We love grass in the United States. In fact, we've planted nearly 40 million acres of turf — along highways, in parks and in our home lawns.
Turf grass isn't inherently bad, but the problem, according to the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative, is that there is too much of it.
“It has virtually no value to native species of wildlife that live here,” volunteer project coordinator Kathy Gates told Steve Kraske on KCUR's Up to Date.
Another downside? It’s expensive to maintain.
“Mowing is like throwing money out of the window,” Gates said.
The Kansas City Native Plant Initiative is a collective impact organization with more than 50 partners, including metro municipalities and private groups. They’re encouraging Kansas Citians to spend less money and energy by planting native species.
Native plants are those that have been a part of the 8,000-year ecosystem that existed where Kansas City now stands. The Native Plant Initiative aims to incorporate these species into Kansas City’s landscape.
“The prairie... is the most unique and endangered ecosystem on earth” Gates said.
Native grasses and flowers are extremely resilient. They require less water and, perhaps more importantly, less mowing. They also serve as natural habitats for butterflies and wildlife.
Mary Nemecek with the Burroughs Audubon Society believes residents could even see benefits with their monthly utility bills.
“Not only does it provide things like you don’t have to water in the drought of the summer, but it helps runoff," Nemecek said. "80 percent of (native plants’) biomass is below ground and that will help take water out of our sewer systems and our streams and filter it, along with filtering the air."
This spring, a native plant garden will be on display in Loose Park. The garden, designed by Alan Branhagen, chief horticulturalist at Powell Gardens, will be installed and maintained jointly by The Westport Garden Club and Kansas City's Parks and Recreation department.
“It doesn't have to look ratty and it doesn't have to look like a field that is unkempt," Gates said. "There are beautiful plants that have been used in municipal settings such as Chicago and New York with great enthusiasm."
Another project in the works, in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Transportation, would install 40 acres of natural habitats, grasses and plants along metro roadsides.
On the Kansas side of the state line, Mill Creek Streamway Park, which extends through Shawnee and Lenexa all the way to Olathe, planted 100 acres of native seeds this winter. Look out for those to start coming up this spring.
The Kansas City Native Plant Initiative is modeled after successful programs like Chicago Wilderness and The Intertwine Alliance. In addition to larger, municipal projects, the group is encouraging individuals to plant native in their own yards.
They’re also working with municipal governments to enact policy change to allow homeowners to explore different yard and garden options without fear of breaking city codes.