Kay Qualley urges suburban homeowners to go a little wild.

Let go of those stodgy 1950s ideals of the perfect turf and add some color and texture to your landscaping with native plants. Push a little further and add a rain garden. Native flora will attract native birds, butterflies and compliments, Qualley said.

It isn’t just about aesthetics.

It saves homeowners time and money — less mowing, watering and fertilizing — and it’s protecting rivers and lakes and recharging groundwater supplies, Qualley says.

Qualley is Fridley’s environmental planner. The city, along with the Anoka Conservation District, is hosting an event this Thursday to promote the idea; the event is called “Fridley Loves the Mississippi: Re-thinking Landscaping for Water Quality.”

“I sometimes wonder if it’s about control,” Qualley said of the traditional ideals of a perfect lawn. “Let’s get the lawn in order, the shrubs pruned. Let’s get order imposed on the landscape. But it’s fun to have birds and butterflies floating in and out of your yard. We are loosening our idea of what is beautiful in landscape.”

The free session runs from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Fridley Community Center and focuses on landscaping ideas that include adding native plants and rain gardens that help absorb runoff. The session will include design ideas, sample landscape plans, native plant guidance and plant sourcing, lakeshore and riverbank care, and planting sustainable lawns.

There’s much at stake. Three watershed districts — Rice Creek, Coon Creek and the Mississippi River — touch the city of Fridley. Moore and Loche lakes are also inside the city’s boundaries.

Runoff water from neighborhoods, driveways, parking lots and streets picks up pollutants and debris and flows them back into rivers and lakes. A rain garden, usually a low-lying spot that is landscaped with native plants, captures, absorbs and filters runoff, reducing pollution in lakes and rivers. It also improves ground water quality. Many north metro communities rely on ground wells for their city water supplies.

“Particularly within our watershed, a lot of our lakes and streams have water-quality issues related to excessive nutrients, including phosphorus. It leads to a lot of algae growth. It impacts aesthetics and recreation. There are some biological issues,” said Kyle Axtell, water resource specialist with the Rice Creek Watershed District, which includes parts of Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties. Axtell will be at Thursday’s event.

Grant program

The watershed district promotes best management practices including rain gardens and shoreline restoration with a grant program. Homeowners can be reimbursed for as much as 50 percent of an approved native landscaping project, up to $5,000. The Rice Creek Watershed District has $150,000 for these grants.

It also contracts with the Anoka Conservation District to offer free site visits and landscaping advice for homeowners and businesses.

Expense is actually not the biggest issue causing homeowners to hesitate.

“The biggest hurdle to someone doing a project is not the money but the technical assistance. How do I go about doing it?” Axtell said.

Mitch Haustein from Anoka Conservation District will also speak Thursday. He does site visits and provides technical assistance, helping residents determine where a rain garden will have the most impact on their lawns.

Changing the landscape of Fridley’s neighborhoods won’t just improve water quality, Qualley said.

Native plants including red milkweed, sweet black-eyed susan or purple liatris will create a distinctive sense of place vs. ubiquitous petunias and pansies, Qualley said.

“Fridley will look like its own city vs. Anywhere USA,” Qualley said. “When you have a population of native plants, you look like your own unique region.”

And natives are not as fussy as people think, she said.

“There is a mystique about native plants that they will be touchy and expensive. Instead they are well suited to the area and available in sizes that are surprisingly affordable,” Qualley said. “It’s not just homeowners who can do this. Churches and businesses can, too.”

Sometimes people associate native planting with a more messy look. Landscape design can create a wide continuum of styles from wild flower garden to a more polished look.

“The design of these native gardens can meet the maintenance and aesthetics requirements of the homeowner. They can look manicured. They can look really beautiful, “ said Jessica Bromelkamp, Rice Creek Watershed education outreach and communication coordinator. “They can be really low maintenance.”