ACES, NRES Alum and Pizzo Group Leader Speaks up for the Natural World

March 6, 2015
Jack Pizzo of The Pizzo Group taks about the types of habitat restoration that can draw in pollinators like the rapidly declining monarch butterfly.

Those attending a Friday, Feb. 20, Lunch and Learn program sponsored by the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce and the Harbor Country Rotary Club were invited by Jack Pizzo to re-introduce themselves to the natural world.

“Mother Nature is around you all the time. It’s where you live, it’s where you work, it’s where you play. We don’t have to commune with nature, we are nature, we are natural.” he said. “We’re a mammalian species, we evolved in this ecosystem just like every other living thing.”

Pizzo, owner and founder of The Pizzo Group, a licensed landscape architect and expert in managing, designing and restoring green spaces both in Southwest Michigan and the Chicagoland area, said he tries to make any landscape he works with as accessible as possible.

“We’re supposed to be out there. Mother Nature needs us as much as we need it. We need to be in there managing the sites as much as we need to respectfully stay out every once in a while,” Pizzo said.

He lamented that many “natural” landscaped areas that are installed where people live are fenced off or posted no trespassing.

“When I was a kid I would have run right in there. I would have been up to my knees in goo and mud, found a frog and gone and chased a girl.”

Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Viki Gudas said the presentation “is our second in what we can now officially call a series of Lunch and Learn — a collaborative effort between the Chamber and the Rotary — and we’re thrilled with the response.”

The Pizzo Group, which specializes in ecological consulting and contracting along with sustainable landscape architecture, has two offices — one at 16948 Schwark Road in Three Oaks (269-756-3607) and a headquarters in Leland, Ill, at 136 Railroad St (815-494-2300) that hosts an annual party and open house near the summer solstice that Pizzo said he brews beer for. The firm’s many projects have included prairie installation and restoration, shoreline restoration, invasive brush and tree clearing, wildflower gardens, prescribed burns and erosion control for private residences, acreage and business properties. Its logo includes four words representing the group’s four divisions — Design (ecology + vision, llc); Grow (Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, LLC); Build (Native Landscape Contractors, LLC); and , Restore (Pizzo Associates, Ltd.).

Jack Pizzo is a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate with a bachelors degree in Ornamental Horticulture and a masters of science in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences with a specialization in Restoration Ecology. He also is an Illinois-certified nursery professional.

Pizzo said he has a Three Oaks home on the same property as the Michigan office where just stopping the mowing of a lawn brought up native plants such as early goldenrod, ironweed, wafer ash, grassleaf goldenrod. “Amazing amounts” of wildlife such as green tree frogs have returned as well. He also has found signs that Native Americans were once active there in the form of artifacts such as a large spearhead and crinoid beads.

At his home in DeKalb County, Ill., Pizzo said restoration of used-up farmland amongst 20,000 acres of corn and soybeans has produced wetland areas that have attracted 139 species of birds including tree sparrows, snow buntings, horned larks, tundra swans and shrikes — even the first black-necked stilts seen in the county in more than 100 years.

“I collect the artwork of John Audubon, and I have a lack-necked stilt print. And my dad ... gave me one, so I have two of them.”

Pizzo’s Lunch and Learn presentation was aided by many colorful photos displayed on the big-screen TV in the meeting room at the Chamber’s Business Resource Center, 15311 Three Oaks Road, depicting everything from a properly restored landscape populated by a nesting blue-winged teal to a weed-choked pond surrounded right down the waterline by turf grass and cattails that would draw already abundant types of wildlife such as Canada geese, possums and skunks.

Pizzo also utilized the sounds of nature, beginning with the steady drone of “probably a million” western chorus frogs singing in the spring near his Three Oaks home. He said spring peepers, green tree frogs and many others also can be heard in this part of Michigan.

“As soon as the frost melts ... the water breaks free, life happens,” he said. “There’s life out there right now.”

Pizzo said his favorite part of the job is taking people outside and getting them to see that there is life in the natural world 365 days a year.

“If you see a hole in a tree that’s not round ... that’s not somebody putting holes in the trees, that’s a pileated woodpecker,” he said. “People will walk right by that and not realize that massive birds are on their property or in their neighborhood.”

Pizzo used a flower-filled scene with a stunning blue-hued bird as the centerpiece as an example of a project he said helped put people back in touch with nature.

“Twelve months it took to do that. Kill the lawn, plant the plugs, and then it became habitat for indigo buntings,” he said.

Another screen shot filled with forest-floor wildflowers (Michigan lillies) showed what can happen when plants that don’t belong there are taken out of the picture.

“Remove the invasive species, get the sunlight to the ground,” Pizzo said. “The more sunlight you have, the more sugars the plants can produce and then they start producing flowers.”

Pizzo said since hunting pressure on deer had gone down (“Im a hunter and a fisherman — there’s a balance and we’re a predator in the ecosystem”) there are too many deer and they like to eat flowers. By managing the number of deer there will be more flowers and therefore more pollinators like bees, hornets, moths, beetles and butterflies.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of food that we actually eat ... (that) are all pollinator driven,” he said.

Pizzo later talked about one of those pollinators that is getting a lot of attention lately, the monarch butterfly.

“when we were kids — I’m 52 — there used to be monarchs all over the place ... and I’ve noticed the precipitous decline.”

He went on to say that nature responds quickly to change, and this can be a good thing because every time someone removes an invasive species and plants a native one it helps. Pizzo said a friend of his, head of the department of entomology at the University of Connecticut, planted 15 milkweeds (Pizzo noted that monarch caterpillars feed on all varieties of milkweed) in the middle of a huge asphalt parking lot, and the butterflies found them.

Pizzo said many invasive species do a great deal of damage to native ecosystems — “like having a Yugo part in a Rolls Royce, it stops the whole thing from working.”

He showed slides depicting the invasive buckthorn plant and the prolific Asian carp that are common on the Mississippi River system and threatening the Great Lakes.

“I have been on the Cache River down in central Illinois and had ... a 24-inch long fish wing by my nose, in a canoe,” he said.

Pizzo said the emerald ash borer beetle that has wreaked so much havoc in the United States came in on untreated shipping crates and wooden pallets from China.

“We should have made the Chinese put their lumber in the kiln so they would have cooked any bugs,” he said.

Invasive trees also do harm because they’re not a source of food for caterpillars, which not only produce pollinators but also feed many species of birds, Pizzo noted.

“So when we talk about having bird feeders, plant a native tree,” he said.

Pizzo also talked about “bioswales” — which he said are perennial gardens planted adjacent to office buildings, parking lots and similar sites to effectively capture run-off water and direct it into the ground where it’s supposed to be.

“Our native perennials have root systems 5-, 10-, 15-feet deep and 25 percent of that root system dies every year, so that brings liquids into the soil and allows the water to percolate down,” he said.

Planting enough native plants also puts carbon back into the ground — a method of combatting climate change that Pizzo heartily endorsed.

“No politics, no argument, just putting things back together,” he said.

Often restoring a parcel of land or achieving an objective using native plants also saves money. He used as an example a project to strengthen a lakefront area using plants instead of large rocks (rip-rap).

“We saved them close to a half a million dollars on that project,” he said.

Such methods also can save energy. He said temperature readings taken on a July morning at the same site were: 102.7 degrees on asphalt; 85.5 degrees on a lawn; and just 69 degrees on an area restored with prairie plants.

“You put that around your house and all those plants are evaporating water and keeping your building cool.” he said. “I haven’t used air conditioning in my house since 2007.”

Habitat restoration The Pizzo Group has done for the Chicago Parks District has attracted birds such as green herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow warblers and wood ducks, even the chicken-sized wimbrel to what was once the site of a U.S. Steel plant.

Pizzo said his definition of sustainable is nothing more than minimum long-term impact on the environment, “not no impact, because everything has an impact.”

As for ecological restoration, he said it’s incomplete until people have been put back in along with plants and animals.

Pizzo also said he prefers “stewardship” (a more dynamic concept) than maintenance.

“We can’t hold Mother nature static, she’s constantly changing. 15,000 years ago where we’re standing right now what would we have seen? A glacier, a mile of ice, There would have been 5,280 feet of ice on top of where we are right now.”

Soon after that ice had receded, Pizzo said the plants and animals came back.

He said good genetic diversity is important within the population of species in an ecosystem.

“With good genetics you then have resilience.”

Pizzo noted that the father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel was a priest and the father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, was a man of intense faith.

Pizzo talked about unusual native plants that can be spotted in an intact ecosystem including “cancer root,” a parasitic species that lives on red oak roots, lacks chlorophyl and occasionally shows itself above ground.

He said chemicals are used as sparingly as possible when removing non-native plant species.

“Our goal is to get to no chemical use, and we’re pin-point accurate,” Pizzo said.

He said using controlled burns is important for some types of landscapes involving, adding that it’s a fun part of his job but you have to healthy respect for fire.

“The goal here is to do basically a spring clean-up ... it takes away all the leaves and it lets the sunlight hit the ground.”

Since lightning-sparked wildfires were common in this area, he said native plants grow back quickly.

Pizzo said experiencing the natural world with his 10-month-old granddaughter, especially during moments like when she’s looking at the prairie outside his home, has given him the “eyes of a kid” again.

In the end, Pizzo said most landscaping clients are primarily concerned with aesthetics.

“I’ll be happy to create a beautiful space for you, because it’s not going to change my job as as an ecologist and a landscape architect ... I just have to talk to you in terms of beauty because Mother Nature really is beautiful — I’ve coined the term good ecology is beautiful,” he said.

Even if he’s talking with a civil engineer about the stability of roadsides using native plants, Pizzo said the end result will still be easy on the eyes.

When asked what could be done to improve a lot in Three Oaks, Pizzo said “every square foot counts” and recommended planting flowers like big-leafed astor (blue flowers), golden alexander (yellow flowers in the spring), some columbine for a touch of orange, and butterfly milkweed.

“You’ll have a really pretty perennial garden that will support two species of butterflies for sure, the monarch and the swallowtails,” he said.

Pizzo urged those in attendance to pull up invasive plants, plant milkweed or other natives, volunteer for a local environmental effort, all the way up to putting an entire restoration plan together.

Janet Schrader of the Chikaming Township Park Board later asked for tips on organizing a volunteer day for removing invasive plants.

“Ply them with alcohol” Pizzo quipped before, on a more serious note, advising her to “make it fun” and maybe include some sort of a tour or hike.

Rotary Club President Larry Shawver also urged people to check out the Hoadley Trail at Watkins Park (behind the Three Oaks Harding’s Market) where that club has done volunteer work.

For more on The Pizzo Group, go to

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