You know how when Taylor Swift or the Grateful Dead, U2 or K-Pop sensations BTS sell out Soldier Field, they always seem to add another date? And then that show sells out too, so maybe they add a third? And that’s not even enough to meet demand?
That’s what it feels like to be Sarah Michehl.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because Michehl isn’t a rock star. She’s a community engagement specialist with the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, a nonprofit land trust organization. It’s a business-card mouthful that essentially means Michehl teaches people about nature.
In April, with in-person instruction on hold during Illinois’ stay-at-home order, Michehl came up with an idea for a free online how-to webinar for people interested in converting their lawn to prairie plantings. She had to cap registration at 100, because of her Zoom license, but didn’t think that would be a problem.
Well, that first session quickly reached capacity, with people signing up from as far away as Kansas and Ohio, so she scheduled a second, which promptly filled up, then a third, and a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
“I just kept adding,” said Michehl, who now has webinars booked into July. “This is the busiest I’ve ever been in my job.”
Michehl said she suspects the unexpected flood of interest has something to do with the coronavirus and people being stuck at home.
“People are getting intimately acquainted with their property,” she said. “Maybe something good can come out of this pandemic.”
The lawn-to-prairie movement has been steadily growing in recent years as people have become more knowledgeable about the way local ecosystems work.
Entomologist Doug Tallamy, one of the leading proponents of native plants, explained the interconnectedness of plants and pollinators in a recent interview with Smithsonian magazine: “Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can develop and reproduce only on the plants with which they share an evolutionary history.”
The plight of the monarch butterfly, the caterpillars of which are totally dependent on milkweed for food, brought global attention to the decimation of native habitats and really opened the door for natives’ resurgence, Michehl said.
“People are ready to hear this message,” she said.
Swapping out turf for natives turns what’s essentially a food desert for insects into a buffet that can support a diverse array of bees, butterflies and other tiny but vital creatures. Native plants also have far deeper roots than grass, meaning they absorb more stormwater and are more resistant to drought.
Because 85% of land east of the Mississippi River is privately owned — be it utility rights of way, school properties, farms or residential areas — Michehl said educating the public about steps that individuals and private entities can take is crucial to creating eco-friendly habitat.
“We can’t leave it up to state DNRs (Departments of Natural Resources) or forest preserves to make the difference,” she said, because their footprint is comparatively small.
Lawns, on the other hand, cover 40 million acres in the U.S., according to an oft-cited research article published in Environmental Management.
“That’s where the impact is going to be made,” said Michehl.
Referencing Tallamy’s latest work, “Nature’s Best Hope,” Michehl said, “If everybody could cut down their amount of lawn by half and turn it into native plants, we could have a homegrown national park of eco-beneficial land.”
What’s good for the planet isn’t necessarily great for relationships between neighbors, though. Prairie lovers often find themselves at odds with adjacent property owners, the most common complaint being that the native plants look like weeds.
That’s where Michehl and her webinar come in.
“Natives do not have to equal messy, untidy and uncared for,” she said, nor should prairie’s low-maintenance reputation be misconstrued as no maintenance.
The key, Michehl said, is for prairie fans to be good ambassadors of natives by choosing the appropriate plants and managing them.
“You’ve got to be smart,” she said. “Show how beautiful sustainability can be.”
One option is to choose a quality seed mix of lower-growing plants — none of that “meadow in a can” stuff, she said — such as columbine, wild geranium and Jacob’s ladder (to name a shade-loving trio). Another is to consider judicious use of sedges and grasses (“grasses” not “grass” — it’s a key distinction), which are important to landscape design from both an ecological and aesthetic perspective, Michehl said.
They shoot up right away, are great for weed suppression, hold soil in place and provide winter interest when all the flowers are gone, she said.
And don’t skimp on research, Michehl added.
Natives aren’t interchangeable, and each plant’s characteristics should be taken into account before purchasing seeds or seedlings, she said. Some plants are extremely aggressive, for example, and should only be considered by people who have acres and acres of land.
“There’s an amazing book, ‘Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest.’ That’s my bible,” said Michehl. “It’s an amazing resource for when you’re wondering, ‘Why is this thing even here?’ and how to control it.”
That’s just a hint of the content Michehl has incorporated into her webinar, including lessons learned from mistakes she’s made at her own Crystal Lake home.
Her first attempt at “smothering” the grass in her back yard — a non-herbicidal way of killing grass to prep an area for prairie seeding — was a “hot mess,” Michehl said.
“But even with mistakes, I have a thing of beauty,” she said.
Notably, Michehl has received zero pushback from neighbors.
In fact, the one time she got tagged in one of those “nosy neighborhood” Facebook groups, it was by someone who wanted to copy her prairie conversion.
On second thought, maybe she is a rock star.