Thursday, May 28, 2009

Developing prairie gardens to beautify, educate, inspire at U of I College of Veterinary Medicine

Developing prairie gardens to beautify, educate, inspire at U of I College of Veterinary Medicine

[Details about volunteering to help with the project here:]

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, most of the land now occupied by the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois was blanketed in tallgrass prairie. This now nearly vanished ecosystem was characterized by an astonishingly rich plant community, a mosaic composed of some 300 species of grasses and flowers.

As the University developed, the native flora that had occupied the land between buildings and sidewalks and parking lots was replaced with lawns comprising just a few species of nonnative turf grass, in keeping with the values of the times. In some places these lawns continue to serve important functions for people, as Frisbee throwers, sunbathers, and tailgaters can all attest. But much of turf grass on campus is maintained for reasons that can be fairly summed up in the observation “that’s just how it’s always been done.”

Would it benefit people on campus and in the wider community to displace some of that unused lawn and restore there plants native to the tallgrass prairie?

Kerry Helms thinks so. He is coordinator of graphic design for the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the College’s Orange, Blue and Green Committee, which promotes a variety of environmental efforts. [Photo: Left to right, Jamie Ellis, Kerry Helms, and Joe Kunkel point out where volunteers will help replace lawn with native prairie plants in front of the Vet Med Basic Sciences Building on June 6th.] So does Joe Kunkel, another member of the committee who is also director of facilities at Vet Med. Together and in collaboration with Jamie Ellis, board president of the local group, Grand Prairie Friends, they have been working on an initiative to do just that.

Their project is to install two perennial gardens composed entirely of native prairie plants near the front of the Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences Building off of South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana. One of these gardens will occupy the island that creates the traffic turnaround in front of the building, while the other will surround the large metal sculpture, called “Growing in Illinois,” just to the south. In total these gardens will replace more than 10,000 square feet of lawn.

The mix of native plants to be used in the project was chosen with attention to preserving sight lines for safety and enhancing views of the sculpture. Once these plants are established they will provide year-round visual interest, and serve as a living link to the landscape of the past for the education and inspiration of all who pass by.

There’s a good news/bad news story regarding the funding that was required to make these gardens happen. The good news is that the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates money accumulated through fees that U of I students assess themselves to support sustainability, awarded it $20,000. That’s enough money to buy the 40 cubic yards of mulch and 10,000 seedlings the plans call for. The bad news is, the grant does not cover costs for labor to get those 10,000 plants in the ground.

Can you see where this is heading?

That’s right; this is a plug for the biggest prairie planting party in town. On Saturday, June 6th, people of all ages are invited to come to the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Basic Sciences Building and get dirty for a good cause. Volunteers need not know anything about prairies or even gardening to help out, since experts from Grand Prairie Friends will be on hand to guide the work. And the work itself is really no more complicated than making small holes in the ground and popping plants into them.

For more information about this wonderful opportunity to help bring back a bit of prairie to the flagship university of the Prairie State, point your browser to

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Notes from the annual meeting of the National Wildlife Federation

Notes from the annual meeting of the National Wildlife Federation

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

I had the honor recently of attending the annual meeting of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as an alternate representative for Prairie Rivers Network, which is the Illinois affiliate of the organization.

On the chance that you’re not familiar with it, NWF is America’s largest organization dedicated to conservation education and advocacy. It is also the one where I feel most at home. That’s because NWF consistently recognizes the vital connection between human well-being and the health of wildlife and wild places.

At the annual meeting, Prairie Rivers Network board member Clark Bullard of Urbana was elected to a second, three-year term as a regional director on the National Wildlife Federation board. He expressed pleasure with the organization’s leadership on climate policy, particularly its efforts to focus Congress on the need to establish contiguous migration corridors to ensure that plants and wildlife can survive global warming. “Even in the most optimistic scenario for phasing out fossil fuels,” Bullard noted, “wildlife and their food supplies must move northward at a rate of 30 feet per day, every day for the next century, just to survive climate changes already in the pipeline. If we don’t link fragmented habitats, logically along our rivers and streams, hundreds of species will be trapped and die in the fragmented habitats where they live today.”

In Bullard’s estimation the challenges NWF will address in the future are daunting. He points out that Congress has mandated a six-fold increase in biofuel production, forcing food and fuel to compete for a finite amount of land. “With agribusiness currently exempt from many environmental regulations,” he said, “there is little to keep industrial agriculture from decimating what is left of our natural world.”

I would emphasize that the annual meeting of NWF offered much cause for optimism, too. Being there allowed me to hear firsthand from the people of other NWF affiliates who have achieved significant conservation victories in recent years. Among them were representatives from Mississippi, who helped to head off an enormous Army Corps of Engineers project known as the Yazoo Pumps, which would have destroyed some 300 square miles of wetlands; representatives from New Mexico who helped coordinate the efforts of an uncommonly diverse coalition to preserve the Valle Vidal, also known as “New Mexico’s Yellowstone;” and representatives from Wisconsin, who promoted a state law that was signed this spring that bans the use of phosphorous in most lawn fertilizers.

Prairie Rivers Network board president Jon McNussen, with whom I attended the NWF meeting, enjoyed the opportunity for sharing among affiliates. “It’s good to learn what strategies are working effectively elsewhere,” he said, “on the chance we can adapt them to our own purposes Illinois. I also like to pass along to others what’s working for us.” Beyond that, McNussen noted the importance of face-to-face conversations to cultivate regional opportunities for collaborative efforts, such as the Great Lakes Compact. As he put it, “The concerns of clean air, clean water, and healthy wildlife transcend political boundaries.”

[Photo: Prairie Rivers Network board president Jon McNussen and other National Wildlife Federation representatives do some hands-on conservation at their annual meeting by participating in "TreeVitalize Pittsburgh.] In keeping with tradition, many of us who participated in this year’s annual meeting of the National Wildlife Federation took part in a local conservation project. Together with volunteers from the community we planted more than 1000 trees as part of an effort called “TreeVitalize Pittsburgh.” Those trees are small now, but they represent hope that we can leave future generations a world in which people and wildlife thrive together.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

As the green of spring replaces the gray and brown of winter in the Illinois landscape I imagine that even people who don’t consider themselves gardeners feel the itch to plant something. For me the impulse is to transform a little bit more lawn into garden, using plants that are native to east central Illinois.

Why garden with native plants?

Aesthetics are part of it. I anticipate with great pleasure the colors of prairie flowers in summer—the bright yellow of black-eyed susan, the subdued lavender of our native bee balm, the vibrant orange of butterfly milkweed, the plant that also guarantees I’ll have monarch butterflies in my yard. Interspersed with these, I see in my mind’s eye the slender, flowing leaves of my favorite native grass, prairie dropseed, as well as sturdier stands of little bluestem.

I’m also prompted to landscape with native plants by the value I place on conservation. I know that my new prairie garden will require the use of no pesticides or fertilizer, and that once it is established, I won’t even have to water it. Nor will I have to spend time mowing it.

Of course, I could achieve these goals of conservation by using perennial plants that originate elsewhere in the world. But it is only by landscaping with plants native to our region that I can accomplish an even more important purpose, which is to help sustain populations of native insects. [Photos: an adult pearl crescent butterfly and a monarch butterfly caterpillar both spent time on my butterfly milkweed last summer.]

“Insects,” you say, “why would anyone want to help insects—aren’t they the enemy?”

Well, yes and no.

The ones that eat your garden vegetables don’t make for very good neighbors. But other insects, the ones that are adapted to feeding on native plants and trees (which are, in turn, adapted to tolerate them) are worth our attention for their own sake, and they are the key to sustaining diverse populations of birds and other wildlife.

Indeed, remaking urban and suburban landscapes with native plants is crucial if we are to slow the continuing wave of animal extinctions that began with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

In basic terms, the land we set aside from development is not itself sufficient to maintain a healthy level of biodiversity. We can compensate for that to a degree, however, by increasing the value of urban and suburban landscapes for wildlife. That starts with native plants, which are the food for native insects, which are, ultimately, the food for so many other creatures up the food chain.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ecological importance of landscaping with native plants, let me recommend the book “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy, who is an entomologist at the University of Delaware.

If you’re ready to start landscaping with native plants, let me recommend two local resources. The first is a book published by University of Illinois Extension, called “Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest.” This book describes a wide variety of native wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that work well in home landscapes, and it provides specific plans for installing them in gardens that look great, too.

The second local resource you should be aware of is a conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends. Each Spring they grow and sell native plants to raise funds for efforts to conserve land and promote biodiversity in our area. This year’s Grand Prairie Friends Native Prairie Plant and Woodland Wildflower sale will take place from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 9th, at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.

There you can get advice from members of the group about how and what to plant, and you can buy a wide variety of native plants at very reasonable prices.