Native Landscaping

Why Native Plants?

Across Iowa, our native prairie landscape has been mostly eliminated by rural farming and urban development. What green space is present is often landscape of non-native or “alien” species from Europe or Asia and a carpet of turf grass lawns. This dramatic change of our landscape has led to multiple problems, including increased local flood potential, wildlife & habitat loss, decreased biodiversity, and overall a loss of functioning ecosystems.

You can help reduce these problems by planting natives in your yard! Benefits of native plants include:

  • Provide food sources for pollinators and birds
  • Soak up water better than turf grass. Did you know the original Iowa prairie could infiltrate up to 6 inches of water? To compare, traditional turf grass can only absorb about ¼ inch of rainfall!
  • Improve water quality by minimizing stormwater runoff from your house

Prairie plants are well adapted to Iowa weather, meaning they can tolerate heavy rains and hot, dry summers too!

Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region in which they evolved. They are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people. Without them and the insects that co-evolved with them, local birds cannot survive. Unfortunately, most of the landscaping plants available in nurseries are alien species from other countries. These exotic plants not only sever the food web, but many have become invasive pests, outcompeting native species and degrading habitat in remaining natural areas.

Landscaping choices have meaningful effects on the populations of birds and the insects they need to survive. The bottom line is this—homeowners, landscapers, and local policy makers can benefit birds and other wildlife by simply selecting native plants when making their landscaping decisions.

Restoring native plant habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity. By creating a native plant garden, each patch of habitat becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for birds and other animals.

Landscape Function

Iowa has often been called one of the most hydrologically altered states in the United States. In order to farm the Iowa landscape, wetlands and prairie potholes were drained in central Iowa, and native prairie and woodlands were mostly removed statewide. Tiling in farm fields, and increased impervious surfaces like parking lots, roads, and rooftops in our cities has increased stormwater runoff and Our natural landscape has been replaced by farmland and cities drastically altering how our landscape responds to rain events. Without native vegetation our landscape has become less resilient and less capable of handling storm events leading to increased flooding events. Increased runoff has led to erosion which has greatly decreased our water quality due to sedimentation and increased nutrient loading.

Habitat Loss

The continental United States has lost nearly 150 million acres of habitat & farmland to urban sprawl.

Turf grass covers more than 40 million acres of the United States. That’s more land than the entire state of Iowa which is about 36 million acres in size.


The destruction and removal of native vegetation has a deep impact on native wildlife and pollinators. Plants and insects and other organisms that eat insects have co-evolved over thousands of years. As plants have developed toxins for survival, local wildlife have adapted to be able to tolerate these toxins. For example, Monarch butterflies have adapted to be able to tolerate the toxins of milkweed, and only eat milkweed. By planting non-native plants, local wildlife lose their food resources and habitat. Although birds may eat seeds and berries, birds native to your region will not be able to eat the berries or seeds of a non-native plants because they have not evolved to do so. Many common landscaping plants we find today are from Europe and Asia. Beyond physical appearance, these plants provide few other benefits and may even become invasive outcompeting native plants wildlife depend on to survive.

Ways you can implement native landscaping at your home

Plant Swap!

Most of us have common non-native landscaping plants such as Yew bushes, Spirea, Hastas, Daylilies, Knockout Roses, boxwood, Russian Sage, Zebra Grass & other ornamental grasses, and possibly even invasive species like Burning bush, Barberry bush, and Japanese Honeysuckle.

If you are looking to clean up or update your landscaping, swap your existing plants for native plants instead! Try Butterfly Milkweed or Golden Alexander instead of expanding more daylilies. Thinking about a boxwood? Consider planting wild indigo, or a native shrub like dwarf bush honeysuckle or Ninebark for more color throughout the year. If shade is becoming an issue, plant unique Iowa woodland plants like Virginia bluebells, red columbine, shooting star, or others.

Native Turf

Native turf uses native short or warm season grasses to create a lawn-like appearance. These grasses have deeper roots helping to improve soil quality which helps absorb more rain than traditional turf grass. Typically a mixture of Blue Gramma, Sideoats Gramma, and Buffalo Grass is used. These grasses will green up later in spring and require full sun. Once established, native turf requires little maintenance and will thrive in hot dry summers without irrigation.

Plant in a drainage swale or in areas of standing water

It is likely that you have spots in your yard that are consistently wet. If you struggle to mow areas because of wet grass, or if you are looking for an option to better manage drainage swales, try planting natives. Strategically using native plants in these problem spots will improve the soil’s ability to soak up water and can act as a buffer to help you better manage water flowing into or out of your yard.

You may not need to dig a rain garden with rock and/or an underdrain to manage stormwater. Simply planting natives can be a great solution in the right location. Stop fighting turf grass that won’t grow and plant it with native plants that can help you solve these problems in an effective and beautiful way.

Convert your turf for multiple environmental benefits

Did you know turf grass lawns cover 40 million acres of land across the United States? Removing turf and restoring it back to native vegetation is one of the most beneficial things you can do to promote better local habitat, water quality, and even help reduce carbon emissions. Even a small 10′ x 10′ pollinator garden could be beneficial.

If you are not using the lawn space on your property, it could be a great spot for more natives! Reduce mowing costs and time by having less high-maintenance turf.

Create a natural living fence

As much as we may love our neighbors, sometimes we are looking for a bit a privacy in our yards. Iowa native plants come in a variety of heights and colors providing many opportunities to create beautiful and multifunctional landscaping. A mixture of native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers could act as a privacy barrier while also feeding the birds and butterflies. Incorporating native plants along existing fences could be a way to soften the look of fences or retaining walls and make your backyard feel more like a natural retreat. Take a look at these tips from the National Wildlife Federation about planting a “living fence.”

Native Landscaping Examples

What to Plant & Where to Buy Plants

With countless species of Iowa native plants to choose from, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. Check the links below for go-to-plant lists and online databases to help you narrow down your search. Local nurseries and plant dealers can also be great resources to find the right plants to make your garden visions come to life!

Additional Resources

Native Landscaping Brochure

Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership

Blank Park Zoo – Plant.Grow.Fly – Learn about pollinator gardens & register your garden

Blank Park Zoo – Plant.Grow.Fly Resources Lists

University of Northern Iowa – Tall Grass Prairie Center

Iowa Monarch Consortium

Iowa DOT Living Roadway Trust Fund

Using Roadsides at Habitat – Resource list and guides

Iowa Native Plant Society

National Wildlife Federation

National Audubon Society

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