In Midwest, The Yards Go Native

UN-GREEN ACRES

Eugene Kern hasn't mowed, fertilized, weeded, or watered his yard in months. Yet his one-acre lot is in full blossom. Vibrant blue flowers mix with steel-gray, chest-high grasses to create a yard that's the delight of the neighborhood.

Mr. Kern, a surgeon, is one of a growing number of Midwesterners who've planted something other than the usual geraniums and onion bulbs in his yard.

He's planted a prairie.

He exemplifies a back-to-nature ethic that is burgeoning in part because of the rising costs of watering, fertilizing, and cutting lawns.

Southwesterners, for instance, have long landscaped with rocks and cactus because of water scarcity and a growing appreciation of the natural desert look.

Now a similar attitude is taking root in the Midwest, where tall-grass prairies - a dominant feature of the Midwest for centuries - are replacing golf-course-like lawns as a new aesthetic.

"I love the flowers" in August, says Kern. "But prairie has an especially beautiful texture in winter, with the crusted snow all around. The tall grasses stream up as if they were indignant about the weather, and they sway with the wind."

But homeowners aren't the only ones driving the Midwest's prairie revival.

* State Farm Insurance is spending $200,000 to plant 45 acres of prairie around its new offices in Woodbury, Minn. Turf grass would have cost $400,000 to plant and perhaps $10,000 per year to maintain.

* Several Midwestern states' highway departments are aggressively planting prairie on right-of-ways and at wayside rest stops, providing motorists with bursts of summer flower splendor - and saving big on mowing costs.

* With prairie-planting efforts by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy leading the way, some 15,000 acres in Minnesota have been turned into prairie.

In the days of the first homesteaders, prairie was ubiquitous in the Midwest, covering nearly 250 million acres and stretching from Minnesota to Texas. But as the region became America's breadbasket, cows, corn, and soybeans displaced the graceful grasses and sprinklings of sunflowers, and black-eyed Susans.

Today, for residents like Kern, prairie plants make sense for several reasons, including their ability to tolerate the Midwest's extreme ranges in temperature and humidity, including periodic droughts. Planted right, these deep-rooted flora flourish. They also attract and nourish wild creatures, including birds, bees, and butterflies.

The cost, however, of ripping up a perfectly healthy lawn to lay down prairie can be high. The green grass must be entirely purged, lest it rub out initially fragile prairie seedlings. A pound of mixed prairie-grass seed costs about $15. It takes 10 to 15 pounds to seed an acre. Potted prairie flowers can get pricey - $1 to $4 each. And experts caution it takes two years for prairies to take root, so the first year the area can look scruffy.

WHEN asked what he paid professional prairie-converters to install his grasses, Kern demurs. "It's a worthwhile investment," he insists. "You forget the price as you continue to enjoy the beauty.The only maintenance he does is to mow a path through the high grass - up to the front door.

The firm Kern used, Prairie Restorations, is one of a growing number in this expanding cottage industry. In 1977, the company's first year, it had sales of $40,000. This year it's expected to bring in about $1.75 million.

But this emerging ethic of prairie conversion can conflict with the dominant Midwestern farming ethos.

The Illinois transportation department, for instance, began its roadside prairie plantings in the mid-1970s, but has hit opposition. "Farmers don't like our prairie plantings, because they fear those 'weeds' will spread to their fields," says Richard Adorjan, a department official.

For some, however, prairie conversion even takes on a moral imperative. "Most of us operate as ethical, intelligent human beings, and at some point, with age and maturity, we realize we've taken a lot and we ought to give something back," says Ron Bowen, president of Prairie Restorations. "Restoring native plant communities is a way to do that."

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