Stewardship is high priority for Pizzo & Associates

The dormant, native plant growing blocks at Pizzo & Associates, Leland, Ill., (www.pizzo.info) exhibit textures that provide interest against the snow-covered prairie. When the last snow moves out of the prairie, the warm spring temperatures will turn these same blocks into a palette of color. Jack Pizzo, president, said, “We provide knowledgeable consultation and planning, prepare the land and install native plants and seeds.”

Mary Strub, Pizzo business manager, points out early started perennial plugs.

Beyond those tasks, Pizzo emphasized that stewardship is the essential element in natural area restorations. Pizzo’s company follows through with the necessary stewardship to ensure long-term viability. Ecologically restored grounds assure less maintenance requirements resulting in lower costs, a major consideration for homeowners and public and private grounds managers.

After earning an ornamental horticulture degree at the University of Illinois, Pizzo launched a landscaping business in the rapidly growing area of northeastern Illinois known as Chicagoland. “I was asked to put wildflowers back into a wooded area,” Pizzo said. “I’ve been working with native plants ever since.” Pizzo credits his continued business growth to educating the public, providing proper installation and stewardship follow-up, as well as the growing general awareness of the benefits of natural areas.

ComEd land before and afternatural area restoration.

“Natural areas don’t mean ‘no maintenance,’” said Pizzo. “They mean low maintenance. Sometimes people put in native plants and don’t provide the stewardship. The spot is ugly, and people think that’s what native plant use looks like. Traditional landscapes are maintained; natural areas are stewarded.”

Pioneers moved westward across the prairie, and some stopped in the Midwest, clearing the native forests to plant row crops. A John Deere stainless steel plow, along with rapidly increasing industrialization, quickly removed much of the original prairie ecosystems.

The Truax Flex II drill seeder isimportant to native plant projects.

“Illinois ranks 49th in the amount of original prairie,” Pizzo said. He is committed to restoring as much of the prairie as possible in large and small segments.

Ecoregions throughout the world have their own sets of plant biodiversity that have developed in the native soil. Plants propagated in the native soils have evolved and adapted to the specific conditions found in that ecoregion. Prairie plants have deep root systems and can withstand prolonged summer droughts with high temperatures. At the same time, they have adapted to survive severe winters.

Growing native plants and harvesting seeds

Since 1988, Pizzo has grown native plants on a 40-acre site in rural Leland, about 60 miles west of Chicago. The nursery supplies plants for Pizzo’s installations or for wholesale by the pound.

Plants are started from seed in early spring in 200-plug flats. They are grown as 2-inch-diameter and 6-inch-deep plugs and later transferred to 38-plug flats. “They can outperform 1-gallon-size plants because they have all the root systems,” Pizzo said. Any plants left at the end of season are covered to winter over in blocks adjacent to the greenhouse.

Perennials are grown in monoculture beds. Seeds are collected at appropriate times that vary with the species. Plants that flower in early spring are ready for seed collecting by early summer, and seed collection continues until frost. “We bring in the seed to dry,” Pizzo said. Air from a customized blower is circulated around the seeds while they are in mesh bags. Seeds are stored in bulk for use in installations or are sold by the pound.

Native plant plugs growing in agreenhouse. Plants in a holding area.

Increasing interest in restoring natural settings

“The work of planners in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has come to fruition,” Pizzo said. He cited the various storm water management regulations that are in place requiring an increased focus on land management to handle runoff. Additionally, people are increasingly interested in reducing their maintenance requirements.

“Establishment and maintenance costs for the first few years are about the same as landscape projects, but after that, costs go way down,” Pizzo said. Natural landscaping requires less labor, less water and fewer chemicals. Proper stewardship—that includes prescribed fire—and natural ecological changes encourage native plants to adapt.

Managing stormwater is an essential part of assuring not only healthy lawns and grounds, but also avoiding overloaded sewer systems. An example of ways that individual homeowners are managing stormwater can be found in the increased popularity of rain gardens. Rain gardens have gained interest around the country, and rain gardens have been installed in increasing numbers in the Chicago area. “We were doing work for a homeowner in DeKalb,” Pizzo said. DeKalb, home to Northern Illinois University, is surrounded by flatland corn and soybean fields that stretch for miles—only to meet suburban development more quickly each year as Chicagoland rapidly expands toward the major Illinois city of Rockford.

“There were no rain gardens in DeKalb, so we put in the first. The homeowner wanted a pond in the middle to add interest,” Pizzo said. Rain gardens are essentially depressions where soil has been removed. Native plants that tolerate frequent inundation with water are installed. The DeKalb residential rain garden included northern dropseed, tufted hairgrass and blue cardinal. “Our rains are normally .5 inch or less, and rain gardens are designed to hold water 12 to 24 hours,” Pizzo said.

Native plants are installed in a residential yard.

Pizzo frequently restores large corporate or public grounds to natural areas. Last year, Pizzo worked on a restoration project for Ball Horticulture on land adjacent to Illinois Highway 38 in West Chicago. Property owned by ComEd that required regular mowing was located between land segments that Pizzo was restoring. He approached Com Ed about restoring its property.

“ComEd agreed that they would like to have their land restored to a natural area,” Pizzo said. “We looked at the property and decided what plants were needed.” Roundup was used to kill the existing grass, and native grass and wildflower seeds were drill seeded directly into the dead sod. Pizzo then provided the follow-up stewardship.

Determining plants is site specific

Pizzo emphasized that determining the specific plants for individual areas is an important part of restoring areas to a natural state. Knowledge must be acquired on the soil, hydrology, county and state requirements, the owners’ desires, as well as existing native and invasive plants is essential. “Everything we do is site-specific. We tie everything together and use historical documents to determine the plants that should go into the area,” he said.

Projects include residential, corporate, public and private restoration. “We create, restore and steward natural areas,” Pizzo said. “This is highly technical work.” Pizzo emphasized stewardship in sustaining restored grounds. He noted that prescribed fire is essential to restoration and stewardship of natural areas. “Our native plants are not fire tolerant; they are fire dependent,” he said.

Expanding the business

Some of Pizzo’s expansion over the past two decades can be attributed to the growth of Chicagoland. Other elements that have contributed to business expansion include increased interest in native plants versus traditional landscaping and increased governmental regulations. Educating people about restoration has been a major challenge to his business.

Woodland flowers were restored in aresidential development.

Although Pizzo has excellent employee retention, he cited difficulty in filling new positions. “It’s difficult to find employees when we want to expand our business. Ecologically trained individuals aren’t produced in colleges, so we do a lot of training.”

New equipment and equipment improvements are important in all grounds work and have enhanced the capabilities in ecological restoration. “The Truax Flex II drill seeders are essential to our work,” he said. “Our Polaris Ranger ATVs allow us to get into the land, especially when we are using herbicides to control invasive species.”

Pizzo has completed projects in nine states and has received numerous awards for excellence, including recent awards from the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, the U.S. EPA and Chicago Wilderness.

Pizzo is a member of numerous professional organizations including the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Illinois Turfgrass Foundation, the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, the Illinois Nurserymen’s Association and the Illinois Native Plant Society.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.