Native Prairie Or Sustainable Landscape: What’s The Difference?

Sustainable landscapes are of interest to property owners for a number of reasons, including their desire to make a positive contribution to the environment, reduce ongoing maintenance, and increase property value. Sustainability in the landscape refers to a balance and harmony between people, the economy and the environment—the long-term health of our properties and the planet. If we sustain the earth, we sustain ourselves.

This philosophical groundwork helps explain why sustainability is moving toward the center stage of commercial landscaping. We recognize that the decisions we make when landscaping clients’ Chicago properties can make a greater contribution to the environment.

But understanding exactly what is sustainable—and what native prairie means—can be a bit confusing.

Why Is It Confusing?
Some sustainable landscapes are native prairies that are made up of a restored native ecosystem, and other sustainable landscapes include native prairie plants that are arranged in a bed with a design intent.

The word “prairie” can be confusing because it can describe a type of plant (prairie grasses, for example) or an entire ecosystem (native prairie). And “native” is used to describe plants that naturally grow in a region, while “native prairie” references an entire ecosystem, not just a plant.

The terminology in the sustainable landscaping world can get tricky, so let’s break down some basic concepts here and illustrate the difference between a native prairie and a sustainable landscape.

What Is A Native Prairie?
Before we settled on the land and modified it with our infrastructure, prairie land dominated North America. Illinois once had more than 35,000 square miles of prairie, and today the state has about 3 square miles of original prairie. More commercial property owners with expansive landscapes are considering the environmental, social and economic benefits of restoring the land to native prairie, which includes a diverse planting of grasses and forbs.

Native prairie restorations are beneficial because they: 1) manage and filter storm water; 2) return beneficial birds, insects and wildlife to the environment; 3) improve soil quality and structure; 4) control sound and reduce the heat island effect; and 5) increase your landscape investment while reducing landscape maintenance requirements.

What Is A Sustainable Landscape?
A sustainable landscape uses native plants—and prairie plants, including grasses like dropseed—that are arranged in the landscape with a design intent. “Design” is a key word.
Unlike native prairies, where growth of grasses and forbs is somewhat random and where seeds and sprigs are installed and allowed to crop up at random in a natural way, a sustainable landscape has a distinct plan. There’s a place for every plant.

Sustainable landscapes also use native plants, which have deep root systems and can hold water in the soil, prevent runoff and improve soil quality. These plants are lower maintenance than typical perennials.

In many ways, a sustainable landscape may look a lot like a perennial garden, except with only native plants. However, a sustainable landscape will require much less maintenance—irrigation is generally not necessary, nor is pruning aside from an annual cutting back of grasses (if desired) and spring or fall cleanup.

Native Plants Or Native Prairie?
Here’s where we toss around the word “native” and sometimes confuse two very different sustainable landscaping concepts. A native plant is indigenous to the area, so it is adapted to the climate and soil conditions and can thrive without extra “inputs” like fertilizers and other lawn care treatments that are necessary when we import plants into our environment that are not designed to grow there. (Turf, for example, requires a fair amount of maintenance because turfgrass is not a naturally occurring plant in our Illinois environment.) Native plants are a sustainable option for landscaping because they can thrive without the use of additional resources like irrigation.

A native plant refers to a single living, growing thing, while a native prairie is a term that describes an ecosystem. It’s an entire expanse of land filled with native prairie plants that range from grasses to wildflowers, hundreds of species that provide a diverse environment for attracting beneficial wildlife—birds, butterflies, insects, bees.

Prairie Plants Or Prairie Restoration?
We tend to apply the word “prairie” to plants that are native and considered sustainable for your Illinois commercial property. But just because prairie plants, such as grasses, are included in a landscape does not mean that the space is an actual prairie. Prairie plants that exist in a sustainable landscape are placed with a design intent. They are cared for to stay within bed borders. Prairie grasses in a sustainable landscape may be cut back annually.

A prairie restoration is landscaping that works to return land to its pre-settlement state—or as close as possible because reinventing an original prairie is next to impossible. A prairie restoration focuses on plant diversity and including species that will benefit the soil, retain water and attract beneficial critters.

Both prairie restorations and sustainable landscapes using prairie plants add value to commercial properties, while helping sustain a healthier ecosystem.

We understand that there is some confusion about what a native prairie is because the terms “native” and “prairie” are used loosely to describe sustainable landscape designs. And there is a place for native prairies and for sustainable landscapes on Chicago commercial properties — some sites may include opportunities for both types of ecologically beneficial landscaping.

Whether you select prairie plants for a sustainable landscape, or implement a native prairie restoration on your property because you have the space and environment to execute it, you have an opportunity to give back to the environment.

Let’s talk more about native prairies and sustainable landscape options for your property. Contact Bluestem any time at 815.568.2927.

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