Plant Science & Conservation
For many homeowners, a long, hot summer means mow the lawn, water, repeat. It’s a cycle that feels inevitable if you don’t want a brown, unruly patch of land.
Conservation scientist Becky Barak, Ph.D., is looking to change that assumption. By studying alternatives to traditional turfgrass, she and her collaborators are hoping to offer a “menu of options” for greener lawns that not only look good and stand up well against Chicago’s moody seasons but also have positive ecological implications.
Dr. Becky Barak
The buzz around sustainable lawn alternatives has been growing. For Dr. Barak, a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Negaunee Institute for Plant Conservation Science and Action, it’s important to find options that are sustainable and fit homeowners’ needs. “There isn’t a lot of data behind alternative choices for lawns,” Barak said. “We can help by hopefully showing which of these alternatives function best for different ecosystem services. People are already talking about lawn alternatives; now, we can give them the tools.”
The study kicked off in 2021 as a collaboration between Barak; Rebecca Tonietto, Ph.D., a conservation biologist from the University of Michigan-Flint; Lauren Umek, Ph.D., an urban ecologist with the Chicago Park District; and Liz Anna Kozik, an artist, historian, and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They began planting experimental plots last year at Chicago’s Marquette Park and Marian R. Byrnes Park with the help of a grant from the Eppley Foundation for Research. This June, Barak received a Biota Award from the Walder Foundation; this award, which is given to early-career researchers who are working on biodiversity restoration, allowed the study to expand.
This summer, the team planted a collection of eight experimental plots at the Chicago Botanic Garden, each with different mixes of grasses–and flowers. Traditional turfgrass is the control. The alternatives include fescue as a grass alternative, two microclover plots (microclover alone and seeded into grass), a sedge lawn, two short-growing meadow mixes (a low-diversity option and a high-diversity option with more species), and a prairie plot that grows slightly taller. The meadow and prairie plots include flowering plants, in addition to grasses and sedges.
The plots will grow for three years. Barak, along with graduate students and other researchers, will collect data on the plots and switch out species if they discover something isn’t working. The goal is to understand both the ecological impact and how to keep each option looking good.
“Thirty to sixty percent of potable water in the U.S. goes to lawns,” Barak said. “Out west, they’re banning or limiting watering, providing subsidies for alternatives… In [the Chicago] area, we don’t think as much about water conservation, but we could and we should.”
Many of the alternatives include native species. Those plants have deeper root systems than traditional turfgrass, which means they can more effectively absorb stormwater. Not only does this prevent water runoff and flooding, but it allows the plants to better sustain themselves during a drought, so they require less watering. It’s a useful trait for a place like Chicago, where periods of heavy rain can quickly transform into long, hot dry spells.
Barak’s team will also judge how well each option benefits the environment. Pollinator observations will determine how supportive each plot is to bees and other pollinator species. Soil samples will test for carbon storage; more carbon absorption means healthier soil, not to mention more carbon removed from the air. The team will also monitor plant cover in each plot, watching which species do well and spread. “When you look at regular grass, there’s not a lot of bare ground,” Barak said. “We’re thinking about that too.”
Since the alternatives in this study are better suited to Chicago’s climate and habitats, they’re better able to thrive independently. This means less mowing, less water use, and fewer chemical treatments—plus an increase in aesthetically pleasing guests like butterflies. There’s a lot to look forward to.
“The project is an example of the kind of work we’re trying to do that really has an impact in urban areas,” said Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and Negaunee Vice President of Science at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “We’re increasingly interested in how we can help improve quality of life in cities. Increasing the number of pollinators, reducing flooding, reducing lawn-mowing—all those types of things fit into the work we’re doing.”
Barak’s research has garnered excitement not just from conservation scientists, but from horticulture staff at the Garden, who offered advice on growing methods and plants options and helped with the practical issues of preparing and caring for the garden plots. The study’s reach goes beyond homeowners; horticulturists and land managers could implement the new ideas on public lands, allowing the impact of the study to scale up quickly.
The practical implications of this kind of conservation work are the reason Barak, previously a high school science teacher, got into her field. She took night classes while teaching, and a class in restoration ecology sparked her interest. “It really blew my mind that we could do research with real-world applications to help restore nature,” Barak said.
From there, she decided to enter the joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation through Northwestern University and the Garden and went on to earn a doctorate. Her work in prairie restoration led to thinking about grasslands on a scale that city-dwellers are familiar with: lawns.
“Much of my research has been about seed mix design, and I just got to thinking, what if we apply some of those concepts to lawns? What if we looked at the suite of species that we have and focused on short, spreading, grass-like plants?” Barak said.
Visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden can see the plots growing just south of the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden. Barak’s team will be looking for public feedback: “What people like, what they don’t like, what they can see potentially using or would like to have in a park near their house,” Barak said. “[This research is] only helpful to the extent that it’s used!”
Visit Rethinking Lawns—a website designed by Kozik in collaboration with Barak, Tonietto, and Umek—to learn more.