The vivid tangle of wildflowers and tall grasses looks like a flowering country field on the hillside in front of Burnsville’s Civic Campus.
Delighted by the transformation of what used to be an expanse of the turf grass along Nicollet Avenue, some residents have phoned in thank-yous, prompting the city to look for other locations that may be suitable for another patch of prairie. One homeowner was so inspired by the city’s planting that she is preparing to seed her own yard with prairie plants.
Native plantings are not new, but municipal interest in them seems to grow every year, said Jake Janski, of Minnesota Native Landscapes Inc., who worked on Burnsville’s prairie project.
“Ten years ago when we first got a call from a city, it was kind of surprising,” he said.
Since then, roughly 60 percent of metro-area cities — including Bloomington, Cottage Grove and Minneapolis — have put in native plantings on some scale, Janski said. “It really feels like the demand and the desire is increasing significantly year to year now.”
Burnsville’s hillside has a high concentration of flowers to grasses. At this time of year it’s a wall of yellow blossoms.
“Because of the size and location, they were really able to show this one off,” Janski said.
Reducing maintenance costs was the city’s prime motivation for the prairie planting, said natural resource technician Caleb Ashling, who tends the plot.
Maintaining the grass required the city to mow, fertilize and kill weeds. Now city staff members go out a few times a year to pull some of the more aggressive weeds and spray thistle, Ashling said. Through savings on maintenance costs, the city estimates that the $7,500 prairie installation will pay for itself in seven to 10 years.
There are also water benefits, he said. Native plants, with roots that go down 5 to 10 feet or more, create pathways for rain to percolate into the soil, where it recharges groundwater.
Because the plants need time to send down the deep roots, it takes a few years for prairie plantings to take hold and look good.
“The first year and a half, it looked pretty weedy and people were uncertain what the end result would be,” Ashling said. That has made it especially rewarding “to get someone who calls in and says, ‘I just really enjoy all the flowers out there.’ ”
The city selected more than 50 species of native plants, including six or eight grasses and a diverse mix of wildflowers including daisies, goldenrod, milkweed, lavender and sage. The plants attract butterflies, dragonflies, birds and small animals. The goal was to have something blooming throughout the season.
The grasses can stand into the winter, even with snow. The plot gets no watering.
Burnsville permits native plantings on private lawns. They can be useful in areas that get drier than the rest of the lawn, Ashling said. One resident stopped watering and watched to see which areas turned brown, and that is where she put her native garden.
“A lot of people would put a rock border or fence around it so it looks more manicured,” he said.
Katie Lafky and her husband, Del, have lived in their home on Interlachen Road for 27 years with a regular lawn. Katie was inspired by the beauty of the city planting to turn most of her yard into a prairie patch.
“It is going to become the yard,” Lafky said. “We are doing almost our entire front yard and at least 60 percent of the back yard. I just killed my whole lawn to get it all down.”
The process is to kill the lawn with herbicide, then wait three weeks, till it up and dose it again with herbicide to kill the seeds in the soil. Next spring, she will plant wildflowers and grasses from seed.
“I know I am going to have people going, ‘What has she done now?’ I am believing and claiming that it’s going to be a whole lot for everyone to learn.”
For those who recoil at using herbicide to kill the lawn, sod removal is an option, but it is 10 to 20 times more expensive, Janski said. “The goal is to do it once and never have to do it again, rather than twice a year for dandelions.”
Burnsville is looking for other locations for prairie plantings because they reduce cost and benefit the environmental, Ashling said.
“We don’t want to eliminate all turf grass, because people like to look at that too.” But, he said, the prairie patch is “really very noticeable, and the wildflowers are enjoyed by a lot of people.”