A green, manicured lawn is lauded as the mark of a well kept garden. The desired aesthetic of open golf courses, sports pitches and posh gardens formed by planting turfgrass is now quite typical of homes, businesses and even roadsides. It shows neatness and care. Many people take great pride in controlling their gardens so that they’re picture perfect. A pure green lawn, no flowers or weeds except where we plant them, shows our dominion over nature.
As spring weather struggles through, we would never discourage spending time in nature, but with the culture of lawn and monocrop, we’re going about it the wrong way. With butterflies, bees, and any number of other native pollinators in dramatic decline, it could make a real difference if humans could have a positive impact for once.
Not mowing a lawn, leaving any piece of grass to grow naturally, eventually creates a flowering lawn, or ‘bee lawn’. Small blossoms spring up. The leaves of dandelion, celandines, buttercup, and daisies add diversity to the mono-hued grass-green. Weeds will reclaim what space they can. Why should we embrace this natural chaos? Why should we leave the weeds and native plants to thrive in their natural habitat instead of routinely decapitating them in a motorised spinning guillotine? Well, increased plant diversity attracts more pollinators like insects. The resilience of native species to harsher weather and soil conditions and the natural beauty of the little blooms in and of themselves are also worth mentioning.
Dandelions alone are infamous for their hard-to-remove tap roots, you can save yourself the back-ache by not pulling them, and save a small swarm of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, hoverflies and pollen beetles. All of these insects love to feast on the yellow buds, and for good reason. Each dandelion contains up to 100 florets, every one of which is packed with pollen and nectar. This larder is a literal life saver for pollinators in spring, especially given our recent wintry relapses. Wildflowers also attract local birdlife to your garden, feeding goldfinches and house sparrows with their seeds.
Leaving even a small patch of nettles, or a strip of natural grasses, can feed the larvae of many butterflies which used to be a common sight in Irish gardens, including the Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Speckled Wood, and Red Admiral. Long grass also caters to bumblebees, who make nests in it, and feed off any number of common wildflowers from primroses to clover.
If you don’t want to leave your garden completely wild, even waiting longer between mows, or raising the height of your mower blade can make a small difference. If you want parts or all of the garden to go whole hog au naturale, planting yellow rattle in early autumn can prepare the way for daintier, pollinator-friendly wild grasses and flowers to grow in the spring.
If you have a bit more extra space, there’s always native tree species. Trees are a huge resource for pollinators, providing a wealth of pollen and nectar especially in late winter and spring. Planting horse chestnut, rowan, hazel, alder, crab apple, hawthorn, or even shrubs like lavender or forsythia provides extra nourishment for wildlife.
Worried about the neighbours? You can plant wildflower species that are less aggressive and therefore less likely to spread to next door. Concerned about weeds taking over your garden completely? Less aggressive species also help here. Planting a variety of plants that flower in all seasons ensures that pollinators will have a steady supply of food until many of them hibernate in autumn. Spring flowers include lungwort and flowering currant, while autumn favours plants like dahlias or Michaelmas daisies, though some native weeds and blooms will thrive and help with biodiversity as soon as you stop mowing or spraying chemicals. Bulbs like crocuses and snowdrops can also provide a lifeline through the lean winter months, and the extra winter-snaps that like to surprise us and the wildlife alike.
As wild meadows and habitats dwindle, each of us can take a little time, a little less effort, and maybe a little less pride in our perfect greenery, and make a little difference, to the world or wildlife around us. The bees’ needs are small, and we have taken so much from them already.
Aisling Breslin – Science Writer