Ordinarily a lawn is a desert, unwelcoming to wildlife from tiny insects to birds. The total surface of lawns in the United States has been estimated with the help of satellite technology as somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 square miles, comparable to the size of New York State. Some gardeners have started replacing large sections of grass ground cover with garden plants or meadow grasses in an effort to create beneficial habitat for wildlife. Many articles in “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens” discuss the advantages of reducing the size of lawns and provide abundant suggestions on how to do it (see references below).
Still, we need some patches of lawn here and there. What can we do to turn them into more ecologically functional areas? We want a turf that supplies food for pollinators and even birds and that provides housing for pollinators and for pest control insects, also called biocontrols. This is not an entirely novel idea. A recent article in Scientific American by Ferris Jabr, “Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn” summarizes the efforts of several groups in this subject. Lionel Smith’s has spent several years developing “Grass-free Lawns.” He resides in England; still his work could serve as a model and inspiration to those who live in North America. In the United States, two people worth mentioning for their work on bee-friendly lawns are Marla Spivak and Mary Meyer of the University of Minnesota.
If we want a nature-friendly lawn, we need to start by readjusting our notions of aesthetics. A perfectly manicured grass cover that looks like an indoor green carpet need not be the only ideal of beauty. On the other hand a plot rich in biodiversity is ecologically healthier than the sterile, monotonous one that passes for lawn nowadays. We can learn to appreciate the natural beauty of a field rich in a variety of low-growing plants including broad-leaved “weeds.” In fact, let us remove the negative connotations of this word by calling them “grass companions” instead.
The very first step is to avoid insecticides and herbicides whenever possible. The choice of broad-leaved small plants that you can allow in your lawn is a little trickier and it may take some time to achieve the right combination. The final product would be a pleasant ground cover, hospitable to pollinators, biocontrols and birds. It would require less care and less fertilizing. It would also be more resilient to droughts and pests.
Numerous little flowering plants grow among the blades of grass completely uninvited. Too bad that we are so determined to get rid of them! We could start welcoming some of them. This is Nature’s way to restore balance to the ecosystem by introducing biodiversity. Ideally, a pollinator-friendly turf would include only non-invasive lawn flowers, preferably native ones. These goals may require more work than many gardeners are willing to invest. Perhaps we should tolerate some non-native flowering plants in the mix; after all most such seed mixes are made up primarily of non-native grasses. A few examples of turf grasses introduced from Europe or Asia are: perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne), several fescues (Festuca spp.), Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), Zoysia grass (Zoysia japonica). I will let some of my colleagues at “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens” discuss grasses.
The following list of plants for a pollinator-friendly lawn is highly tentative and locally restricted to my region, the Mid Atlantic. Feedback would be most welcome. Some of my favorite grass companions, such as violets, bluets and spring beauties do well only where foot traffic is minimal, or when mowed infrequently. Others can take a good amount of abuse. Let us hope that the concept of pollinator-friendly lawns takes hold in the entire country.
Native species of grass companions:
- Blue eyed grasses (Sisyrinchium, several species) not a true grass but a member of the iris family, with pretty blue flowers
- Cinquefoils, (Potentilla). Similar to wild strawberries
- Wild strawberries (Fragaria, several species). The five lobed leaves of this and those of cinquefoils are very similar in appearance
- Yellow violets (Viola pennsylvanica). A few other species of violets are also native
- Spring beauties (Claytonia spp.)
- Wild geraniums, crane’s-bills (Geranium spp.)
- Azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
- Speedwells (Veronica), with several species, some native others introduced
- Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), used as ground cover by some gardeners
- Smartweeds, knotweeds, many species in the genus Polygonum; some are small enough to do well in lawns. Some species are native and others introduced
- Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) are great in the fall. Some grow rather tall, better for a meadow than a lawn; but if mowed not too frequently, they can do well and bloom heavily inviting many species of pollinators
- Chickweeds include two genera: Cerastium and Stellaria. They are also known by several other common names; some species, such as field chickweed, (Cerastium arvense) and star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), are native. They are small enough to do well in lawns
Non-native species of grass companions:
- Clover, (white clover, Trifolium repens) a European plant very well established in the United States. Grass-seed mixes used to include it. It is highly beneficial because it fixes nitrogen, thus enriching the soil. Newly developed herbicides killed clover, along with the undesirable broad-leaved weeds, so it was declared a weed by the gardening industry and removed from grass-seed mixes. A few species of clover are native to some regions of North America and it may be possible to grow them as grass companions
- Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) has sometimes been used as ground cover
- Chickweed, also called starweed, winterweed, satin flower or tongue grass (Stellaria media), is not native. Its seeds are eaten by some birds, hence the name chickweed. It has very small, star shaped flowers
- Gill over the ground, or ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), is rather pretty but it tends to become invasive
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is among the non-native invasives which you may not want to see around but it is so widespread that perhaps we can’t do much about it
Chipping Away at the Grass: How to Remove Lawn, a Little at a Time
Covering Ground the Native Way
Covering the Ground. Why Fight Mother Nature?
Finding Native Groundcovers
From Lawn to Wildlife Habitat
How Much Lawn To Install and Maintain?
Less Lawn, More Butterflies
Revolutionize Your Lawn
Turf: How to Green the American Lawn
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