Ecologist plans to reduce turf grass in favor of native grasses in city parks

In south Kansas City plans already are underway at Minor Park and Watts Mill Park to plant prairie and woodland grasses and flowers.

Photo by Missouri Department of Conservation

By Jill Draper

Sustainability practices at the KC Parks Department often have taken a back seat to other concerns, but that’s about to change. In January the department hired an environmental manager, Stephen Van Rhein, and one of his first steps will be starting native landscape projects in each City Council district.

In south Kansas City plans already are underway at Minor Park and Watts Mill Park to plant prairie and woodland grasses and flowers. Each district project will be at least five acres in size.

Van Rhein is an ecologist who previously worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation. His goal is to reduce turf grass (excluding golf courses and sports fields) in city parks by 5% during the next five years. This will affect some 200 to 400 acres, he says, adding, “It’s a very different style of management, and part of my job is training staff.”

Stephen VanRhein (1)
Stephen Van Rhein

His new position was created after the City Auditor’s Office released a report on KC Parks around the time of Earth Day two years ago. The report acknowledged “pockets of sustainability,” but concluded that more should be done. The auditors noted that KC Parks had increased grass mowing over the years and routinely planted non-native annuals in flowerbeds throughout the city. In addition, employees were not following established procedures in applying pesticides.

Converting more land to native plants should save money in the long term, Van Rhein says, but it may require more intensive management in the beginning. He describes the process as an investment that pays off with huge benefits for the environment, both for pollinators and other life and as a way to sequester carbon during a time of climate change.

Not everyone sees native grasses and prairie plants as desirable, Van Rhein admits, but he says, “As people interact with them over time, their appreciation grows.” He points to a subdivision built in the mid-1990s outside Chicago in Grayslake, Illinois, called Prairie Crossing. Homeowners could select a native or a conventional landscape, and only 20% initially chose native. Over the years that situation has flipped, with only 20% choosing a conventional look today.

“People get emotionally connected,” Van Rhein says, contrasting the vibrancy of native landscapes with the static, “kind of boring” look of a monoculture like mowed turfgrass and exotic flowers that don’t attract birds, butterflies and beneficial insects because they are not a food source.

KC Parks is partnering with Jackson County and several nonprofit organizations on sustainability projects, especially the removal of invasive shrub honeysuckle and wintercreeper. “If we could just do nothing but remove honeysuckle, it would be an amazing change. Natives would start to regenerate on their own,” Van Rhein says, adding that such a change also makes areas more visually appealing to walk through.

In his own one-acre yard in the Oldham Farms neighborhood south of Swope Park he controls honeysuckle by chopping it to ground level and then repeatedly mowing over the sprouts. He estimates he has 100 types of native species planted, explaining, “I’m kind of testing out varieties.” He often creates a new bed by covering the ground with pieces of sturdy cardboard, then topping it with several inches of compost. After a few rains, he digs easily through the cardboard with a trowel to insert plants.

Swamp-Milkweed-4.jpg
Swamp milkweed

Some of his favorites for a sunny spot are swamp milkweed (pleasantly fragrant), aromatic aster, rose verbena and star tickseed coreopsis. For shade he likes bloodroot (a short-lived spring wildflower), roundleaf groundsel, wild sweet William (a phlox) and wild ginger. The last three make a nice combination, he says.

For more information, Van Rhein recommends two online resources: Deep Roots KC (which offers a free newsletter called The Pollinator) and Grow Native!, a program of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.

While it’s not a KC Parks goal, he hopes people are inspired to bring native plants into their own yards. “Some people won’t get there,” he says, “but familiarity breeds love. What’s germinating, what’s changing, what pollinators are attracted—it’s just a never-ending show and it goes all year long.”

 

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