Many modern parks have an abundance of turfgrass. Some of it gets used often--like athletic fields, play areas, or event spots. Other times, it’s an unused open area that needs regular maintenance.
Meanwhile, parks agencies seek ways to reduce labor and maintenance costs to offset the rising expenses of almost everything.
Is there a solution to cut costs as well as make better use of relatively unused land?
Consider transforming unused areas into spots for native plantings. The benefits go well beyond budget concerns.
In this article, we explore how creating native planting areas can positively affect the environment, community, and maintenance operations. Then, we look at what to consider before starting the project.
What is a Native Planting Area?
A native planting area replaces common landscaping with various local plants. For example, replacing turfgrass with non-woody flowering plants, grasses, ground cover, trees, and shrubs.
The types of native plants will vary based on the location, but you can get a listing of your location's native plants from local ecological sources, consultants, and, of course, the web. Homegrown National Park, for example, has a page with resources to find native plants based on your zip code or region.
Native planting areas are a nature-based solution that benefits the environment, local wildlife and insects, and the community.
Let’s take a closer look.
Benefits of Native Plantings
Why choose to replace turfgrass with native plantings? The benefits will vary based on your area and the types of plants you use, but here are some general things you may see.
A variety of native plants allows for a landscape of eye-catching flowers, abundant fruit and seeds, and brilliant seasonal changes. Nature lovers and passive observers can delight in the four seasons of beauty native plants have to offer.
Native plants attract a variety of wildlife to an area. Nuts, seeds, and fruits produced by the native plants offer a diverse local dining experience for wildlife. The plants provide essential nutrients and habitat for pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and moths. Mammals also use natural areas for shelter and food.
Native plants have evolved to flourish in their natural ecosystem. Yet, many have natural predators that help keep a single species from taking over.
In contrast, some non-native plants don’t have natural predators. They aggressively spread, choking out other types of plants. Some invasive plants can overtake entire areas of natural habitat, destroying diversity and habitat.
While some maintenance is still required to control native plants that spread quicker than others, once a site gets established, the variety of plants creates a natural balance that encourages species diversity.
Native plants have evolved to adapt to local climates. They generally are more hardy and healthy, requiring less water to maintain.
Preventing Water Runoff
Generally, turfgrass has a shallow root system that doesn’t absorb much water. Many native plants have deeper root systems that increase the soil absorption of rainfall, which reduces water runoff from the site. The root systems can also help prevent erosion along bodies of water.
Furthermore, turfgrass often has an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen left over from fertilizers. Rain can cause these elements to enter nearby water sources. The runoff causes excess algae growth, depleting the water’s oxygen and harming aquatic life.
Reducing Air Pollution
Native planting areas reduce mowing times. Less mowing means less carbon emissions. Gas-powered lawn tools account for around 5% of the nation’s air pollution. One gas-powered lawnmower can emit up to 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation.
Native plants help to remove carbon from the air, reducing air pollution. Larger plants and trees efficiently store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Native Plantings and the Maintenance Team
We’ve seen how native plants benefit the environment and community. What about parks and recreation agencies and their maintenance teams?
Lower Labor Costs
Areas of native plantings do not need to be mowed. Less time gets spent on lawnmowers so that maintenance staff can focus on other pressing needs for the parks and facilities.
How much time can be saved? For example, a 61” zero-turn riding mower (going at an average of 6 mph) can mow one acre of turf in roughly 20 minutes. If you converted 60% of a park space to native plantings, how much time would that save at your parks?
Add the time no longer needed for fertilizing, watering, and weeding once the native plant areas get established. You have significantly reduced your labor costs, which is helpful when dealing with open positions or budget cuts.
Longer Equipment Life
If your mowers and other landscaping equipment get regular inspections and preventative maintenance, the reduced usage increases the equipment’s lifespan. Also, you’re spending less on replacement parts.
Fewer Supplies and Materials Needed
Native plants thrive in the local environment. They generally require less fertilizers, pesticides, water, and maintenance. Native plants also require less water, reducing the need for watering and irrigation.
Enhance Sustainability Metrics
Suppose your agency has a sustainability plan or is considering creating one. In that case, native plantings can help improve metrics in water conservation & management, energy conservation, natural resources and habitat preservation, and community health and wellness, to name a few.
What to Consider When Planning Native Areas
Just throw some seeds on top of the turfgrass, and the native plants will start to pop up, right?
If only it were that easy.
Developing these natural areas requires careful planning. You will want to create clear goals and objectives for the site. You’ll also want to evaluate the site, the soil, topography, hydrology, and existing natural features.
It’s also important to identify any disturbances that can degrade the site. Factors to consider include:
- Chemical Contamination
- Fire or Suppression of Fire
- Invasive Species
- Fragmentation and Roads
Then comes choosing the appropriate native plants based on the site evaluation. Successful plantings should align with the site’s light, water, and nutrient availability. Also, planting species based on their natural associations can help the site establish more effectively and efficiently.
It’s a lot to plan. The labor and costs associated with creating these natural areas, however, are an investment in the future. Some agencies choose a DIY approach, while others hire consultants or companies to install the native plants.
And the investment can pay off.
Maintenance savings can total up to 50% when the plants have been established--typically about 3 years. Sure, there will still be some monitoring and maintenance of the areas, but it can pale in comparison to all the mowing, watering, and fertilizing done previously.
Do you want to take a closer look at the next steps for creating native planting areas for your park assets?
We recommend checking out An Introduction to Using Native Plants in Restoration Projects put out by the US Forest Service. It will give you a clearer picture of effectively establishing native plant areas at your assets.
Replacing unused turfgrass areas with natural plantings offers several benefits. These beautiful, valuable areas can be sustainable, environmentally friendly additions to your parks. The time planning and cultivating can pay off multiple times with reduced labor, supplies, and equipment costs.