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A Source Book on Natural Landscaping for Public Officials



The numerous potential benefits of natural landscaping may be divided into economic, environmental and educational/recreational themes. These categories are the focus of this chapter.


The" bottom line" can be a strong motivation for installing and maintaining natural landscaping instead of a conventional lawn. The savings that can be realized through natural landscaping for municipalities, park districts, school-districts, corporations, and institutions campuses are dramatically illustrated in the examples below, where approximately nine-tenths of the cost of conventional landscape maintenance was avoided! For some organizations, reducing site maintenance costs may be a significant factor in being able to balance the budget.

Reduced costs of landscape installation and maintenance

Cost data show that conventional installation of sodded turf grasses may exceed $12,000 per acre. Planting turf grass seeds may cost in the range of $4,000 to $8,000 per acre. This contrasts with installation costs of $2,000 to $4,000 per acre for seeding native prairie grasses and forbs. Planting plugs of native plants considerably increases installation costs but this may be preferred in selected locations where a "head start" is desired.

Native plant installation costs can often be reduced where the project sponsor or co-sponsor is a public or private entity with plant propagating capabilities. Also, volunteers are often willing to assist in the installation and maintenance of native landscapes, which further reduces costs.

The major savings of natural landscaping is the lost cost of landscape maintenance. The combined costs of installation and maintenance for natural landscape over a ten year period may be one fifth of the costs for conventional landscape maintenance.

Native perennial plants are well adapted to the local soils and to environmental conditions such as summer heat and drought. The costs of the following maintenance factors are significantly reduced or eliminated through natural landscaping: labor, water, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, replanting annual flowers, and mowing. In some locations the costs of water for sprinkling can be very high and are avoided by natural landscaping. The reduced consumption of fossil fuel for lawn maintenance equipment is an additional benefit.

Typical original maintenance requirements of natural landscapes are quite simple, involving annual mowing or burning, and some weed removal (mostly in the few years after installation).

In the Appendix are detailed installation and maintenance cost analyses based on the project experience of firms with experience with natural landscapes.

Reduced expense for stormwater management facilities

In many locations, natural landscaping can accommodate storm and flood waters thereby reducing the need for expensive, "highly engineered" conveyance and detention facilities. Drainage swales in particular cost considerably less to install than storm sewers. Where practical, curbs and gutters can be eliminated, or the curbs can be slotted. To the extent that natural drainage measures can increase infiltration of stormwater, they will reduce runoff volumes and costs of downstream conveyance and detention structures.

Detention basins designed with natural landscaping to resemble wetlands or natural lake systems reduce costs over conventional basins. Native wetland and prairie vegetation eliminate the need for expensive riprap stabilization and paved low flow channels. Further, natural vegetation in detention basin bottoms and on side slopes is less expensive to maintain than conventional turf landscaping, in addition to being a more reliable soil stabilizer.

Creation of a distinctive community image that strengthens real estate markets

High quality natural features such as river corridors and woodlands strengthen the identity of a community or neighborhood. Distinctive natural landscaping that preserves the unique characteristics of a community is a unique community asset.

Real estate within a distinctive landscape setting, if done well, can possess a marketing edge and positively affect property values. A community that appears to care for a high quality environment establishes a marketing niche that traditional area developments cannot offer.

Natural landscaping projects require materials, labor and professional services that generate income as well as enhance the environment. Nurseries, landscape architects, environmental restoration professionals, environmental groups, and neighborhood organizations are increasingly responding to the market for natural landscaping materials and professional expertise. Some inner-city neighborhood organizations are considering the economic development potential of cultivating native plants and seed products for environmental restoration projects. Sources for natural landscaping materials must be from businesses rather than from the "wild."

Supports the natural landscaping component of the "green industry."

There are many opportunities for creative entrepreneurs in all aspects of natural landscaping.


In many ways, natural landscaping reduces the stress that the "weed-free" lawn places on clean air, clean water, soil stability and other environmental qualities of life.

Reduced soil erosion

Natural landscaping has distinct advantages over conventional turf grasses in stabilizing easily erodible soils. Native plants are particularly effective on steeply sloped sites, stream banks, and areas where moving water is present. The roots of native prairie plants are very dense, fine, and often very deep (in some cases, 5 to 10 feet in mature plants) and hold soil well. By contrast, typical turf grass root systems are only four to six inches deep.

c. strigosus plant rattlesnake master plant


photo showing deep root systems of native grasses and forbs
Deep root systems of native grasses and forbs.
Note shallow root systems of conventional blue
grass turf at far left.

Wetland vegetation provides effective soil stabilization along streambanks and shorelines by absorbing some of the erosive energy of flowing water and waves.

Native vegetation is finding a new use in "bioengineering" approaches to slope stabilization. Recent demonstration projects for streambank and shoreline stabilization, such as along the Skokie River in the Chicago Botanic Garden, have successfully used native plants such as prairie cordgrass and various willow species.

Improved water quality

Native vegetation in naturalized drainage ways enhances the infiltration of contaminated stormwater. The dense, deep root systems augment the permeability of the soil and help the uptake of certain stormwater pollutants. Native vegetation buffers are particularly effective along the edges of streams, lakes, and wetlands. They can intercept runoff and subsurface water pollutants from urban and agricultural land uses and construction sites. Emergent and submerged wetland vegetation provides an additional benefit along the edges of lakes and streams by serving as a growing surface for microorganisms. These microorganisms break down certain pollutants thereby reducing their harmful effects.

diagram showing drainage of a site through a natural system, rather than through storm sewers, dramatically reduced pollution levels
Drainage of a site through a natural system, rather
than through storm sewers, dramatically reduces
pollution levels.

An additional benefit of native vegetation landscaping is its ability to thrive without fertilizers, or heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. Turf grass and other conventional landscapes are heavily dependent on chemical applications, and the excess chemicals inevitably find their way into our waterways where they cause excessive plant growth and toxicity to fish and other aquatic organisms.

Reduced air pollution

Standard lawn maintenance equipment creates significant amounts of air pollution. Equipment such as lawn mowers , chain saws, leaf vacuums, and other fossil fueled lawn maintenance equipment emit high levels of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of ground level ozone (smog), toxins and other particulates. USEPA estimates that a gasoline powered lawn mower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation. Gasoline lawn and power equipment, on average, produce 5 percent of "smog" forming VOC in non-attainment areas (such as the northeastern Illinois region). Smog is a noxious irritant which impairs lung function and inhibits plant growth. In addition, the "driver" of such equipment is typically positioned where exposure to such carbon monoxide and toxic emissions is greatest.

Small gasoline spills evaporate and pollute the air as well. USEPA estimates that every summer, the few ounces spilled during each refueling of lawn and garden equipment adds up to 17,000,000 gallons of gasoline nationwide.

Natural landscaping can significantly reduce the need for fossil fueled lawn and garden equipment and this reduces the associated air pollution and health risks. In addition, the native plants themselves can help to improve air quality by reducing particulates and gaseous air pollutants.

Reduced noise pollution

Noise from lawn and gardening equipment has become a source of increasing dissatisfaction in some communities. The use of natural landscapes reduce the use of this equipment.

Climatological benefits

diagram showing planting of vegetation improve climatological conditions
Planting of vegetation improves climatological conditions.

Trees and other vegetation benefit the climate on three levels: human comfort, energy conservation, and urban climates.

Human comfort. Plants intercept infrared radiation directly by providing shade and indirectly by covering surfaces that reflect or reradiate solar energy. Trees and shrubs can channel air movement. Moving air feels cooler. In the winter, windbreaks reduce the wind chill factor.

Energy Conservation. Windbreaks on the north and west sides of buildings reduce winter heating costs. In the summer, trees and other vegetation make non-air-conditioned buildings more comfortable and reduce energy costs for air-conditioning.

Reduced greenhouse effect

Natural vegetation can help to combat global climate change (the "greenhouse effect") by removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store the carbon in the body of the plant, the root system and the soil.

Planting native plants can facilitate this CO2 removal. The soils beneath the tallgrass prairie can contain an immense amount of soil organic matter and nitrogen. Studies have indicated that temperate prairie grasslands are superior soil carbon sinks when compared to forests of similar climatic. It is the combination of fire, plants, root depth distributions and microbes that produce the large amount of soil carbon.

Habitat restoration and protection

diagram showing conservation buffers can help protect wildlife habitat in a development
Conservation buffers can help protect wildlife
habitat in a development. (Shaw et al., 1986

Due to extensive urban and agricultural development, high quality natural communities cover only .07% of Illinois' land and water, according to the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. With this decrease of habitats, many plants and animals have lost the special conditions and requirements they need for their survival.

Natural landscaping plays a part in attracting native animals and re-establishing a natural population of wildlife and the natural cycles within which they thrive. In addition, natural landscaping can be used to create buffers which reduce urban stresses and proximity of exotic species to high quality natural areas.

Native insects, including butterflies and moths, attract a wide array of songbirds, who eat the insects and the plant seeds. If a restored prairie is large enough, it might attract nesting grassland birds such as meadowlarks and bobolinks, birds whose habitat is decreasing in most parts of their range in the state. The degree of habitat value in natural landscaping depends on many factors relating to the ability of a site to provide the conditions required by specific plant and animal species. Site planning for natural landscaping should strive to preserve existing wildlife habitats.

As part of planning natural landscaping, it is desirable that an inventory of plant and animal species currently using the site be taken. Where desirable species are already using the site for nesting, phasing in a project by keeping enough habitat to protect those species should be considered before forging ahead with replanting the entire site.

Canada geese have become pests in many city and suburban locations where there are turf grass lawns in proximity to open water. A buffer of thick and tall native plantings around the waterbody will discourage geese from grazing, especially during the growing season when the plants are taller.


Though it is difficult to quantify, beautification is an important reason, sometimes the fundamental reason, for natural landscaping. Many people living or working in natural landscapes appreciate the variety of textures, colors and shapes of native plants and the dramatic progression of hues throughout the seasons. The wildlife, especially the birds and butterflies attracted to the plants, also enhance the aesthetic appeal of natural landscaping.



photo showing students participating in a landscape project

There is an old saying that:

" People will only conserve what they love; that they will only love what they understand; and that they will only understand what they are taught."

Natural landscaping may not be the only way to demonstrate this old adage, but it is a powerful instrument in our tool kit for the future.

Conservation education

Natural landscaping puts people in touch with a variety of plants, and if the plantings are native to the area, people can gain a sense of being in a unique and special place. Natural landscapes are an invitation to appreciate plant diversity, seasonal flowering cycles, sustainability of native landscapes, and wildlife habitat, all of which are absent in conventional landscapes. This familiarity can strengthen community support for habitat preservation and restoration, environmental protection, and open space acquisition.

Municipalities, school districts, park districts, and forest preserve districts are critical entities for bringing natural landscaping into the public eye. This can be done through educational programs such as nature walks and talks, exhibits, and volunteer days sponsored by the above organizations. These opportunities provide positive examples of public land management and increase the awareness and understanding of the public about the community which they reside.

Passive recreation opportunities

Natural landscapes provide recreational opportunities such as bird watching and photography. The diverse colors, shapes, sounds, textures, odors, and tastes found in the natural environment provide the observer with sensory experiences not found in more sterile, traditional landscapes. Nature offers both tranquility and excitement. It can serve as a place to relax, a place of diversity and excitement. By incorporating native landscaping throughout the community, it also offers the opportunity for children to experience and learn from nature in their own yard and community.

Enhanced regional recreational corridors

photo showing a family walking through natural landscaping in greenways
Photo courtesy of
Lake County Forest Preserve District

Recreational activities such as walking, running, bicycling and skating are extremely popular. Increasingly, these activities are accommodated by local and regional trails and greenways. Natural landscaping in greenways can help create new attractive recreation areas, rejuvenate others, and provide connecting corridors.

Scientific Study

Natural landscapes provide scientists (and amateur observers) with numerous opportunities for study. Research can lead to improved propagation techniques in urban settings and improved availability of plant materials. Scientific study can assess the impacts of urban development on native species and the benefits of introducing native species on plant, animal and human communities. Natural greenways provide opportunities for grade school, high school, and community college students to study nature and carry out their own research close to home.


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