Pollinator Paradise: Turning Turf into a Wildlife Garden
Let’s face it, grass lawns are a waste of space. By replacing yours with a colorful, fragrant pollinator garden, you’ll be helping birds and pollinator insects and you won’t have to spend a moment mowing.
The ubiquitous grass lawn was originally conceived by British nobles as a display of wealth, showing that they had so much arable land that they could afford to not grow crops. As time went on, this practice made its way to the middle-class homes where a well-trimmed, weed-free lawn, with a white picket fence has become the staple image in the minds of many of the ideal suburban yard. But who does this benefit? Certainly not our pollinating insects whose populations are in steep decline.
This understanding has led to a new trend, one which benefits these helpful insects. People are beginning to ditch their lawnmowers and sterile grass lawns and are replacing them with native wildflowers and pollinator-attracting plants, creating an environment more resembling nature with beauty and practicality in mind.
Why are Pollinator Gardens Important?
Grass lawns are generally a monoculture, as in only one type of grass. When this grass is mowed often it really doesn’t have the ability to support much in the way of insect life. It doesn’t have the chance to flower or seed. And even when allowed to grow longer in between mows (re: no mow May), it will only support a minimal amount of insect life for a brief period of time. To provide a good environment for pollinators and beneficial insects, you need a variety of plants; some that produce pollen and some that can provide a place for insects to live and reproduce. And who likes mowing their lawn anyway?
The most compelling reason to convert your lawn to a pollinator garden is the massive decline of pollinator populations. The number of wild bees has dropped drastically in the last decade. And the iconic monarch butterfly has just been declared endangered. Without a rethinking of urban and suburban gardens there is little hope for these creatures.
Step One: Getting Rid of the Grass
The first step in turning your lawn into a pollinator paradise filled with wildflowers and nectar-producing plants is to remove the grass. There are several ways to accomplish the seemingly impossible task.
The first option is to dig up the turf by hand. This is hard work especially with large lawns and not recommended. I would suggest renting a sod cutting tool. There are various types available; some manual, and others electric or gas powered. These tools will make quick work of removing the sod in such a way that it can be moved and transplanted to another location or composted, and are fairly easy to use.
Another option is to smother the turf with weed-suppressing fabric. This is one of the easier methods, although it does take some time before the grass dies. You can also use newspapers that will break down over time and are more environmentally friendly. The fabric or newspapers block out the sunlight and can even help bake the grass on hot, summer days, speeding up the process. After a week or so the fabric can be removed, and you should be left with a relatively grass- and weed-free space.
Step Two: What to Include in Your Pollinator Garden
Think Native – The most common question posed when creating a pollinator or wildflower garden is “what do I plant?” This depends largely on what you want to attract and which region you live in. If attracting Monarch butterflies is your goal, then native milkweed is a must. Adult Monarchs will lay their eggs there and the caterpillars will feed on the milky white sap. Adult monarchs will also feed on their nectar-producing flowers. There are numerous varieties of milkweed so try to choose one or more that is native to your region and can thrive in the environment it’s being planted in.
Butterfly bushes are another must-have. Their large, purple, tapered flowers will bring all types of local butterflies and bees to your garden. I also recommend lavender and echinacea. They both flower for long periods of time and are visually pleasing.
When choosing your flowers try to choose ones that are native to your region to best mimic a natural environment for the pollinators you wish to attract. Also consider when these plants produce their flowers. Choosing a variety of plants that flower at different times throughout the season will ensure that the butterflies, moths, and bees you are hoping to attract will have a readily available and reliable source of food.
If you are hoping to attract birds to your natural garden, plant small, fruit bearing shrubs. Rose bushes are a favorite. The flowers will provide nectar to pollinators, the rose hips will offer food to the birds in the autumn and winter, while the shrubs themselves offer cover from predators. Ornamental sage is another good choice. The goldfinches in my garden choose their seeds over the birdseed in my feeders.
I have personally used various ground cover plants to fill in areas of my lawn. Plants like clover (so many varieties), and creeping thymes are beautiful and hardy. They can be tread on and still bounce back, and are great for bees.
For a helpful guide on choosing native plants from your region of the U.S. visit nwf.org and use their native plant finder.
Going to your local garden center and talking to their resident experts can help guide you in the right direction. Always make sure any plants you are buying for your pollinator garden haven't been treated with neonicotinoids. These pesticides are absorbed by the plants and are very harmful to pollinating and beneficial insects.
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Think Natural – Try to create an environment that pollinators and other wildlife that will not only want to visit, but actually choose to stay. Bee hotels are very popular. It can be as simple as wrapping some twigs and pinecones in twine and hanging them from a shed or tucked in a dry corner of your garden. Most wild bees are solitary and don’t build hives. The bee hotels give these insects of dwindling numbers a place to spend the night.
A stumpery is another way to give shelter to insects while adding interest to your garden. It consists of various sizes of tree stumps arranged in a creative way. It can really lend to a natural feel for your garden.
Many parts of the U.S. and Europe have been experiencing severe droughts in recent years. Having a water source for your pollinators and birds can help bring them to your garden. A bird bath is one great option. A simple yet effective alternative is to have a dish layered with small stones and pebbles which you fill with water. The stones and pebbles allow access to the entire dish, not just the rim, and let any insects that get in the water climb out safely. This will help thirsty bees and butterflies find a drink on a hot day.
Step Three: Make it Beautiful
A wildflower garden doesn’t have to be an overgrown mass of scattered flowers. Think carefully about where you want to plant each variety and how it will look. You should choose complementary colors that don’t clash. Maybe allow a path through your garden or a seating area if you plan on spending time in it. Adding things like rocks or small boulders can add interest and break things up a bit. Beauty does matter to most gardeners and it will keep your neighbors happy.
Although perspective is changing, many cities and counties still have antiquated bylaws that limit what you can grow in your front garden and the height these “weeds” can reach. Just recently in the city I live in, a woman came home from holiday to find that the city had mowed down her pollinator garden after a neighbor complained. She also received a fine. My thoughts are that the best way to combat complaints from neighbors is to make your front garden as attractive as possible.
There are so many benefits to growing a pollinator and wildlife garden. Insect and bird populations are declining significantly and loss of habitat is one of the main reasons. It’s time gardeners and governments think outside the box and support our pollinators by growing more native plants and having fewer mowed lawns. The planet will thank you.
Written by Matt LeBannister