Reimagining the Suburban Lawn: Opportunities for Growth

By Lauren Lindow, RORG Student Team Member

Before the construction of the Red Oak Rain Garden, the area had been poor-quality lawn existing on compacted soil and filled with weeds. These conditions are commonly found in the average suburban lawn. Since the conversion to native plants, the area has grown into a much more interesting place to see and explore.

Across the suburban landscape, manicured lawns have replaced natural plant communities, ecosystems, and habitat that wildlife, including pollinators, rely on. In an age where climate change is of growing concern, returning native species to the suburbs may be a way to fight against it by enhancing or restoring local habitats and creating carbon sinks. At his home in Montgomery, Illinois, my neighbor, Jeremy Berger, has applied many of the same techniques used at the RORG to turn his typical lawn into something of a wildlife-friendly haven. Over the years, he has planted almost 100 native species and hosts one of the most unique yards in the community. I interviewed Jeremy to ask, just how did he create such a yard?

Our neighborhood provides each new home with two small pine trees and a standard lawn of green. Having grown up with a large yard, full of different species and areas to explore, Jeremy sought to create a lawn that could sustain more life. After purchasing his home in 2006, he immediately sought out native species to plant. He used a variety of resources to create an initial plan, including the Minnesota DNR’s Landscaping for Wildlife, Robert Dolezal’s Birds in your Backyard, and a nearby nursery with a large native section. He took it piece by piece, starting with a small bed and growing from there. He put extra focus on host plants for larva and food plants that supply nectar, seeds, and nuts. His yard also includes birdfeeders, rock piles, wood piles, and several other features to encourage wildlife.

Maintenance is fairly simple. Jeremy cuts the heads off certain species every spring. He does this on a rotation, as not to rid the entire stock. These heads can be tossed into the fire pit and burned, so it’s not too much of a hassle. He does not use any pesticides, fertilizers, or any other chemicals on his yard. While this makes maintenance easier, this does allow for weeds like dandelions and clovers to grow. However, weedy species are a part of the natural environment. Jeremy views the weeds as a positive of his yard, and is proud of the conversations his yard has sparked between him and his neighbors regarding environmentalism versus aesthetics. Though many may understandably not want weeds in their own yards, some of them, such as dandelions, provide pollinator benefits which, in turn, benefit us all.

Compared to his neighbors, Jeremy’s yard remains greener longer, sees reduced runoff, and has much more wildlife. His yard is home to and is visited by a growing list of birds, including hummingbirds, Cooper’s hawks, and tree swallows. Residents of his space also include nearly 90 insect species. Jeremy recalls one day, years ago, he watched the rain fall with his sons and his youngest noted, “Hey look, ours is the only yard with worms!” And it was true, nothing alive was coming from the other neighbors’ yards. This was evidence that their yard was functioning like a healthy ecosystem. While walking space is perhaps reduced (though there’s still enough room for their dogs to run), there is plenty of life to observe and explore.

If you’re interested in moving away from the monoculture style of landscaping, begin with a small bed of natives and see how you feel about it. Poking around the internet will unveil slews of native species lists to help you find plants that meet your yard goals. To find local plant sales and nurseries, check out the Illinois Native Plant Society website. The Red Oak Rain Garden has multiple publications that can be found on Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s website, including plans for a Pollinator Garden, a Rain Garden, and a guide to a selection of Native Plants for the Home Landscape. More plans, including native woodland planting guides, are being developed by the RORG team and will be published in the near future.

If you are in the area, you can stroll through the Red Oak Rain Garden to gather ideas or check our plant collection and past blog posts for inspiration. Be sure to check local ordinances for regulations on what you can and cannot do to your yard. Jeremy is lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with relatively lax weeding laws, but this may not be the case in every community. Natural yards are a great way to both spice up your lawn and give a little love to the environment.

Learn more about Mr. Berger’s yard here.

Lauren Lindow is a senior in Agricultural and Biological Engineering and the ISEE Fellow’s Program. She is President of Illini Urban Farmers and Historian for Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity. She spent summer 2020 interning for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and hopes to have a career in urban agriculture or land conservation in the future.

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