By Bev Johnson

Master Gardener

If you live in a town, a pollinator lawn may get you in trouble with various authorities. It’s messy and some people believe a lawn must be Kentucky blue grass cut to about 2 inches tall with no “weeds” in it. A good gardener has at least gobs of white clover and perhaps dandelion and volet patches here and there. If you can get away with it, there are several other plants that grow well in our Kentucky bluegrass and fescues.

“Lawns present an incredible opportunity to support pollinators because so many residents have lawns,” according to James Wolfin, conservation specialist at Twin City Seed Company in Edina, Minnesota. He says lawns cover an estimated 40 million acres in the U.S. – that’s a lot of grass. Incorporating low growing flowers into the lawn looks good and you can still walk, play and use your lawn as if it were all grass.   

Start with white clover. It isn’t a native. It came with the lawn grasses the European settlers brought with them. Clover naturally fixes atmospheric nitrogen making it available for other plants.  It is an economically important pollinator.  White clover provides a critical resource for early honeybees. It wasn’t considered a weed until the introduction of broadleaf weed killers in the 1950s. Since the chemicals can’t tell clover from “weeds”. It kills them all.    

Pollinator lawns don’t just provide nitrogen. The wide leaves of clover and other low growing flowers help shade the soil keeping it cooler and slow drying out as quickly. You don’t have to water as often. Don’t need to spray with chemicals or add fertilizers.

Pollinator lawns are considered low-input. They have one third the carbon footprint of traditional lawns that are managed in ways that are carbon and chemical intensive. Pollinator lawns use low input turfgrass and low growing flowers that are deep rooted and grow slowly. Just because there are flowers growing in your grass doesn’t mean you can’t walk on it. Treat it like any other lawn.

Pollinator lawns generally require less maintenance than traditional bluegrass lawns.  Actually, if you can stand it, let it grow to out to 6 inches then cut it back to 4. You only need to cut the grass about 4 times a year with this routine. If your neighbors come at you with flaming torches, cut it to 3 to 3 ½ inches. This will keep the grass from overwhelming your new flowers. Never remove more than 1/3rd the height of the grass when you mow. This makes for healthy grass that can discourage weeds from keeping in. If you do get a few, dig, don’t spray.     

The Minnesota bee lab has researched bee lawns for over 20 years. It studied a variety of plants to incorporate in lawns.  The most successful were low growing perennials that can hold their own against lawn grass. Beside white clover, they found that creeping thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. arteicus) and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris spp. Lanceolata) are the easiest to establish. The lab also studied a variety of native perennials for flowering lawns. Some did better than others depending on the site conditions. The most promising were ground plum (Astragalas crassicarpus), lance leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), and calico aster (sypphyotrichum lateriflorum). They may have too much competition from some grasses to do well. Fine fescues are the least competitive.  The lab noticed 65 bee species on bee lawns in Minneapolis.

We are lucky to have three sources of wildflower seeds for our region. Flawn Seed Kits in Eau Claire WI, Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona Mn and Twin City Seed co In Edina, Minn.

Let’s be nice to our bees, butterflies and other pollinators.  Make your grass pretty, plant flowers in it.