Landscaping Nebraska Style

July 27, 2009 at 5:56 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, Rants | Leave a comment
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Recently, my father attempted to clear weeds from our back yard. I no longer live at home, so I wasn’t there when it happened. My father isn’t the most plant-friendly guy you’ve ever met. To him, trees are a liability, grass is a maintenance nightmare and flowers and weeds are indistinguishable. The end result was that he pulled my bleeding heart, which I’ve been struggling with for three years, right out of the ground. Of course he didn’t do it on purpose, but I was heartbroken: it was finally doing well, after three years of questionable progress and less-than-satisfactory results. I got to see it bloom once.

This whole thing got me thinking. I’ve been meaning to do a post about landscaping for a long time, and I think this is the push I needed. First, let me go off on a small rant.

I’ve lived in Omaha, Nebraska for 21 years. I grew up thinking that the best lawn was a weed-free sea of perfect Kentucky bluegrass. Its lush, deep green, uninterrupted by dandelions, broadleaf ground cover and well-watered, neatly cut edges does present a nice overall picture. In fact, for years I strived to achieve this environmental abomination’s greatest form. I’m sure you’ve seen and/or done it: every year, you power-rake, pull weeds, put down multiple applications of chemical fertilizers and fret over the slightest variations in tone. You’re sure to water it each week when it’s dry and don’t let it get too tall.

No one told me this was bad. Everyone I know is always going to great lengths to keep their lawn immaculate. As a child, I asked my father what a nice lawn was for. He told me it was to keep rain from eroding the yard. That’s actually an agreeable answer: I can’t possibly find fault with that. But does it need to be immaculate? Think about what you have to do every year to keep it looking like that. You have to pull weeds all the time, put down excessive, harmful chemical fertilizers, water weekly and mow all the time! What a headache! So, let’s get that right one more time: water weekly so the grass will grow, then mow it so it doesn’t grow. Whose great idea was that?

And it doesn’t stop there. People maintain lush, Victorian gardens, eastern woodland-type back yards and all kinds of water features. The crimes of humanity against nature are many in the realm of landscaping and living with nature.

Now, it’s time for a reality check: YOU LIVE IN NEBRASKA!! Wait, there may be people reading this who don’t live in Nebraska, but to those I say, this article IS about Nebraska-style landscaping, so I’m going to be writing as though I were speaking directly to Nebraskans. For you out-of-staters, read on, because the natural beauty of the midlands in our country is all but completely gone, and you never even knew what it looked like.

So, anyways, get to the point, Frank. Right. There’s a whole world of untapped Nebraska natural beauty that people don’t know about. People in NEBRASKA don’t know what Nebraska used to look like. It’s a great place to set up farms, so all we have to go off of is the enormous farms of the west. That isn’t want it once looked like.

Nebraska was originally three distinct “biomes,” if you will. In the eastern part of the state, there was virgin forest surrounding the Missouri river and its tributaries, creeks and floodplains. The great eastern forest of the North American continent had “fingers” that reached up the waterways, and in Nebraska we saw the fringe world of that biome: cottonwoods, maples and lindens, along with some smaller dogwood and hackberry all clinging to life near the edges of our waterways. As the pioneers moved west and into the greater part of the state, away from our drainage (Loup, Platte, Republican, Missouri), they saw vast fields of prairie. Prairie is not what you think it is. Prairie is a diverse plant community of what many Nebraskans think of as “weeds.” All kinds of short and tall perennial grasses formed the sod that held the prairie together, and wildflowers competing for sunlight with the grasses and shrubs filled in the blank spots. Sometimes large stands of bur oak stood against the sea of grasses and wildflowers.

The prairie is not boring. In fact, it supported a vast amount of wildlife: bison herds, prairie dog communities, one of the nation’s greatest diversities of birds, tons of insect life (we all know that) and even some foxes, bears and a few other glamorous hunters. Mountain lions aren’t exactly unheard of in our past.

The freshwater of Nebraska was even more exciting. We all know about carp, trout and catfish, but pallid sturgeons, freshwater mussels and some lesser-known bottomfeeders all once inhabited our waterways as well. The shallow, seasonal rivers supported great tracts of migratory birds, and still today we can catch a glimpse of them if we are lucky. Some birds seen in Nebraska are seen nowhere else in the states, or in just a few of them.

And finally, in the very far northwest, in what we call the panhandle of Nebraska, we see the beginning of the rocky mountains. The Niobrara scenic river park bears striking witness to the eroding power of water, with the Niobrara itself having carved its way through hundreds of feet of loam, sand, clay and bedrock to its current elevation today. The actual geography is dry highlands littered with pine trees and a very dynamic groundwater table. Here you can find Ponderosa pine forests growing happily on the high hillsides. The prairie is shortgrass due to the higher wind speeds and higher elevations.

So there: eastern woodlands, characterized by a high, dense canopy and lower, dense undergrowth in the form of perennial, hardy shrubs; the great plains, a diverse community of plant life that supports grazers and hunters, with stands of bur oak living here and there; and the western pine highlands, with high, dry hills dominated by slow-growing pine forests.

Did any of that say lush east coast forest, characterized by high humidity, ample rainfall and riparian tracts of land? Did anything in that description of Nebraska suggest that KENTUCKY bluegrass, which has a very shallow root system, high water demand and fairly low mature height would be easily at home in our state? And did you get the impression that we can grow Victorian style gardens right here in our very own Midwestern Nebraska, where the effects of desertification, extreme heat and cold and dry spells dominates the landscape? I sure f***ing don’t think so.

We live in Nebraska, and the natural beauty of our part of the country is repressed by its inhabitants. Even if you go to the Omaha Botanical Gardens, you’ll see misguided attempts at recreating Victorian gardens and glens. The true beauty of Nebraska lies in its grasses, wildflowers and native trees.

I’m planning on doing a separate post to introduce readers to Nebraska’s native plants and trees, but in the meantime, I’d like to give a lesson on actually planning your flowerbeds and gardens. A house with a yard dappled by islands of unrestrained Nebraska heritage is actually quite attractive, and I’m going to prove it to you.

True Nebraska landscaping uses “ornamental” grasses and tracts of largely untamed wildflowers as its staple. Sadly, my bleeding heart that I took so much time and effort to grow is blatantly out of place in such an environment. The grasses of the tallgrass prairie grow QUITE tall (8 to 10 feet) and provide a very classy, different kind of natural barrier. If you have a neighbor whose property you’d like not to see, or a garbage can location you’d like to provide a natural visual barrier for, big bluestem or Indiangrass are both excellent choices in giant grass barriers.

Of course, it’s cool to have huge grass dotting the borders of your property, perhaps near a foundation wall or on the edges of the yard, but you can’t have that for a lawn. You really SHOULD get rid of your Kentucky bluegrass lawn, as it is one of the worst environmental crimes a Nebraskan can commit. I suggest a native shortgrass instead.

There are all kinds of shortgrasses you can find if you do a google search on shortgrass prairie. The term is somewhat misleading though, as shortgrass prairies still contain grasses that are a foot high or even bigger. Buffalo grass usually remains somewhere between 2 and 5 inches high. It goes to seed in the spring, so you’ll probably have to mow it a few times, but you can not bag it and the seeds will go to the ground, being eaten by wildlife, watered into the ground to produce new grass and a thicker lawn or even decomposing back into nutrients over time.

There are other kinds of grass that various eco-friendly groups have blended seed mixes for. Usually they market these as eco-grass, or something equally uninformative. However, they are hardy perennial grasses that require no water, little to no mowing and fill in quite nicely over time. They won’t give you a spotless, perfect lawn in your first year, but neither does bluegrass. It will take a little time to fill in.

Wildflowers are an excellent landscaping tool as well. They can be mixed with prairie grasses to create a dazzling effect. The true beauty of wildflowers is not in a single clump of them, but in a massive tract. Daisies, blue coneflower, milkweed, and milk thistle are just a few examples. After these plants get established, they reseed themselves and come back every year. They are very pretty in the right setting. Furthermore, you can attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bumblebees and all kinds of other enjoyable wildlife with the right variety of wildflowers.

Even if you landscape your entire yard with prairie grass, wildflowers and the proper type of shortgrass, you’ll probably still feel like you’re missing something. You can use containers to put small annuals in and line your sidewalks with them, as islands of guilty pleasures. You can also have small borders of flowers you like, or even a flowerbed dedicated to your old, disfunctional (I refuse to spell that word with a ‘y’) style of gardening. Dedicate a corner of your yard to useless flowering dwarf trees, high-maintenance annuals and high-water demand perennials or bulbs.

And when it comes to trees, the tree’s location should be your primary consideration. There are all kinds of trees to fit all kinds of purposes. That said, let me say this: a dwarf flowering tree’s purpose is existence. They provide little to no shade, no wildlife habitat and no ecological benefits. They just look nice, depending on who you are (I think they look stupid). Trees should be planted so that they provide benefits and are not a liability.

Many of the older homes in Omaha are built with silver maple, cottonwood, elm or pine trees nearby. These kinds of trees are notorious for dropping MASSIVE limbs in high-wind storms, or coming down altogether when they mature. They are also somewhat scraggly and irregular in their growth pattern. Why do people plant them, then? They grow fast. People want to plant a tree and receive instant gratification from it, as our culture seems obsessed with instant gratification. The truth is, unless you live in the very far eastern part of the state or very close to a natural waterway, maples and cottonwoods are not going to be at home on your property. Furthermore, they will become a hazard in the future and potentially damage your property during storms.

The solution is hardwoods that are meant to live in Nebraska. The very best kind of tree you can plant is an oak tree. Of course, there exists a HUGE variety of oak trees, and some are very adept at living in Nebraska. Most members of the white oak group were born to live here. They resist drought, have deep roots that reach to the water table and can stand up to Nebraska windstorms and tornadoes with no fear. If you choose to plant an oak, then bless your heart. It won’t grow as fast as a maple or an ornamental, but it will provide you with AMPLE shade, strong, hardy limbs that won’t come down on your house and plenty of adorable woodland creatures to spend the evening observing. Bur oaks and white oaks do excellent in Nebraska. Cottonwoods are good, as long as there is enough water in the area for them. Don’t plant these next to your home, though.

You shouldn’t plant pin oaks or southern red oaks in Nebraska. They don’t do as well here, and pin oaks are already vastly over-planted by homeowners. Northern red oaks are ok. Post oaks also do well here, and I have seen black oaks flourish in shadier parts of the state. These are all huge trees, so be sure to give them plenty of room to grow.

So a recap: Oaks and (maybe) ash trees should go near your house, where they aren’t going to break but will provide shade, and maples and cottonwoods, along with their smaller counterparts and pine trees, should all be planted away from the house. Beware that cottonwoods made their homes on floodplains, so they desire lots of water, and maples, while unable to live in standing water for long, are also preferential to high-moisture environments. Pine trees vary a lot, but Ponderosa pines are always a good choice (especially in the western part of the state).

To end this article, I’ll provide a few pictures I found of well-done landscaping using native grasses, wildflowers and trees.

A sea of wildflowers is quite captivating.  For their full effect, plant varieties together in large tracts.

A sea of wildflowers is quite captivating. For their full effect, plant varieties together in large tracts.

This small terraced flowerbed contains a few native grasses that look very good together.

This small terraced flowerbed contains a few native grasses that look very good together.

Of course, if you own a larger piece of property, restoring some of it to prairie is not only environmentally responsible, but the reward is breathtaking.

Of course, if you own a larger piece of property, restoring some of it to prairie is not only environmentally responsible, but the reward is breathtaking.

Ponderosa pines are stately trees found in the western fringes of the state and do well in Nebraskas sandhills.

Ponderosa pines are stately trees found in the western fringes of the state and do well in Nebraska's sandhills.

Most of the plants in native Nebraska landscaping are so hardy, they can be used as green roof material.

Most of the plants in native Nebraska landscaping are so hardy, they can be used as green roof material.

I hope this has you thinking a little bit about Nebraska’s original character. We live in Nebraska, and it’s about time we started being proud of that. And not only does this make you an environmentally responsible homeowner, but it provides a lot of benefits. You don’t have to mow or water nearly as much, you are providing wildlife habitat through native grass and wildflowers and you are helping contribute to the carbon problem by providing your share of a carbon sink. Prairie in its truest form is just as effective a carbon sink as forest. Wildflowers provide food and shelter for lots of endangered species, like hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees. We planted blue coneflowers and a few other native wildflowers (I don’t know what they’re called actually…and I’m not even sure that we planted them) and I was rewarded with daily visits by a nearby bumblebee colony. Since they are pretty much harmless and quite endangered, it was very gratifying to see them doing so well.

So get out there and experiment a little bit. There are a number of places to buy native plants. Here are a few links:

http://www.prairiemoon.com/
http://www.nativegrasses.com/
http://www.prairienursery.com/store/

I’ll come up with a few more as I edit this post later. The prairies of North America are unique and found nowhere else on earth, and they once supported a huge diversity of captivating wildlife. Take pride in where you live and stop replicating old world gardens.

You’ll have to check the site in a few days and/or weeks. I’m going to do a post about native Nebraska species and maybe one about rain gardens really soon.

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