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Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Director of Native Landscapes Ethan Olson talks about benefits and possibilities of native landscaping.

Indianapolis Star

More than a third of the food we eat is reliant on pollinators such as butterflies and bees. But pollinator habitat is disappearing — and backyards could play a role in bringing them back.

There are an estimated 40 million acres of lawn and turf grass in the lower 48 U.S. states, about 2% of the country’s land area. In some states that percent is higher, like in Indiana, where about 5% of land area is turf grass. Grass offers almost no ecological value, said Ethan Olson, director of native landscapes at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

And not only are backyards full of grass, they are also often home to invasive plants such as honeysuckle or Bradford pear trees, which take over natural landscapes and choke out native plants that act as habitat for pollinators. Research indicates about 80% of invasive woody species in Indiana come from the landscape trade. 

Invasive species: Here are 5 of the most harmful animals and invasive insects wreaking havoc in Indiana

The impact of your backyard invasive plants, Olson said, can throw off balance for not only native plants, but also the bugs that eat them, the animals that eat those and then the humans that rely on those animals. 

“When we begin losing our native plants,” he said, “we begin to lose everything else.”

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But yards don’t have to have a negative impact on the environment. Hoosiers who put in pollinator-friendly species and native plants could help save butterflies and bees essential to our ecosystem. 

This edition of the Scrub Hub will answer questions from readers Cindy and Wendi from Indianapolis, who asked us how to plant environmentally friendly alternatives to lawns of grass.

If you’re about to pick up some spring landscaping, here’s what experts say you should — and shouldn’t — put in your yard.

The short answer

The first thing to do is make sure you’re not planting invasive plants.

Laura Essex, landscape designer and owner of Favor Native, said it’s as simple as Googling the plants you’re considering before you buy them to make sure they’re not invasive. Just because it’s for sale in the garden section doesn’t mean it will be good for the environment, she said.

“People, when they start to garden, they go to their local nursery and they pick up what looks good, you know, because it’s easy,” Essex said. “But at the same time as we’re introducing natives and beneficials, we also need to stop and shut off that spigot of bad plants in our yard.”

Invasive plants don’t just disrupt ecosystems, they’re also costly to get under control. In 2019, Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation spent more than $140,000 on invasive alone. 

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Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Director of Native Landscapes Ethan Olson works in the nursery Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at the KIB offices in Indianapolis. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

Although the state passed a rule last April banning the sale or transfer of 44 different species of invasive plants, many others are still on the market in Indiana.

Claire Lane, an urban conservationist with Hamilton County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, advised staying away from Bradford pear or Callery pear trees, bamboo, Chinese silvergrass, Burning bush and Mimosa trees. 

Invasive plants: From bamboo to burning bush, these 5 plants invasive to Indiana might be in your backyard

The best thing to do, Lane said, is to plant native plants when you can. 

“The best choice is to just choose natives,” Lane said. “We know more about them and how they function in our ecosystem.”

For specific native plant recommendations from experts, keep reading.

The long answer

When Laura Essex moved into her home 11 years ago, it had a typical suburban lawn full of grass, dotted with a few shrubs. 

“And that was it,” she said. “When I looked out my window in the spring, in the summer, in the early fall, there was nothing moving out there. No bees and butterflies.”

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Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Director of Native Landscapes Ethan Olson shows Witch Hazel which is starting to flower Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at the KIB offices in Indianapolis. The plant is a native Indiana plant. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

After researching the decline in monarch butterfly populations, which have fallen by 80% in the eastern U.S. since the mid-’90s, she realized she could do something about it. 

Now, her business Favor Native strives to produce environmentally friendly landscaping, favoring native plants where possible. She acknowledges that some people will assert you need to be strict about using only native plants, but she sometimes includes non-native plants because they still may have beneficial qualities such as nectar for pollinators. 

If it’s between planting a non-native plant that’s not invasive and just leaving grass, she said, don’t pick the grass. 

“Human beings have had a pretty big negative effect on the species that are on the planet,” she said. “Habitat loss is a huge problem … I think we have to all start noticing that and start seeing that we have to think kind of bigger picture.

Milkweed is the only plant that Monarch caterpillars can feed on, making them crucial to the species’ survival. (Photo: Provided by Ethan Olson, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful)

About 90% of insect herbivores have to get their food from a very narrow spectrum of plant resources, Olson said. This means it’s not easy for them to find food when their species they typically rely on disappear. 

“The main takeaway with planting native plants within your yard is you are literally providing the lifeblood for entire ecosystems,” Olson said. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s understandable, Essex said. An easy way to start might be picking a native plants vendor and taking a walk through to see which plants you like.

The Indiana Native Plant Society keeps a directory of vendors online at indiananativeplants.org. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful also runs a native plant nursery, which takes orders online.

You can also reach out to your local Cooperative Invasive Species Managment Area, or CISMA, Lane points out. These groups are scattered across the state and help to manage invasive species in their area. 

Native purple coneflowers are native plants feed pollinators and provide pops of color. (Photo: Provided by Ethan Olson, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful)

“My biggest advice would just be, don’t be intimidated by the scope of the issue,” Lane said. “Anything you do is going to be helpful, so just getting started is the most important part.”

Here are some plants Essex, Olson and Lane suggest considering for a more pollinator-friendly yard:

Do you have more questions about native plants or invasive species? We want to hear from you! Submit a question to the Scrub Hub using the Google form below.

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Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or lbgibso[email protected] Follow her on Twitter @londongibson

Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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