A few weeks ago, a friend sent out an e-mail to a long list of people, asking what we could do to mitigate global warming in addition to the other things we had already done:  change our light bulbs, drive less, turn down the thermostat and the water heater, eat less red meat, and stop watering the lawn. I can add to that:  eat less meat of any kind, eat only locally grown food, within a hundred miles of our town (see Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle); even better, plant a vegetable garden.  Take a train, rather than a plane or driving a car;  walk or ride a bike for shorter distances.  Open the windows instead of turning on the air conditioner.  Put on a sweater (or 2) and turn down the thermostat.  Send the kids outside to play rather than let them stay inside and play with their X-box.

But the very best thing we can do is—drumroll, please– plant a prairie or savanna garden in place of our lawn.

What has this to do with Global Warming?  Maintaining a turf grass lawn by mowing releases 16 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline.  If your lawn or part of your lawn were turned into prairie or savanna gardens, there would be that much less CO2 burned.   In addition, native plant gardens provide other ecological services.   The deep root systems of tallgrasses, in particular, absorb rain, thereby recharging the shallow aquifer. What’s more, infiltrating rainwater into the earth prevents flooding, runoff, erosion, and landslides.    A 5-year-old planting of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) will infiltrate 8” of rainwater per hour, according to an ongoing study at Iowa State University (Bharati L. 1996) as reported in  The Ecology and Culture of Water written by James M. Patchett & Gerould S. Wilhelm, available here: www.conservationresearchinstitute.org.   In contrast, the roots of Kentucky Blue Grass only penetrate into the ground a few inches.

Root systems of native plants compared with Kentucky Bluegrass pictured at the far left.  (Its roots grow as deep as its blades grow tall.)   Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, noted botanist and ecologist and former research taxonomist with the Morton Arboretum for 22 years argues that turf grass is almost as impenetrable to rain as asphalt.  Heavy rain, in particular, as we’re wont to get in the Midwest, slips across the top of a thick Blue Grass lawn without penetrating, sometimes requiring a stormwater drain in the middle of the turf.

Even more benefits: one-third of the massive root systems of native prairie plants decay each year, thereby enriching  the soil.  The deep root systems sink carbon, as well.   Other ecological services the prairie garden provides is habitat that will attract native butterflies, bees, and other insects, which, in turn, will attract native birds and other animals.  This gives us the means to reconnect and interact with the natural world around us and offers fascinating places for children to play in and explore.

And this is important to me:  Native landscapes celebrate the character, history, and identity of a particular community and region.

Native landscaping is the key to the long-term health of our environment.  Native landscaping works with rather than against nature.  Native plants require no pesticides, no fertilizers, and, once established, after 2-3 years, no watering.  They increase by rhizomes and seeds,  not leaving any room for weeds to grow.   Doesn’t it make sense to turn at least half of our lawns into prairie gardens?

It’s not that difficult to do.

It’s an ecologically beneficial way to employ your fallen leaves.   First, let me convince you that having the city dispose of all our fallen leaves is not a good idea.  I asked Mayor Kaptain of Elgin how much our leaf collection cost us each year.  He sent the request on to Daniel Rich, Public Works Superintendent and here is his reply:

Provided below is a quick breakdown that shows the 2011 estimated direct costs of the fall leaf collection program.  It is anticipated that 2012 costs will track similarly.

Employee Overtime:               $   16,515.00

Misc Equipment Costs:           $ 126,000.00 (Leaf Loaders for six weeks)

Disposal Costs:                        $ 134,000.00

Hauling Costs:                         $   77,000.00

Voucher Costs:                        $   37,000.00

Publication Costs:                   $   12,000.00

Total                                             $  402,515.00

Please let me know if you have any additional questions or if there is any other information that I might provide.

Daniel Rich, MBA, MHRM

Public Works Superintendent

City of Elgin


Thank you so much.  I already sent the blog out regarding leaves–I’ll mail you a copy.  I will, however, use this information–it’s stunning!  One of the questions that came up was where are the leaves disposed and are they used as mulch or soil enrichment?


Thank you for forwarding me a link to your blog.  It provides an interesting insight into one of the city’s major undertakings during the fall season.   Once the leaves are collected they are taken to a transfer station.  The third party provider composts the leaves where they are then spread around farm fields to provide nutrients to the soil.   As you have correctly identified, green waste collection is a challenge faced by many communities.  As a sustainable community we do everything we can to encourage our residents to mulch and compost their green waste.  Any help or encouragement that you can provide on your blog would certainly be appreciated.   Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Dan Rich

Sent from my iPad


In addition to the monetary cost, think of all the CO2 discharged into the air from all the trucks and end-loaders used in collecting the leaves.

I am in no way criticizing the city; they’re doing what we want them to do, efficiently and professionally.   But in my view, there is a better way:   Let’s use our leaves to smother part of our lawns to create prairie and savanna gardens.

It’s easy.

Outline the selected area with the garden hose–preferably on a sunny day when the hose is flexible.  Make broad curves in a pleasing shape; then cover the area with several thicknesses of newspaper pages.  Cover the newspapers with a thick layer of leaves.   Wet them down, then surround the area with a low wire fence to keep the leaves (and newspaper) from blowing about.  That’s it!.  Come spring, the grass will have died and the leaves and newspaper will be decomposing.  Set out your plants in bold masses in a pleasing design, dig holes through what’s left of the leaves and newspaper into the soil and plant your plants.  Water thoroughly, then mulch lightly with ground up leaves or shredded wood chips.

For more information about this, see  NEW PLANTING BEDS, on page 22 of my book, DESIGN YOUR NATURAL MIDWEST GARDEN.

As Thomas Rainer said in his blog, Grounded Design, “Let’s blanket our landscapes in bold massings of perennials and grasses.  Let’s convert our wall-to-wall carpeting lawns into well-proportioned area rugs surrounded by perennials and grasses.”

Love the metaphor.  (Jerry Wilhelm has long referred to the lawn as a “drug-dependent rug.”

“Area rug” lawn surrounded by perennials and grasses in my side yard.


Smother the grass under the all the trees in your yard, as well; then fill the area with  sedges and wildflowers–benefits the tree, the air, and the earth–and is gorgeous!



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