“Lawn of the Future” pilot project

Some years ago, I came across a plant species list from an old colleague. He was trying to develop a planting scheme that satisfied some of the cultural norms and expectations that we have for a “lawn” while increasing the ecological function of the site with native plants.

Tomes have been written about the American lawn, which is our country’s most irrigated crop. See here and here for just a start. See here for an artful audio summary.

This blog is not another tome. Nor is it a screed. The conversation can get a little hyperbolic. The American lawn isn’t evil incarnate (at least not in the Midwest, where irrigation is not necessary & water is abundant), but we’ve clearly overdone it.

It’s not necessarily even the lawn itself… its the sprawling housing patterns adopted after WW2 that led to a massive increase in energy use via car dependency and the disinvestment of our historic urban cores. That’s fodder for many more blog posts. Anyway, by now we’re fairly stuck with much of the housing stock that’s already built.

Actually reversing course is not so simple. I wish it were. I’ve watched many a well-meaning institution try alternatives and the majority run into some operational or organizational problem that subverts it.

The truth is that, in my case, the lawn I inherited with my suburban home isn’t too difficult to manage. I haven’t found any reason to irrigate or fertilize. I only spray occasionally to target certain troublesome weeds. I mow it high (not like a golf course) with a quiet, emissions-free battery-powered mower that I charge with solar energy. Any alternatives won’t really save any time or money in my circumstance.

An American rite of passage. A grape vine on the fence, and prairie plants behind it, but a back yard for reading, lounging, or just horsing around.

I’ve slowly removed some pieces of my lawn for vegetable beds and native plants (here’s a video I made about all the lovely flowers that have a home here). Even though I work full-time as an ecologist, I’m not a horticulturalist or landscape architect, so I face a bit of a learning curve. Like everyone else, I’m busy and can’t devote all my time to it either.

All that to say, this is not another blog about lawns. Or my lawn in particular. Instead, here’s an end-of-the-growing-season project summary of something we tried at work over the past 12+ months. It is less detailed than a final report with figures, all the photos, etc… but I just wanted to get something out there in the interim. Here you go! (And sorry for the repetition/wordiness).

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Background:

Conventional turfgrass lawns in the United States are a cultural expectation for land use around human dwellings and workplaces. These areas are typically highly cultivated, requiring use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation, and regular inputs of labor for mowing. In the Midwest, these European, cool-season grass are maintained within a narrow band of acceptable heights, so much so that it is commonly a part of municipal code and owners can be fined for violating these social norms. Lawns represent the largest irrigated crop by acreage in the United States.

While these lawns are not ecological dead zones, their ecological function could be greatly improved by reducing inputs (irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides) and increasing overall ecological health (carbon sequestration, biodiversity, native seed production, increasing food supply up the trophic levels).

A variety of conventional lawn alternatives have been tried around the country, but there are almost no examples locally or in the region. We have ample space & resources to conduct a pilot project to see what seed mixes might work with our soils & climate.

Objective:

To conduct a pilot projection demonstrating alternative plant species selections that are compatible with most American cultural expectations for a lawn but have enhanced ecological impact over the status quo. (I.e. something more functional than a lawn, but less “wild” than a short-grass prairie planting).

Design:

The plots will be conducted on 2 sites at TCAD: at Moontree and Grounds.

The Moontree plot will only use cultural (non-chemical) methods for site preparation & maintenance (such as tillage, mowing, hand-pulling, and solarizing). The plot has very sandy soils and is 21’ x 195’ (4,095 sq ft).

The Grounds plot will use cultural and chemical methods. Site a little trapezoidal, but +/- 84’ x 111’ (9,324 ft sq).

Each plot will be split in half and receive two treatments:

Treatment A: Eco Grass, a blend of fine-leaved fescue blends that only need to be mowed a couple/few times a year. The ecological function here is not greatly improved, but one benefits from reduced mowing, irrigation, and inputs. Plus, it’s not an exotic concept to the average person. I sowed at the recommended 5 lbs per 1,000 sq ft (218 lbs/ac!).

the Eco Grass idea

Treatment B: A custom mix of 8 grass-like native species which I developed with a native seed company. My assumption is that by using native plants we are adding some ecological function, albeit much less than a diverse mix of dozens or hundreds of kinds of grasses and wildflowers. This mix could stand a couple mowings if necessary to maintain structure. It would still be green and low-growing like we are used to. I sowed at 11.6 lbs/ac.

Timeline:

For site preparation, the existing vegetation is killed (or at least greatly weakened). Moontree plot is tilled thrice, in July, August, and October 2020.

Grounds site is sprayed in July and August 2020 with glyphosate, achieving a pretty good removal of existing vegetation (seen here in September).

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Each site was seeded with their respective mix on March 10, 2021. Sites were broadcast spread by hand.

The Grounds plot on seeding day (sorry if the photo is rotated).
Grounds plot at seeding time.

The areas were high-mowed throughout the growing season as needed. Mowing was conducted to reduce competition from fast growing annual weeds, allowing the perennials to establish. Weed pressure was very light.

On July 20, the Grounds plot was sprayed with a broadleaf herbicide to reduce weed competition. This herbicide does not affect grasses or grass-like plants.

Results:

By June 14th, the entire Moontree site is… still sparse. It’s a very sandy, exposed site, so that’s not terribly surprising. It’s not ideal for the cool-season grasses we typically have for our lawns.

By August 9, the Grounds site looked… green!

By August 24, the native mix treatment at the Grounds is… not great. I saw mostly crabgrass (weed) and wood sorrel (a nice plant, but not what I planted). Here’s a representative photo:

The Eco Grass mixture is faring a little better. I see some thick, dark green clumps that indicate it is starting to establish. But if I was a paying customer with high expectations, this wouldn’t cut it.

By Sep. 8, Moontree is still very sparse and weedy. However, I did find several Side Oats Grama that managed to grow and produce seed all in one growing season. A nice feat for a perennial.

Discussion:

The establishment for both seed mixes and soil types didn’t meet my expectations. Why the poor establishment?

1) I don’t recall the rainfall being ideal for germination (though this is a memory and I don’t have records on this).

2) Eco Grass can be sown in the spring, but they say it establishes better with a fall seeding because of fewer competing weeds (though I don’t think weed competition was a major factor).

3) The Native Mix was sown at a much lower density than the Eco Grass… 18X less. Even so, this was actually higher than what is often prescribed for natural area plantings (with the idea that establishment takes 3-5+ years), but we wanted a quicker-fill in. I could’ve simply cranked up the density, but that adds cost and I wanted the two seed mixes to be reasonably similar in price. So many trade-offs!

Another cultural barrier is that most of the native species are warm-season grasses that don’t immediately green up in the spring like we’re used to. Additionally, there is increased fire risk.

Future Action:

What options remain for us now?

1) I could scrap the plots and try something new. Unfortunately it’s almost too late to prep sites and sow for a fall planting.

2) I could overseed to try to make up for poor germination and low density, but then I won’t have a good feeling if next years growth just took longer or actually benefited from the overseeding. I suppose I could split the plots one extra time and overseed some and not others.

3) I could just give it another year & keep an eye on it.

I was initially inclined to Option 1. Lesson learned, move on. But as I looked at my project initiation notes, I wrote to myself about the Native Mix, “Development might take up to 3 years.” The words of one of my ecological mentors echoes in my ears: “Patience is a prairie word”. Granted, this isn’t a prairie restoration, and most people’s expectations about landscaping don’t involve patience.

So now, as the seasons march on and start to make my decisions for me… I’m leaning towards Option 3, with maybe an Option 2 overseeding of half of the sites.

mega update: endangered prairie, sustainability expo, pedestrian safety crisis, hunting, EV chargers, oh my…

Ok, there’s too much going on to each get their own post, so here it goes!

First, GOOD news! The Bell Bowl prairie in Rockford, IL has been saved… temporarily. (I posted about it here). To me, the lesson here is that yes, legal protections & organization are good and necessary. But also, culture matters. If we can’t build a widespread and consistent ecological ethic, so serious of laws or guidelines will save us, however well-crafted.

Second, Moontree Studios has a new electric vehicle charger! This runs on wind and solar (and when those aren’t enough, grid power). We now have 4 plug at 3 locations on campus

Third, we were blessed to host Turkey Tracks, a non-profit that relies on the help of volunteer guides and the tireless efforts of founders Carol and Doug Corey to carry out their mission of “Helping young adults with mobility challenges to experience the joy of hunting.” We were honored to partner with Turkey Tracks recently by hosting one of their hunts on the property.

For many years, the Poor Handmaids have used deer hunting as a stewardship tool for maintaining the ecological health of the land. Indiana ecologists have found that in the absence of natural predators or hunting, unchecked deer population growth can harm natural ecosystems through excessive browsing of native plants, in addition to impacts like crop damage, car accidents, and transmission of tick-borne illnesses. We are grateful to those with Turkey Tracks who were able to assist us with this sustainable harvest so that the needs of the land community can remain balanced into the future.

Fourth, I had the privilege of sharing about our vehicle electrification efforts at the Sustainable Solutions conference in South Bend this week. Here’s TV coverage from WNDU. Highlights for me was hearing from the City of Goshen on all of their incredible work around climate resiliency and sustainability, including increasing tree canopy, rooftop solar, bike trails, electric vehicles, and now electric bicycles. Also, (of course) someone brought a Tesla. Tesla just received an order of 100,000 cars (not a typo) from Hertz, which will bring a solid electric driving experience to many more rental car drivers.

Goshen gunna Goshen, you love to see it!
Check out the extra storage in the front trunk (“frunk”).

Fifth, the worst news for last. I found out together that we had another pedestrian fatality in Plymouth, the second one this month. (Here I wrote about the other fatal car crash, and the efforts of our Complete Streets committee to improve cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure in the city).

This week I also twice observed red lights being run at Webster Elementary school during school drop off times with a crossing guard present. I also watched a man in a company vehicle text and drive while he was navigating the same intersection (yes, I contacted the company & I ask that you do the same when you see this). There was also someone driving drunk through the school drop off line.

The U.S. Dept of Transportation also released numbers showing an 18% increase in fatalities caused by motor vehicles for the first half of 2021, the worst in 15 years.

Locally and nationally, we are facing a crisis.

Sixth, a beautiful mushroom I found recently. Because, well, we need some beauty right now.

news round up, autumn edition

It’s fall, y’all.

Here’s a few things I’ve been reading:

Fulton County solar energy project expected to lower utility costs (WSBT) The Fulton County Rural Electric Membership Corporation is a non-profit that provides energy to nearly 5,000 homes. Any money saved goes directly back to members of the REMC. Fulton County REMC CEO Joe Koch says members can expect to save up to $8 million, not including the project paying itself off… When fully charged, the two Tesla batteries can power 2,200 homes for a month, which can be the difference between life and death during an ice storm.

NIPSCO Continues Path Toward Lower-Cost, Sustainable and Reliable Energy Future (Press Release) Recent analysis points to a balanced and flexible approach to transition the generation portfolio

People are realizing that degrowth is bad (Noah Smith substack) The mad schemes degrowthers advocate are a fantasy that distracts us from real efforts to save the planet

Excess fertilizer use: Which countries cause environmental damage by overapplying fertilizers? (Our World in Data) Fertilizers have transformed the way the world produces food. They have not only brought large benefits for food security, but they also bring environmental benefits through higher yields (and therefore less land use). But, there can be a downside.

Listen to the cry of the Earth’: Pope, top Christians urge world leaders to act on climate change (NBC) Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew released their first joint statement ahead of a U.N. conference. [Here’s a link to the statement].

Editorial: Bishops must commit to saving the Earth now (National Catholic Reporter Editorial Staff) Given that the very habitability of our planet may depend on the results of the [climate] summit, it is a good time for Catholics everywhere to be praying and fasting, in hopes that our leaders will finally (finally!) commit to doing whatever it takes to save the Earth we are destroying.

Anxiety from climate change isn’t going away. Here’s how you can manage it (NPR)

5 Midwestern governors agree to create a network to charge electric vehicles (NPR) The governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are joining forces to build a new network for charging electric vehicles. The bipartisan plan aims to improve the region’s economy while also reducing toxic emissions from cars and trucks.

Let’s bust the myth: a car-friendly neighborhood isn’t a child-friendly neighborhood (GGW) What these arguments boil down to is that the convenience of drivers – even in objectively walkable neighborhoods – should take priority over the lives and health of children. Parents should run a mile from such logic. Motor vehicle crashes kill and injure more kids than any other cause in America.

We will not ban cars (Noah Smith) Electric vehicles are crucial for fighting climate change [A very sober and data-filled look at the promise and peril of the future of cars in the U.S.]

Hertz orders 100,000 Teslas, the single-largest EV purchase ever, with Tom Brady campaign (Electrek) Bloomberg reported the news a few minutes ahead of the press release, with sources who asked not to be identified, and said that it represents around $4.2 billion of revenue for Tesla. It will be the single-largest purchase ever for electric vehicles. The cars will be delivered over the next 14 months from an already tight supply of Tesla vehicles.

Birds Thrived Where Humans Feared To Tread During The Pandemic, Scientists Say (NPR) “Anthropause” is a word scientists have coined to describe the scaling back of human activity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s probably safe to say that most people have found it uncomfortably restrictive, a new study published on Wednesday suggests the pandemic has allowed many bird species to finally stretch their wings.

Ancient Footprints Suggest Humans Lived In The Americas Earlier Than Once Thought (NPR) The question of when humans first migrated to North America has long been a matter of hot debate among researchers who have continually uncovered evidence of ever-earlier dates. Now, analysis of ancient fossilized human footprints in New Mexico has pushed the date back once again — to at least 21,000 years ago.

The Myth of Regenerative Ranching (The New Republic) The purveyors of “grass-fed” beef want you to believe that it solves meat’s environmental problem. But this is merely a branding exercise, not a climate solution.

temporary crosswalk enhancement arrives in Plymouth

“Four score and seven years ago…” Ok, maybe it was just five years ago… when Purdue Extension brought together area leaders in Plymouth for an Active Living Workshop. During the workshop, we learned about many options to increase mobility, health, and safety via smart urban design. The bulk of the focus was on increasing walking and bicycling rates.

I also had the privilege of meeting the indefatigable Angela Rupchock-Schafer of the Marshall County Community Foundation (she now serves as Director of Community Impact and Communications)! Which is not the point of the story, but in the subsequent five years we’ve collaborated on many community initiatives. Angie knows seemingly everyone in town, so she graciously helped me get connected.

Since that workshop, I’ve served on the Plymouth Complete Streets Committee, which helped craft and adopt a Complete Streets ordinance which states, “All facilities owned by the City and in the public right-of-way shall be designed, constructed, maintained, and improved to allow all users of all ages and abilities to travel safely and independently… including pedestrians, bike riders, motorists, people with disabilities, emergency responders.”

Paralleling that work was the Trails and Transportation Committee for Marshall County Crossroads (aka Stellar Communities). We subsequently published a Trails Master Plan for the county.

No small feats! We have some great collaborative teams in the county. However… planning and publishing are relatively easy compared to actually building and changing the built environment.

So after many conversations and plans, our team launched a temporary crosswalk enhancement this month in a style called “Tactical Urbanism.” The idea is to install a temporary feature quickly and at low/no-cost, gain feedback from users, and use that data to install long-term investments. We can’t expect to get everything perfect the first time, so better to be able to tweak the design before pouring concrete.

Rather than repeat all the details of the project, I’ll link to the press release here.

We installed the crosswalk enhancement on Saturday morning and were happy to watch it being immediately used:

Instead of having to cross 36 ft of traffic, it is now just 24 ft wide (a reduction of 1/3).

Also by a child on a bicycle crossing by himself:

Looking north

I took some time to count traffic as well. By narrowing the road and placing a radar speed sign, only about 10% of eastbound traffic was traveling in excess of the posted 30 mph speed limit. Previously, 40 mph+ traffic was common. Near-fatal crashes with pedestrians are common here. At the beginning of the school year, a child was struck by a vehicle east of this intersection. Having traveled this path many times with children in tow, I can vouch that it is stressful and unsafe.

We were riding high on watching five years of work finally come to the smallest amount of fruition when we got the tragic news that a pedestrian was killed by a driver near the Plymouth hospital (on the opposite side of town). The crash occurred in the dark, at 6:30 AM, soon after the man was released from the hospital.

Something perverse in our brain might jump immediately to assigning fault or blame. Was the driver on her phone? Why was the man in the road? Etc.

But we are trying to shift the conversation back towards design. Looking at an aerial photo of the hospital, what options did the man have available to him? The hospital is surrounded by a state highway with no shoulder to speak of. State highways are designed to move maximum cars and maximum speed. It is just not possible to safely reach the hospital unless you have access to a car, creating a dangerous situation for both pedestrians and vehicle operators.

People understand this. In a recent survey conducted during the creating of the Trails Master Plan, Marshall County residents pointed out that fast vehicle speed, lack of sidewalks, and lack of safe routes keep them from cycling or walking more.

It’s important to remember that not everyone has the choice of picking their mode of mobility. Below is a picture I took while biking home the other day. People are walking on the road at dusk, returning from the grocery store. Of our four major grocery stores, only one is safely accessible via sidewalks. I could highlight several more of these features from my travels around town, but we need to wrap this blog up…

I met this gentleman at the farm market. His is visually impaired and so not able to obtain a driver’s license. Because of the built environment in most places in the United States, that can be a recipe for solution isolation. “This electric bike has been my savior,” he told me. The bike has special sensors that alert him to obstacles. In Plymouth, he can at least ride on the sidewalks and get around.

Lastly, Angie and I had the opportunity to come on the radio this week to discuss the project as well as equity issues around our transportation system more broadly. I was very pleased with the conversation and it renewed my hope that with some leadership and courage, there is enough common ground for us to build a safe and equitable transportation system for all users. Click here for a recording of the show, and you’ll have to skip ahead to the 33 minute, 55 second mark

May be an image of 2 people and indoor

Sustainable Solutions Conference and Expo in South Bend

I’m excited to be sharing on a panel at the Sustainable Solutions Conference and Expo Oct. 26 at the Century Center in South Bend.

I’ll be discussing our electric vehicle fleet and workplace charging arrangement, with all the fun details like installation, employee policies, and fleet usage dynamics.

(In case you missed it, Indiana University published a case study on our electric vehicle initiative earlier this year).

Register today to learn how to jump start your sustainable business practices. https://bit.ly/3p8QETP

attn: those with connections in Rockford, IL area

This is a re-post / link to a blog I follow. Several people in my field from the Chicago/Illinois-area have been raising the alarm about a high-quality prairie about to be destroyed in Rockford, IL. In this case it is an airport expansion by the local government, I believe to accommodate an increase in Amazon.com orders.

Stephen Packard writes:

So far as I can determine, no public agency in Illinois has ever destroyed an area of comparable importance to Bell Bowl Prairie since natural areas were defined and mapped by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in 1977.

Despite some claims, a Grade A prairie cannot be moved and stay a Grade A prairie – especially one growing from a unique gravel deposit and with the hydrology present here. 

This ecosystem has developed its richness and complexity over the last 18,000 years – since the retreat of the last glacier. If it can be saved and dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, it will be thriving 100 years from now, long after airports have been replaced by something better. One hundred years is just a blip in the history of this prairie

For full details, read Bell Bowl Prairie Update.

pollinator plantings update for Season of Creation

I recently did a talk for some of our internal programming related to the Season of Creation. “The Season of Creation is the annual Christian celebration of prayer and action for our common home. Together, the ecumenical family around the world unites to pray, protect, and advocate for God’s creation.”

Due to mobility issues, work schedules, and/or COVID precautions, not everyone was able to attend, so I recorded the 28-min Powerpoint (turns out that it’s not too hard to do!). It’s a 5 year retrospective on the process of establishing herbaceous pollinator patches, as well as broader considerations on our roles and responsibilities relative to ecological restoration and Creation care.

Another float on the Tippe

The other week I had the pleasure of collaborating with several other stewards, educators, and volunteers of the Arrow Head Country Resource Conservation & Development.

For over 25 years, Arrow Head Country has been getting public school high school kids out on the Tippecanoe River to learn about water quality, forestry, river flora and fauna, and more. I wrote about this in 2019 (and also when they gave us a grant for wildlife cameras), so I won’t go on, but this definitely gets high marks from me not only for quality but also for longevity. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” I’m simply impressed by the committee who keeps this vitally important service chugging along, year after year. It’s relevance has not diminished one iota. Unless people know and love something, they aren’t likely to care for it.

God bless the many maintainers in our society!

Photos credit of Shannon O’Farrell.

The coronavirus pandemic cancelled the float in 2020, but that didn’t stop the crew from filming a 5 minute piece that summarizes many of the topics paddlers typically learn.

plant sampling at a solar installation

I’ve been doing some plant sampling around our solar arrays recently (see here for older posts on pairing native, pollinator-friendly plants with solar energy installations). We are trying to figure out which plants will grow given the strange soil, light, and precipitation conditions that happen between and around the solar panels. For example, directly underneath the panel there will be very little direct sun or moisture. There aren’t many (any?) plants in our region that evolved for those precise conditions.

There are many ways to assess the vegetation, but I won’t get into them all here. The growing season is for grabbing data before the opportunity passes, and the full analysis often has to wait until the dormant season.

One of my pet peeves is ecological initiatives (or any social initiative, for that matter) that fail to collect data after implementation to see if the intervention worked. There are many reasons this happens, but… happen it does. So I’m trying not to let old projects fall off the radar (and certainly can’t claim to be perfect in this regard). If it actually matters whether our work gets done or not, let’s get smarter and do better and learn from each other!

Back to plants…

One way to get an idea of the abundance or distribution of a plant is running linear transects along which you place some sampling plots. Like this:

from Great Lakes Worm Watch. Apparently it works for worms as well as plants.

Do enough of them, and you can get a pretty good approximation of what is happening, and better so than just walking through quickly and “eyeballing it.” Yes, Black-eyed Susan is showing up at your site, but was it a single plant, or is it showing up in almost every square meter? Has the Ironweed expanded its territory relative to last year, or is it contracting? Are there flowers available to pollinators from the very beginning of the growing season to the very end, or just a big flush in the middle? Repeated transect sampling gives us answers to these questions.

I used this method to count blooming species along shaded, partially shaded, and sunny transects. This gives some fine-grained detail as to what is thriving, where.

In the following photo, I’m directly underneath the center of the panels, so the plants are significantly thinner than in the full sun, and bare ground is present. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, because most native bees species need bare ground for nests! Despite being relatively dry and very shaded, there are still some plants growing and even blooming.

I also try to establish a control group when possible. In this case, it’s the surrounding cattle pasture in which the arrays are located. Running a couple transects on adjacent ground gives me an idea of what floral resources are available absent this intervention.

In addition to the fine-grained detail, I also take a full account of any plant species that were present on the site, whatever their abundance. But… more on that another time.

However you slice it, paying attention is the first step. That calls to mind a Mary Oliver quote… “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Anyway… the real purpose of this post is to share videos and photos! We’ll start with this little surprise I found while cranking the solar panels up and down (we adjust the tilt 4 times per year to maximize energy production).

I can tell you that the treefrogs are VERY excited about pollinator-friendly solar. They are everywhere. And… of course that’s the whole idea of the food chain, of which we are a part.

I’ll finish with a gallery of photos. Enjoy!