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Let native plants take their natural place instead of suburban lawn
By Valerie Blaine | Columnist

Native landscaping works well in a wooded setting in St. Charles.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Towering prairie plants such as rosinweed and cup plant are part of this setting.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Native landscaping with prairie plants.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

A brown-eyed Susan.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Brown-eyed Susan and bee balm plants grow in a natural setting.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Joe-Pye Weed is used in native landscaping in a woodland setting.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Native landscaping with prairie plants creates homes for creatures.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/7/2009 12:00 AM

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Want to go native?

Natural landscaping is not just "letting the lawn go" or letting botanical renegades run rampant. It requires planning, hard work, patience and a lot of tender loving care.

There are many ways to learn about the joys of landscaping with native plants and restoring healthy native plant communities. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County offers classes about native plant landscaping and the naturalist staff would be happy to answer your questions. E-mail us at programs@kaneforest.com.

In addition, check out the following resources in our area:

Wild Ones: A not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization. As stated in their Web site, Wild Ones "promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities."

For information about local chapters near you, visit www.for-wild.org/chapters.html

The Conservation Foundation: A not-for-profit land and watershed protection organization, based in Naperville. According to its Web site, theconservationfoundation.org, "The mission of the Foundation is to preserve open space and natural lands, protect rivers and watersheds, and promote stewardship of our environment."

For landowners, the Foundation offers a program called Conservation @ Home.

"This program encourages and recognizes property owners that protect and/or create yards that are environmentally friendly and conserve water. This includes planting native vegetation, such as prairie and woodland wildflowers, trees and shrubs, creating butterfly and rain gardens, and removing exotic species of plants."

Being au naturel can get you in trouble. At the very least it leads to hushed comments and disapproving stares.

But my lawn is used to this. It went native about 11 years ago and has been au naturel ever since. Its tall wildflowers wave scandalously in the breeze for all to see. Its graceful grasses are unfettered and fecund.

Neighbors may shudder at the sight of such botanical anarchy, but my lawn - rather, my un-lawn - is a paragon of health. This one-and-a-half acre piece of the Illinois landscape is going back to its roots and becoming, once again, a healthy oak woodland. Restoration landscaping, distasteful as it seems to some people, is a healthy alternative to the dominant paradigm of the American lawn.

Un-lawns are generally unappreciated. In some cities and suburbs, local ordinances prohibit homeowners from allowing vegetation to exceed 10 inches in height. In planned communities, homeowners' associations dictate the species and style of landscaping, usually prohibiting any variance of the two-inch tall carpet of turf. Healthy landscaping is a criminal act.

This is not entirely surprising. There's a century's worth of American history leading to the disdain of the unruly, the unkempt and the untidy in the suburbs.

In the mid- to late 19th century influential landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmstead and Frank J. Scott began to lead America away from the ramshackle homestead look of the frontier. They preached the gospel of a new and improved collective image: the suburban lawnscape. Scott rallied for "suburban home embellishment" in the form of "a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass." The idea caught on, with understandable setbacks during the debilitating droughts and economic hardships of the Great Depression.

The aesthetic of the closely cropped lawn is a recently acquired taste, made possible by the rise of the petrochemical industry after World War II. With the widespread availability of lawn mowers and lawn chemicals, any suburbanite could - and everyone should - achieve the goal of the velvet green lawn. Indeed, a verdant lawn made as much a statement about one's American-ness as the two-car garage and the split-level house.

As author Michael Pollan wrote in his book "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education," the 20th century lawn became "an institution of democracy." From suburb to suburb, from sea to shining sea, the lawnscape unites all suburbanites. Thus the suburban lawn has become part and parcel of the American dream.

There are some flaws in the pursuit of the flawless green lawn. For starters, one becomes a slave to the lawn. Although some suburbanites dedicated to verdant perfection are dubbed "lawn kings," they in fact live in servitude to their lawn for seven months of the year. In addition, they are engulfed in turf wars - the turf grass is at war with nature, and neighbors are tacitly at war over whose turf is better. Suburbanites will bar no expense in time, energy, and money to fight the good fight - e.g., to achieve some semblance of a utopian turf. And this is the most critical flaw in the turf war: It's unhealthy.

The American lawn is an ecologically unstable, chemically dependent monoculture of alien plants. A monoculture is an area in which only one plant species grows, at the expense of anything and everything else. It must be mowed to maintain a uniform height.

It's made of nonnative species ill-suited to our climate's precipitation. It's dependent on artificial precipitation - meaning that it must be watered regularly to stay alive. It's dependent on herbicides to keep any and every other species of plants from encroaching on the troops of turf grass. It's addicted to pesticides to keep viruses, fungi, and bacteria at bay. It's got to have fertilizers to ensure the greenest of greens.

In the well-watered American lawnscape there must be nary a weed, nor a blade out of place, nor a renegade weed. And one must not allow the grass to grow tall enough to flower. Flowers - a plant's way of reproducing sexually - are anathema to the lawn. As Pollan poignantly states, the lawn is a landscape deprived of sex and death.

So who's giving out the emerald-tinted glasses? We don't live in Oz where illusory green comes from a duplicitous source. We live in Illinois, where the auburn prairie meets the muddy brown rivers and the blue-green wetlands and the variegated woodlands. We live in a land of droughts and deluges, of wildflowers and weeds, of pests and predators, of sex and death. To deny where we are in the world is unhealthy. To landscape with natives is reality therapy.

The corollary to all this is, "When in Rome, do what the Romans do." Or, when in Illinois, let native Illinois plants do what they do. They grow tall. They flower. They flourish.

Healthy choices involving native landscaping may go against the tide of the prevailing paradigm of the American Lawn; they may fly in the face of the American dream. But tweaking the American dream may be just what the doctor ordered.

So, go wild. Give it a try. Let au natural replace faux natural. Here's to strong oak seedlings reaching for the sun, bumblebees on native blossoms, and tall prairie grasses bending to the wind blowing across your un-lawn.

Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County who resides among native oaks, wildflowers, woodpeckers and butterflies in the woods of western St. Charles. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.