Whether you are starting from a grass lawn or have existing natural areas on your property, the Conservation@Home program can help you make your yard more attractive to wildlife and retain precious rainwater. Steps you can take include planting native plants that support butterflies and other pollinators, installing a rain garden or a rain barrel or two, and removing plants introduced from Europe and Asia. Not only will you be contributing to a healthier environment, you can spend valuable outdoor time as a family, and you’ll get to enjoy nature’s ever-changing cast of characters right outside your window. Click here to see several beautiful yards that have been certified.
Beautifying your yard while conserving water and creating habitat for wildlife can be easy and rewarding! Adding native plants can help you save money, mow less, see more birds and butterflies and enjoy a functioning yard with fewer problems and less effort.
Use the links below to learn more about Earth-Friendly Landscaping
Why Native plants
At the core of environmentally friendly landscapes is the use of native plants, the absence of fertilizers or pesticides, and smart water use. Native plants are those species that were thriving locally when the first settlers arrived. These plants have evolved over thousands of years to survive the soils and seasonal conditions of cold, rain and drought of our northern Illinois climate.
As the country was settled, more and more land was converted from native landscape to farm fields, cities, roads and suburban development. Plants that have historically been planted as replacements have been introduced from outside our local region – usually from Europe or the Far East. This has broken the dependent relationships that evolved over thousands of years between native plants and the birds and animals that are dependent on them directly or indirectly for their survival. For example, today less than 0.01% of native prairie is left in Illinois of what was seen by the original settlers in the early to mid-1800s. The decline of many species of birds and fewer butterflies in our gardens are directly linked to these changes.
Loss of open space and wildlife habitat, degradation of what remains, and dirty stormwater runoff are the leading causes of environmental problems in our developed areas. If we can replace some of this lost habitat in our yards and conserve rain water before it runs into our roads, then we can reduce some of the negative impacts of development, have cleaner water in our neighborhoods and enjoy a better quality of life. We will also be restoring the food sources (in the form of native plants) that have been lost to our pollinators as land has been developed over the past 200 years. This single act of adding native plants – including trees and shrubs – to our gardens will significantly help make our gardens not only beautiful but productive and full of life!
Just What is a Native Plant?
Native plants are typically defined as those trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses that evolved over thousands of years to our climate and soils. The assemblage of plants that evolved together in a particular place with certain light, soil and water conditions is called an ecosystem. These can be largely treeless (prairie or wetland) or have differing densities of trees (savannah, woodland, forest.) Within any of these categories there can also be other subcategories based on soil moisture. So a prairie (or full sun condition), can be wet or dry. The Chicago Wilderness Atlas of Biodiversity (live link) is a great resource to learn more about our pre-development plant communities.
Usually, when ecologists talk about native plants they are considering those plants that evolved in the Great Lakes Basin rather than Colorado, Kentucky, California or any other region of the country. Dependent upon the project requirements, they may specify native species whose genetic history is from within a 250 mile or even 25 mile radius of where the planting is being done.
In choosing natives to plant in your gardens, your best chance of success is first to generally match the soil, water and light conditions of the native plants in your garden according to where the plants grew historically, and second to buy plants whose genetics are from within your region. For example, if your garden gets more than 6 hours of sun a day, the best plants to look at are those that are considered prairie species. If you were to choose Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) to add to your garden – a beautiful native grass – try to purchase plants whose genetics are from northern/north central Illinois, southern Wisconsin or northern Indiana. Little Bluestem from the Great Plains would have different evolutionary history and different genetics, and might not grow as well (or too aggressively) in your garden.
If you have more shade on your property, native plants that grow in woodlands are a better match. That said, you can plant at least some woodland natives in full sun conditions as long as good soil moisture is available through the growing season. It is more difficult to plant prairie species in shaded conditions and expect them to thrive.
This may sound way too complicated but there are many reliable ways to purchase local native plants and connect with helpful organizations. Many of them are listed in our Resources section. Below are some native plant guides we love:
- Possibility Place Nursery’s Plant Finder
- Natural Garden Natives.com (includes a list of native plant sales and how to find local garden centers that sell Natural Garden Natives®)
- Natural Communities Native Plants
- Prairie Moon Nursery (although headquartered in Minnesota, many species are available in more local genotypes)
- Prairie Nursery
What About Native Plant Cultivars?
The world of native plant selections (cultivars) can be very confusing to the home gardener. As the popularity of native plants has increased, many growers have started developing more and more selections of native species that meet certain characteristics. Early on this was most seen with native shrubs. For example, Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a native shrub that grows throughout most of the continental United States. In the wild it is a 3-9’ tall multi-stemmed shrub that grows in silty, sandy or loam soils in full or partial sun. It prefers moist conditions and can withstand temporary flooding. With its red stems, it is eye-catching in the winter.
Plant breeders saw these red stems, as well as its spring flowering, fruit and maroon fall color and set to work to “enhance” one or more of these characteristics for the garden and landscape market. The selections they came up with through breeding include:
- ‘Cardinal’- Bright red stems in winter, better disease resistance, grows to 10′ tall and wide
- ‘Flaviramea’- Stems turn bright yellow in winter instead of red, but susceptible to canker
- ‘Isanti’- A dwarf form that grows 5′ to 6′ tall and 8′ to 10′ wide. Fruits heavily, but can be susceptible to leaf spot
- ‘Kelseyi’- Dwarf form that grows to 3′ tall. Stem color and fall foliage color is less than other selections
- ‘Silver and Gold’- From ‘Flaviramea.’ Stems are yellow, leaves are variegated with an irregular yellow border
A selection of a species, called a cultivar, is given an additional name which is written in single quotes. So the correct way to write Isanti Dogwood is Cornus sericea ‘Isanti’.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is another native plant where many cultivars have been developed and introduced to the market. ‘The Blues’ was developed for its intense blue color but it tended to fall over. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, while not as blue, remains more reliably upright but ‘Standing Ovation’ – which is also more consistently upright – can be more reliably produced. ‘Carousel’, growing to about 3’ tall, was selected to be a lower-growing version of the species. And there continue to be others. Another term that is becoming popular is “nativar” which is simply a cultivar of a native plant.
Understanding cultivars helps explain several things. In order to consistently grow the desired characteristic(s) the plant has been bred for, a cultivar cannot be grown from seed. So every Carousel Little Bluestem or Isanti Dogwood is genetically identical to every other plant with the same name. Buying cultivars for your garden can reduce its genetic diversity and resiliency against disease and changing climate conditions. In addition, sometimes, when breeding for a certain characteristic, the new selection may be less hardy or more susceptible to disease.
Most importantly, however, when a cultivar is developed, other traits of the plant, such as the amount of pollen or nectar produced or the physical characteristics that pollinators use to identify the correct landing spots on the flower, may be negatively impacted. In fact, some don’t consider cultivars of native species to be native plants at all!
Research in this area is just beginning and should be done for each individual selection. What is understood about the food value of the Isanti Dogwood, cannot be assumed to be true for the cultivar ‘Cardinal’. This is the primary reason we recommend planting straight species whenever possible. If this is not possible, your second choice are cultivars on native species over most plants introduced from Europe and Asia.
Helpful Links to Learn More About Native Cultivars
- From Nursery to Nature: Are native cultivars as valuable to pollinators as native species? – Annie S. White
- The Nativar Conundrum: New Research on Natives vs. Native Cultivars with Dr. Doug Tallamy
- Nativars (Native Cultivars): What We Know & Recommend
- Chicago Botanic Garden’s Project Budburst (join to get involved in the research in your own garden)
Solving Problems with Native Plants
- As with any plant you add to your garden, choose species that generally match the growing conditions of your location.
- Purchase native plants from a reputable grower that does not dig wild plants. Also make sure that the plant’s genetics are from regional sources.
- Think about the mature height of the plant and, unless you have a larger area, generally choose native perennials and grasses that grow to less than 3-4 feet high. There are places to use taller native species but often their effect is not as successful in a smaller residential garden.
- Plant into the existing soil. Native plants do not need fertilizers or other soil amendments. Soil that is too rich will cause overgrowth of some species and they will look unattractive.
- If you live in a relatively new development that had most of the topsoil removed during development and are trying to dig in heavy clay, mix in some leaf mulch. You don’t need much though; we suggest a 20:80 mulch to soil ratio.
- Turning soil over as part of the mixing process will often expose weed seeds. Be prepared and watch so you can get an early handle on controlling them.
- Hand pull weeds to keep them in check and remove competition for light and water.
- Mulch your new planting area to help keep unwanted weed growth down. It is best to use a leaf mulch rather than wood chips in a perennial garden. If using wood chips, make sure they are aged and shredded.
- It’s fine to cut back most native plants if you think they get too large for the garden. This works most successfully with native plants that bloom later in the summer and fall. Cut them back to 6-8” in late May or early June. They will come back fuller and will flower at a shorter height.
- Since many butterflies and other pollinators overwinter in leaf duff, hollow stems or in the ground it is better to wait on cleaning up the garden until spring when the weather warms. Leaving some flower heads and tall grasses also adds a nice dimension to the winter landscape and provides seeds and protection for birds and other species. The chrysalis of the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth that overwinters in leaf litter is a good example.
- Some, but not all, native plants spread easily by seed if there is a lot of bare ground in your garden. If you do not want them to spread to other parts of the garden, cut off the seed heads or pods and dispose of them before they ripen. See Native Plant Lists (live link) for those species where this may be helpful.
A plant becomes invasive by being able to grow successfully and out-compete other plant species for water, nutrients and sunlight. Typically this happens because they have been taken out of their natural environment (Europe and Asia in the case of buckthorn) and now have no natural controls. An introduced species may only become invasive over time, and some, such as Hosta, never do.
How does a plant become invasive?
Characteristics that increase the risk of an introduced species becoming invasive include their ability to grow quickly, to be adapted to a broad range of soil and light conditions, and to be prolific seed producers. Another good example of this that is a terrible problem in the southeastern U.S., is Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata). Deliberately introduced from Asia to control erosion, it is now overgrowing virtually everything. Its presence has been reported in a number of counties in southern Illinois and there has been one report from Evanston, IL.
Buckthorn is spread by birds who eat the fruit that has a cathartic effect. The Kudzu, a climbing vine, can grow up to 100 feet in one season.
Back in the mid-1800s when Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) was first introduced in the U.S. as a hedge plant, no one had any idea it would become one of the worst invasive species in the Chicago region. Today it comprises 40% of the canopy cover included under the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. “So what?” you might say. Well, the problems caused by this plant invasion are typical of those caused by any other plant species that is included under this category.
Why are invasive plants a negative thing?
First, and most importantly, since our moths, butterflies, native bees, etc. did not evolve with an introduced plant from another continent, that plant is not an equivalent food source for these critters. Since plants are at the bottom of the food chain, the bugs that depend on them are fewer because there is less food, as are the birds that depend on the bugs and so on.
Now, you might see a butterfly sipping nectar (or at least looking for it) on a flowering plant that originated in China – Astilbe for instance – but chances are good that the plant does not provide food for the caterpillar or a home for a chrysalis.
Secondly, as an invasive species outcompetes our native plants in natural areas, the natives there slowly disappear as they are displaced or unable to survive in lower shade and soil moisture conditions. In the case of Common Buckthorn, all the native plants in the ground plane are unable to survive. As they die out, the ground under them becomes a food desert. As added insult, Common Buckthorn doesn’t provide a nutritious meal either!
This is a simplified explanation of what happens, but this is what generally follows the invasion of any introduced species into our valuable natural areas. They may not currently be as problematic as Common Buckthorn but you don’t always know when a plant is going to become more problematic. This is why ecologists worry anytime they see any plant that doesn’t belong in our woodlands, prairies and wetlands.
use rain as a resource
When we think of our stormwater as a precious fresh water resource, it doesn’t make sense to manage it like a waste product. There is a finite amount of fresh water on earth and we can all take steps to protect it, starting with collecting it where it falls!
When we catch and keep the rainwater that falls on our yards, we reduce flooding and stress on sewer system infrastructure, keep pollutants out of our rivers and streams, and end up with a bunch of clean water that is perfect for watering lawns and gardens, washing cars or the family dog, and offsetting household water usage in many other ways.
One simple, efficient, low-cost method to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff from your property is to use rain barrels. Estimates indicate that a quarter-inch of rain falling on an average home yields over 200 gallons of water. Rain barrels are simply large containers that capture stormwater from your roof that would otherwise be lost as runoff. Modern rain barrels are sealed, safe around children and insect resistant – they can even be painted or decorated to your liking. You can divert water from your downspout to fill your rain barrel and a hose spigot on the front makes the water easy to access and use.
Around 40% of total household water used during the summer months is for watering lawns and gardens. Rainwater doesn’t contain chlorine, lime or calcium which makes it ideal for watering your flowers and vegetable garden or washing your car or windows. You may notice a decrease in your water bill! Even if you don’t have an intended use for the water, emptying the rain barrel after a storm reduces the rate and volume of stormwater the sewer system and our rivers and streams have to manage at a peak time. View this guide or watch this video for easy installation tips.
The Conservation Foundation sells rain barrels year-round through our partnership with Upcycle Products, Inc. Our 55-gallon rain barrels are made of recycled food-grade plastic, come in a variety of colors and can be purchased online for $60 (plus tax). Home delivery is available for $5 more. Barrels can also be purchased in person at McDonald Farm or area events for $75 (includes tax).
Rain gardens are shallow depressions planted with native plants that are accustomed to wet conditions. Rain gardens help to collect and filter rainwater and allow it to seep naturally into the ground. This helps to reduce the amount of pollutants and rainwater runoff reaching our streams.
Many of the streams in northeastern Illinois are affected by pollutants carried in rainwater that runs off our urban landscape. Non-source pollutants from our yards include excess nutrients and pesticides from lawn chemicals and pet waste. Not only are the pollutants harmful to our streams, but the large amount of water that rushes through the storm sewers and into the streams erodes banks and causes downstream flooding. Rain gardens filter this water through the native plants deep roots system into the ground rather than rush into the streams.
Where Do I start?
- Each of your downspouts and your sump pump outlet are great places to begin – they bring water from your roof and that water can be used to make your rain garden.
- Rain gardens can also be made in places in your yard where water collects now – they can solve drainage issues.
- The University of Wisconsin Extension Service put together a great resource on how to build your own Rain Garden. This 32 page Rain Garden Manual can be downloaded here in a PDF format.
- Applied Ecological Services has also provided its expertise on rain gardens in a Rain Garden Guide (click to view or download) created in partnership with The Conservation Foundation.
The Birds and the Bees...and Butterflies
Traditional landscapes do not give our native birds and butterflies what they need in the way of food. The typical plants we choose for our yards like turf grass, hostas, daylilies, boxwoods, roses, vinca and most of the traditional favorites are foreign plants to our wildlife. The ecosystems in our region are based on plant life. Our local wildlife needs native berries and the bugs that thrive on the native plants that have evolved in this area over more than 10,000 years as a day to day food source. All of the birds of our region rely on bugs for protein. These bugs live in and on the native plants, trees and shrubs.
A butterfly garden is an easy way to attract the many species of butterflies common to the Chicagoland area. These colorful gardens are full of native, nectar-rich plants that provide food for butterfly larvae and adults. They can be large or small, and adapted to almost any soil conditions, so get planting, and watch the beautiful critters appear!
Butterfly gardens are easy to construct, require little water once established, and need no fertilizers. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Plants that attract butterflies should be planted in full sun, and ideally in a sheltered location (butterflies don’t like to fight the wind).
- Plan your garden to have colorful blooms from early spring to late fall. We’ve put together a colorful four page “How-To” Natural Landscaping Guide with suggested native plants, organized by plant height.
- Avoid chemical fertilizers or pesticides, since butterflies and other wildlife are extremely sensitive to them. Besides, native plants don’t need them!
To learn more about backyard conservation, consider getting involved with the Conservation@Home Program. This program recognizes, educates, and encourages landowners who want to practice environmental stewardship from their own backyards. For more information, contact Jim Kleinwachter at The Conservation Foundation at 630-428 4599 x 115 or email him.
Healthy Soil, Healthy Lawns
Make simple lawn care choices to manage your yard that are more healthy for you, your community and the environment.
The use of native plants is key to any environmentally friendly landscape. The deep roots of native plants reach far down into the ground, firmly rooting soil and reducing erosion, and also absorbing rain where it falls to carry it back down to our groundwater supply, filtering it as it goes.
Consider replacing a patch of high-maintenance lawn with lower-maintenance native perennial plants. Plants native to northern Illinois thrive in our and weather conditions, requiring less water once established, and generally do not need fertilizers or pesticides. Native plants also provide habitat and food for birds and butterflies.