Guest Column - April 2003
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Going Native

The trend to convert unused lawn to natural areas can increase recreational potential and solves many management problems

By Jack Pizzo, Chris Hauser and Cory Ritterbusch

Purple Coneflower is growing on a slope above
a naturally vegetated pond shoreline in Naperville,
Ill., three years after planting by plugs.

Americans are in love with lawn. It is the most widely used groundcover in parks, school grounds and public open spaces. Traditionally, many areas landscaped with lawn are used for recreational activities ranging from organized sports such as soccer, football and baseball to individual activities such as picnicking, flying kites and social gatherings. While some lawn areas are heavily used for these types of recreational activities, many parks and open spaces contain vast lawns that are rarely used for any type of recreation, provide few benefits to the public and are costly to maintain.

There is a growing trend to convert this unused lawn to native plantings such as prairie, savanna and wetland. While there are many reasons that open-space managers are converting lawn to natural areas, one of the most overlooked is that they provide valuable recreational space in the form of outdoor classrooms and areas for passive recreation. In addition to these valuable recreation options, converting lawns to natural areas reduces maintenance costs, adds interesting and colorful plantings, controls soil erosion, and provides valuable wildlife habitat.

Outdoor classrooms

While lawn is an important component of sports areas, its ability to provide space for many other forms of recreation is actually very limited. With this idea in mind, many parks and nature centers in the Midwest are beginning to convert their un-used lawn to native landscaping as a way to provide space for other forms of recreation, including outdoor classrooms for the study of native plants and animals.

Conversion Checklist

Times when it makes sense to convert lawn to native landscaping:

  • The soil is too wet or dry for lawn.
  • The lawn is rarely used.
  • The soil is eroding or at risk for erosion.
  • Canada Geese are a problem.
  • Water quality is a problem.

One example is the Lakeview Nature Center in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. Three lawn areas were converted to native plant gardens with three themes: a sensory garden, a butterfly garden and a teaching garden. The Sensory Garden was planted with species that have distinctive textures, colors and scents including species such as Silky Wild Rye, Wild Bergamot, Mountain Mint and Nodding Wild Onion. The Butterfly Garden was planted with species that are commonly used by butterflies as nectar sources or as caterpillar host plants including species such as Butterfly Milkweed, Pale Purple Coneflower and Rough Blazing Star. The Teaching Garden was planted to mimic historic Illinois prairie and included common prairie plants such as Wild Quinine, Purple Prairie Clover and Rattlesnake Master. The three native gardens are incorporated into the environmental education programs of the Oakbrook Terrace Park District and offer more value as an outdoor learning resource than the lawn they replaced.

Places for passive recreation

In addition to environmental education uses, areas landscaped with native plantings can provide areas for passive recreation. Midwestern prairies, savannas and wetlands are naturally beautiful and colorful, are attractive to wildlife, and give a person a place to relax. These areas allow people a chance to spend time in a quiet place watching wildlife, studying plants, taking photos or just reflecting on life. Also, these areas offer a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world.

A great example of this is the Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, Ill. Starting in the 1970s using volunteer effort and continuing into the 1990s with a professional prairie restoration company, the Urbana Park District has converted more than 100 acres of this city park into prairie, forest and wetland. These natural areas are laced with paved bike paths and mowed walking paths that are used by local residents, including bikers, inline skaters, runners, walkers and families. The paths are used people who want a chance to get a closer look at the plant and animal inhabitants.

In addition to city parks, some university and corporate campuses are beginning to convert lawn to native plantings for passive recreational use. An example of this is the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. The laboratory has miles of paths through forests of oaks and hickories for use by employees as alternatives to using a car as well as a chance to exercise or relax after work or on their lunch breaks. A master plan was created for enhancing the remnant natural areas and to restore these areas by removing the non-native trees and brush, conduct controlled burns, and install seeds of native flowers and grasses.

Adjacent to the restored sites, areas that have not yet been restored are overgrown with invasive brush and give the public an opportunity to see the dramatic difference restoration can make.

Other benefits

In addition to increasing potential recreation space, converting lawns to natural areas can solve management problems and reduce costs associated with lawn maintenance. Listed below are a few benefits of converting lawn to native plantings.

Easier maintenance Plants that are native to your area are adapted to the soil, climate and diseases in that area. Because these plants are adapted to the conditions at your site, they don't need any fertilizer, supplemental water or pesticides to survive. Also, they have relationships with other plants and animals that sustain them, and these plants reproduce well and are able to fill in areas of open soil.

The Icono Thompson Basin in Cook County, Ill.,
is a naturally vegetated stormwater detention
basin, two years after planting by plugs.

Fewer goose problems In many Midwestern parks and golf courses, the non-migratory Canada Geese are a big problem due to their aggressive behavior and abundant feces. Because they are instinctively afraid of areas where predators might hide, geese will stay away from vegetation that is 12 inches or taller and are most abundant around ponds where the lawn is mowed right to the edge of the water. Planting native wetland plants along the shore of ponds creates this hedge of vegetation, and the majority of the geese will move on to another pond.

Lower maintenance costs Once they are established, natural areas require significantly less money to manage compared to lawn. In the Chicago area, one acre of turf maintained by a professional landscape company costs about $6,000 per year, and over 20 years that adds up to $120,000. If that acre is converted to natural area, it could about $30,000 over 20 years. Therefore, converting one acre of lawn to natural area can save as much as $90,000 over 20 years, a savings of about 75 percent.

Less soil erosion and improved water quality Native wetland plants have deep root systems needed to react to changing soil and water conditions along a shoreline. Their deep roots hold the soil together, preventing erosion along stream banks and lakeshores and keeping sediments from clouding the water. Also, the roots of these plants and the bacteria in the soil are able to consume fertilizers and chemicals that flow into the water from adjacent areas. As the sediment and nutrients in the water are diminished, the water quality will improve.

Improved sense of place Many cities and towns grew up around unique natural areas. This can be seen in many Illinois towns with names like Oak Park, Savanna and Elk Grove. These names were given to the cities based on historical or natural features, usually lost as the towns developed. Restoring the historical native plants and ecosystems to an area can help local residents get a better sense of the region where they live.

Although Americans love lawn, many parks have large lawns that are rarely used for recreational purposes. A much better use of most of these unused lawns would be to plant them with native plants, mimicking the local native ecosystems. These native plantings will provide unique education and recreational opportunities, reduce maintenance costs, solve management problems, and give residents a better sense of the region where they live. Compared to lawns, native plantings provide users with a higher quality of life for a lower cost.

Existing Turf Grass vs. New Natural Area from Seed Per Acre Cost Comparison
Existing Turf Grass
Year 1Year 5Year 10Year 20
Overseeding & Aeration$1,075$1,250
Annual per acre expense$4,025$4,398.22$6,173.75$8,102.29
Cumulative per acre expense$4,025$22,691.10$48,767.40$112,572.40
New Prairie, Savanna or Wetland from Seed
Year 1Year 5Year 10Year 20
Weed Control$2,000
Burn Management $546.36$633.39$851.22
Annual per acre expense$5,830$546.36$633.39$851.22
Cumulative per acre expense$5,830$13,187.31$16,175.05$23,653.93
Per Acre Savings-$1,805$9,503.79$32,592.35$88,918.46
Percentage Savings-44.8%41.9%66.8%79%

Assumptions: Project area is greater than one acre. Rate of inflation is 3 percent. Labor rate is non-prevailing wage.

Lawn is maintained by a professional landscape maintenance company.

Jack Pizzo, Chris Hauser and Cory Ritterbusch can be reached at Pizzo & Associates, Ltd., a multidisciplinary firm dedicated to restoring natural areas throughout the Midwestern United States. For more information, visit