Thursday, May 26, 2005

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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For many of us, the return of bright green to the landscape in spring triggers an urge to get out and grow something, and often that something is turf grass, the lawn. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawn care has a significant negative impact on the environment. But the issue seems worth revisiting at this time of year, which seems so favorable to renewal and change.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with the conventional lawn, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play wiffleball and run around there. I play wiffleball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to have some grass does not require any of us to participate in the ongoing environmental degradation associated with conventional lawn care. According to the US EPA Americans spend twenty-five billion dollars a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with eighty million pounds of chemical pesticides and seventy million tons of fertilizers each year, with far reaching environmental impacts. Some portion of our fertilizer runs off into local streams degrading those waters by promoting algae growth, and eventually contributing to water quality problems as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. In the yard itself, the insecticides used to fight pests typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them. Excessive lawn watering also represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked to this piece on the Environmental Almanac website.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us tend more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: Watering less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than scalping the lawn, using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Illinois River Sediment: Two Environmental Problems, One Highly Innovative Solution

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This is a story of two problems.

Problem number one is the buildup of sediment in parts of the Illinois River system over the past hundred years. In that time some sixty thousand acres of side channels and backwater lakes have become so shallow that they’ve lost almost all value for fish and wildlife, or recreation. These areas were formerly six to eight feet deep, but now average less than eighteen inches, thanks to accumulated sediment.

Problem number two: large expanses of land that have been degraded by various past uses—including strip mines, former industrial sites, and landfills—that need to be covered with fertile soil before they can again be useful for people or wildlife.

Enter John Marlin, senior scientist at the Waste Management Research Center, a non-regulatory service organization affiliated with the University of Illinois, and a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In cooperation with numerous others, including Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, Congressman Ray LaHood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois EPA, and the City of Chicago, Marlin has pursued a plan that addresses both issues. His idea--move the soil from where it’s a problem to where it’s a solution, transporting it on the river in barges.

Of course there were questions to be answered before anyone began loading soil. Chief among these was whether Illinois River sediment was suitable as a substitute for topsoil from other sources. Greenhouse experiments and field studies conducted by UIUC soil scientist Robert Darmody and colleagues confirmed that sediment excavated from the river was highly fertile, and that it possessed physical properties similar to those of native Illinois topsoil. These findings are not surprising since most of the sediment in Illinois waterways is soil that has eroded from agricultural fields.

Other studies determined that levels of chemical contaminants in the river sediment were acceptable for the types of redevelopment projects that Marlin and others envisioned.

After smaller trials in 2002 and 2003, the idea of using excavated sediment to redevelop degraded landscapes, or mud-to-parks, as it came to be called, was tested on a larger scale last summer. More than a hundred thousand tons of sediment was dredged from the Illinois River at Peoria, loaded onto barges, and shipped up upriver to a former U.S. Steel facility on Chicago’s south side, a slag-covered site on the Lake Michigan shore devoid of topsoil. There the excavated sediment was unloaded and spread atop the slag, covering seventeen acres to a depth of two to three feet. The site was later planted with native grasses and should begin to look like a natural area by summer 2005.

As of now, prospects for the future of the mud-to-parks idea look quite good. There’s no shortage of sediment to be removed from the Illinois River, and there are sites that material could reach by barge all the way from northwestern Indiana to New Orleans.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Illinois, Be Riversmart

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When asked how far it is to the nearest river, most of us would answer in terms of miles, since we think of getting there over roads. But we are also connected to waterways via the pipes that bring water into our homes and the sewer systems that take it away. This understanding, that we’re more closely connected to rivers than we think, is the foundation for an ongoing campaign sponsored by the Prairie Rivers Network called, “Illinois, Be RiverSmart.”

The RiverSmart campaign is designed to remind people that their everyday activities have significant impacts on the health of local rivers.

One major thrust of the RiverSmart campaign encourages people to conserve water at home by adopting inexpensive, commonsense water-saving practices. Some of the tips under this heading include minor home improvements, such as installing low-flow toilets and water-saving showerheads. Others remind us that it pays to invest in water-conserving appliances when it comes time to replace a dishwasher or washing machine. Still other tips for water conservation point out that minor changes in our habits can have a significant cumulative impact on how much water we use—turning off the water while brushing teeth and shaving, watering lawns sparingly and only in the morning, running dishwashers and washing machines only when they are full.

In addition to urging people to limit the amount of water they use, the RiverSmart campaign encourages us to recognize and eliminate the kinds of water pollution that begin at home. This means fixing car leaks promptly, and disposing of oil and antifreeze safely, never, ever, dumping such substances down storm drains. The same goes for household cleaners, paint, and other chemicals. It’s also possible to eliminate some of the concern about how hazardous chemicals are disposed of by bringing fewer of them into the home to begin with. For instance, you might want to try environmentally friendly cleaners and avoid those containing chlorine, phosphates, and solvents.

Around your yard, you can do your part to help control water pollution by eliminating, or at least minimizing the use of pesticide and fertilizer. On the farm it’s crucial to develop nutrient management plans and follow University of Illinois Extension guidelines for fertilizers and pesticides.

Now, if you feel overloaded with tips for things you can do to protect the environment, or you simply have trouble remembering them, here’s an easy way to join the RiverSmart campaign. Look at your household drain, look at the storm sewer outside, and say to yourself, the river starts here.

If you’re interested in organized efforts to promote clean waterways, check out the Water Festival at the Urbana Middle School this Saturday, May 14, from noon to 3:00 p.m. Crews of middle school students and visitors will go out from the school to stencil storm drains with the message, “Dump No Waste, Drains to Rivers.” The Water Festival will also feature food and family games, as well as music, courtesy of the Urbana Middle School Tiger Steel Drum Band. Groups including the Champaign County Forest Preserve, the City of Urbana Public Works Department, Prairie Rivers Network, the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Urbana Middle School Water Works Program will also be on hand to promote clean waterways at the heart of the city, where they begin.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Native Plants at Home

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Have you ever heard people talk about the ecological importance of using native plants in home gardens and felt out of the loop—like maybe everybody else got the native plant memo when you were out sick? Or maybe you got the message, but you’re concerned the neighbors might think you’re cultivating weeds? If so, I’ve got a couple of suggestions for you.

First, check out the book published by University of Illinois Extension in 2004 called, Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest, written by Keith Nowakowski. This book gives you everything you need to know to make good use of native plants without bogging down anywhere. It’s the kind of resource my wife wishes I’d had when I started replacing turf with Prairie Dropseed and Yellow Coneflowers seven years ago.

Of course this book makes the case for using native plants that you may be familiar with from other sources: that they require little or no irrigation once they’re established, that they need neither fertilizers nor pesticides, that they provide visual attractions year round, and that they are beneficial to insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Perhaps more importantly, Native Plants for the Home Landscape offers specific plans for how to incorporate native plants into a variety of settings. Are you ready to try something different where the turfgrass just won’t grow under a shade tree? There’s a woodland garden plan featuring plants that put on a spectacular show in spring and early summer, and that offer something of interest to the eye year round. Have you got a sunny spot that cries out for a prairie garden? Nowakowski emphasizes that you can put in a prairie garden that’s attractive to both wildlife and neighbors by complementing the use of flowers, such as Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Purple Coneflowers, with grasses and sedges.

Nowakoski’s book is also notable for showcasing the variety of native plants that possess the characteristics prized in home landscapes, with specific entries on more than eighty different plants. On top of that, it features some photographs of flowers you might be tempted to cut out and frame.

Now that you know of a resource that helps you plan how to use native plants, you may be wondering where to get them. The book provides specific information for a number of sources in the Midwest, but the best opportunity for buying native plants in the Champaign-Urbana area takes place this Saturday, May 7th, at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana. It’s the annual Native Prairie Plant and Woodland Wildflower Sale conducted by the Grand Prairie Friends, a local group that works to conserve prairies and other natural areas.

At the sale you can purchase some forty species of plants, from easy-to-grow staples like Little Bluestem and Orange Butterfly Weed to less widely know plants like New Jersey Tea and Cream Wild Indigo. The plants available at the sale are grown by volunteers from seed collected locally, or they are donated by individuals who grow native species in their gardens.

Beyond offering you the opportunity to buy interesting plants at reasonable prices, the sale provides a way for you to support native plant conservation and restoration in our area. Proceeds from it are used to fund summer internships for college age students to do hands-on natural areas management, and to buy equipment that the Grand Prairie Friends use to maintain natural areas.

So, if you’ve been thinking maybe you’re ready for some native plants in your yard, now really is the time to grow a little wild.