Frequently Asked Questions

What are native plants?
What are rain gardens?
Why do you recommend the use of herbicides?
What kind of mulch do you recommend?
How much sun is sunny?
Do you have Lady Slippers?
Are you against people having lawns?
What happened to Urban Earth?

What are native plants?

by Karl Ruser
Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

All plants were originally native to someplace. Even a hybrid crop like corn had its native ancestors in Central America. For purposes of landscaping, a native plant is one that grew in a particular place before the large-scale European migrations of the 19th century began. For Minnesota, (home to Landscape Alternatives, Inc.) that is generally considered to be around 1850. That means that all the great prairie and woodland wild flowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs and such that people are re-discovering are native plants.

Why are they of interest?

By having evolved and flourished more or less without the help of human beings, native plants are naturally self-sufficient. That means that, once established on a suitable site, a native plant will require little or no additional maintenance. They don't need routine mowing, watering, fertilizing or pest control. That is why native plants are considered to be ideal for "low maintenance" landscapes.

People are learning how much everything on Planet Earth is inter-related. We now know that even our landscapes are not little islands apart from the rest of the world or even our neighborhood. The choices we make with our landscapes can have great consequences beyond our fence lines. Even the rain that falls in our yard may ruin the swim date of our neighbors' children at the local park beach because the polluted run-off has spawned a thick, smelly crop of algae in the water. The Monarch butterflies we love so much in summer need native milkweed to raise their caterpillars on and Blazingstar to feed on in preparation of their fall flight to Mexico. Neither of these plants will be found in a landscape that does not use native plants! Each native plant has its own associated group of essential microorganisms, birds, insects and larger animals that are important to foster.

Our traditional landscapes have little diversity and rely on introduced species or bred cultivars that not good at doing this at all. For example, native asters are very good butterfly attractors. However, when they are bred for a showy, intense color- that people like- the result often leaves out the vital nectar that the butterflies need. Native plantings, with their diverse mix of species and wild, "un-refined" genetics, assure that there is plenty for all!

What does "suitable site" mean?

Before European settlement, there was almost no ground in Minnesota on which something did not grow. It is just the natural way. But some places are wet, some places are dry, some places are sunny, and some places are shady. Each has its own group of plants that are adapted to those conditions.

Traditional landscaping tends to alter the landscape to suit the desired plants to be used. Mostly that means creating a lawn. Unfortunately, there are lots of landscape settings in which the traditional lawn just doesn't do very well. It is better to not use lawns on very shady, very dry, or steeply sloped yards. Either the grass just isn't going to grow very well or the expense and trouble maintaining it will be more than it is worth. Slopes can also be dangerous to mow. There are native plant groups that are ideal in any of these settings.

At Landscape Alternatives, we first determine the conditions at the customer's site, then we advise them which native plants will be best adapted to those conditions. Why fight powdery mildew and thin turf under dense trees? Plant a woodland fern glade instead. Why spend huge sums on an irrigation system on that dry hillside only to have everything turn brown anyway when the city declares a watering ban? Plant a short grass prairie garden instead!

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What are Rain Gardens?

by Karl Ruser
Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

Rain gardens are special parts of a landscape that have been modified to capture some of the storm and melt water run-off from around our homes and businesses. Some are designed to be dry almost within hours of a rain and others are meant to be more marsh or pond-like. The soil conditions and the amount of run-off collected will determine a lot of how wet the garden can be expected to be. A few municipalities have installed rain gardens that divert a portion of the storm water in street gutters.

Why is this done?

It is now understood that much of the pollution in our lakes and streams comes from the water that washes off our roofs, driveways, side walks, parking lots and streets. Most of our built-up cities and towns have very efficient systems of drains, pipes and culverts- "storm sewers"- that moves the water very quickly from our neighborhoods to the nearest body of water. This water can easily carry with it lots of nutrients from our yards, fluids that drip from our cars, as well as any other litter that gets spilled or tossed into the street.

A common nutrient that gets washed in with run-off water is called phosphorous. This naturally occurring component of our soil does not usually get into lakes and streams unless people help it get there. Once there it causes the ugly and smelly algae blooms that form every summer. The phosphorus can get into run off from carelessly applied fertilizer spilled on driveways and side walks or leaves and clippings that fall on the pavement and in street gutters.

It is easier to keep our lakes and streams clean if we keep this stuff out of them in the first place. The water that is captured by the rain garden is allowed to soak into the soil right in your yard or landscape before it has a chance to get to the storm sewer. As it soaks in, the soil naturally filters the contaminants and excess nutrients out of the water. The cleaned water is then either used by the plants growing in the garden or soaks down deep into the soil and meets up with the ground water. Eventually that water will feed the lakes and stream from the side and below rather than from on top from a sewer pipe. That is a far better and more natural way.

Why is it better to feed a stream with ground water?

Before people started building so much, with enhanced drainage from storm sewers, almost all of the water that reached lakes and streams came in through ground water. When it rained, the water slowly moved to the streams and rivers. This meant that they flooded less often and were full more often. Now, with our enhanced run-off, the water quickly moves to the body of water after a rain storm causing a fast rise- maybe even a flood- and then it all flows away leaving the water level lower than it might naturally be. All that fast moving water causes excess erosion to stream banks that further pollutes the water. By landscaping for rain water retention - with rain gardens- we eliminate some of that surface water flow and redirect it back into the ground where nature intended it to be.

What does this have to do with Landscape Alternatives?

Gardens that are intentionally designed to be wet, at least some of the time, need special plants to grow in them. Native plants are perfect for this. This is because rain gardens copy a special natural type of wetland called a "seasonally flooded basin". Basically, they are wet when the weather is wet, or in early spring when the snow melts, and then they are dry when the weather is dry. Because this is a natural. beneficial kind of place, there are native plants that have evolved to grow there- and Landscape Alternatives grows these native plants very well. You can't go wrong by buying your rain garden plants from Landscape Alternatives!

How can I learn more?

Make a visit to Landscape Alternatives! We have several types of demonstration rain gardens for you to see. We also give classes right at the nursery so you can see first hand the materials and methods used. Also check out this link: Blue Thumb has very good information. Blue Thumb is a consortium of governmental agencies and private nursery and landscape companies that work to make landscaping for clean water a routine activity for everyone. Also, your local, city, county or state government already may have agencies and programs in place to help you.

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Why do you recommend the use of herbicides??

by Karl Ruser
Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

Sometimes, the ends justify the means. Sometimes. What we mean by that is that sometimes there is no other better way of doing something very worthwhile- like planting a prairie garden. Most of the places that are to be planted have had something growing there already. Whether it is a patch of lawn or an old field, the plants that were living there will get the upper hand unless they are killed. Many tough weedy grasses, for example, can re-grow from buried stems and roots. They'll even push up through a mulch. It can be very frustrating to have to go back and remove this unwanted re-growth after the new garden has been planted. So initial weed control has to be thorough. That can be very difficult to do sufficiently with other methods, especially if the area in question is fairly large or the time available to get things under control is relatively short. Then, the proper, label directed, safe use of the appropriate herbicide may be the best route to take. Remember this is done at the beginning a a project and maybe as an infrequent part of long term maintenance. This is very different from the routine and continuous use of herbicides people tend to associate with lawn care.

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What kind of mulch do you recommend?

Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

We strongly reccomend a high quality shredded hardwood mulch. This combines the benefits of longevity and the ability to stay in place. It doesn't float around like bark or wood chips. We carry it in bulk - fill an approximately 3 cubic foot bag yourself for $5.00/bag.

New this year: we are featuring Woolch™ -It is what’s happening in the green and growing world!

From commercial growing fields to home gardens, Woolch™ is the answer for those looking for increased yields with herbicide-free and pesticide-free weed control, moisture retaining mulch. No more plastic! When no longer needed for weed control, Woolch™ can simply be tilled in to the soil where it will biodegrade and release nitrogen. Hassle free disposal and great for your garden!

In most cases, Woolch provides effective weed control for two years. The wool mulch helps to increase yields, stabilize ground temperature, and retain moisture around plants. While the initial mulch installation is a bit labor intensive, the weed control results are worth it. For long term use with perennials, additional Woolch™ can be added on top of old mulch after the second year.

Woolch™ is a blend of about 50% wool fibers and 50% toothpick-size wood shavings. The wool used is a waste by-product created by the napping machine near the end of the blanket-making process at a local Minnesota woolen mill. The wood is a waste by-product created from virgin timber as it goes through the sawmill process. These wool and wood fibers are then blended together via a roller and heat process at a small family operated company on the edge of the Minnesota Iron Range region.

Woolch™ comes in two convenient ready-to use sizes:

Berry Blankets (row strips 15 inches wide x 60 inches long) $5.00 each

Tomato Pads (square sections 20 inches x 20 inches) 3 pads for $7.00

Find out more about Woolch™ at Minnesota Lamb & Wool Producers

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How much sun is sunny?

by Karl Ruser
Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

"Do I have enough sun for . . . ." That is one of the most common questions posed by a gardener. For the most part, prairie plants are sun lovers. That means most will do best with 8 or more hours of direct sunlight per day. Woodland plants, being shade lovers will do best with 5 or less hours of direct sunlight per day. Of course, in nature, there are savannas, groves, openings and all sorts of in-between situations. Call, email or better yet, stop in, bring some photos and an idea of how the sun and shadows move across your property during the day and we'll help you figure things out.

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Do you have Lady Slippers?

by Karl Ruser
Landscape alternatives, Inc.

"Why don't you sell the Minnesota State Flower?!!!!", is a very common question. We really don't like to disappoint our customers, really we don't! But, we just don't feel that the Showy Lady Slipper and the other native orchids are suitable plants for the landscape.

First of all, they cannot be sustainably produced in a commercial sense. It takes 12-15 years for a plant to reach flowering age. That would mean we could only have raised two generations - at best - in the whole time Landscape Alternatives has been in business!

Second, they are very picky as to site conditions. For the most part, orchids grow where most other plants cannot. This is usually in soils with very low fertility. Believe it or not, almost any otherwise suitable landscape setting has far too many nutrients available for the plants to survive for more than just a few years.

Third, each orchid species requires a very special fungus to associate with it in a complex cycle. A native lady slipper seed must be in contact with some of this fungus when it germinates. The fungus provides the energy and nutrients the young orchid needs to grow. Eventually, the orchid develops enough so that its own leaves and roots can sustain it. At this point the role of fed and feeder switch. The fungus partially grows into the orchid plant and is sustained by it for the rest of the orchid's life. When the orchid finally is able to produce seed, the fungus is already there and ready to once again take on its supportive role for any new germinating plants. Without this natural association neither the fungus or an orchid patch will survive for long.

The only way an orchid can get this fungus into itself is for it to be there during germination. If it is introduced later in the orchid's life it will not be taken up. There are tissue cultured native orchids that can be found for sale. Unfortunately, the methods used to culture the plants cannot also include a fungus or any other microbial growth. The medium that the seed is germinated on takes the place of the fungus - while the plant is young. However, once the plant is removed from culture and potted up it is too late for the fungus to be introduced. Therefore, while such a plant may reach maturity in your garden, its seeds will never have the opportunity to naturally spread and develop into a self sustaining orchid patch in your garden. The plant you buy is the plant you get. That is not the Landscape Alternatives' way. We strive to help our customers develop self-sustaining native plantings in their gardens. The opportunity for re-seeding is an integral part of native plant gardening!

Please support efforts to protect natural remnant populations of our native orchids. DO NOT DIG THEM FROM THE WILD! From time to time "rescued" plants from construction projects become available for sale. Again, while these plants may grow in your garden for a few years, all the problems in 1-3 above will still apply. It is far better to make sure that these plants are not disturbed in the first place or, at the least, are transplanted to sites with active native remnant populations of the orchid (and thus the fungus).

There is another way.

One of the reasons our native orchids are so slow to develop is that they act as "ephemerals". That means that they are only actively growing during the period of bloom- usually in spring. Once done with flowering and setting seed, they go dormant. That means out of each year they may only get 2 or 3 months at most to grow. On the other hand, there are many species of tropical orchids that do not have this strict seasonal growth restriction. By growing nearly year round they can develop much more quickly and flower more than once in a year. This has allowed orchid breeders to create, and sustainably produce for sale, wonderful hybrids (including lady slippers!) that you can grow as house plants. Instead of fighting the mosquitos to view your precious (and almost certainly short lived) Showy Lady Slipper in your garden you can enjoy your hybrid tropical in bloom on your kitchen table in January!

For more information please contact the Orchid Society of Minnesota at this link: Orchid Society of Minnesota. If you live in the east central region of Minnesota you can call a local and talented grower, Charles Mans at (320) 384-6760.

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Are you against people having lawns?

Absolutely not! Lawns are a very important part of the landscape.

People who love native plants often find themselves comparing them unfairly to lawns. With natives' (especially the prairie grasses) low maintenance qualities, it is easy to find all kinds of faults with lawn grasses. In our minds, lawns seem to be little more than water and fertilizer gluttons that also demand toxic weed and other pest killers and loads of time for mowing. Well, mostly that is because our expectations are out of line with what is actually necessary and of the true nature of lawns themselves.

So, what kind of lawn is really necessary?

Most residential and commercial lawns in Minnesota could get along with far less weed killer and fertilizer, virtually no irrigation and with higher mowing heights. And- they almost always could be smaller! A lot of our lawn areas are bigger than we need them to be and really ought to be planted to prairie or other type of garden. (see FAQ on native plants above) The extensive use of turf greatly decreases the bio-diversity of our landscapes.

The only truly required maintenance a lawn needs is to be somewhat regularly mowed. That's it. So, the grass in a lower maintenance lawn would be a little less blue-green, it would probably brown up some during the very driest times of the year, there'd be dandelions, and the texture would be a little coarser to look at. With all the problems we're facing in the world today, many caused by our over-use of resources like water and fertilizer- we CAN be satisfied with simpler lawn care. The grasses would still look and function like a lawn. They'd still create the nice park-like setting we like for our homes and businesses and the kids and pets would still be able to romp around on them. That's what we really want out of our lawns, anyway!

What makes lawn grasses so important?

There are no real alternatives to the functional and esthetic roles that lawns play in our landscapes. They create the "space" in our landscapes that visually ties all the rest- the buildings, walks, driveways, trees, shrubs, gardens, etc. together like nothing else can. They are the universal signal that homeowners are taking care of their yards. Lawns make the best play grounds. Turfgrasses do a great job binding the soil together to stop erosion.

One of the most amazing aspects of turfgrasses, especially Kentucky Bluegrass, is that it grows in such a way that allows us to keep it short and walk all over it- with minimal damage. This is because these grasses evolved as food for continuously grazing animals. They also evolved the ability to grow when conditions allowed- usually in spring and fall; and then wait out the hot and dry periods during the summer. It flowers during its spring flush of growth when natural moisture is most available. A grass like this is called a "cool season" grass for this reason. It is only our demand for a lush, verdant lawn all summer long that interferes with the lawn grasses' natural drought and heat tolerance.

Is it true that turfgrasses aren't drought tolerant because they have shallow roots?

Not necessarily. It has become very common for speakers and literature promoting native grasses to extoll their deep-rooted virtues (Big Bluestem roots can grow 10 or more feet down into the ground) while disparaging the shallow 2 or 3 inch deep kentucky bluegrass roots. This is an unfair comparison. There are plenty of native plants that are not so drought tolerant as Big Bluestem; so why blame turfgrasses for not being so? Each plant, native or introduced, has its own specific growth requirements and uses. Some like it wet and others dry. Turf and prairie have very different needs and purposes. One is not meant to replace the function of the other. Each plant's roots serve to match its habit of growth. Deep is not necessarily better than shallow. It all depends upon what the plant needs to sustain itself.

Roots grow like a floating ice cube melts- as the top melts the bottom comes up. When a plant is cut short, as in a lawn, it cannot support as much underground growth and thus the roots grow more shallowly. Kentucky Bluegrass, since it grows actively during relatively short periods of favorable weather, evolved to be a smaller plant, over-all. So it doesn't produce a lot of deep roots. However, when not mowed short and when other problems such as soil compaction are not a problem it can send down roots at least 24 inches into the ground. That's as deep as some of the prairie grasses you don't hear as much about. Junegrass, for example is an absolutely beautiful cool season Minnesota native dry land grass that, like Kentucky Bluegrass, stays relatively small and grows relatively shallow roots. Obviously, an unhealthy turfgrass plant will not have healthy roots, but neither will a poorly established native plant.

Big bluestem is a kind of grass that is called "warm season". It keeps growing all season long so it can be big and strong to produce its seeds and flowers in late summer and fall. It can't wait out the dry and hot times of summer, it doesn't have the time. So it gets tall and its roots get deep. A Big Bluestem plant usually reaches 6 feet tall. No surprise then, that its roots go at least that deep. But a Big Bluestem plant would not grow very well (or produce deep roots!!) if routinely mowed at 2 or 3 inches. So, for all the places we need a lawn, a prairie grass like Big Bluestem will not work.

Kentucky Bluegrass lawns can repair themselves without seeding. Why is that?

One additional virtue of Kentucky Bluegrass: it has rhyzomes. An essential part of Bluegrass growth (that is often not shown in comparisons with native plants' roots) is a form of underground stem called a rhyzome. These grow out in all directions from the parent plant forming new plants that root and send out new rhyzomes themselves. As the lawn establishes, these rhyzomes knit together into a tough sod. This gives the lawn its soil holding power and the strength to withstand the forces of a football player being tackled on it. This sod continually repairs itself since small dead patches of grass soon fill in with rhyzomes growing in from the surrounding turf. Most native grasses are "bunch grasses", meaning that they do not spread vegetatively like Kentucky Bluegrass. This isn't a problem on a prairie since it isn't mowed short. The tangle of new and dead plant leaves, stems and roots found in a dense, healthy prairie planting makes for a very efficient ground cover. So, both types of growth are beneficial. What matters most is to use what is best for each area in the yard and landscape.

So, let's give Kentucky Bluegrass and the other great turfgrasses the credit they deserve- after all, we need them and the lawns they provide.

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What happened to Urban Earth?

by Chris Ruser
Landscape Alternatives, Inc.

Urban Earth Co-op was a wonderful idea, but it just didn't work out. We are all sad that it was not able to survive. However, all is not lost! We now have Amelia Flower and Garden Shoppe. Amelia Garden Shoppe is at the same location as the former Urban Earth, and carries much of the same excellent merchandise, including Landscape Alternatives' native plants. Amelia is owned and run by Christina Cassano, a former member of Urban Earth. We are excited to have this opportunity to see a fresh start at this location. As in the past, we will offer a fine selection of our plants in stock at the store, as well as the order drop off option. Click here for details.

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