Lawns In Bloom

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Little flowers transform lawns into pollinator happy places

Helping Lawns Become Meadows

Every spring I get questions about how to keep lawns free from weeds and/or moss (or sometimes both). Personally, I’d much rather keep lawns free from turf grass. Frequent mowing and fertilizing are both boring and wasteful of resources (not to mention polluting), so why not start transitioning that useless lawn into a lively meadow? It’s so exciting to watch the transformation from inhospitable dead zones where nothing blooms into flowery places where bees and birds and all sorts of critters are welcome and nourished. To get started, why not join the No Mow May movement? A subsidiary of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (aka butterfly people), Bee City USA is a nonprofit with lofty goals for pollinator preservation. In recent years, Bee City USA has been encouraging people to observe the month of May as a No Mow time, allowing common lawn flora like tiny daisies and dandelions to bloom freely, helping early pollinators get off to a strong start.

From English estates to American McMansions, lush green lawns have long been a symbol of wealth; clearly anyone with the wherewithal to devote acreage and lots of labor to expanses of turf with no practical purpose has cash to burn. In suburbs and exurbs, having a mown and weed free lawn plays more to cultural conventions about good citizenship. Anyone whose lawn is weedy is clearly a lazy slob, or possibly even a subversive radical. No joke: even given our knowledge of the importance of pollinators and the dangers of lawn chemicals, there continue to be lawsuits about the right to maintain a lawn and garden according to one’s own taste. Those who cultivate vegetables in the front yard or plant floral tapestry lawns instead of unsullied turf can be sued and sadly, often successfully. No matter the root cause, the effects of lawn addiction are genuinely disastrous and this ecologically costly affectation needs reevaluation and redemption.

Setting Lawns Free

When every day reveals some fresh horror about earthly devastation caused by human activities, it’s easy to numb out or fall into depression. However, it’s heartening to discover that all of us can make changes that can have positive and far reaching effects. Lawns are a great place to start, since some 40 million acres in the US alone are currently lost to lawns. If every year some part of that was allowed to become ornamental borders, native plant groves, or pollinator meadows, the vast turf wasteland could return to its original role of nurturing pollinators and many other living things. To get started, simply refrain from mowing turf through the merry month of May. If there are already flowering plants in place, let them be. If the turf is destitute of flora, make a plan for introducing early bloomers (and late ones too of course).

The main gain of the no-mow movement is access to early spring blooms for pollinators, but not mowing in May also promotes the proliferation of spring bulbs. To insert bulbs into lawns, cut a three-sided flap of turf, peel it back and insert patches of snow crocus, snowdrops, daffodils, etc. Potted but bloomed out bulbs move best ‘in the green’, when the foliage is still present; if that foliage is allowed to fade naturally, it will funnel nutrients back into the bulbs, ensuring fresh flowers next season. Started off this way, early bloomers like camas, anemones, aconites and more can spread surprisingly fast into sheets of early color and nearly all will go dormant by late May. As the lawn recedes and your meadow expands, these pockets of bulbs will have a head start on colonizing, which will continue indefinitely, since pollinator meadows only get mown once a year in late January or early February to keep true weeds like blackberries at bay.

Pollen Season Is For Pollinators

As someone who struggles with burning eyes, sneezing and feeling woolly headed when pollen is shed, I am extremely grateful to all the local pollinators. Were they not hard at work, gathering up as much pollen as possible for use and storage, the effects of high pollen counts would be even worse. One great reason to plant pollinator patches is to support them in their pollen removal 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, especially since high pollen counts are becoming more common each year (thanks largely to climate change stresses). If converting a large lawn seems daunting, just take on one strip or patch at a time. Cut turf into pieces and stack them with green sides together to encourage quick composting in place. Now 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. Since few references show images of seedlings, take pictures of those that appear and record them for a few weeks until they develop enough true leaves to identify them more easily. As you get to know the actual 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 native annuals such as Clarkia, California poppies, and columbines, Baby Blue Eyes and lupines. Learn to recognize them as younglings and they will create colorful carpets for you and your friendly local pollinators. Onward, right?


This entry was posted in Annual Color, Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, composting, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Lawns In Bloom

  1. L. Paxton says:

    Thanks for this article, Ann. I sure wish someone (you, maybe?) could address how we can balance or can we balance the issues of re-wilding, fire prevention, and species preservation and nourishment. Should we fell trees at all? What is the most reasonable approach especially faced with options that are not entirely congruent.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Well, clearly this is a huge issue with simple answer (there aren’t many of those these days). One of the keys to successful rewilding seems to be letting seemingly destructive events like fires happen without interference. That’s tough to accept when so much policy is aimed at intervention (despite evidence that much well meaning i intervention does not function as intended).
      As for cutting trees, i suspect that our wisest course would be to stop cutting trees almost entirely and look instead for creative ways to re-use “waste”
      Toilet paper should not be made from virgin wood, and it should be illegal to cut down trees to create a “better” view. We humans have been so totally clueless about the damaged caused by our “highest and best use” policies. Im sadly afraid it will take true catastrophes to make us change our mind set.

  2. L. says:

    wish you could see the little blue camas that have popped up, scores of them, suddenly in the field.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Camas are having an especially good year, as are quite a lot of bulbs (either they got eaten by mice, rotted away, or look fabulous, seems like…).

  3. Carrie says:

    I have been slowly converting my yard to a drought resistant, native plant, pollinator friendly place for a few years now. It’s slow going but super rewarding and I enjoy all the plants so much more than the boring lawn that just took a lot of work and water with little reward!
    Thanks for this and all your articles Anne, I appreciate you

  4. Kate Durand says:

    I would love to have a native ground cover or wildflowers where I have had lawn but most of the recommended plants need full sun. Any recommendations for a shady area?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Kate, shady places are idea for many PNW natives, from ferns to low growing perennials like coralbells and foamflower. To replce lawn, consider making a path with stone pavers and planting the remaining area with low growers (Vancouveria, Tiarella, Tellima, etc.). Edge the former lawn with compact native shrubs (huckleberry, Oregon grape, Indian plum, Oceanspray) and let the community develop into actual habitat over time.

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