Why Plant for Clean Water?


Why Have a Blue Thumb?

  • The Problem— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has named stormwater runoff as our nation’s biggest water quality threat. Stormwater runoff whisks pollutants from our streets to our waterways via storm drains.
  • The Solution— Planting for Clean Water is part of the solution to water pollution because it mimics nature and natural hydrology. In natural landscapes, rain tends to soak into the ground gradually. However, nowadays, much of the land is covered by impervious surfaces – such as streets, parking lots and roofs – where the water cannot soak into the ground. Blue Thumb plantings help infiltrate water back into the ground and stop the stormwater runoff.
  • Lush and lovely— Add variety and interest to your landscape by choosing from hundreds of native plants certain to flourish in a variety of soil types and light conditions. Form countless combinations of natives and design a garden that produces blooms all season long.
  • Lawn chair landscaping —You can practically tend your native garden from your lawn chair—they’re that easy. Natives are hardy, easily surviving harsh winters, summer heat, and even drought. Once established, native plant gardens need very little weeding, watering, mulching or mowing and so, are virtually maintenance-free.
  • Easy on the wallet—Hardly ever buy replacement plants, annuals, fertilizers, and pesticides again. Plus, once established, native plants need no watering, saving thousands of gallons each year. For every lawn problem, there’s a cost-effective native plant solution.
  • Clean water— Everyone has the responsibility of protecting our water, as streets connect to lakes and rivers through underground storm sewer pipes. In natural landscapes, rain tends to soak into the ground gradually. However, nowadays, much of the land is covered by impervious surfaces – streets, parking lots and roofs – where the water cannot soak into the ground. Instead, water runs-off rapidly through storm sewers carrying pollutants collected along the way directly into our water bodies. Stormwater runoff is the number one water quality problem facing the nation according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; what you plant in your yard to help water soak in makes a difference! Native plants and rain gardens help clean water naturally because they generally have deep root systems that anchor soil and act as filters, collecting dirty runoff from streets and rooftops and separating out pollutants while absorbing water and decreasing flooding.
  • Control shoreline erosion—Native plants are beneficial to maintaining shorelines, and decrease erosion by slowing down in-coming waves and anchoring soil on shore.
  • Eco-friendly—Native aquatic plants produce oxygen for fish and take in phosphorous, reducing mid-summer algae blooms and murky, green lake water.
  • Kind to critters—native plant gardens provide a natural habitat as well as nectar, pollen, and seeds for bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife, while discouraging invasive species and the mess they leave behind.


What is a native plant?

Hundreds of years ago, the United States was covered in “native” plants — the grasses, foliage, and trees indigenous to our country — before modern settlement disturbed their natural habitat. Native plants differ from non-natives because of their complex relationship with other local organisms, acting as critical components in maintaining nature’s delicate eco-balance. Many species are known to occur across relatively wide ranges of geography, climate and environmental conditions. It is commonly understood that sub-groups of these species became adapted to various local conditions within these wider ranges. These are called “local ecotypes”. It is desirable to use the best adapted plants for a landscape project. Local ecotype native plants are clearly well adapted to local conditions. Therefore, Blue Thumb projects using native plants require local ecotype native plants. This means plant material propagated from original sources no farther than 200 miles (300 for trees and shrubs) from the project.


What are the benefits of native plants?

  • The generally long roots find their own water, decrease soil compaction, filter out pollutants
  • Native plants are as maintenance free as plants can be – no mowing, fertilizer nor pesticides
  • They cost less in the long run – no fertilizers, pesticides, mowing necessary
  • Native plants add beauty, habitat, food & cover – biodiversity
  • Native plants reduce air pollution since they do not need to be mowed
  • Native plants also reduce water pollution because fertilizers and pesticides and pesticides are not necessary


How can I make my yard care eco-friendly?

View the Blue Thumb Year-Round Guide to Yard Care booklet  


What’s the difference between a native plant and a “cultivar”?

Many kinds of garden plants result from a breeding program or a deliberate process to select for certain desirable characteristics such as flower color. These plants are called “cultivars”. The word is derived from “cultivated” and “variety”. They are usually given a unique name. Most turf grasses as well as annual and perennial bedding plants are cultivars. There are cultivars that have been selected and bred from species native to the U.S. too. Their genetic make-up is considered to be somewhat narrowed and altered from the original source material. Therefore, cultivars may only be used in those Blue Thumb projects that specifically allow them. Raingardens are an example of where cultivars could be allowed. Shoreline stabilization plantings and native plant gardens are an examples of where only local ecotype natives plants are to be used.  


Why are distinctive regional landscapes important?

An intriguing aspect of landscaping and gardening is that you have to work with what you have. For the most part, soils and climate conditions are givens. This means that a yard in Minnesota is fundamentally different from one in Arizona, or even Iowa. It should look like it too! However, the cultural forces of uniformity that give us identical big box stores and fast food restaurants across the land also tend to create a bland sameness in the style of our landscapes. While mass producers and marketers lower costs and broadens availability, it also turns something special into a bland commodity. Lowest possible up-front cost and standardization is fine for cars and electronic toys. It is questionable for food, a big threat for native plants and a disaster for regionally distinct, environmentally beneficial landscapes.   One size definitely does not fit all and lowest price is not always best. Time and money invested into a quality landscape that promotes clean water benefits everyone. It’s a lot less expensive to keep pollution out of our lakes and rivers by planting for clean water than it is to clean our waters up later.   


How do I decide what to do with my yard?

Better landscapes result from a balanced mix of turfgrass lawns and/or other traditionally manicured portions with areas that can use plants that require less maintenance. How the balance is made depends on what is appropriate for the overall situation. Also, what is appropriate for one part of a yard may be completely inappropriate in another part. Many factors should be considered in making planning decisions for any landscape project. Some of these are:

  • site conditions such as soil type and shade;
  • functional or use requirements such as play areas and structures;
  • surroundings such as shorelines, wetlands and/or neighborhood culture and environment;
  • personal tastes and interests of the land owner(s);
  • local codes, association covenants and other requirements placed by government agencies.


What’s a raingarden?

Raingardens are simply gardens with depressions that are designed to catch rainwater runoff in your yard, growing plants that tolerate getting partially flooded on occasion. They provide beautiful landscaping and wildlife habitat. And, by soaking up rain where it falls, they slow stormwater runoff, help prevent erosion, and remove pollutants in the process.  



  Using Shoreline Plantings to Stabilize Soil Shorelines Stabilized with Riprap (rock)
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Grant money is available for shoreline restoration projects
  • Long roots of native plants filter out pollution before it reaches the water
  • Attracts birds and butterflies
  • Flowers add color and visual continuity of shorelines around the lake
  • Adds privacy
  • Plants take up excess nutrients reducing algal blooms
  • Long rooted plants help decrease flooding
  • Vegetation discourages geese from congregating (feel vulnerable to predators in taller vegetation)
  • Plants provide oxygen for fish
  • Aquatic plants serve as wave-breaks slowing down incoming waves
  • More permanent fix for erosion problems
  • Controls erosion
  • No planning required
  • Little weeding required
  • Project takes time to plan and design
  • Plants take 1-2 growing seasons to establish
  • Weeding is necessary for the first two years
  • Expensive
  • Does not filter out pollution; grass clippings wash into lake adding excess nutrients
  • Does not provide animal habitat (other than snakes)
  • Chops up the shoreline visually; each shoreline looks different leading to an overall “hodge-podge”
  • Does not take up excess nutrients reducing algal blooms
  • Does not help decrease flooding
  • Does not discourage geese from congregating
  • Does not provide oxygen for fish
  • Does not serve as a wave-break
  • Short-term fix to erosion problems
  • Difficult to walk on