Switch to Landscaping with Native Plants

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

About a year ago, at an informative talk about butterfly gardening at the inaugural meeting of the West Cook Wild Ones in Oak Park, I had a watershed moment about grass.

I realized that the weedy turf in my front yard parkway was getting in the way of my next phase of where/what/how/why I grow.

Afterwards, I connected with butterfly gardening expert Stephanie Walquist, and many of you watched the educational youtube video we did.

For my landscape, the first big switch to planting pollinator-attracting native and perennial plants came four years ago, when a microburst took out several trees in my neighborhood, including the ones that had been shading my growing space.

Since then, ever frugally DYI, I must say, I have installed an evolving native specimen garden where bees are especially enjoying the Bee Balm, Mountain Mint, Catmint, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Salvia and Sedum, and a range of other plants and prairie grasses.

Out there seeing this guy made me glow and giggle, hoping he would be back with lots more friends.

In early June, I began taking my trowel to the parkway.  Why?  Well, it was an unsightly scrum of weeds and beat-up grass and now is being transformed to a way station for pollinators, thanks to the repurposed bricks I used for the border, and a few plants that needed dividing anyway.

BTW, in Oak Park, parkways seem to be the last frontier for a gardener.

And, throughout the Village gardeners are removing their grass to do things like this: In my neighborhood, an industrious urban farmer is growing a strawberry patch.

I have seen small and massive prairie gardens that take my breath away year-round.

By this time next year, I'm hoping my postage stamp size parkway will mirror any one of those public-view gardens, in its ecological biodiversity, as well as growing verve. 

'cause I think making the big switch to a native landscape is trending for the right reasons, I'm blatantly plugging the next West Cook Wild Ones meeting, Sunday, June 22, from 2:30 PM 'til 4 PM in the Priory Campus, Room 259 at Dominican University in River Forest, where landscape consultant Kelsay Shaw will share his secrets about "Transitioning to a Native Plant Garden," in the front, back or side yard, I suppose.

Go on, it's a Sunday afternoon, so sit in... unless, of course, you are too busy sowing, feeding, watering, weeding and mowing your water inefficient patch of so-called pristine green at home.

Meanwhile I'll be relaxing with a lemonade, sans lawn mower, enjoying the free dance of bees, butterflies and birds, in my front yard, foundation to curb.

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Reader Comments

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Scott Concertman from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: January 3rd, 2015 2:18 AM

All Oak Park Landscapes in the "Know" utilizing traditional "Midwestern Prairie style ecology movement" ingredients should *Patriotically* contain, Carex grayi Sedge, which still covers today's nearby muddy plains River "Bottomland". Plant a Poke weed or two on your public parkway too! When choosing hardwood trees {while helping to restore our communities ancient "Oak-Hickory" glacial sand spit Ridge ecosystem}, plant Shagbark, Shellbark, Butternut, Bitternut Organisms throughout! Scottie Ash tree seed...

Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 2:51 PM

There is so much to say on this topic, and I am very inspired that you all are having a conversation, as that is why I created this blog. The list of shorter varieties of Prairie plants that work well in sustainable urban landscaping is much longer than this, but I have grown all but one of these in my front yard garden, and have purchased them locally, so it's a start? White Prairie Clover, 1' to 2 ' tall; Prairie Blazing Star, up to 4' tall; Little Joe Pye Weed. 3' to 4' tall; Little Blue Stem 2' to 4' tall; Prairie Drop seed 2' to 3' tall; Spiderwort up to to 3 ft. tall.

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 10:48 AM

I am with you Stephanie. I especially like the point you make about balance and control. We also live in an urban area where many of our homes are on small lots. I think it is also important to consider how what we do can adversely effect our neighbors. Gardens should be for everyone to enjoy.


Posted: June 30th, 2014 8:35 AM

Last comment--young elm trees can be kept trimmed so that they blend in, and it's nice to keep a couple around since they are important trees for butterflies (Question Marks, Commas, Mourning Cloaks, etc) and moths, all of which also feed birds. Some people opt to share the landscape with other creatures, but I agree that there should be some kind of balance between conventional yard aesthetics and helping out all of the birds, bees, butterflies all of which are suffering population declines.


Posted: June 30th, 2014 8:33 AM

Gardens do take maintenance, and in a village like ours, we need to be sensitive to each other, and there may be a bit of a culture clash between people who think a perfect lawn is the way to go and those who opt for a lawn that has other plants in it. Some of those you mention, like plantain, chickweed I do keep in my garden though under control; I allow some to grow--birds do use the chickweed, and plantain you can eat and it is a host plant for the beautiful Buckeye butterfly.

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 1:51 AM

On a similar point, mulching mowers, push, elec./gas., touted to save the environment and landfill. If you cut a few weeds and spread them on the grass it won't be long before you have a lawn full of weeds. The next step is to resort to chemical intervention. You must pull these weeds by hand to be successful in keeping a nice lawn and be environmentally friendly.

Not Neighbor's Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 9:35 PM

@Neighbor - I'm extremely happy that I don't have any neighbors like yours. They sound like real nuisance. I admire creativity in landscaping and a bit of eccentricity but I would draw the line at my neighbors intentionally setting a prairie fire in a densely populated urban setting. Hope they plan to personally compensate anyone impacted if their fire should happen to spread beyond their property. Thank God I have neighbors with common sense and courtesy.

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 8:43 PM

Ragweed, prostrate spurge, chickweed, baby elm trees, plaintain and the list goes on. I have seen prairie gardens in the conservatory and in the country. They don't look like this. This over big garden is starting to look like a weed patch. My point is this. Any garden requires work to maintain and these gardens on a larger scale can be a menace to neighbors who already have no interest in pulling their weeds by hand and will resort to chemicals. My neighbor's response is they love weeds.


Posted: June 29th, 2014 6:34 PM

Burning Bush is an invasive: I keep having to pull out seedlings left and right. Vinca continues to encroach on my property from a neighbor, as well as some other horrible vine. Daylilies are a weed to me--they do no ecological good. Have you talked to your neighbor about your concerns? What are the exact weeds besides dandelions? Personally, I wouldn't advocate burning for your reasons and for destroying overwintering beneficials.

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 5:59 PM

require some work. Expecting neighbors to eradicate the numerous seedlings from these gardens just adds to the use of chemicals in the ground water. These issues do not seem to be well addressed when talking about prairie gardens. Also I don't believe burning bush and daylilies are an issue in this area as they are in more southern climes. Please comment.

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 5:52 PM

Permits for burning are accessible from the county. In pushing for more prairie gardens and possible yearly burning with it, are we not adding to pollution. Is not burning 8 feet from housing not a safety issue. Not addressing weeds that grow over a foot onto sidewalks and curbs, dandelions a foot tall as well as other weeds that are not considered prairie garden plants are a hazard to other neighboring lawns and gardens. I think that at times as pretty as native gardens can be that they do


Posted: June 29th, 2014 5:22 PM

Regarding weeds--that can be a complex matter. Some so-called weeds are very beneficial (provide nectar for pollinators and many are host plants for beautiful butterflies) and easy to control (hand pulling). Do you know specifically what kind they are? That can help the conversation. Also to go back to burning, people generally have to go through a process and get permits, etc to do a burn.


Posted: June 29th, 2014 5:19 PM

Burning is usually done on large prairies to maintain them--some seeds can only regenerate with fire, and it helps to keep invasives and prevent the prairie from succession (moving to more shrubs, trees, etc). The problem with burning every year is that they are killing off the butterflies and moths they are probably hoping to attract. "Weed" seeds are everywhere, and I would say what some people think are ornamental plants are actually weeds (Burning Bush, vinca, daylilies, etc).

Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 3:46 PM

I live down the block from a homeowner who has a large prairie garden. While I rather like the garden what I don't understand is why there is a need to burn the entire garden on a yearly basis in early spring. I question the environmental hazard from all the smoke as well as the safety hazard to nearby houses. Also besides some beautiful prairie plants are plentiful, very large weeds spreading their seeds to other gardens. No one discusses this when talking about prairie gardens. What say u

Don from Oak Park  

Posted: June 18th, 2014 8:25 PM

Repurpose, recycle, regreen the parkway. Absolutely wonderful idea. Native plants support native wildlife and put us in touch with nature way better than pictures, dioramas or powerpoint slides. Deb, you and Kevin make gardening advances in your own work and that you share you sense of joy and wonder gives all of us a kick to get real with soil and plants and indigenous life forms. Thank you.

Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 18th, 2014 4:50 PM

I'm with you, Stephanie. I just want to go green, w/o growing, grooming or mowing a lawn. Pesticides are not even part of the equation for me. In my parkway, besides my native and perennial plantings, I have introduced Green Carpet (Herniaria Glabra) - this ground cover only reaches about 3 inches in height and is a lawn alternative that I have been told can take a beating at the curb. We'll see. I wonder what other gardeners are doing?


Posted: June 18th, 2014 10:48 AM

I don't want to sound totally against lawns; they have their place, but too many homes have environmentally destructive lawns sustained by chemical pesticides and fertilizer, all of which pollute the water (love watching landscapers spray right before rain or even during it), air, and soil. These applications also destroy all of the soil organisms thus creating a cycle of dependency--the lawn must be sustained by chemicals. 80 million pounds of pesticides are used on lawns every year.


Posted: June 18th, 2014 10:44 AM

Thank you Deb for continuing to bring this issue of restoring biodiversity to our village. The U.S has over 40 million acres in lawn, which add to pollution and consumption of water resources and fossil fuel. In addition to planting natives, please consider keeping leaves in your yard and keep gardens standing through the fall/winter. Insects spend the winter here, and the beneficial ones along with birds keep insect pests in check. Over 95% of birds feed insects to their young.

June from Oak Park  

Posted: June 18th, 2014 10:35 AM

Thanks for this info; I can't attend the upcoming presentation but I'll attend in the future.

Carolyn Cullen from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 17th, 2014 5:43 PM

Thanks for the great article, Deb! Wild Ones has native plants left from our sale that are available at cost ($2.50). On our website, listed above, click on Plant Sale in the right column. Our monthly meetings/educational talks are always free and open to the public. Happy gardening!

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