Inside a movement pushing to remake KC’s outdoor spaces with native plants

A movement to replace lawns with native plants and trees has taken root in Missouri, pushing the state’s conservation rating with a group promoting native landscaping efforts to the top half of the fifty states. 

The ranking comes from local property owners registering their fields, yards and other spaces on a website promoting the idea that half of all lawns should be replaced with native plants and trees to restore habitat for birds, bees and other small wildlife.

Homegrown National Park is a (pardon the pun) grassroots call to action—the largest cooperative conservation project ever attempted. There are other movements advocating ecological corridors, but author and entomologist Doug Tallamy came up with the catchy Homegrown name when he realized that reducing our nation’s forty million acres of lawn by half would create more acres of conservation than most national parks combined.

Kenn Boyle’s yard across from the tennis courts at Loose Park in KCMO is on the Homegrown map. Last year, he registered 4,700 square feet of native grasses, flowering perennials and shrubs in his front and side yards. Next up, he’ll replant much of his backyard.

After renovating his 1950s home several years ago, Boyle turned his attention to the landscape. He focused on plants that grow wild in Missouri after attending a talk by Deep Roots KC, a network of partners that promote native landscapes in the area.

“It was a slippery slope from there,” he says. Neighborhood feedback was positive, but his own feelings were the most surprising. “It was an almost visceral emotional and physical reaction. I hadn’t anticipated that.”

He reacted not just to the flora but to the fauna the plants attract—goldfinches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and five kinds of bees. The change was so impressive that he set up a camera to take photos every ten minutes during daylight hours. He’s thinking of merging the images into an educational video.

“It never occurred to me that my old yard didn’t have biodiversity or nutritional value,” he says, “and the savings on water alone is significant.”

Boyle initially worked with a consultant to install some forty native species in a semi-formal design, including classic flowers like coneflower, coreopsis and penstemon, grasses like prairie dropseed and sedges, and bushes like witch hazel. But other native enthusiasts simply replace areas of turf lawn with buffalo grass or allow autumn leaves to remain in beds beneath trees like oaks, willows and wild plums to provide beneficial bugs, especially caterpillars, a soft landing during their life cycle.

It all counts and every bit helps, says Stacia Stelk, director of Deep Roots. Switching out a traditional landscape can be overwhelming, however, and her organization is launching a new program this spring called Nature Advisors, through which  volunteers meet one-on-one with homeowners and recommend a native landscape plan, resources and installers, if desired.

The KC Parks department is joining the movement after the City Auditor’s Office recommended more sustainable practices. Deep Roots helped advise them on how to begin planting more than two hundred acres of city property with natives.

Stelk credits three things with putting Missouri relatively high on the Homegrown National Park map. First, the Missouri Department of Conservation established its Grow Native! program (now outsourced to Missouri Prairie Foundation) long before many other states. Second, Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Jefferson City pioneered retail sales of natives. And third, the state sits smack dab in the middle of the monarch migration route from Mexico to Minnesota, generating extra interest in pollinators.

Not long ago, Missouri’s conservation agency asked residents where they spent the most time experiencing nature. The answer? In their own yards. So it makes sense to create a landscape that supports the natural world, Stelk says.

“There’s something about establishing a sense of place, our cultural history of being in the Great Plains,” she observes. “Our state has really leaned in. And we can do more.” 

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