Let's Get Started with Conservation@Home
Bringing nature home is easy with Conservation@Home. By using our resources along with our free on-site advice, you can invite nature to your property and reap its benefits daily. Here are five steps to get you on your way to beautiful, eco-friendly landscapes.
1. Invite natives in
One of the most important steps you can take is to add plants to your landscape that are native to northeastern Illinois. Nothing helps soil, water or ecosystems like natives. You'll be delighted with the profusion of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses to choose from, and many work well in designs ranging from formal to casual.
Native plants evolved under this climate with these soils – so they're hardy and require little in the way of watering or fertilizing. And because they evolved here, they're generally in balance with local food chains.
Native plants tend to have deep roots that build rich soil. Those roots aid in both water purification and rainwater absorption. And they provide essential food chain links – many of which have become broken but are good candidates for repair. Songbirds and butterflies will become regular visitors.
Can't our Japanese yew or Asian daylily fulfill these roles?
Unfortunately, no. It's true that ornamental plants sometimes provide nectar, berries and nesting spots. But they didn't evolve here so they're not part of our food chain. That means our all-important insect populations are faltering. Before you say eww and click away, consider that 96% of our songbirds require insects to feed their young. And studies show we rarely even notice insects unless the damage to our plants is greater than 10% - which rarely occurs in a balanced ecosystem where songbirds and others feed on problem bugs. Plus, ornamental plants tend to have short roots that don't build soil or absorb much rainwater. Check out this amazing root comparison.
Because cultivars are genetically altered, they frequently lack the ability to support nature the same way natives can. Once their flower color, blooming season or leaf shape is modified, their pollinators, seed dispersers and other food chain colleagues are oftentimes displaced. Cultivars can usually be identified at a garden center by an "x," by a three-part scientific name or by a nickname in quotations. For example, the scientific name of the native purple coneflower is Echinaceae purpurea but for an orange hybrid, it is Echinacea x 'Orange Meadowbrite.'
No need to re-design your entire landscape
Keep the lilacs. And the peonies and daffodils. There's no need to remove your beautiful garden plantings. Instead, pick a spot or two where you can add a native tree, install a new perennial garden or beef up an existing one. Line a fence with native roses. Plant a gorgeous spicebush outside your kitchen window. Shade your entry way with a noble oak. We suspect every property has some room for nature.
Natives look great in formal settings, too
Some people think native plants look good only when used in cottage gardens or natural landscaping. Think again. More and more people are incorporating natives into formal and semi-formal designs. Design elements tend to include such considerations as symmetry, low-growing species and stiff plant structures. Designers may also create a palette that features a smaller number of species presented in groups of massed plantings. Another technique is to edge garden beds with hardscaping or a cut-edge lawn. And a well-placed bench, arbor or other garden accessory always adds to a lovely aesthetic.
Try our Native Plant Finder
2. Update your lawn care
Given the national surge of interest in healthy living and sustainability, it's no wonder people are re-thinking their lawns. Lawns consume enormous quantities of time, money, water and synthetic chemicals. Every week during the growing season, Americans have been mowing, watering, fertilizing and raking the equivalent of Wisconsin! What's a suburban homeowner to do? Here are some ideas to consider.
Reduce the size of your lawn
The first question worth pondering is, how large of a lawn do you need? Many people are surprised when then realize how much of their lawn is decorative and an expensive decoration at that. You might prefer to replace some turf grass with beds of native shrubs or a pair of perennial gardens. After making the initial investment, you'll save time and money on lawn care while supporting clean water, rich soil and resilient ecosystems.
Cut back on four-step chemicals
Is the guy in the radio ad making you feel obligated to apply chemicals to your lawn every few weeks? Four-step weed and feed programs are actually expensive, short-lived approaches to lawn care, and present health concerns for children and pets. One easy step everyone can take is to simply reduce treatments to once or twice a year. Or cut your application rate by half. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Mow and water for healthy grass
Raise your mower to three inches and you'll grow healthier grass with stronger roots. It will better survive droughts and shade out many weeds, too. Leave your clippings on the lawn where they can break down and return nutrients to the soil. A sharp mower blade delivers a cleaner cut, which creates healthier grass. And when the peak of summer arrives, it's easier on your lawn to let it rest rather than repeatedly force it to break dormancy with occasional waterings. Lastly, if you do water, do it in the morning – not evening – to prevent fungus issues.
Aerate – and spread a thin layer of compost
A more holistic approach to lawn care is to create a lawn that's able to deliver its own nutrients and pest control. It's not hard – the answer lies in healthy soil. Aerate your lawn intensely in summer with a core aerator. Then spread a quarter-inch layer of compost. Beneficial micro-organisms will return and within several years they will flourish in what was formerly dead soil. Also, your grass will be able to grow stronger roots in the formerly hard and compacted soil. Note: grass is not a long-lived plant – if it's been 10 or more years since you've added grass seed, this is a good time to do that, too.
Treat problem areas not the entire lawn
If you use chemicals, it's less expensive, more effective and healthier all around to treat a specific weed rather than the whole lawn. But check out this chart from the Pesticide Action Network before reaching for the bottle of Round-Up because chemicals aren't always the best solution. Also, dandelion tools have come a long way since we were all kids. Find some tool suggestions in our Products and Services.
Switch to natural products
Corn gluten does a good job as both a crab-grass preventer and fertilizer – and it's free of synthetic chemicals. Learn more about corn gluten. Sources of corn gluten and other natural fertilizers and pesticides can be found in our Products and Services.
Consider low-mow grass
Would you prefer to mow once a month rather than once a week? You'll save both time and money. If renovation or construction requires you to seed a new area altogether – and you've decided lawn is a better solution for this particular spot than beds of low-maintenance native plants – then consider low-mow grass. Several varieties of low-mow grass are available and they look great.
Another option is to simply embrace a lawn that is a collection of myriad short green plants that includes grass as well as uninvited species. Mow high and call it a day. (If you take this approach, please consider an occasional aeration to keep your soil from becoming compacted. Compaction leads to dense, lifeless soil that does not easily absorb rainwater.)
3. Find and remove invasives
There's a small set of plants – super species if you will – that did not evolve here and are causing serious, expensive problems now that they've arrived. Buckthorn, garlic mustard and teasel are examples. Featuring longer-than-normal growing seasons, astounding reproductive abilities and low disease resistance, they enter our treasured natural areas and take over. As a result, dozens of native plant species – and the wildlife that depend upon them – disappear. Many other aspects of ecosystem health can suffer as well, including soil chemistry, hydrology, structure and resilience. You can make a huge contribution to this issue by finding and removing invasive species lurking on your property.
Click here to learn how to identify invasive species and control the worst of the worst.
I don't live near a nature preserve, so I can skip this, right?
Here's the problem: birds oftentimes eat berries on one property and eliminate the seeds on others. You may not see this because a flock of birds frequently arrives for just a short period and picks the place clean. By the way, buckthorn berries are diuretics, causing those poor birds to lose a great deal of fluids and nutrients. So we can't assume these berry-producers are good for nature.
But I paid good money for that bush
Some invasives show up uninvited but others are inadvertently purchased, planted and lovingly cared for as beautiful elements of your landscape. Barberry and burning bush are examples. They're hardy and disease-resistant, just what we look for in landscape choices. But that's exactly what makes them more likely to hop the garden fence and invade the nearest nature preserve. The garden center industry is becoming aware of problems posed by invasive species – some outlets faster than others – and making healthy changes.
Why not let nature take its course?
In the past, species were restricted to certain areas by such barriers as oceans, deserts and mountain ranges. Now virtually all such obstacles have been breached and people are joined in our transcontinental travels by all sorts of species – both intentionally and not. This worldwide shake-up has exposed vulnerable ecosystems everywhere to a handful of botanical bullies that displace natives and upend ecological processes.
4. Follow your water
When it rains outside or the spring thaw arrives, the resulting water needs to go somewhere, and in days gone by, most of it soaked into the ground. But today that option is frequently cut off by buildings, parking lots, streets and even heavily compacted lawns. So the water gets channeled – quickly – into streets, sewers and pipes where it's whisked off to the nearest wetland, lake or stream. The streams can hold only so much before spilling their banks, which is a part of why we're seeing more flooding here in Lake County.
It oftentimes helps to literally follow your water. Wait for a good storm, then pull on your rain boots and go. Bring some kids along.
• Take a look at where your downspouts lead. Don't be surprised if you find the source of a basement leak, or discover water flowing across your lawn to the street.
• Look at the water on your driveway. Perhaps the oil leak from your teen's beater is making itself known?
• How much water is leaving your property and what lake or stream does it end up in? How clean is it when it gets there?
Keep it on site
It would be so helpful if folks kept more rainwater on their property and used it or let it soak into the ground. Here are some ideas on how:
• Redirect downspouts to gardens or flat portions of the lawn.
• Set up a rain barrel or two.
• Install native plants, especially where water collects or flows (many have deep roots and thus soak up tremendous amounts of rainwater). Some species work especially well in these locations. Click here for ideas.
• Use permeable materials for sidewalks, driveways or parking lots such as brick, stone, porous blacktop or the new and oddly wonderful recycled-glass option.
• Design a property – when possible – with a reduced amount of blacktop, concrete or roof. Green roofs offer one exciting design solution.
Ironically, in many parts of the world, rainwater would be viewed as a precious gift rather than something to be rid of. It would be collected and used. And indeed, many Americans are starting to take this view. Rain barrels and cisterns placed at the base of downspouts provide free water – free! – for watering gardens, washing cars and cleaning tools. Here are some ideas for rainwater projects.
Keep it clean
As rainwater leaves your property and flows toward the nearest lake or creek, you may wonder how it fared while on your watch. Did it pick up any fertilizers or other lawn chemicals along the way? Did it cross any bare soil where it became muddy? Fertilizers lead to algae and weed problems. Other lawn products bathe fish eggs, frog eggs and other aquatic life in a toxic solution of unhealthy chemicals. And muddy water lowers oxygen levels, smothers eggs and makes it difficult for turtles, frogs and larger fish to hunt their prey.