Friday, January 27, 2017

Trees vs Prairie

Lincoln Nebraska's community forest from State Capitol looking south.

Trees vs Prairie
I started to write this article about the value of the community forest here in prairie/farm country. But as I started to write, I found myself thinking about the seeming contradiction of the work we do in promoting both trees and native plants in our planted landscapes.  How can we be promoting both prairie and trees when they don’t coexist well? Prairie requires abundant sunshine while the trees grow tall and cast a lot of shade.  They can certainly be in conflict with each other in our communities.

'Hessei' Common Ash - northeast Lincoln
The reason we promote both prairies and trees is that they’re both incredibly important to community vitality and environmental well-being.  It’s a sad reality that most of the tall grass prairie and much of the mixed-grass prairie throughout the central US, including Nebraska, was long ago lost to farming and community development. The prairie was teeming with life and served as a great sponge soaking up the worst of rainstorms while at the same time being incredibly resilient to drought. With loss of prairie came a significant decline in important animal species that rely on the prairie including the Monarch butterfly, regal fritillary butterfly, several bee species, and various birds among many other creatures. In a state like Nebraska, we need to work hard at preserving and restoring prairie all around us, including within communities.

And yet, within our communities, it’s quite clear to me that trees, especially the big ones, are doing treemendous good (pardon the pun) in making our communities more livable. The trees around us provide wildlife habitat, improve stormwater capture and add tremendous visual interest. But most importantly, trees help soften the worst of the Great Plains climate by blocking cold winter winds and by providing shade and cooling relief in the heat of summer. Our utility bills are significantly lower by having trees around us. Just imagine what our communities would feel like without our trees. I would not want to live here if that were the case.
Prairie plants at Union Plaza, Lincoln
I regularly find myself thinking about how to accommodate both prairie and trees in the community. My opinion is that we should work to grow significant tree canopy across our communities while at the same time preserving pockets of open space that can accommodate prairie and other sun-loving perennials and ground covers. Trees should be prominent in residential neighborhoods, especially along streets and on the south and west sides of buildings to take full advantage of their shade. If we’re trying to make our communities walkable and pedestrian friendly, summer shade is incredibly important to that endeavor.
So then where do we put prairie? In most communities, over 80% of the greenspace is mowed throughout the growing season. The rest is landscape beds, gardens or shaded areas. A great opportunity exists to take a sizable portion of the mowed ground (lawns) across a community and restore at least some of it to prairie. It’s hard to mimic true prairie in relatively dense housing areas, but many prairie plants lend themselves well to use in traditional landscape plantings. In sunny pockets where we might have planted roses, daylilies and catmint, we could instead plant some little bluestem, sideoats grama, prairie coneflower and gayfeather.
However, the best opportunities for more meaningful prairie exist on larger properties especially public spaces like roadsides (ROW), parks, school grounds, cemeteries and golf courses. Private acreages and larger commercial properties also lend themselves well to a prairie-style landscape. In these larger areas, it would be possible to plant native species so that they truly mimic a natural prairie. Dozens if not hundreds of species could be utilized and the ground could be managed by mowing, haying, grazing or possibly even by burning.
We really do need to make an effort at including more prairie in our communities. With over 98% of tall-grass prairie already lost, our community landscapes can become refuges for prairie plants and the many important insects, birds and other wildlife that they support. But let’s also keep working hard at the tree side of the equation.