Thursday, July 26, 2007

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

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Three years ago as I was mowing the bit of yard between the fence and the alley behind my house I found myself wondering what I could do with this little strip of land that might make it look better and free me from cutting it every week. A conventional flower bed was out of the question since the soil there contains a lot of sand and gravel, and drains very quickly.

Would prairie plants do well there? It seemed worth a try.

I stopped by the Grand Prairie Friends plant sale at Lincoln Square in Urbana where I got great advice and great plants at a rock bottom price. (Alas, plant sales have already ended this year, but they’ll be back next spring.)

Installing the plants was fairly simple. First I mowed the existing grass and weeds as short as I could. Then I covered the ground with layers of newspaper, and piled mulch on top of that to kill off the competition. Finally, I put in my new prairie plants right through holes in the paper and mulch.

Now, I did have to water those plants in that first year, and I still pull weeds from among them. But on the whole, my plan for a low maintenance border composed of prairie plants has worked out quite well.

The planting is anchored by two grasses native to central Illinois, prairie dropseed, which is characterized by slender, flowing leaves, and little bluestem, which turns an attractive straw color in fall and stands up through the winter. Interspersed with these grasses are a variety of native flowers, including some very familiar ones, like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, as well as some that are a little less conventional, which are my favorites. These include rattlesnake master, Illinois’ tough-as-nails version of a yucca plant, and wild hairy petunia, a low-growing plant that puts out a new array of delicate, lavender flowers each morning, only to drop them in the afternoon.

My own use of native plants to create a low-maintenance border has made me attuned to use of them elsewhere.

The Master Plan for the U of I campus encourages the use of native plants, which are especially noticeable in the landscaping around newer buildings. For example, the plantings around the Siebel Center include prairie dropseed and purple coneflower, as well as a native ginger and spiderwort. Just this spring the strip of land between the sidewalk along Kirby Avenue and the big parking lot west of the Assembly Hall was planted entirely with little bluestem, as a way of beautifying the area and making it easier to maintain.

The City of Urbana, too, favors the use of native perennials in landscapes it maintains. You can see prairie dropseed and little bluestem in the median on Race street downtown. And there’s a more extensive mix of native plants included in the median planting on North Cunningham up near Interstate 74.

I’m reminded here of the quote from Ladybird Johnson that was repeated as people marked her passing last week. In commenting on the use of native flowers to beautify highways she once said, “I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont.”

I suppose you could say that when we use native plants in our landscaping, we let Illinois look like Illinois.

[For an excellent resource check out the book Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest, published by University of Illinois Extension.]