Stop Mowing So Much And Let The Lawn Come To Life
If the cold wet spring has kept you from lawn mowing, that’s great news. Bee City USA would like us to observe the month of May as a No Mow time, allowing common lawn inhabitants to bloom freely, getting early pollinators off to a strong start. In Europe and the US, lush green lawns have long been a symbol of wealth; those who could afford the wasted acreage and the paid labor needed to keep it pristine were clearly well to do. These days, keeping a lawn mown and weed free is more reflective of conventional cultural ideas about good citizenship (upright, orderly, hard working…). Anyone whose lawn is weedy is clearly a nogoodnik, a slob, or maybe even a subversive radical. No joke: there continue to be lawsuits about the right to maintain a lawn and garden according to their own taste, from growing vegetables in the front yard (horrors!) to having tapestry lawns, and not all cases are won by those who want to aid the natural world. No matter the root cause, the effects of lawn-itis are genuinely disastrous and this ecologically costly affectation needs reevaluation, STAT.
As human activities continue to devastate our beautiful planet, we gardeners have an opportunity to make a change that can have far reaching positive effects. Turning resource-wasteful lawns into planted areas, whether ornamental borders, native plant groves, or pollinator meadows, can potentially restore some 40 million acres to useful life in the US alone. That’s almost 2% of the entire country. Not impressed? Consider that lawns are essentially the largest irrigated crop in America, using obscene mounts of water. Lawns are also among the most heavily polluted areas, from mower fumes and electricity use to toxic weed-and-feed products, much of which end up polluting waterways. That’s because a mown lawn sheds water almost as effectively as a cement sidewalk. Really.
Promoting Pollinators Instead
The main no-mow benefit for pollinators is access to early spring blooms that flower despite inclement weather that may retard garden flowers (dandelions never quit!). Not mowing in May also allows us to enjoy spring bulbs we can plant liberally in our lawns, from snow crocus and snowdrops to early daffodils, anemones, aconites and more, all of which will also delight early pollinators. If their foliage gets mown before it ripens, the bulbs will stop blooming and eventually dwindle, but if allowed to brown off naturally, they can spread into sheets of early color that go dormant by late May. Of course, such bulbs can also be planted in pollinator meadows, which only get mown once a year in late January or early February (if at all).
Be A Healthy Lawn Booster
Some lawns do serve a purpose, but many of these purposes might be better served by other means. If the expanse of green is meant mainly to set off beds and border, swaths of ground covers can achieve the same end without needing to be fed and cut in half every week while providing some food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects. Where lawns are needed for active play space, rugged lawns of low-mow grasses don’t require the resources of a manicured, toxic lawn. Tapestry lawns that include pollinator friendly wildflowers need less water and no fertilizer. Pollinator meadows are a highly beneficial choice for lawns of any size, as a surprising number of tiny critters can be nurtured even in a very small yet natural area. Even allowing a few vegetables to bloom can support pollinators as well as encourage self sowing of heritage food crops.
We can all also be activists, encouraging local schools, churches, parks and businesses to switch away from toxic lawns and overly manicured plantings to become pollinator friendly places. Often, the main obstacle to this idea is a lack of understanding of both the benefits and the transition process. That’s where gardeners come in; we can help organize classes and public programs about natural care and backyard habitat, offer help with hands-on workshops, give talk and demos at schools and parks, presenting Seattle’s Natural Lawn Care, a program that’s effective and easily adapted, resulting in healthy lawns that don’t need chemical boosts. We can meet with local golf course owners and introduce the Audubon Society’s excellent program for converting sterile, toxic golf courses into living environments where wildlife is nurtured while the human need to hit little balls is also met. One good talking point is that more natural courses are far more similar to the original courses along the rugged coast of Easter Scotland than today’s highly artificial ones, thus offering a more traditional game. Since over a million acres of our country are dedicated to golf courses, that’s a chance to make a significant positive impact one tee at a time.
Pollen Season Got You Sneezin’? Plant For Pollinators
If the heavy spring pollen season has you sneezing or feeling woolly headed, take a moment to thank your local pollinators that the effects aren’t even worse. One great reason to plant pollinator patches is to support their pollen removal and storage efforts. Every grain of pollen transferred or collected by a bee, a bug, a butterfly, a bird, a bat, is one less allergen for susceptible humans to deal with. If converting a large lawn seems daunting, one great way to get started is by transforming a useless lawn one strip or patch at a time. Cut strips of turf and compost them (stacked with green sides together is the fastest way to go). Cover the exposed soil with a few inches of compost and a layer of wood chips (not bark!). Dig only the holes you need for plants, and scatter seeds of wildflowers and native perennials.
If you aren’t familiar with native perennials, check out a few regional native plant ID books from the library and take them into the garden with you. As you get to know the weeds from the wild things, you can leave native volunteers in place or edit them if need be-not every fir sapling chooses the best place to grow! In sunny areas, sow Clarkia, California poppies, columbines, lupines, self-heal (Prunella) and Baby Blue Eyes. I love Poached Egg Plant (Limnanthes douglasii) and its kin, Meadowfoam (L. alba), both attractive to people as well as many native pollinators. Onward, right?