From turf grass to native plants: UNO professor’s lawn promotes sustainability


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Charlotte Reilly

What worried Steve Rodie most was how his neighbors would react.

In 2004, the University of Nebraska at Omaha biology professor began his plan to get rid of two-thirds of his turf grass and replace it with native and adapted plants. Rodie said that native plants can sometimes look like weeds when they are finished blooming. He didn’t want his neighbors to be upset by his landscape change.

He had a plan to make his garden look neat and taken care of, but also require less maintenance than turf.

“One of the most important things is massing plants because it looks structured,” Rodie said. “You need to know how big the plants will get and let them touch each other. You have to make sure that there are strong edges to define where the plants are.”

Rodie said that if the unconventional beauty of his new yard couldn’t change people’s mindsets on native plants, he could teach them the habitat value of the garden.

Rodie planted milkweed, royal standard hostas, winterberry holly, creeping mahonia and other native plants that animals and insects can use for food. He noticed a huge increase in the amount of wildlife in his yard.

Sarah Burke, the sustainability coordinator for UNO, explained that there is a push to grow milkweed in yards. Over the years, the migratory path for the monarch butterflies has been destroyed because city expansion has been diminishing their habitat. By planting milk-weed, Rodie is providing the monarchs with food and a new habitat.

Not only does Rodie’s garden look beautiful and provide animals food, but it also is more environmentally friendly. He uses fewer chemicals and less water.

When Rodie first moved into his home there were nine irrigation heads in the yard. They sprayed water everywhere, and much of the water was wasted because it went onto the sidewalks and streets. Rodie installed a new system of around 50 heads that put water right on the turf. He can run the system longer, and still use less water than he did with the nine heads. He also uses drip irrigation, which is a system of small brown tubes with punctures in them that let water drip out slowly. It is buried underground, and allows him to water directly into the soil.

Burke is inspired by how environmentally friendly Rodie’s yard is, but believes that the biggest impact Rodie made was opening people’s eyes to the concept of sustainability.

Burke defines sustainability as, “…a rethinking of how you look at the world. It opens your mind to think about how society would benefit from this choice and how the planet would benefit, instead of how you benefit.”

Burke and Rodie both said that his yard has received a lot of attention. They have heard people say that they felt inspired to make changes in their own yards. Rodie’s yard makes a small impact on the environment, but as other people change their yards, the impact will grow.

“If we as a collective society do one small thing, that ends up being a huge impact,” Burke said. “So, we don’t have to go for the homerun every single time we are trying to do something. Just a tiny nudge in that direction will move us in the right way.”