A cluster of white flowers sticking straight up from a garden. A yellow butterfly sits on one of the flowers, and a lush thicket of plants and wildflowers are visible in the background.
A skipper pollinates a cluster of alliums at the Loose Park Native Garden. Kansas City is adding more native perennials to traffic medians and parks. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Abundant wildflowers, tree-lined creeks and tall shrubs and deep-rooted grass that evolved for survival in the Midwest defined the landscape of Kansas and Missouri.

They formed self-sustaining systems that nurtured a rich variety of insects, frogs, buffalo and small mammals.

Then, we planted turf.

Europeans imported the idea of lush, single-species lawns as a status symbol. The aesthetic stuck.

That crowded out the local plants as development stripped away and sold the topsoil and ate up ground with high-maintenance, shallow-rooted bluegrass and fescue.

Today, grass is the most common crop in the United States, covering a total area about the size of Georgia. And Kansas City environmentalists argue that the proliferation of traditional grass lawns over the past century-plus brought a multitude of problems — among them, flooding, river contamination and pests.

But the local ordinances and the rules of homeowners’ associations across the Kansas City area practically insist on Euro-style turf. 

Last fall, Overland Park forced one homeowner to rip native milkweed from her lawn. In 2021, a Kansas City resident went viral on Twitter when code enforcers told him his native wildflowers were noxious weeds that violated city code.

That has homeowners eager for a lower-maintenance, planet-friendlier lawns navigating a fine line between going more natural without drawing the wrath of code inspectors or neighbors who see prairie plants as weeds that threaten their home values.

Ecological benefits

Traditional lawns are resource intensive — and this is partly why they’ve become so iconic to American suburbs. 

Centuries ago, grass lawns required so much maintenance, fertilization and water that they were only affordable for wealthy estate owners. But with the development of suburbs, and the advance of sprinklers and lawn mowers, grass lawns became ubiquitous.

“The key to the survival of our ecosystem, which includes humans, is biodiversity,” said Chris Cardwell, the program manager of Deep Roots KC, a nonprofit that promotes native plant landscapes. “When we advocate for native landscapes … we then support a wider variety of insects, which support a wider variety of birds, and all the way up the food chain.”

That includes the microbiome of insects, bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. In the native prairie, which includes much of Kansas and Missouri, root systems can extend 17 to 20 feet below the surface — much deeper than the few inches of soil reached by now-traditional grass lawns.

“Beneath this soil exists a biome that is more expansive than the oceans,” he said. “What lies beneath our feet is just as important as what we can see around us in the terrestrial world.”

Those deeper root systems are the reason local governments in the Kansas City area have begun to integrate native plants into their stormwater management strategies. Grass lawns are only marginally better than asphalt at absorbing rainwater. All that runoff contributes to flooding and the contamination of rivers and creeks.

Homeowners in Johnson County and Wyandotte County can get 50% reimbursement for installing a rain garden using native plants.

How native plants fit into classic suburbia

But some homeowners see an invasion that looks to them like weeds.

For starters, they wonder if prospective homebuyers would be interested in a house surrounded by bushy plants and teeming with bugs. And what about the local homeowners association, which might push back on landscaping projects that compromise the uniformity of traditional suburbia?

Landscaping experts say that native plants could actually improve a home’s value, if done properly.

Paula Diaz, who owns GardeNerd landscape designing consulting company, said the key is to make sure that a native landscape looks intentional and well-designed. It can’t just look like a neglected yard with overgrown weeds.

“Showing that there’s a hard edge and a mowed area surrounding it is a big difference in acceptance,” Diaz said. “Because as long as it’s trapped in its little space, then people understand that it’s supposed to be for flowers.”

Dozens of plant species with brightly colored flowers are confined in a dense garden surrounded by black fencing.
Gardening experts recommend adding clear fences and edges to native gardens to make them look intentional. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

She also suggested getting certified as a butterfly habitat or as a Homegrown National Park, with signs indicating to neighbors that it’s an intentional nature space. 

Doug Luther, the executive director of the Homes Associations of Kansas City, said that homeowners associations have a variety of rules when it comes to native plants, but bringing them a detailed proposal can help facilitate the approval process.

Experts say it’s important for homeowners to understand that native landscapes are not maintenance-free. If designed properly, they require less maintenance than traditional grass lawns, and that little bit of maintenance goes a long way in keeping the garden attractive to neighbors and valuable for future homebuyers.

“I cringe when I hear people say, ‘Native landscapes are no-maintenance,’” Cardwell said. “If you know what you’re doing, your maintenance goals can be easily achieved, and you can create a landscape that adds value to the home.”

Policy changes across the Kansas City area

Policymakers across the Kansas City area are still catching up with the gardeners and environmentalists pushing for biodiversity on their property.

Noxious-weed ordinances that ban a list of plants, often including native species, pose some of the biggest barriers to native plant gardens.

In Overland Park, the list of noxious weeds includes about 10 native plants, Lara Isch, the city’s sustainability manager, wrote in an email. The city is updating the list and will present revisions at a Neighborhood Executive Committee meeting on Sept. 12.

Kansas City is also working on an update to its noxious-weed ordinance. The city’s climate protection and resiliency plan includes a section on natural systems, including tree canopy and diverse ecosystems.

The city has not updated its code yet — plants taller than 12 inches are still prohibited and the noxious-weed rules still restrict certain native plants. But an update is coming, said Andy Savastino, Kansas City’s chief environmental officer.

Savastino’s office hired another worker and has been talking with a small group of experts about possible changes to the code. 

He hopes that the update will be ready in time for the springtime growing season.

“People are starting to really consider native plantings,” he said. “It helps even with home values. People like it when they pull up to a house with a nice landscape with native plantings.”

Tips for homeowners growing native plants

Diaz, the gardening consultant, suggested homeowners start small when bringing native plants into their yard. Instead of tearing out entire lawns, start with a small gardening bed.

That way, she said, you can explore your aesthetic on a smaller scale and get a good idea of what level of maintenance you face.

“If somebody’s going all the way in on native plants all at once, and they don’t have a background of what it’s going to do,” she said, “sometimes people become overwhelmed.”

Native plants can take years to mature, and there’s often an awkward phase where it doesn’t quite look right. Diaz said it’s usually best to gradually introduce new plants little by little.

Years after she started developing her native landscape, Diaz has over a hundred different species of plants in her garden.

“It’s always starting conversations,” she said. “Five neighbors have incorporated at least a few native plants now into their landscaping. To me, that’s a huge plus because it means it’s spreading to other people. And that means we’re creating more habitat.”

As she explains her gardening tips on the phone, birds chirp in the background and her 4-year-old granddaughter finds a tree frog on the patio table.

“We’re sitting here, getting buzzed by the hummingbirds and black swallowtail butterflies, and I can see monarchs out farther in the yard doing the double-person dance,” she said. “Even if the humans don’t see the plants, the insects will find them and then the birds will find the insects.”

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....