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Wild grasses, flowers restored to underutilized patch of Memorial Drive

Commuters travelling eastbound on Memorial Drive may begin to catch a glimpse of something different near the 14 Street NW bridge.

Gone is the longstanding patch of turf grass that once lay between the Memorial Drive and that bridge. Its replacement is a plot of native prairie plants with ecological and economic benefits for local residents.

“The project’s intent is to demonstrate how habitat restoration can be used in an urban setting to support biodiversity and build ecological resilience, while providing an aesthetically pleasing environment that is different from our traditionally mowed park space,” said Jason Weiler, a parks ecologist with urban conservation at the City of Calgary.

The site, which began its transformation in 2019, was chosen because of its location near to the Bow River, its importance to local wildlife, and for its under utilization.

“Previously, it was just mowed turf-grass that we wanted to convert to a more natural prairie meadow plant community, to provide greater value to Calgarians—both human and wildlife alike,” said Weiler.

The plot was planted with three different types of seed mixes in order to encourage continuous blooming of flowers throughout the growing season. The city added an additional 1,500 wildflower plugs in 2021, in order to maximize the diversity of plants and pollinator species.

Giant hyssop and silvery lupine were two of the many species added, said Weiler.

“So super diverse native wildflowers, but also lots of native grasses, too. There’s some fescue grasses, rough hair grass—typical kind of prairie vegetation that naturally occurs around Calgary,” he said.

Reduced maintenance, greater biodiversity for city

Previously, the plot would be mowed between 15 and 20 times per year. The extent of that previous biodiversity was turf-grass and the occasional dandelion.

Mowing has been reduced to just once per year to remove top grow, which Weiler said was essential to the renewal of the native plant based ecosystem.

“The prairies are a disturbance based ecosystem, and so they need that kind of renewal to function and to be healthy,” he said.

Weiler said that the design and timing for planting at the plot also prevented weeds from getting a foothold. Careful planning on the timing of seeding, he said, was able to convert the site from the turf-grass to the native plants without the use of herbicides.

There were a number of other benefits to restoring the site to native plant species, said Weiler.

“Overall it improves the health of the area, helping native native species, including plants, bees, birds, and other [species],” he said.

“Having those healthier habitats nearby residential areas helps support pollinators, and people’s gardens on their private property, like vegetable gardens.”

Weiler said that the species were also drought resistant, and the collection of species planted at the site has helped to protect against storm water.

Lessons learnt could be applied to other city plots

Outcomes from that process of planning and seeding could be applied as future lessons to other locations in the city, said Weiler.

“The City of Calgary currently mows the equivalent area of about 3,800 McMahon Stadiums during the growing season, so that’s a huge amount of open space across the city with untapped potential for this type of thing,” he said.

“Restoring even just a fraction of that space would really help to maximize the benefits, and also the aesthetic diversity that our parks and open spaces can provide, so I think there’s huge, huge opportunities and potential for habitat restoration in the future.”

Weiler said this kind of work also benefited the City of Calgary’s biodiversity strategic plan objectives, and meet the city’s Climate Action Plan.

“Trying to reduce emissions and becoming more ecologically resilient in the face of climate change, habitat restoration is one of many tools that can used for both of those.”