Restoring US native prairies, acre by acre, yard by yard
Across the US Midwest, homeowners are restoring their yards and former farmland to the native prairie that existed in pre-settlement days. The benefits can be substantial — the need for less water and no fertilizer, and an ecosystem that supports wildlife.
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In the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor, Mich., a number of residents have turned their city lots into prairie. Thirteen years ago Karen Sharp bought a house here, with a wild scraggle of vegetation shielding the front porch. The former owner returns occasionally to do carefully controlled burns of the little prairie, squeezed in between all the old wooden houses. “It looks really freaky. Cars will stop,” she says. “It’s black, charred front lawn. And it smells. It smells charred for a week or more. It really puts you off.”Skip to next paragraph
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The plants grow back quickly, though, and she says she has wildflowers with little effort and no water at the height of the summer when many of her neighbors’ yards are brown. “I love the privacy. I love the insects and the birds, and I love the flowers. And I love seeing how it changes every year,” she says.
In ecologically minded places like Ann Arbor, prairies have gained a measure of acceptance, but elsewhere would-be prairie planters have had to battle city nuisance codes, fines, and neighbors that regard their projects as weedy eyesores. There’s also the question of longevity. Most prairies will always require some maintenance to keep out trees, brush, and invasive species, which subsequent owners may or may not keep up, experts say.
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There have already been casualties, according to Roger Anderson, a plant ecologist and professor emeritus at Illinois State University. He’s seen a few undone in real estate transactions or, in the case of one 25-year-old restoration on school property with over 100 native plant species, by a new school principal who just didn’t get it.
There are larger market forces at play, too. With grain prices skyrocketing because of the demand for ethanol, farmers have been plowing under native grasses they planted just a few years earlier with help from the US Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to Smith of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and other experts. CRP staff estimate that 11.6 million acres of land currently enrolled in the program in 14 prairie states have been planted primarily with native grasses. It would be a stretch to call many of these projects full prairie restorations, especially since landowners are only bound to keep enrolled lands out of production for contract periods of 10 or 15 years. Nevertheless, they do add a great deal of wildlife habitat, and the loss of it hurts, Smith says.
Lawn may long be king, but it is surrendering some ground as people increasingly welcome the helter-skelter beauty of prairie around homes and buildings, says Diboll, who remembers locals referring to his nursery as the “weed farm” in the 1980s. “It’s like any social-change event,” he says. “It’s a change in attitudes and styles, and those things take time.”
• Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, R.I. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic.