The yard is full of spindly prairie grass and multi-colored flowers swaying gently in the wind. A scent vaguely reminiscent of vanilla wafts through the air as birds, bees and butterflies whiz by.
“It’s nice to have it in your own backyard,” said Gene Pollock who fills his lawn with native plants, foliage that occurs naturally in Nebraska’s landscape. “Walking by and smelling the beautiful scent of milkweed in bloom, seeing the birds, it calms me.”
But, the benefits of native prairie plants are not just therapeutic. Experts say they are essential to promoting biodiversity and curbing the effects of climate change and ecological degradation. But, while Omahans like Pollock are committed to cultivating natural landscapes, they face challenges from restrictive ordinances in Omaha as well as neighbors who’d rather see neat lawns of green grass.
For now, though, native plants — of which there are 1,500 species across Nebraska’s prairies, wetlands and dry rocky outcrops — can still invite visits from city code enforcers. Omaha’s Municipal Code prohibits residents from growing any “worthless vegetation” over 12 inches in height. While it’s meant to cull unruly yards, native growers say their designed landscapes are often targeted.
“They get a complaint and then they send out some city inspector that doesn’t have a clue what they’re looking at,” Pollock said. “They just get a ruler out and say ‘Too high.’”
The City of Omaha Code Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment.
Julien Wulfgar, a part-time instructor in the Religious Studies department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and owner of the dog-sitting business Wulfgar Yardworks, also had a run-in with code enforcement over sunflowers.
Wulfgar and her husbands began planting natives, including coneflower, asters, compass plant, goldenrod, and milkweed, as a way to mitigate their ecological impact. Nationwide, nearly nine billion gallons of water are used on residential landscapes everyday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Native plants often require less water as well as no pesticides or fertilizers. In addition, the extensive root systems of native prairie grasses prevent erosion and can capture and sequester carbon pollution deep into the soil.
Why then, Wulfgar wonders, would anyone want a grass lawn?
“If you’re just a logical person, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “You’re spending money to poison your ground by fertilizing it, wasting water that can be used for other things, and polluting the air by mowing it. It’s like a crazy person’s dream.”
Soon, their native plantings were buzzing with pollinators. Two sets of cardinals made their lawn home. They initially planted sunflowers in their front yard as well, but were forced to remove them after someone repeatedly complained to the city that they were too close to the road.
Wulfgar said she told Code Enforcement she was growing native plants to increase biodiversity in their yards. Wulfgar cut down the sunflowers after the City threatened to issue her a fine.
“It’s just so ridiculous,” she said. “Who decides what is worthless? This is all based on tradition and what has been deemed acceptable.”
Omaha’s code is behind the times, according to Douglas Tallamay, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware who’s 2008 book Bringing Nature Home was instrumental in popularizing the native plant movement in the United States.
When asked to review Omaha’s code, Tallamay said he found it to be “hostile to native plants and full of unsupported nonsense. The ordinance needs “to be totally rewritten in view of the biodiversity crisis that really does pose health risks to us all,” he said.
Despite the contents of the code, the City of Omaha has been incorporating native plants to help with things like stormwater retention, according to Andy Szatko, engineering technician for Omaha Stormwater, a city program to lessen pollution into local streams and lakes from water runoff. Native plants have also been used extensively to landscape the collection of parks that make up The Riverfront. Signs outside the luminarium warn visitors to stay off the grass as a newly planted young prairie takes root.
“[Native plants] definitely should be used, but their proper use is very important,” Szatko said. “If you’re designing a landscape there’s no reason not to use native plants, if it makes sense for the look and style of it. We want to use them, but to put them in an environment that is highly urbanized, like the median of a four-lane road, it might not perform very well.”
However, integrating natives can still be challenging. In 2019, the City of Ralston rolled back plans to allow tall prairie grasses to grow in lesser-used areas of their parks after residents complained. In Maryland, a couple sued their Homeowners Association after they were ordered to replace their native plants with turf grass. The ensuing legal battle inspired the Maryland State Legislature to nearly unanimously pass a law curbing the ability of HOAs to restrict native grasses in lawns.
Even when people want to plant natives, they can be hard to find, Tallamay said.
“Demand for native plants far exceeds supply,” he said.
That’s been Nathan Duffy’s experience. Duffy is the owner and founder of Midwest Natives Nursery, a greenhouse in Lincoln that exclusively sells plants native to the Great Plains. Native plants can also be purchased at nurseries and garden stores like Mulhall’s and Indian Creek.
“This season has been just absolutely crazy for us,” Duffy said. “We can barely keep up. It’s a really good problem to have.”
Duffy’s interest bloomed when he learned how the decline of the grassland prairie, one of the most endangered and least protected biomes in the world, was affecting birds, insects and other animals while he was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Our native pollinators have a very unique relationship with native plants due to thousands of years of evolution where pollinators basically evolved with these plants,” said Duffy, who founded Midwest Natives Nursery in 2018 after graduating from UNL with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. “If you start to lose the plants, you can start to lose pollinators, which can create this vicious cycle of decline for both species.”
For Kay Kottas, growing native is also a necessity. Kottas is founder and president of Prairie Legacy Inc., a consulting firm outside of Lincoln that does environmental surveys for organizations working in areas with native plants. After Kottas discovered how difficult it was to find native plants, she bought her family’s farm in Saline County and began using it to grow them.
Prairie Legacy employees collect seed from remnants of the natural prairie across Nebraska to grow in their greenhouse. Kottas said that she has struggled to find workers for her nursery in Saline County, with most of her employees driving the fifty miles from Lincoln to her farm. She estimated that she sells half of all natives she produced in the Omaha metro area, where she’s optimistic that prairie restoration can offset losses in rural areas due to commercial farming.
“There’s so much development [in Omaha],” said Kottas. “If you converted a third of yards of single-family homes in Omaha built in the past few years to native, you would mitigate the amount of greenspace in rural areas that was plowed up.”
As for transforming your own lawn, Kottas said people should research what species might work best in their neighborhoods. There’s different varieties of milkweed, for example, and not all will be a good match. Natives also don’t need to be unruly or take over your property. They can fit into your existing designs, Duffy said, or be a good way to start building your own garden.
“You don’t have to rip up your entire lawn all at once,” Duffy said. “It just takes one plant to start out with.”