A prairie in the city

The U is installing native prairie landscapes that require less maintenance and are cheaper and environmentally friendly.

Christopher Aadland

Amid the well-manicured lawns on the University of Minnesota campus lies a small green space overlooking the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis skyline that appears to be neglected and full of weeds.

But come back in a few years, and that won’t be the case.

The University hopes that space will become a lush, thriving native prairie grass and fescue grass landscape full of insects, birds and pollinators.

And while the new acre of green space on the East Bank, along with a few other native plant and fescue grass plantings across campus, only account for a small sector of the University’s lawns, University Landcare workers hope they’ll help contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly campus.

Landcare workers planted the site with grasses, wildflowers and fescues this spring after the demolition of Norris Hall in 2011 left the space abandoned.

The new green space, located near Elliott and Burton halls, is part of a few other plantings across the Twin Cities campus that will eventually be more sustainable, while cutting back on material and manual maintenance needs.

Although the landscapes require a lot of maintenance until they mature, they eventually reduce labor and costs associated with mowing and fertilizing grass, Landcare grounds superintendent Les Potts said.

“Ultimately, if everything takes well, there should be less inputs,” Potts said. “But in the beginning … it actually takes more if we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Replacing large areas of traditional turf grass that might not otherwise be used with native prairie grasses and plants is ideal for places like college campuses, said Kelly Kindscher, a professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in native grasses and plants.

They also save water and material costs that come with fertilization and weed control.

Prairie grass and plant landscapes need to be watered somewhat regularly, but once established, they shouldn’t need any water besides rain, said Josh Richardson, project sales employee for Prairie Restorations Inc., a company that specializes in the installation and maintenance of native prairie grass and wildflower landscapes.

“[Prairie landscapes] actually increase the infiltration of rain water,” he said. “Turf grass actually acts much like concrete — the water just runs off of it.”

Kindscher said prairie grasses also help offset carbon in the atmosphere.

While the University’s small plantings likely won’t significantly lower the school’s carbon footprint, he said, they will reduce pollution somewhat from Landcare using less fertilizer and cutting out the mechanical equipment it often uses on turf grass.

Not only will the University see environmental and financial benefits, Kindscher said, but the diverse array of native grasses and plants will make it a haven for pollinators.

“It creates a habitat for pollinators, songbirds, insects, birds and butterflies,” he said. “It’s a really fantastic habitat, and it’s pretty critical.”

Potts said the University doesn’t currently have plans to incorporate any more native plant areas on campus, but he isn’t opposed to installing more in the future.

But despite the benefits of establishing areas of native prairie grasses, Potts said, convincing people to embrace a different approach to land care is difficult.

“The biggest challenge is cultural,” he said. “Everybody is used to this idea of … green grass all the way up to the house.”

Although not everyone sees the usefulness in reintroducing native prairie grasses to campus settings, Richardson said he’s noticed a trend among land and business owners who want to incorporate the landscapes into their properties.

“Many of our customers want to give a little back to the environment,” he said. “They realize they use and consume a lot and they impact the rest of the environment.”

While prairie grass landscapes aren’t yet widespread, Richardson said those who have embraced the approach have had a positive impact on the environment as a whole.

“It’s like recycling: If just one person does it, maybe it isn’t such a big deal,” he said. “But if a lot of people do, it really adds up to something big.”