Plant This! Not That!

Close your eyes and imagine a park. Not a state park or a national park, but a park that is managed by your city. Is there a playground, sports fields, or a walking trail? You are probably imagining a lot of green grass, maybe some large trees for shade. Outside of the green from the grass and trees, the park you are imagining is probably devoid of color. You can probably imagine tractors or lawnmowers roaring through the park as they keep used and unused grass neatly manicured. Do you imagine any birds? Maybe a cardinal or robin. Do you imagine goldfinches gracefully perched on flowers or indigo buntings dancing along the tree line?  Probably not. How many butterflies did you imagine?  

Our culture has trained us to envision the green, grassy park discussed above. But maybe, just maybe, we could shift the way we think about our parks. I’m not here to tell you to get rid of all lawn grass that has ever existed, but I am here to tell you a lot of space occupied by lawn grass is wasted. Luckily, some local parks have great examples of incorporating native ecosystem components into our publicly-owned lands.  

Rain Garden at Swansea Clinton Hills

Heartlands Conservancy has teamed with Swansea Clinton Hills Conservation Park to add native ecosystem components to this retired golf course. In early June, I visited the park to monitor the progress of a newly installed rain garden and developing prairie planting at our Exploration Garden. Plants installed in the rain garden in May are growing vigorously and swamp/rose milkweed was in full bloom. As I took pictures of the rain garden’s success, I overheard a fellow patron make an observation of an eastern bluebird fluttering across the prairie planting. The bluebird is nesting in one of four bluebird boxes installed in the garden.  The prairie planting was full of yellow and purple flowering native plants. The flush of color contrasted with the adjacent open space used as a disc golf course. Upon closer inspection, I observed a white-tailed deer feeding in the middle of the planted prairie. Swansea Clinton Hills Conservation Area is a fantastic example of using native plants to increase the aesthetic value within a multi-use park.

Prairie & Disc Golf at Swansea Clinton Hills

My next visit was to Centennial Park in Swansea, Illinois. The park’s highlight is a 1.6-mile hike trail that loops across Richland Creek and back again. The park also included a public restroom, small playground, and interpretive signage. As I hiked the loop trail on a 95-degree afternoon, a cool breeze passed through the creek and shaded trail to bring relief to my perspiring forehead.  Invasive species were present along my hike, but upon closer inspection, I found great floodplain native plants and towering ash trees growing along the creek.

Centennial Park Trail

My last visit was to Heartland Prairie in Gordon Moore Park in Alton, Illinois. Heartland Prairie was established by volunteers over 30 years ago and has been maintained by the Alton Parks and Recreation District and The Nature Institute. The prairie has a walking trail that weaves through the tall grass prairie restoration. This prairie had a diversity of colorful wildflowers blooming with more blooms to come. The aroma of common milkweed flowers was carried by a gentle breeze to my nose. As you exit the trails, the park opens up into multiple sports fields utilized by youth sports teams.

Native plants in parks increase the aesthetic and conservation value of our open spaces. So, how do we encourage our parks to incorporate more native plants?  First, anyone can make a phone call to positively reinforce the native plant features already in parks. Parks staff often only receive negative feedback. A refreshingly positive phone call can help encourage park staff to continue to add native plants. Next, park improvements will always take two things; time and money. Ask your local parks about volunteer opportunities. Your time can help parks reallocate resources into conservation-friendly projects. Plus, you can advocate for more native plant features while you are volunteering. Lastly, you can volunteer with local conservation organizations. Heartlands Conservancy holds several monthly workdays on various projects in our region. While the physical work is instrumental to meeting our goals, we also try to train and educate our volunteers while we work. The skill set you build while volunteering with HeartLands Conservancy can then be re-purposed on a variety of projects in our communities.

Mowed Path at Heartland Prairie