National Pollinator Week is June 18th through 24th with thousands of events planned across the country! Despite increased public awareness of the importance of pollinators and the value of pollinator-friendly gardens, our useful and fascinating pollinator friends continue to face huge challenges, especially lack of habitat.
What do pollinators need?
Pollinators need what all animals need: a place that offers healthy food, nesting/breeding sites, and over-wintering shelter. How can you help? Look no further than your own backyard—or for that matter, your front yard—to be part of the habitat solution.
Consider our lawns.
Did you know? Traditional lawns, a non-native monoculture, are the antithesis of a pollinator-friendly habitat.
According to Penn State Extension in their article Don’t Over Fertilize Your Lawn this Spring:
“Turfgrass is slowly becoming one of the largest land covers or crops in the United States, covering 45 million acres. We use 800 million gallons of gasoline, 100 million tons of fertilizer, 70 million pounds of pesticides each year to maintain those lawns.”
The Earth Institute at Columbia University provides additional insight in their June 4, 2010, article The Problem of Lawns:
“Lawnmowers to maintain [American lawns] account for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution. Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment. Homeowners…typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops; the majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application. These chemicals then run off and become a major source of water pollution. Last but not least, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns. Most of this water is also wasted due to poor timing and application.”
Excessive and inappropriate use of fertilizers, oil, gasoline, and potable water to maintain lawns are damaging to our environment—our wildlife, plants, groundwater, streams/rivers, and ultimately our pollinating insects. From a pollinator’s perspective, when it comes to lawns, less is definitely more! Consider some options for transitioning a traditional lawn to a pollinator-friendly habitat.
What to do?
- Reduce portions of lawn that struggle to survive, such as those in deep shade or on steep slopes.
- Eliminate lawns that are tough to maintain, hard to access, such as those around trees and shrubs or narrow strips.
- Remove a small, generic, unused front lawn and replace it with an interesting, diverse landscape that reflects your sense of style and place.
- Replace portions of lawns with mixed borders and larger beds. The easiest way is to enlarge existing beds and borders or combine several smaller beds into one larger (easy to mow around) bed.
- Incorporate edibles throughout your landscape so family and neighbors can see how pollinators dine on your flowers while helping to produce your fruits and veggies. What a deal!
- Remember that more than 2/3 of North Carolina’s 400 bee species, including bumble bees, nest in the ground, so go easy on the mulch, particularly around the base of shrubs and grasses. Try some flowering groundcovers in place of mulch. Once established, they can save time and money while supplying more pollinator food and adding color and beauty.
- Shift from a high-maintenance, perfect turf—more appropriate for athletic fields and golf courses—to a lawn that incorporates a mix of low-growing flowering plants. The University of Minnesota’s BeeLab trialed various grass seed mixes that incorporated both native and non-native flowering plants and showed particular success with white clover (Trifolium repens), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris lanceolata), and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum). Their publication, Flowering Bee Lawns for Pollinators, emphasizes the importance of picking the right flowers for the site and details how to add flowering plants to an established lawn.
- Practice bee-friendly lawn care. A healthy lawn typically needs little watering, fertilizer, or pesticides.
– Water established lawns only during drought.
– Fertilizing can include leaving grass clippings, incorporating some nitrogen-fixing clover in your lawn, slow release organic fertilizers, and top-dressing with weed-free compost each year to provide needed nitrogen—and other nutrients as determined by a soil test.
– Weed control is a challenge for naturally-maintained, pollinator-friendly lawns, but proper care of a healthy lawn can reduce weeds by 80% or more.
As we celebrate National Pollinator Week with the gift of providing a healthy habitat, can we shift to perceiving great expanses of perfect bright green lawns as wasteful, missed opportunities for life-supporting landscapes? Can we welcome the clover blooming in our lawns as free fertilizer for the grass and food for the bees? Can we value a landscape that supports life rather than needing to be on life-support?
Article written by Diane Almond, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
Flowering Bee Lawns
by University of Minnesota BeeLab
Lawn Maintenance: How Much is the Right Amount?
by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer