Know Your Roots

When European settlers arrived in the Kansas City area, the natural landscape looked significantly different than it does today. Sweeping prairies and oak savannas covered almost 90 percent of the land, while hardwood forests and wetlands made up the remaining 10 percent. Today, prairies make up only 2 percent of the region’s land.

The Kansas City area has grown from a small settlement on the banks of the Missouri river into a major center of commerce, industry and transportation. Urban development practices continue to alter the natural landscape that historically defined our region. The design of new roads and rooftops, and the introduction of non-native species of plants, grasses and flowers reduces nature’s ability to absorb rain water, increasing stormwater runoff that pollutes our streams, lakes and rivers

Root Depth Diagram

What’s the problem?

The dense clay soils in our region make it difficult for water to soak into the ground quickly. Native plants have deeper root systems that substantially increase the ability of soil to absorb and retain water. As natural vegetation is replaced with popular turf grasses, less stormwater is absorbed into the ground, leading to more stormwater runoff and water pollution.

Facts about non-natives

Most lawns in the Kansas City region are planted with non-native turf grasses like fescue (above). While these grasses are attractive and colorful, their short roots do not absorb and filter water effectively. This is one factor that contributes to increased levels of polluted stormwater runoff that enters rivers, lakes and streams untreated.

Non-native lawns also require more mowing and watering than native landscapes. Here are some facts about lawn maintenance and how it impacts the environment:

  • A gas-powered lawn mower pollutes as much in one hour as 40 automobiles driving
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • 67 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • 580 million gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers each year
  • $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

What can you do?

Landscaping with native plants is a great way to reduce the amount of run off that leaves your property. Native plants are trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns and other plants that originate and evolve in a region over time. These plants adapt to local climate and ecological conditions. Native plants have deep roots which can penetrate the native soil to depths of up to 16 feet. During the dry summer months native root systems reach deep into the ground to find water, which is why native plants are more drought resistant than non-natives.

Native plants are low maintenance

Native plants require very little maintenance because they have evolved and adapted natural defenses to local conditions such as drought, nutrient-poor soil, winter conditions, disease and insects which can be problematic to non-native species. This means that natives save residents time and money because they require little or no lawn chemicals and less irrigation than non-native plants.

Native plants reduce stormwater runoff

Attractive and easy-to-maintain landscaping features can reduce the amount of runoff from roofs and lawns. Downspouts can be redirected to help irrigate rain gardens — shallow depressions planted with native plants specifically adapted to wet conditions. Rain gardens are a great way to help runoff soak into the ground.

Another way to improve your property’s ability to absorb runoff is by reducing the amount of turf grass, and replacing it with larger garden beds which include native plants. A typical lawn absorbs only 10 percent of the amount of stormwater that a natural landscape can absorb. Native plant gardens will also bring more native songbirds and butterflies to your yard.

Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant native grass is another way to improve drainage and reduce runoff. Most turf grasses are high maintenance, especially during drought conditions, but native buffalo grass is an effective alternative because it is low maintenance, increases infiltration and is drought resistant due to its long roots. Turf grass roots are 1-2 inches long, while buffalo grass has roots that reach up to 6 feet.

Native landscaping enhances communities

Local communities spend a lot of time and money maintaining parks, roadways and medians. Planting native plants along roadways, medians or in appropriate park lands can drastically reduce maintenance costs and improve air and water quality.