Today’s interview with a talented homeowner is about planting perennial gardens instead of lawns which helps the earth, bees, butterflies, other insects, and is pleasing to the eye. This approach requires far fewer chemicals than traditional lawns. I find this approach very interesting and think you will, too. The gardener also writes the Green Study blog which has many thousands of followers.
What sparked your interest to create a bee friendly yard?
Twenty years ago I moved into a home with a yard. It was the first yard I’d ever owned (and likely the last). Always a fan of nature, never a fan of chemicals, we let the yard go to dandelions initially. The soil was pretty unhealthy, so we had a patchy lawn. I started to enrich the soil and plant perennials. And then the bees and butterflies came and so I’ve taken it as a challenge to make our yard as attractive to pollinators as possible. It turns out, what is attractive to them is also attractive to me.
Do you have a background in landscaping? How many years have you been doing this?
I am a haphazard gardener at best. I’ve found that gardening, like writing, is a process of trial-and-error. We didn’t have a healthy patch to start with, had tree roots and shade in inconvenient places, but I learned year-by-year what worked and what didn’t. Our yard looked a mess for years, because I did it the hard way – one patch of grass at a time. Perennials take a long time to get good and established, but patience is finally winning out and the yard is nearly filled in with at least 40 different kinds of perennial plants and flowers.
Do most of your neighbors maintain traditional lawns? Why do you feel people try to maintain perfect lawns?
When I first moved here, every spring the lawn company trucks would be parked on our street, treating lawns. Ours was the only one that was being changed. At one national night out gathering, I overheard one couple joking and complaining about their neighbor’s weedy lawn (it was ours).
Our neighborhood was built in the 1950s – the same time that seed companies were developing and marketing seed just for home lawns. The lawn used to symbolize wealth and luxury, eventually becoming a sort of status symbol.
Between the dangers of chemical use, drought issues, and the decline of pollinators, we’re starting to see some changes in the neighborhood. More perennials and rain gardens, more weeds even – healthier for humans and healthier for nature.
How do traditional lawns add to global warming?
To maintain those lush green lawns, nitrogen-based fertilizer is used. When it breaks down in the soil, it releases nitrous oxide, which is a very potent greenhouse gas – 300x more potent than CO2.
How do you let the neighbors know about what you are doing? Do people suggest ideas to help or make complaints?
I went to a meeting about increasing pollinators and they sold these nifty signs that said “Bee Safe Yard”. I put it out each spring, before people call in their lawn services. I spend a lot of time working in the yard, so a fun side effect is that neighbors stop and talk to me, sometimes asking questions about various plants. So far, no complaints.
What do you think of the state-wide program to begin next year (for a year) to pay homeowners to make their lawns into bee friendly habitats?
I think that’s fantastic and I hope it encourages people to take the extra steps needed to make their yard a better place for pollinators.
Are you able to see a variety of bees and bumblebees? Have you notice other animals or insects in the garden?
I’ve sometimes counted 5-10 different kinds of bees or wasps on a single flowering bush. It’s funny to look out into the yard and see a plant bouncing about as if it’s windy. I go out there and it’s a full platoon of bumblebees hopping from flower to flower. We grow patches of milkweed for the monarchs and see lots of different types of butterflies. Birds love picking at the perennial seeds and rabbits taste-test everything (we over-plant so there’s enough for everyone). We also have toads, chipmunks, squirrels, moles, and occasionally a fox or wild turkey.
Have you been stung? Do you think people who are allergic to bees can take steps to prevent stings?
I’ve been stung by a wasp, but never a bee in the yard. Bees in general are not aggressive and tend to be noisy. I spend a lot of time digging and weeding and when I hear a bee, I pay attention and move to let them go about their business. There are even particular types of wasps, like Potter’s wasps, that aren’t aggressive and are beneficial for a yard, since they eat pests. Most homeowners get stung by unexpectedly stepping on or mowing over a ground nest or allowing yellow jackets to build nests too close to human activity.
Is the garden in your front and backyard, both? Do you also have a vegetable garden?
Our front yard is almost all perennials now. We still have a lawn in the back that gets shrunk more each year, as we plant perennials. We also have a vegetable garden, cherry tree, concord grape vines, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. It’s actually a bit of a mess at the moment, but like the perennial garden, each year we develop it more. I should say, too, that our yard is relatively small – we don’t have a huge property, but have discovered you can fit a lot into a small space.
What books or resources did you read to learn about bee-friendly yards? Were greenhouse staff helpful?
I’ve attended some classes and read a lot of books, but nothing really replaces just doing it. The challenge these days is to find plants that haven’t already been treated with neonicotinoids, which is an insecticide that impacts pollinators. Of course, I didn’t know this when I started gardening, so we’re not purists.
Which greenhouses do you recommend?
I’ve gone to a wide range of greenhouses and like I said, I’m not a purist. As the saying goes, one shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. My favorite way of getting plants these days is from friends or plant sales in someone’s driveway. Whatever shape you get them in, it’s how you grow them in your own yard that makes the difference.
Are there any programs to help homeowners such as yourself with knowledge or grants?
I had considered doing a master gardener program, but couldn’t commit the time when I was working. Community education programs are often available to homeowners. I find the magical internet to be a font of information for people wishing to grow organic or pollinator-friendly yards. There’s so much information out there.
What are the bees’ favorite flowers?
This year, the bumblebees absolutely loved my St. John’s Wort, which is a bush-like perennial filled with yellow flowers. Bees also love wild thyme, which is a great ground cover, catmint, and salvia (goldfinches love them, too). I’ll see them on the bigger flowers, but they seem to really dig plants with lots of little flowers.
Living in Minnesota, do you feel the bee lawn also helps the environment even when it is not in full summer bloom? How? (no fertiziler for grass, etc.)
I think anytime you don’t saturate the ground with fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides, you’re giving nature a chance to do its thing, as well as keeping chemicals out of our lakes and rivers, and out of the air and our lungs.
I have heard bees sleep together in flowers. Have you noticed if bees do that or if they have other interesting behaviors?
I’ve never seen that, but I’d like too! Bumblebees and some other species of bees are considered “eusocial”, which means they have several generations sharing a nest, help to raise young not their own, and have a division of labor. I think about that as I observe them. Other bees are solitary ground nesters and you can spot them, as they seem like they’re foraging on the ground.
How might a person start a bee-friendly lawn yet this summer?
Don’t spray or fertilize. How easy is that? Greenhouses also tend to mark down a lot of their perennials this time of year. I will even buy some of the clearanced, sad-looking ones. They won’t look good this year, but if their roots get established, you’ll have a lovely plant next year.
The lawn also features a milkweed butterfly garden
If you needed encouragement to begin planting a lawn like this, I hope this information was helpful. I especially like this kind of lawn as my Grandmother used to plant all flowers in her lawn before it ever became popular.
Thank you for reading, Carolyn