A native plant revival is underway and Lawns to Legumes grants are here to help
Prairies once covered one-third of Minnesota and 40% of the United States, but today, less than 2% of that original habitat still remains. Gone with the prairies are the wildlife, birds and insects that these places once supported – not just bison, but also the tiny prairie vole, boisterous prairie chicken, speeding five-lined skink, and delicate Karner blue butterfly.
Happily, however, a native plant revival is underway and people around the state are working to bring native prairie and woodland plants back into their yards.
When Cheryl and Tom Rambosek (Woodbury) bought their home in 1980, most of the city was still corn fields and open space. Their house sat on eight acres of land, and the previous owners had been renting out the front and back fields to local farmers. A handful of trees and scrubby brush around the house were the only natural vegetation in sight. Eventually, the Ramboseks worked with restoration ecologist Steve Thomforde to restore the field behind their home to native prairie. Today, their yard is an oasis of color and life with cup plant, compass plant, rattlesnake master, bee balm, purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, false indigo, blazing star, and asters, in addition to monarch, black swallowtail, and yellow swallowtail butterflies.
Laurie and Mark Pellerite, who also live in Woodbury, have a smaller yard in a residential neighborhood. When Laurie began replacing their front yard lawn with native plants, she took care to retain a mowed border and incorporate other structural elements to give their gardens curb appeal. “It’s always fun when I’m out working because people will stop by and visit,” she says. “The comments from neighbors are always positive and sometimes people tell me they’re thinking of converting part of their yard to native gardens as well. Remember that old commercial? You tell two people and they’ll tell two people? It’s sort of like that.”
For people new to landscaping with native plants, there is a wealth of resources and assistance available through state agencies, county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and partnerships like Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water.
Recently, the Minnesota Legislature approved a third round of funding for the Lawns to Legumes Program, which was developed in 2019 to increase habitat for pollinators such as the federally endangered rusty-patched bumblebee. Minnesotans can apply for grants of up to $300 to support native planting projects, and there are larger grants for demonstration neighborhoods as well. Over the past two years, Lawns to Legumes grant recipients have created more than 800,000 square feet of pollinator habitat, including pocket plantings, pollinator lawns, and pollinator meadows / prairies.
To learn more about the program, find sample planting plans and plant lists, and apply for funding, go to https://bwsr.state.mn.us/l2l or www.BlueThumb.org. A brochure with locations of native plant retailers and landscapers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin can be found at www.wildonestwincities.org/p/resources_20.html.
The Minnesota DNR also has numerous online resources to help larger landowners establish and care for prairies. These include a prairie restoration podcast “Prairie Pod” with four seasons and 38 episodes, the Prairies of Minnesota Landowners Handbook, and a tax-incentive program to protect prairie remnants that have never been plowed. More info at www.dnr.state.mn.us/prairierestoration.
To get one-on-one advice and access local grant programs, residents of Washington County can also request a free site visit with Washington Conservation District: www.mnwcd.org. Native plantings that incorporate raingardens or stabilize shoreline and streambank areas will usually qualify for watershed cost-share incentive grants, which can be paired with Lawns to Legumes grants to support larger projects.
“The stewardship grant really inspired us to go big,” says Erin Murphy (St. Paul) who got help from the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District last year to transform her urban yard from lawn to native garden. “For some reason, 20 minutes of mowing felt like an eternity, but now that we’re gardening it’s totally different.”