February 11, 2002
Daily Herald
Group promotes prairie over grass
By Jake Griffin Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on February 11, 2002

Even with several inches of fresh snow covering Peter Chen's yard, it still looks different from any of his neighbors'.

Poking through the snowdrifts like periscopes are stalks of prairie grass that invite birds to stop for a nibble no matter what the weather is like.

"They don't flock here all the time, but it does provide a source for seeds," Chen said.

For the Naperville resident, and many people like him, the emphasis of home gardening has turned from balancing space between vegetables and perennials to harmonizing suburbia and nature.

"I believe God put us on Earth as stewards of the land," said Pat Armstrong, part of an area-wide gardening club called Wild Ones.

"My yard is totally native, 100 percent."

Armstrong's group endorses ordinances that give residents the chance to choose between the cookie-cutter suburban lawn and something a little wilder.

So far Naperville and Bloomingdale are the only DuPage County communities that have Wild Ones-approved ordinances on landscaping choice, Armstrong said.

Other communities have ordinances that allow residents to use natural plants, but they are written ambiguously, she said.

"There are bad ordinances out there that restrict things and make it difficult to enforce," she said. "For instance, some ordinances say 30 percent of your land can be natural landscaping, but who's going to come out and measure that?"

Wild Ones promotes an ordinance that would require homeowners to submit landscape plans to their towns and gain approval.

The ordinance would spell out what types of vegetation aren't allowed.

Because Wild Ones is a national group, it emphasizes native vegetation individual to each locale.

Carol Stream resident Jan Smith says prairie landscaping, like she has, benefits everyone.

Prairie landscaping provides food and shelter to creatures, and prairie grass has such long roots that more rainwater is absorbed and land is less likely to flood.

"My next-door neighbor has started designing and planting, too," Smith said. "She says my garden is spreading down the street."

Those benefits are some of the selling points Wild Ones uses when pushing the ordinance.

"Lawns contribute to runoff like streets," Wild Ones' Armstrong said. "Lawns also waste water and require mowing, which pollutes the air."

She said that beyond municipalities, her group also works to tackle homeowners association covenants that prevent landscaping changes.

"I've worked with condo groups," she said. "Areas around detention ponds are seeing a change."

Armstrong's yard in south Naperville is filled with prairie grass and wildflowers native to Illinois. Every year she has a controlled burn to revitalize the land, and every year she spends hours in her yard pulling invading weeds that aren't native. Because leaf and yard waste fires aren't allowed in most places, residents would need to get a permit from their municipality.

The ordinance endorsed by Wild Ones doesn't list acceptable flora, but does mention weeds that aren't acceptable like certain thistles and grasses.

For those who think people who landscape their yards in natural prairie are just lazy, Armstrong said maintaining her meadow-like yard is just as difficult, if not harder.

"It takes an awful lot of work at first," she said. "It's also quite expensive."

Margrit Nitz spent more than $1,000 turning her eastern Aurora yard into natural prairie only to come home one afternoon and see that it all had been cut down by the city.

"I went out to a nursery to get some things for my yard and I came back and the front yard was mowed flat," she said. "It was really quite traumatic."

Nitz said the city admitted liability and repaid Nitz for her loss because the design had been cleared with city officials. Aurora hasn't adopted any natural landscaping laws that could prevent future mistakes.

Some cities aren't looking forward to the prospect of changing the landscaping laws.

"So far it hasn't happened here, thank goodness," said Mike Baker, West Chicago's assistant community development director. "The weed ordinance lists nuisances, like thistles, that we check for, and it's also unlawful to grow grass above eight inches."

Because cities often have a hard time fighting some landowners about property maintenance, some officials hesitate to pass laws allowing natural prairie grass to be grown.

Naperville code enforcement officer Ella Druek said people have tried to use the city's prairie landscaping law to skirt fines for neglected land.

"People are aware of the law and try to circumvent it," she said. "The big key is whether the question area is wild or designed."

In Naperville, homeowners planning natural prairie landscapes have to register with the city and submit design plans with lists of plants, trees and shrubs.

Smith said her yard has garnered praise and accolades from neighbors. Nitz said her neighbors always want to see what's coming next because it's the only yard on the block sporting thigh-high prairie grass and wildflowers imported from Maine.

"Since I started this project, I've noticed more people walking on my side of the street," she said.

However, Armstrong and Chen each said some neighbors have been upset by their yards.

"There's still one neighbor who doesn't like the way my yard looks," Armstrong admitted. "He's a neatnik."

Carol Kaminski lives across from Chen and said she's heard complaints from others but doesn't mind the yard herself.

"It certainly stands out," she said. "It's OK with me. I see him spending time working on it."

Chen said the complaints aren't going to change his yard.

"To be honest I think more people don't like it," he said. "I've received anonymous letters and occasionally people will come up and say they don't like it."

? Wild Ones meets monthly at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. For more information on the group, call (630) 415-4344.

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