A “Clean Water Starts Here” sign is posted in the yard of Eden Prairie residents Marilynn and Tom Torkelson, who transformed their Eden Prairie landscape from the typically manicured turf lawn to a native plant haven in an effort to improve water and soil quality and create a more eco-friendly yard.
“It used to take us an hour and 15 minutes to mow the lawn. Now it takes 15 minutes - just to zip around the paths,” Marilynn said of their third-acre property abutting a wetland in their Eden Prairie neighborhood.
Once traditional gardeners with a turf lawn and nonnative plants, the couple began restoring their shoreline and building rain gardens in their yard 10 years ago with the help of three city-sponsored grants, eventually earning them the 2016 Spirit of Eden Prairie Award for Sustainability (now called Sustainable Eden Prairie Award).
With a yard in full bloom and bees and butterflies galore, Marilynn shared what inspired the transformation and what she hopes will encourage others to change their perception of what beauty and prosperity looks like.
“We need to change the message of our turf grass lawn into something that is a sign of prosperity into a sign of neglect,” she said.
Her mind-set shifted 10 years ago, when she sought ways to improve water quality as her favorite hobbies revolve around water, including swimming and paddling.
“It’s a lot more enjoyable to do that in clean water,” she said, referring to impaired bodies of water and the depletion of groundwater.
She took a class on how to build a rain garden where she learned about soil and the benefits of adding native plants to landscapes.
She learned the importance of soil health and what negatively impacts the quality, which ultimately leads to erosion and run-off that further pollutes waterways. Factors include impermeable surfaces (roads, parking lots), soil compaction, overuse of chemicals and the use of shallow-rooted nonnative plants, especially turf grass.
Turf grass only has 2-3 inches of roots, while native plants have roots that grow up to 15 feet, offering much greater water filtration and prevention of run-off and erosion, she explained.
Not long after her class on rain gardens, Torkelson was introduced to Wild Ones, a native landscaping group that advocates for the creation and preservation of native plant landscapes, starting in our own yards.
The group’s mission is to “heal the earth one yard at a time,” said Torkelson, who became the charter member of the Prairie Edge chapter of Wild Ones where she is currently president.
Pre-pandemic, the chapter would sponsor monthly tours of native plant landscapes throughout the growing season in addition to monthly presentations from September to May.
Torkelson explained how planting with native plants is different than non-native plants (also called aliens, exotics or invasives).
When planting a native, you are reintroducing a plant to its home territory, therefore it doesn’t require supplemental means to survive, other than watering in the first year until roots are established, she said.
The goal of planting with natives is to maximize the ecosystem services in one’s yard, garden or landscape.
Ecosystem services are “basically everything nature gives you for free – clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, soil health, supplying nutrients to plants as well as the plants we grow in agriculture,” she said.
Transforming turf grass into native plants and rain gardens is one measure to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Torkelson cited a Sierra Club article, “How to Put Your Yard to Work for the Climate Mowing” that stated 40 million acres of lawn in the United States requires over 800 million gallons of gas every year, which equates to 16 billion pounds of carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere.
Native flowers, grasses and sedges store carbon above ground all growing season and underground all year. Additionally, native trees and shrubs store carbon in the form of wood above ground and roots below ground year around, explained Torkelson.
There are many other benefits to planting natives, including supporting biodiversity.
“Native insects need native plants to survive,” Torkelson said.
In addition to the health benefits supported by nature, it’s also “highly entertaining,” Torkelson said. “Between the bees, butterflies and birds - it’s all very fascinating and entertaining.”
Torkelson explained there are many resources out there to assist homeowners in transforming their landscapes to one that supports biodiversity. There are also grants offered through cities and watershed district to assist with the cost.
The Torkelsons started with a landscaping for water quality grant from the City of Eden Prairie.
“She was one of the first to come in for our rebates,” said Leslie Stovring, water resources coordinator for the City of Eden Prairie.
Eden Prairie is one of the few cities that offer such rebate programs, which give residents up to $1,500 for improvement projects, including shoreline restoration, native planting for pollinators, rain gardens and buckthorn removal, according to Stovring.
“We really want to encourage people to do this,” Stovring said, noting there is $15,000 in grants available to residents.
“We’re not telling everyone to get rid of their turf lawn,” she said. Rather, she encourages residents to look at where they could incorporate more pollinators in their yards, whether it be building a rain garden on a hillside or establishing native plants in a shady area of the yard.
For more information on how to get started, Torkelson will be presenting a free webinar “Rethinking the Lawn: Mitigating Climate Change with Native Plants” 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19 in conjunction with Wild Ones and the City of Eden Prairie.
Fellow Wild Ones Prairie Edge member Lori Tritz will also be hosting a webinar on Landscaping for Water Sustainability 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5.
More information on the Wild Ones Prairie Edge Facebook page.
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