We Can Make Lawn Grass Greener, Plant Biologist Says

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Perfectly manicured green lawns are common and appreciated throughout the country, even in areas where water is scarce. But all the maintenance related to watering, mowing, fertilizing and herbicides is damaging to the environment and actively contributes to climate change. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Rebecca Barak, a plant biologist at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, uses her expertise in seed biology, restoration, and biodiversity in tallgrass prairies to explore alternative lawn plantings that are both attractive and beneficial. for the environment.

Earlier this month, Barak received one of the first Biota awards for biodiversity research from the Walder Foundation. She and four other scientists are recognized for their research that aims to restore, protect and conserve biodiversity in the Chicago area and around the world. Each beneficiary institution will receive $300,000 over three years to develop and deliver solutions to biodiversity challenges.

Barak’s main collaborators are Lauren Umek of the Chicago Park District, Rebecca Tonietto of the University of Michigan-Flint and Liz Anna Kozik of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as students from Northwestern and elsewhere. The team will plant and study alternative patches of lawn in public green spaces, explore options for establishing and maintaining these plantings, and share information to encourage the planting of alternative lawns where appropriate.

Northwestern Now spoke to Barak, born and raised in the Chicago area, about her research.

What challenges does the Chicago area in particular face?

People may be familiar with lawn alternatives for very dry areas, but Chicago is in this weird space. There are really dry periods and really very wet periods. We have a lot of urban flooding. The typical turf lawn is green in color, but it is not environmentally green. These lawns require a lot of water to maintain and, on the other hand, the roots are short and do not absorb water well when it rains. In our work, we are looking for plants that can survive with a lower water supply, but can also absorb additional water, for example during floods.

We’re looking at lots of different lawn alternatives – from grass look-alikes to plantings that look more like a meadow – to see what might work. Many species we test are short, green, herbaceous native plants, but with deeper roots.

Who could benefit from your research?

Urban green spaces can be arranged differently. The concept of lawn alternatives exists, but there isn’t much data to substantiate why they may be better and what roles they serve. Our first objective is to determine what the environmental benefits are for pollinators, plants, water conservation and climate change. So what is the best way to establish and maintain these lawns? This will help individuals and property managers, such as the Chicago Park District, quickly put lawn alternatives into practice.

Lawns aren’t all bad, but we want to provide a menu of options for people interested in the environmental benefits of lawn alternatives. These types of lawns are growing in popularity and there are ways to start small. Communicating options and benefits to the public is an important part of our job.

Which local institutions do you work with?

We work with the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Both are genuinely interested in lawn alternatives and are testing and sharing ideas. The Park District manages more than 8,000 acres in the city of Chicago, and it’s equipped to put ideas into action quickly and on a larger scale. We are already studying plantings in experimental plots located in Marquette Park and Marian R. Byrnes Park. Plots at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be established this summer. There’s so much awesome biodiversity work going on in the Chicago area, and we’re excited to be a part of that work, rethinking lawns.

Barak is an adjunct assistant professor in the Plant and Conservation Biology Program at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and an assistant conservation scientist and seed bank curator at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She and two of her collaborators on the project are alumni of the program.

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