African Garden + work

Blog Action Day

Screeech... Hear that? It's the sound of me pulling out my soapbox for Blog Action Day. This year's theme is the environment. I'd like to start with a small demonstration. You'll need a piece of paper at least 8"x10," preferably scrap paper. Got your paper? Good. Now imagine that the paper is the tallgrass prairie of Illinois, the erstwhile "Prairie State," before Europeans started colonizing the Americas. Now rip the paper in half; this represents the amount of prairie remaining after the American Revolution and the opening of the new territories. Rip it in half again; that's Illinois becoming a state. Keep ripping it in half, as we proceed along the timeline of the Civil War, the expansion of the railroads, and, most profound of all, the invention of the steel plow. Keep on ripping, that's the German immigrants setting up farms all over the state. Keep ripping, that's World War I. Don't stop ripping yet, we've only just reached the post-World War II boom in suburbia. Keep ripping until you've ripped that piece of paper 14 times (if you can), we've got to get all the way to the 21st century suburban sprawl. Okay, now we're done. What you're holding represents all that remains of the prairie in Illinois.

Depressing, isn't it. But it's not the whole story. Pick up the last bit you ripped off and tape it back to the piece you're still holding.

That represents prairie restoration efforts, such as at the Morton Arboretum, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and local forest preserves. Some communities are adding prairie plantings to their properties also. Wouldn't it be great to add even more back? How about if everyone in Illinois (and the Midwest) who has a lawn turned part of it over to native prairie plants? That would mean less pollution, because prairie plants don't need to be mowed every week or two like a lawn does.

It would also conserve water, because prairie plants don't need supplemental irrigation after they have become established. That would result in more havens for wildlife, such as snakes and butterflies, which depend on prairie plants. The monarch butterfly needs milkweed (Asclepias species) as a host plant for its larva.

Prairies help reduce global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide as well as, or better than, trees. The extensive root systems of prairie plants sequester carbon dioxide in the soil, rather than releasing it in the atmosphere.

There are prairie plants for all soil types and conditions, because there is no one tallgrass prairie. There are wet prairies, dry prairie, mesic prairies, gravel prairies and sand prairies. The woodlands of Illinois are actually savannas, part of the prairie biome. All one needs to do is determine the soil type, the amount of sunlight and the available moisture and match the plants to the site and Voila! a garden of native plants that don't need pesticides or fertilizers or supplemental irrigation to thrive. (Of course all plantings need additional moisture in the first year of planting to become established.) In fact, if a plant community is established, incorporating grasses and forbs (flowering plants), it pretty much sustains itself.

This photo, of part of my front garden, shows clockwise from left Aster laevis/Symphyotrichum laevae (Smooth Blue Aster), Aster Novae Anglia/Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster), Ruellia humulis (Wild Petunia), and Sporobolus heterolepsis (Prairie Dropseed).

Native prairie plants can be incorporated into rain gardens, which prevent storm water runoff, thereby protecting the quality of rivers and lakes downstream. For complete information about installing a rain garden, use google.

If everyone reduced their lawn just a little bit, and replaced it with some prairie plants, added all together, the effect could be truly significant. It's a win/win scenario: prairie plants instead of lawn = less work, less pollution, less use of pesticides and fertilizer, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less water consumption, less stormwater runoff, more attractive colorful yard (even in drought), more butterflies and birds (and snakes), healthier planet.

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