Act Locally: How to enjoy the benefits of native grasslands in your own backyard

Grasslands are a stealth hero in Canada’s efforts to take on the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The native grasses and wildflowers of native prairie and savannah ecosystems have deep, sturdy root structures, which capture and store carbon from the air, stimulate the growth of valuable fungi and bacteria in the soil, and make the ground they grow in more absorbent of floodwater and heavy rains.

These traits also make these grasslands highly drought-resilient — once established, they require less watering than most other plants, and tend to thrive in hotter urban environments. In addition, these wild habitats create vital nesting and foraging grounds for at-risk birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.

Native wildflowers in bloom in a restored grassland.
False sunflower — a native wildflower — blossoms in a maturing grassland restored by the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority near Barrie, Ont. © Shannon Stephens, Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority

Yet native prairie and savannah ecosystems are one of the most threatened types of habitat in Canada. In some areas of Ontario, land-use changes have caused native prairie, meadow and grasslands systems to decline by up to 99 per cent. And the impacts can be devastating — across Canada, grassland birds have declined by 57 per cent since 1970.

The Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA), a three-year participant in WWF-Canada’s Nature and Climate Grant Program (presented in partnership with Aviva Canada), is working hard to change that.

Five years ago, there were only 76 hectares of native grassland left in the 370,000-hectare Nottawasaga Valley Watershed north of Toronto. Thanks in large part to the NVCA’s work with landowners, partners and volunteers, the grasslands acreage in the area has nearly tripled since then.

We talked to Shannon Stephens, the NVCA’s Healthy Waters Program Coordinator, to learn more about the organization’s work, better understand what makes grasslands so amazing, and get advice on how you can introduce them into your own home or community.

Let’s start with… what exactly is a grassland?

The term “grassland” spans different sorts of ecosystems filled with grasses and wildflowers, with very few trees and shrubs. It can mean fields of tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, for example, and it also can mean meadows that tend to be a little bit more wildflower-filled, with richer soils. It’s that mix of both native grasses as well as forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) and wildflowers. These systems can be very, very diverse, with dozens and dozens of species — much more than just grasses.

Shannon Stephens of the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority in a grassland near Mono, Ont.
Shannon Stephens of the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority in a grassland near Mono, Ont. © Kevin Lamb / WWF-Canada

Why are grasslands so important to your work with the NVCA?

We serve a full watershed that’s got a lot of different land uses in it, including many types of natural systems. We want it to be a functional, biodiverse and flood-resilient landscape. And a big part of that depends on spongy soil — a term we use to describe soil that can absorb lots of water.

Unfortunately, some practices and land uses have caused organic matter to drop in our soils, which contribute to the soil getting compacted. It’s easy to see how something like a road or paved surface doesn’t absorb water, but we were surprised to find that when we tested many farm fields, it wasn’t much better. That’s why when you have a rainfall event, you get flooding. With impermeable urban areas on the rise, and with extensive areas of compacted soil elsewhere, this poses a real problem.

Enter our surprising hero! Native grasses and wildflowers are really good at making soils spongier. When they make sugar from sunlight, carbon and water, they don’t just feed themselves. They also share these with the soil food web. Soil bacteria, insects and fungi therefore thrive, adding organic matter, and also creating a good soil structure that is much more porous. So, when you do get rain, there’s a good sort of infrastructure there to absorb it.

Every one per cent increase in a soil’s organic matter can hold about 25,000 more gallons of water per acre — that makes a big difference.

Are there biodiversity benefits as well?

A person conducts a water infiltration test in a restored grassland.
A member of the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority team conducts a water infiltration test to measure the speed at which a restored grassland absorbs water. © Shannon Stephens, Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority

Yes! Native grasslands can support a huge diversity of species. Research shows native plants typically support 10 to 100 times more species than non-native plants.

And you can hear the difference. We often ask landowners to go out in the summer before they participate in a restoration project and just listen for 10 minutes — and maybe also record audio — to hear what’s happening. And then we ask them to do it again a few years later, once the native grasses and flowers are growing. It’s often very silent beforehand, and then once we restore these ecosystems in, you can hear all the different birds and insects that are supported. These grasslands support a living natural symphony!

Why would we want native grasses and wildflowers in our own backyards?

Well, there are all the ecological benefits I just mentioned, in terms of habitats, soil health, and flood mitigation.

But then, they’re also great if you’re a lazy gardener — like I am! I like to put my work in upfront. Once you get these plants established, after about a year or two, their extensive root systems mean they’re really hardy and well-adapted to live in your area. You know how sometimes you’ll hear the Weather Network say ‘Oh, we’re going to have a frost, you’d better go protect your plants?’ You’re not going to have to do that for these guys. It’s a really stress-free way to garden.

When we think of grasslands, we think of wild, open spaces. Can you get the benefits in cities as well?

Yes! I live out in the country, but you can see the benefits in a city, too. Whatever the size of your garden, when you plant native grasses and wildflowers, you’re going to see more interesting birds and wildlife. You can plant in a community garden, or on a small area of lawn, or even in containers on a condo or apartment balcony, where you could plant some bee balm or bergamot and enjoy visits from hummingbirds. It’s amazing what you can attract — even if your natural space is the size of a postage stamp.

There are so many types of native grasses and wildflowers to choose from! How should we pick what to plant?

I highly recommend you visit a native plant nursery in your area. They often collect and nurture native plants with local genetics that are particularly well-adapted to your area. And they will have super knowledgeable staff to help you. If you tell them your soil conditions — or bring a sample — and explain how sunny your area is, they will help you find species that will do well there. Personally, I like to have a mix, so there’s something blooming at all times of the year to support pollinators. Trained nursery staff can help you find that.

Where I live in southern Ontario, there are dozens of prairie species to choose from that thrive in sunny locations, ranging from little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus), tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

When you’re planning, remember that diversity is good. I also like to plant grasses and wildflowers in clusters of five plants or more. It creates a really dense, attractive nutrient source for pollinators: more food for less travelling. And aesthetically, it creates a bigger visual bang for your buck.

A person tosses native grass seeds in a field of native grasses.
A volunteer hand-broadcasts native grass seeds at a native grassland being restored by the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority near Mono, Ont. © Kevin Lamb / WWF-Canada

Let’s talk about the actual planting. Can we just scatter some seeds and be done with it?

Not exactly. Site preparation is really important if you want to have the most success with native grasses and wildflowers. You’ll want to have a prepared seedbed that doesn’t have competing vegetation, especially if you’re planting from seeds.

There are a few techniques you can use to prepare your site. There is one called solarizing that is very effective. Say you have a patch of lawn you want to turn into a mini-grassland. You can put down a clear tarp over the grass in the spring — vapour barriers or greenhouse plastic can work well. You’ll want to hold it down with six- to eight-inch sod staples or rocks, so it doesn’t blow away. You basically leave it there until the end of September. It’ll get really hot under the tarp in the heat of summer, which will kill off whatever previous vegetation you had there, as well as a lot of the weed-seeds. Remove the tarp, rake very lightly, and seeds in fall or spring.

Another way is what we call a ‘lasagna garden’ — you lay down sheets of newspaper or cardboard, cover it with a foot of topsoil and then another six to 12 inches of mulch, and plant into there. This is especially effective in small areas. We’ve had a lot of success with both approaches.

What can we do to introduce a few plants into our existing gardens?

Tall yellow wildlflowers.
False sunflower in bloom. © Shannon Stephens, Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority

If you already have established gardens you want to enhance, you might want to go with plugs, which are small potted seedlings. They’re usually only about one or two dollars per plug, so you can do it pretty cost effectively. That’s the nice thing about grasslands — they can really work at all scales.

What if we really like our lawns? Won’t native grasses and wildflowers ruin the look?

The history of the lawn is really interesting. Once upon a time, you basically had to be landed gentry to be able to create and maintain a lawn. And that’s kind of translated to our attitudes today, where we have a culture that values landscaped lawns: For a lot of people, a lawn means ‘I’m doing well, I’m respectable.’

If you do want to keep your lawn, that’s OK. You don’t have to replace it all. But maybe you can think of lawns as area rugs, instead of wall-to-wall carpeting.
Adding some areas with native grasses and wildflowers into the mix will add interest. And you can do things like mow the edges, and put in rails or structures, to make it look intentional. Even a little bit of native growth is going to be more ecologically beneficial, and attract cool butterflies, pollinators and birds.

Over time, I’ve noticed people’s perspective is changing. Instead of looking at a patch of native grasses and wildflowers and seeing neglect, they’re approaching native gardens with more curiosity. They’re asking things like: ‘What’s in this garden that’s full of life and interesting plants?’ ‘What birds and insects are we feeding?’ and ‘Isn’t it cool that I can put some of this in my tea?’

It’s a life-affirming act.

It takes time to change aesthetic preferences, but it’s happening — people are really getting behind the concept of naturalizing. But it’s a slow process, something that’s probably hard to do within a single generation.

What else should we know about introducing native grasses and wildflowers?

It’s important to manage expectations.

Part of the challenge of growing grassland projects from seed — especially large ones — is they’re warm-season grasses. For the first few years, they focus on establishing their roots, so you don’t see much. You’ll start to see wildflowers in year two, but you might not see the grasses go to seed themselves until about year three.

So, I always tell landowners we work with not to freak out the first year after we do the seeding. They’ll say ‘Yeah, I understand it’s going to be weedy.’ And then I’ll say ‘You’re still going to call me and freak out.’ And they invariably do. They look out, see lots of weeds, and say ‘I think I made a mistake.’ And I always say ‘Don’t panic. This just takes time.’

So, in other words, we need to practice some patience?

I like to think of it like planting a tree. It’s going to take a while to grow.

But the lifespan of some wildflowers, especially long-lived perennial ones, can be like the lifespan of a tree. Some of the colonies of goldenrods in Canada’s prairies are thought to be more than 100 years old. So yes, it takes patience. But the payoff is really enduring.

The NVCA is one of six organizations currently supported by WWF-Canada’s Nature and Climate Grant Program, presented in partnership with Aviva Canada. Act Locally is a blog series about how you can apply the nature-based climate solutions used by our Nature and Climate Grant Program participants to your own life.


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Watch how the NVCA is using nature-based solutions to protect and restore the Minesing Wetlands