Why Not Let Nature Take its Course?

Why Not Let Nature Take its Course?

Of the nearly 900 introduced weeds known to have appeared spontaneously in the Chicago region, scarcely 150 are generally successful, yet they dominate more than 95% of the vegetated landscape.  These weeds are highly adapted to the kinds of disturbances and landscape alterations that have characterized sedentary agricultural societies since primitive times.

Floyd Swink & Gerould Wilhelm

Plants of the Chicago Region

 I love Wild Geranium… I wonder if it has escaped form European gardens. I could imagine it becoming weedy/invasive in other parts of the world

I received this comment from Celia Larsen to my blog about Dame’s Rocket growing along roadsides on May 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm


Wild Geranium in bloom at St. Charles Park District property

On the contrary.  It cannot compete with Eurasian plants in Europe or Asia any better than  it can compete with them here.

Europeans and Asians have lived for thousands of years with their native plants which evolved and adapted to living in disturbed ground–land that was irrevocably changed by farming, herding, roads, buildings, canals, seaports, and deforestation.

Indians in our hemisphere, however, lived lightly on the land.  They were hunters, gatherers, trappers, and fishers.  Some raised maize, but as a supplement to their diet, not its main course.

Dr. Gerould Wilhelm,  formerly a field botanist at the Morton Arboretum and now Director  of Research at Conservation Research Institute in Elmhurst, has this to say in his paper “What is Ecological Restoration” on Conservation Research Institute website:


(In the Midwest)…each acre was inhabited by a community of species interlinked in time, space, and genetics, with a vital adaptive memory of the place. With 800 to 1000 native vascular plants in any particular Midwestern county, a given tract of tall-grass prairie might have as many as 100 species of vascular plants per acre, and no one acre would have the exact combination of species present in any other acre.

These plants and their associates have lived in their place for thousands of years, adapting to the unique aspects of various acreages, husbanding water and recycling resources. For thousands of years, the landscape has experienced a relationship with human beings that nurtured and stewarded the plants and animals known to have been present at the time of aboriginal “removal”. Just as it is an artifact of the region’s reality today that contemporary human beings are an integral aspect of the places where they live, and foster the habitat for contemporary inhabitants.  

But when the Europeans arrived here, they disturbed and changed the environment.  The seeds they had brought with them from the old country  grew well in the disturbed land, taking the place of our native plants.

Dr. Wilhelm goes on:

It is not sufficient simply, once aware of the liabilities associated with the contemporary aesthetic, to stop all the mowing, watering, fertilizing, and pesticiding, and “let nature take its course!” There persists the reality that our contemporary landscape has nowhere near the biodiversity to coalesce itself into a self-sustaining, self replicating ecosystem. If current human involvement were simply to disappear, the landscape would not “succeed” into some pre- Columbian Eden. Rather, the Kentucky Bluegrass would go unmowed, fouled by its own mulch, and a few other weeds like Bull Thistle and Dandelion would flourish along with the bluegrass for a few years, giving way to weedy shrubs and trees, such as Buckthorn, Box Elder, Amur Honeysuckle, and Black Locust. The few groundcover weeds would shade out, the soil would erode, and the roots of the trees would become exposed as the last remaining topsoil disappeared and the trees began to topple. There would be few butterflies, birds, or anything else, other than perhaps some roving gangs of Starlings feeding on Box Elder Bugs, but mostly just system collapse. Maybe another brief boom of weeds, then a bust. All the while, water, soil, and other resources run downhill and befoul the rivers.

There is a house in my neighborhood,  that was bought several years ago by an attorney to fix up and resell.  It appears to be abandoned now and the lawn is in its 2nd year of not being mown.  I’m using this as an example of what happens when  we “let nature take its course.”

5/24/12  Yellow Sweet Clover (Mellitus officialis)  Common in old fields, waste areas, and waysides.  Eurasian biennial to 4’…it can be a nuisance weed in  mildly disturbed areas.  (Dick Young, Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas)


5/24/12  Common Burdock (Arctium minus) Tough. stinking , tap-rooted biennial…ranks as one of our most repugnant Old World immigrants .  (Dick Young, Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas) 



Nice crop of Curley Dock (Rumex crispus)  Its deep taproot, vigorous growth, and ability to withstand disturbance make it a tenacious weed.  (Dick Young, Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas.)

Photo taken on Thursday, May 24, 2012–it has since been cut down–sort of.







5/30/12 Sow Thistle (Sonatas uliginosus)  Common in fields and waste areas.  It is a tough, noxious Old World perennial…this vigorous weed also survives in difficult urban settings such as sidewalk cracks and building rubble, and does nothing to improve cruddy conditions with its presence.  Dick Young, Kane County Wild Plants and Natural Areas).

NONE of these areas, or any areas like it, or any roadside in the Chicago Region will ever become a prairie by just “ letting nature take its course.”

What to do?

If you want to remove part of your lawn so you can plant a prairie  or a prairie garden, there are a couple of ways to do it. The quickest, of course, is to remove it with a sod cutter.  You can hire someone to do it for you or you can rent a sod cutter for a half or  a full day.  Use the sod as a beginning of a compost pile–green side down–or use it to construct a small berm, if appropriate.

Solarization is the other way–it takes a lot longer–a whole growing season–, but costs virtually nothing.  Outline the area you want for your new prairie with the garden hose, then cover the shorn grass with cardboard or several thicknesses of newspaper.  Top it with mulch, or if it is fall, with leaves.  If you use leaves, encircle the areas with a small wire fence to keep the leaves and newspaper from blowing about.

More complete instructions are given on pages 186-187 in my book, Design Your Natural Midwest Garden, available here on my website:


or at Amazon.com.



And with a little effort and a little money, one can grow this.  Actually, the three blooming plants you see grow easily from seed: White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), and Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)



Here’s more information on where to buy native plants in the Chicago region from Christa Orum-Keller, vice-president of Midwest Groundcovers:

There are two Independent Garden Centers who have significantly expanded their native plant offerings – primarily by offering Natural Garden Natives from us grown at our Midwest Natural Garden nursery – they are:

·         The Growing Place        http://www.thegrowingplace.com/

·         Pesche’s                       http://www.pesches.com/gardencenter/index.php

o    Pesche’s has a handy plant search feature where you can select the ‘stock category’ of Native to see their full listing:  http://www.pesches.com/greenhouse/stocklist.php

I also received the following note:

My name is Lauren Broecker and I work at Wasco Nursery & Garden Center.  We have quite a bit different native plants here. We get our plants from Possibility Place Nursery. We also have a line of American Beauties, which comes from Midwest Groundcovers. We also have a line of Natives that comes from Natural Gardens (which was bought by Midwest Groundcovers).

I don’t have the web address.

Rain–wondrous rain.  Hope all of you received this marvelous gift.








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