We are always being asked questions about native restoration. People are very curious and want to know what we do, why we do it, and how it helps (and doesn’t hurt) the environment.
Check out the most Frequently Asked Questions below. If you have a question that doesn’t appear on this page, please contact us – we are happy to help.
- Native Plants
- Stewardship and natural areas maintenance
- Erosion control
- Prescribed fire
Why are natives important? Native plants belong here. Native plants like oak trees, wildflowers, and prairie grasses were here in the Midwest long before European settlers arrived. Native plants are the fabric of our natural areas and provide food and shelter for wildlife. For example, most of the soil in Illinois was primed for farmland, so more than 99% of the natural areas that were there before, have been completely destroyed. With that destruction went the prairie chickens, bison, bumblebees, and nearly everything else. If we want to conserve and bring back our wildlife, we need native plants.
Native plants support native insects which are eaten by native birds, which are in turn eaten by other native animals (birds, coyotes, etc.), and so on. Native plants have also evolved in our ecosystems and have adapted to handle most anything that Mother Nature throws at them – fire being the biggest example – that a lot of non-native species just can’t handle.
Native landscapes are also beautiful and they’re often less expensive to maintain. Among many other benefits, they can help prevent the presence of nuisance geese since geese prefer turfgrass and open land. Native plants also soak up excess water and hold the soil in place with their extensive root system – which is why native plants are commonly used to stop soil erosion around stormwater basins.
When you use native plants, you’re helping heal the land. You are building stepping stones between natural areas that wildlife can use for food and shelter.
Why should I use natives instead of the plants I see at my local nursery? Your local nursery may sell non-native plants treated with chemicals that prevent plants being available as a food source, which makes these plants useless to wildlife and can actually harm or kill certain insects. Non-native plants you find at the neighborhood nursery are also often purposefully deformed (by exposure to radiation), inbred, artificially hybridized, cloned or sterile. Native plants, on the other hand, are usually not clones of each other. They have a diversity of immune system genetics, and as a group, native plants are more resistant to disease.
If all plants of a certain species in an area are clones, they all have the same genes for pest and disease resistance, so if one individual gets sick and dies, they all get sick and will likely die. We saw this recently with the Emerald Ash Borer. Unfortunately, we will likely see this again in the next decade or so with Boxwood Blight.
If you aren’t seeing native plants at your local nursery, ask them to stock them or contact us.
How are invasive plants bad for our land? Invasive plants (plants that didn’t evolve within a region) thwart biodiversity and threaten species loss. Some non-native plants can grow and reproduce much more quickly than native plants because they don’t have any checks on their growth, like a fungus or insect that is only found in their home lands. Invasive plants can take over natural areas and push out the native plants, forming what we call a “monoculture.” Studies are now showing that monocultures actually change the microbiology of the soil which has a lasting effect and slows the recovery of the ecosystem.
Stewardship and Natural Areas Maintenance
When will my natural area become maintenance free? A healthy and diverse natural area will never be maintenance free. There are other companies who claim to offer zero-maintenance, but don’t believe it. Weed seeds are very mobile – they don’t call them invasive species for nothing! There will always be the potential for invasive species to invade, erosion to occur, or damage from humans to fix. Prescribed burns can help reduce maintenance, but there is always stewardship that needs to be done. Without fire or other forms of stewardship, it’s likely that invasive trees and shrubs will take over a prairie. Installing seed or planting new species is part of maintenance.
Do you use herbicide? When necessary, we use herbicides to control weedy, aggressive, non-native and invasive species in natural areas and native landscapes. Often we’re spraying plants such as Thistle, Phragmites, Teasel, Reed Canarygrass, Japanese Knotweed, Buckthorn, and Bird’s Foot Trefoil that cannot effectively be controlled by other means.
Why are you cutting down or spraying flowers? Almost all the plants in our region have flowers for reproduction, including invasive species. For some invasive species, such as White and Yellow Sweetclover, we often cut or mow the plants down while they are in full bloom. This is not only because they’re easier to identify, but also because the plant is most vulnerable at this stage of growth, allowing for more effective control. Since Sweetclovers are biennial plants, mowing or cutting these plants when they are in flower ends their life cycle. If we are cutting the flowers off of Field Thistle (a perennial), it is because we want to prevent it from producing seeds. In a healthy prairie, there’s something blooming for the entire growing season; just because we’re cutting down, pulling or mowing some plants in bloom, doesn’t mean that won’t be other plants flowering later in the year.
In addition, some of the nastiest invasive species and weeds have very attractive flowers. Just because a plant has a pretty flower doesn’t mean it belongs in a natural area. If we let invasive species finish flowering and then make seeds from those flowers, they’ll likely spread and cause problems elsewhere.
Why are you cutting down trees? Some of our projects involve selectively removing invasive and undesirable trees such as Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, Tree of Heaven, Box Elder, Mulberry, and Black Locust. These trees and shrubs tend to crowd out native species, including native tree species, but especially native flowers and grasses. Many interfere with ecosystem functions or cause direct damage to property. For example: Buckthorn has berries that birds eat, but the laxative properties of the berries mean that some birds aren’t getting the nutrition they need, even when they are eating other foods as well. There are bird nest predation effects and significant soil degradation in areas where Buckthorn has invaded. Buckthorn is just one of dozens of non-native and invasive tree and shrub species in our region. Another species, Tree of Heaven, have highly damaging roots, causing damage each year to underground pipes and building foundations.
Why does this area look overgrown or weedy? If the area has been unmanaged for long enough, it’s possible that it is overgrown and weedy. Have a look at our photo gallery, and you’ll see that while they might not look like a manicured lawn, native plantings have plenty of visual interest to offer year-round.
Why are you cutting down or mowing the new prairie? The first few growing seasons after seeding a new prairie is when most of the weed problems present themselves. We cut and/or mow to control annual and sometimes biennial species in these areas, since almost all the native prairie species are perennials. Some native species germinate later than weedy species, so we need to clear some vegetation so that the native species can get enough light to survive.
Why is this kind of vegetation better than rocks around the pond edge? Rocks don’t participate in an ecosystem like vegetation does. A native wetland planting interacts with its surroundings, providing ecosystem services such as cleansing the water and air, reducing noise, and regulating the temperature nearby. There are many other reasons to choose native vegetation over “rocks” (for shoreline work we call these rocks “riprap”). From increased total water capacity to increasing water quality and wildlife habitat, native vegetation offers more value and a lower cost compared to basins with riprap shorelines. Also, riprap will never look better than, or even just as good, as it does on the day it is installed. Its visual appeal diminishes over time until it is replaced, which is very costly. Riprap is an expensive, temporary solution, while native plants are a permanent feature.
Prescribed Fire and Controlled Burns
Why do you burn natural areas? All of northern Illinois’s native ecosystems are fire dependent and require the reintroduction of fire for the benefit of native flora and fauna. That may sound complicated, but essentially means that fire is as much a part of the region’s landscape as snow in the winter or storms in the spring. Many species’ seeds need an extended period in freezing conditions to begin germination, and some species need their seeds to be charred or heated before they’ll germinate. Native perennial wildflowers and grasses go dormant each winter. This means that while they have roots that stay alive during the winter, the above ground portion of the plant dies each fall. A burn is just nature’s way of cleaning up for next year. A burn removes dead plant material and darkens the soil by creating ashes and charred material, allowing the soil to warm earlier in the spring. This extra warmth extends the growing season by days or even weeks, and the native plants (still alive below the surface) are ready to take advantage of this extra time. Ashes and charred material has beneficial effects in the soil and is a major part of carbon sequestration in prairies. Many species of plants produce more flowers in the year immediately following a burn.
Is the fire dangerous? All fire is dangerous. We recognize this danger and conduct our burns in the safest manner possible. Our crewmembers have a healthy respect for fire, and it is treated as a tool used to accomplish specific ecological goals. Every burn crew leader is an Illinois Certified Prescribed Burn Manager and all our crewmembers have had National Wildfire Coordinating Group firefighting courses. We have more Illinois Certified Prescribed Burn Managers than any other restoration company in Illinois. If you see fire being applied by our crews near your residence or place of business, know that we have contacted the fire department beforehand and that they are ready to assist very quickly in the event that they are needed. We don’t conduct burns on days when the flames would move too quickly for someone to simply walk away from them (even though they might look scary, on most days you could crawl faster than the flames move). When we are conducting a controlled burn, we have taken great pains to ensure that it has been permitted and approved by the proper regulatory agencies, as well as conducted in the safest manner possible.
How long does it take for the plants and flowers to grow back after a burn? Native plants will re-grow faster than if there had not been a burn. The removal of the insulating layer of dead plant matter from the previous growing season combined with the darkening of the soil by ashes and charred material mean that the soil warms more quickly in the early spring, allowing plants to germinate sooner. This early growth allows the growing season to be extended by as much as two or three weeks.