From Monoculture To Pollinator Picnic

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Bees adore oregano

Transforming Lawns Into Lunch

I’ve written a fair amount about how trading monoculture lawns for pollinator patches can fight climate change, help the environment, save water, and bring your yard to life, but there’s always more to say. Several readers asked for specific information about transforming lawns into pollinator smorgasbords and others requested a list of pollinator plants, so here you go. There are a number of good ways to do a lawn makeover, depending on your budget of time, energy, and money. The easiest way is to cause such work to be done by others, but most folks will find it most manageable to remove the lawn in stages. Start by exposing a strip or area of soil perhaps 3 x 3 feet, or 10 x 3, or as much as you feel you can reliably take care of. This is easier if there are two people available to help, as one person can cut or chop the turf roots with a flat-edged shovel (sharpen the shovel’s cutting edge with a bastard file) while the other person rolls up the turf in strips like a carpet. The turf pieces can then be stacked where another future pollinator bed will go. Layer the turf green-side-down, water the pile, then cover it with soil and/or a tarp and leave it to compost in place. In a year or less, you’ll have a nice heap of improved soil to use in your veggie patch or another new bed.

Most pollinator plants don’t need wonderful, rich soil, but they will definitely grow better and fill in faster if given a well prepared bed. To make bare, post-lawn soil more hospitable, scatter pelletized humic acid over it at the distribution rate suggested on the package. This is not fertilizer, but it’s a good soil conditioner, one of the active ingredients in compost that buffers soil Ph and improves soil texture and quality. Next, layer on several inches of top soil and another two inches of compost. If the soil is dry and hard (clay soils usually are in August), aerate the bed with a garden fork, just stepping on the fork to penetrate the soil but not actually lifting or disturbing it. Top this off with 1-2 inches of medium or fine grade wood chips (NOT bark), which will protect the soil from heat, drought and erosion. Water the whole business well at each step, wetting the soil to a depth of at least 2-3 inches. This will work best with a sprinkler if your bare patch is sizeable. Now you’re ready to plant!

What To Plant For Pollinators

There are plenty of lists of good pollinator plants (and I’ll offer a comprehensive one next week), but we can also make our own by observing where bees and other pollinators spend a lot of time in our own gardens and elsewhere. My bee visitors are busy from dawn to dusk, the buzz of their wings making a happy hum that tells me they’re well provided for. Hands down, the most constantly active sites are the many patches of oregano, including at least a dozen varieties that range in size from low growing mats to great sheaves of stems that can exceed a yard in length. Most oreganos keep on producing blossoms from mid spring into late autumn, making them a reliable source of nectar and pollen for a great variety of bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other little critters. Most of mine are forms of the mother of kitchen oreganos, Origanum vulgare. Native throughout Europe and the Mediterranean and into Asia, it’s been both a common culinary herb and a traditional medicinal plant for thousands of years.

Many of its forms and subspecies have been selected and preserved by gardeners and cooks and today, a little searching will introduce you to oreganos that offer a surprisingly wide range of tastes and textures. The straight species forms dense mounds of aromatic, deep green foliage, threaded in summer with soft purple flowers on slim stems up to 2 feet high. There are quite a few variegated forms of which Aureum Gold is is especially pretty in the spring, spreading in joyful splashes of clear lemony yellow. Golden Crinkled (O. vulgare crispum) is quite compact (to about 6”) and the quilted leaves are lovely in salads. Westacre Gold (O. vulgare variegata) boasts old gold foliage and rosy flowers on foot-high, copper-pink stems.

Kitchen Cousins

A tiny-leaved creeping oregano, Mini Compact (Origanum humile), has equally miniature flowers from spring into high summer. It makes 6-inch mounds that look at home in the rock garden and do well in kitchen garden containers, where its delicate sprigs can be gathered for tasty garnishes. As with any plant with so much variation and human history, there is some discussion about the legitimacy of various names. Some folks insist that Origanum compacta (or sometimes compactum) nana is the same plant as Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum Humile are identical, though different nurseries sell quite different plants under each of these names. the same plant. I’ve ordered both plants from multiple nurseries and what I received were different plants.

The version I got as Greek Kaliteri (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) has fuzzy silver leaves on rather open mounds, with tall bloom stalks. This one has amazing flavor, especially if grown a bit dry. It was imported from Greece, where it is a commercial crop for high-end herb sellers. Kaliteri means “the best” in Greek and I believe it! My form of Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum is sold as Greek oregano, which it is, being a wild form collected from Greek mountainsides. Its smooth green leaves have an intense, spicy flavor that makes anything that includes tomatoes taste fabulous. There are also a number of lovely ornamental oreganos with reticulated bracts like fish scales, including Amethyst Falls, Bristol Cross and Kent Beauty, all pretty enough for front of the border placement.

More Garden Favorites

Hardy fuchsias are also wildly popular plants with scads of forms. I’m growing over a dozen different upright fuchsias, all of which are visited frequently by hummingbirds as well as many kinds of bees. All upright fuchsias are hardy to zone 6-7, and it’s fun to explore the range of smaller ones (12-24 inches), as they fit so nicely into pots and containers and can be tucked into odd corners and crannies in the garden. They all seem to be equally happy in sun or shade as long as they get a reasonable amount of water, and all are quite drought tolerant once established. There are always bees on the catmints as well, long blooming perennials in the mint family that produce an almost endless succession of flowers as long we we keep trimming off spent stems. Like oregano, catmint (Nepeta) has many forms of all sizes from Little Titch to Six Hills Giant.

Allowed to flower, almost any herb and vegetable will attract a pollinator following, from lavender, rosemary, cilantro, parsley and horehound to spinach, lettuce, kale, beans and beets. Santolina, an ornamental subshrub with fuzzy little ball blossoms, is equally bee-attractive in green or silver foliage forms, as are all single daisy-type flowers from calendulas and sunflowers to feverfew and rudbeckias. However, the Agastache clan may be the winner of the visited-by-the-greatest-variety-of-insects prize. Though not especially showy, this long blooming perennial is also called Hummingbird Mint for reasons that become obvious when it begins to bloom. Did I talk about salvias? Salvia elegans, or pineapple sage is another pollinator pleaser that also keeps the hummers happy… Ok, I’ll stop now but next week will offer you an extensive if not exhaustive list of pollinator plants.

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2 Responses to From Monoculture To Pollinator Picnic

  1. Carrie Gifford says:

    So excited to get started this fall!! Thanks Ann!

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