Putting Native Plants to Work

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

If you're a gardener or farmer, you know the value of a well-stocked toolbox. Imagine a set of tools that improves your ability to cope with drought and flood, produces great summer forage for cattle and provides habitat for quail, deer, turkey and songbirds.

Native plants are tools that every homeowner, landowner, gardener and farmer can use. Missouri's native plant toolbox includes trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and wildflowers that are able to endure drought, disease, for-aging, flood and fire. People all over the state are using them to solve problems and enliven their landscapes.

Natives for neighborhoods

In Belton, neighbors Ray Gann and Jan Jones share a love of wild things, and their adjoining properties show it.

Gann stopped mowing his three acres about 12 years ago. "I got more tired as I got older, " he said, "and I thought, 'this is really stupid.' I decided to stop mowing and see what would happen."

What happened is that a lot of native prairie and glade plants popped up. They included rattlesnake master, little bluestem, Indian grass, yellow and purple coneflowers, wild indigo and black-eyed Susans. Gann continues to mow the area along the north side of his house to keep honey locusts at bay, but he leaves the brambles in the field to benefit wildlife. He has enjoyed an impressive response to drought from his "no mow, let it grow" approach.

"After 2003, with not one molecule of moisture and 100-degree temperatures, I thought I wasn't going to see a thing, " Gann said. "But what I got was more species. This year I saw a cast of pink, orange and yellow. It's that tall echinacea."

Gann's neighbor, Jan Jones, began restoring her property to native plants in October 2001. That's when she called Ruth Wallace, the Conservation Department's urban watershed conservationist for the Kansas City Region, with a simple request:

"My neighbor has this beautiful natural area in his backyard," she said, "and I want my backyard to look just like his. Can you help?"

Wallace visited the Jones' property and wrote a plan for restoration. Jones' biggest challenge was fescue. The backyard was full of it.

Because the city of Belton prohibits landscape burning, Wallace and her team used herbicides to remove the fescue from the Jones' two acres. They then seeded the area with a wildlife habitat seed mix.

Before long, both backyards (about seven acres) will be seen as one prairie field--a vision from Missouri's past.

Making every acre work

Martin Turner's large cow-calf operation is not typical for Macon County, but the problems he faces are. His grass is mostly fescue, and he hasn't heard a quail call on his place in years.

Turner worked with grassland conservationist Tim Clapp from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Conservation Department employees Elsa Gallagher and Ted Seiler, to make his farm friendlier to both quail and cattle.

On a steep, relatively unproductive hillside, Turner planted strips of pine and native shrubs, including plum, indigo bush and sumac. These shelter quail from predators and provide them with winter forage. The shelterbelts also will protect cattle from bitter winter winds and help prevent his water tank from freezing.

In addition, Turner is converting more than 100 acres of fescue to native warm-season grasses, forbs and legumes. Seeded in spring 2003, with help from EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), his mix includes Indian grass, big and little bluestem and sideoats grama, as well as black-eyed Susan, purple prairie clover, Illinois bundleflower and partridge pea.

Besides benefiting quail, Turner's prairie seeding will increase his management options and give his cow-calf herd a mid-summer rest from fescue, which can be toxic to cattle during hot summer months.

Although the nearest quail covey is still several miles away, Turner hopes that by making a place for them with native grasses, forbs and shrubs, he will eventually entice them to return to his farm.

It's a family affair

In Callaway County, a young family makes native plants the centerpiece of both their landscape and their family activities. Jim and Andrea Kennedy became interested in native plants years ago when they noticed wildflowers growing along Missouri's roadsides.

"At first we didn't know that most of those wildflowers aren't native," Jim said. "As we learned more, it became really special when we saw an area that was all native."

Their research led them to purchase a copy of Julian Steyermark's Flora of Missouri. They accumulated more information about native plants while volunteering at Cuivre River State Park in Troy and during prescribed burn workshops at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit.

After so much research and hands-on experience, they yearned for a place that could become a life-long restoration project for them and their children. They looked for a property that would give them as much diversity as possible. They soon found a parcel near Readsville.

The 93 acres they manage in common with Andrea's dad, Frank Timmermeier, includes upland prairie, timber and thin, rocky outcroppings called glades.

"We have ridges in all directions," Jim said, "and that gives us a great amount of diversity."

They bought their property in 1990 and used Flora of Missouri to identify the native species they had, and to determine what would have grown there before settlement.

They found 350 native plant species, and they added others from several Grow Native! member nurseries. When they began periodically burning their landscape, Missouri's yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) started popping up.

Now they burn their prairies and thinned woodlots regularly. They burn some parcels annually, and others once every three years.

Although prescribed burning is central to their native landscape management, Jim and Andrea caution others who are interested in prairie restoration not to use fire until they've been trained and have some experience with it.

"Fire is a great management tool," Jim said, "but you have to know what you're doing."

In addition to tracking native plant species, Andrea, Jim, and their children keep a bird list.

"We've seen 142 species, including Henslow's sparrows, a scissor-tailed flycatcher and an upland sandpiper," Andrea said.

The Kennedys spend a lot of time thinking about their landscape, working with it and enjoying it. In fact, it is an important part of their family life.

"The kids love to help with the projects and name the plants and birds," Andrea said.

"We'll be working on this forever, and we don't really have an end in mind," Jim added. "It's just great to see how things change from one year to the next."

A school's "Secret Garden"

In southwestern Missouri, a secret garden grows in the middle of Marshfield's Edwin P. Hubble Elementary School. Totally enclosed by the school building, the Secret Garden features cozy reading areas beneath canopies of native dogwood, redbud and hawthorn. On late spring afternoons, you might find kindergartners napping in the shade.

The Secret Garden wasn't always so picturesque, said Anita Lael, the school's principal.

"A group of teachers actually initiated the Secret Garden in the mid 1990s," Lael said, "but by the time I arrived in 2001, those teachers had all retired, and the outdoor classroom was just overgrown, full of bugs--a disaster!"

To restore the garden, Lael sought help from master gardener Jane Robertson and conservation education consultant Jay Barber. Robertson worked with teachers and community volunteers to clear out weeds and overgrown beds and replant the area with a variety of Missouri native plants.

Barber acquired native shrub and wildflower species from the state nursery, and from a Grow Native! member nursery. Since then, he's developed several life-cycle educational programs that send kids out into the garden to survey butterfly eggs, larvae, pupae and adults, as well as frogs and tadpoles.

"Secret Garden is a great way to do cross-curricular activities, and I encourage other schools to develop their own if they can," Lael said.

Grow Native! Makes it Easy

In their efforts to put native plants to work on their landscapes, Missouri's homeowners, farmers and teachers receive help from the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The two agencies jointly administer Grow Native!, a marketing and education program that makes it easy for Missourians to discover, choose, purchase and successfully use native plants.

The Grow Native! web sitecombines the departments' efforts to educate people about native plants and to help them find and purchase them. The site provides a searchable database of more than 200 native plant species and lets users sort plants according to their site requirements, color, texture and value to wildlife.

The web site also features ready-made designs to help first-time users add native species to their landscapes. To make purchasing easy, the site provides a shopping feature that lets users search for native plant nurseries, products and landscape services within their ZIP Codes.

For more information about native plants or the Grow Native! program, e-mail <info@grownative.org> or call (573) 522-4115, ext. 3833. Professionals interested in the business development and marketing side of Grow Native! should call (573) 522-4171

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