Prairie comeback: Manitobans turn to native plants to stem climate change, erosion

As Winnipeg digs into alternatives to turf grass, native plant experts say the tallgrass prairie that once covered southern Manitoba offers solutions to modern environmental issues

The trend could bring a number of benefits, according to experts

Kelly Leask, owner of the Prairie Originals nursery, said native plants and seeds can help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of drought and floods. (Emily Brass/CBC)

The trend toward replacing traditional lawns with native plants has been growing in recent years and more Manitobans are embracing the idea.

Tallgrass prairie, an ecosystem made up of a variety of tall grasses, is making a comeback, as people everywhere from Winnipeg to Selkirk, about 40 km northeast of the capital, shift from turf grass to native plants.

Kelly Leask, the owner of Selkirk-based nursery Prairie Originals, said demand has been on the rise for native seedlings and the change could bring a number of benefits from cutting down on chemicals and carbon emissions to less time spent mowing.

"So many people spend so much time and money and so many hours of their life just mowing their lawn,"  said Leask, whose nursery grows plants and seeds native to southern Manitoba.

The native plants that covered the area in the past could solve a number of problems today and in the future, she said.

The fields at Prairie Originals are filled with dozens of varieties of plants native to southern Manitoba, making them more resilient to a range of extreme weather conditions. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"When you have 30 or 50 different species growing, there are some that are going to thrive better in a wet year and some that will thrive better in a drier year," Leask said.

During last year's extreme draught, her native prairie fields remained lush and green, while the adjoining lawn was dense and brown. 

"It was a really extreme juxtaposition." 

Low maintenance

Planting native species, such as Canada wild rye and wild bergamot, can also reduce chemical use and fossil fuel emissions, she said. Once established the wildflowers and grasses require little attention, which is a popular feature.

"We mow one time in the spring. We never water it. We do a little bit of hand weeding and we don't have to replant them every year," she said, pointing to a field of colourful blooms and tall grasses, buzzing with insects. 

"We get to watch the butterflies, we get to hear the birds."

Glen Koblun, manager of Native Plant Solutions, said prairie grasses can grow four metres deep into soil, holding moisture and preventing runoff. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg, meanwhile, mows the equivalent of 3,000 CFL football fields of sod. The Public Works Department is considering low cost alternatives to turf grass for boulevards, parks and other areas without much foot traffic. 

A six-month pilot project will look at low maintenance plants, such as White Dutch clover. 

"Other grass alternatives will be considered, including plants and seeds," public works spokesperson Ken Allen said, adding the city's Naturalist Services Branch and Gusta Sod Farms will also be involved. 

The pilot will experiment with plants based on environmental conditions, such as shade and humidity. The team will provide an update on the project in early September. It's too soon to say how much city land will be included in potential future plans for sod alternatives, Allen said.

Native plant experts said clover offers some advantages over the standard Kentucky Bluegrass, such as enhancing nitrogen in the soil and offering nectar to pollinating insects.

But they said the non-native, invasive species might not stand up to tallgrass prairie grasses.

Rooted in history

"They've been on the ground here for, you know, thousands of years in the northern Great Plains," said Glen Koblun, manager of Native Plant Solutions, a subsidiary of the non-profit conservation organization Ducks Unlimited Canada.

"You look at clovers, are they going to persist and live as long as these other long lived perennial grasses and plants? I'm not sure an introduced species is going to do as well in our climate," said Koblun, who has about 30 years of experience in agricultural land stewardship.

Koblun works with developers to install naturalized storm retention ponds, required by city law in new subdivisions to reduce flooding. The group goes onto sites, like the new neighbourhoods in the Sage Creek area, years ahead of construction, building ponds and planting native grasses along their banks.

West End BIZ is partnering with Native Plant Solutions on a pilot project on Wall Street. trying out native grasses resistant to the salt and abrasives used during the winter. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"This is an example of green infrastructure, which the federal government is really pushing these days," Koblun said, stroking blades of Green Needle Grass stretching taller than him. 

"The landscape has changed from cultivated land to a lot of hard surfaces like roads, streets, and houses. All the water has got to go somewhere."

Koblun said the roots of native grasses can sink as deep as four metres into the soil, holding moisture and preventing erosion.

Native Plant Solutions is also working with West End Biz on another pilot project. A portion of the boulevard along Wall Street near Sargent Avenue is being planted with native grass resistant to the salt and abrasives applied on the busy street in winter.

"It gets into the soil and it'll often kill the grass," West End Biz Executive Director Joe Kornelson said. "We're doing a little trial with some more hardy species that will last longer, that can keep the streets looking their best despite the snow clearing."

Swamp milkweed is one of seven species of milkweed native to Manitoba, and is considered critical to the survival of monarch butterflies. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Leask hopes the city follows West End Biz' lead and experiment with native plants, which she said are better pollinators than clover.

"How cool would it be for people to know when they arrive, driving or flying into Winnipeg, to know that you're in a prairie city because you can see the bits of the prairie that have been embraced by the city?"

However, Leask advised backyard gardeners not to rip out their lawns right away. 

"You could start off by just planting a few milkweeds or some maybe Big Bluestem, which is our provincial grass," she said.

Leask said Prairie Originals is happy to help people get started with native plants, while the Friends of the Living Prairie Museum is another great resource for beginners.

Tallgrass prairie comeback

2 months ago
Duration 2:09
Native plants and grasses can help homeowners, farmers and cities cut down on chemicals and carbon emissions, while spending less time mowing.


Emily Brass is a journalist at CBC Manitoba and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.