The distinct aroma of freshly cut grass, the gentle spray of sprinklers, and the perpetual hum of lawn mowers... all telltale signs that summer, and yardwork, is finally here in Minnesota! Maintaining a lawn may seem like a lot of work, but they have their uses. Grass lawns provide a hardy place to play and lounge, but they have some major drawbacks.
The dirt on lawns
Lawns, which may have originated in medieval settlements for livestock grazing, grew into a 17th – 18th century symbol of status that boasted you could own land not used for food production or buildings. It wasn’t until the early to mid-20th century that lawns were widely adopted. Today turf grass lawns are the nation’s largest irrigated “crop” by surface area.
Unfortunately, conventional turf grass needs to be mowed frequently, often needs chemicals like fertilizers and herbicides that may leech into ground and surface water, does a mediocre job of retaining storm water, and provides little benefit for other critters like bees and birds. Fortunately, there are environmentally friendly alternatives to turf grass, like flowering lawns that can transform your yard.
A flowering lawn or “bee lawn” differs from a traditional lawn in having low-growing perennials in addition to turf grasses. While still being a great area to lounge on, additional benefits of flowering lawns include reduced fertilizing and mowing, a vibrant flowery beauty, and support for pollinators and other animals.
Let it bee
Pollinators are primarily insects that help move pollen around when they search for nectar in flowers. This transfer of pollen makes the plant able to create fruits or seeds, which the plant needs to reproduce. Plants produce food, clean water and air, and provide homes for many animals.
One of the main challenges facing bees and other pollinators is loss of habitat. Lawns are similar to farms in that they are managed as large single species plantings, with chemical inputs used to reduce non-grass plants. There is 3 times more lawn in the U.S. than planted corn! Even if we only shift a small fraction of the nation’s most widespread “crop” to flowering lawns, every little bit counts.
Four flowers for flourishing lawns
These flowers are low growing and can tolerate being mowed to 3”. While some of these are non-native plants, they all support pollinators and are well suited for lawns.
Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens): While not native, clover was likely introduced by some of the first European settlers and has since naturalized. White Clover is highly attractive to several bee species, including bumble bees and honey bees. They are drought tolerant and nitrogen-fixing, which means they can bring nutrients to your soil and reduce the need for fertilizing.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is a flower that has a spicy herbal aroma like its culinary cousin. Creeping Thyme is best suited to sunny sites that are well drained. It can be planted among stepping stones or pavers to create a “living patio.”
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris) is native to Minnesota and prefers rich soils with plenty of water. Young leaves of self heal are edible, and the plant has been used traditionally as an herbal remedy.
Ground Plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) is a low growing native species common to prairies of Minnesota. The early bloom of ground plum happens before mowing season is in full swing, and flowers are often visited by bumble bees and mason bees.
It's not hard to get started. Just increase your mowing height and commence seeding. Here's some helpful tips:
- Check with your city or county before you start; they may have requirements on planting native or alternative vegetation.
- Best time to seed is in the late fall (dormant seeding).
- Blue Thumb Guide to Bee Lawns provides a good start on how to convert your lawn.
- UMN Bee Lab Guide provides more information on lawns, plants, and management.
The grass isn’t always greener
There are other types of turf lawn alternatives. While not as bee friendly, low maintenance turf composed primarily of fine fescues, is drought resistant and weed suppressing.
Want to ditch the lawn?
Consider beginning small and reconfiguring a portion of your yard that doesn’t receive much attention. Many of these plants are also suited to tolerate hilly areas and may mitigate erosion that traditional turf can’t handle. Start the conversation with your neighbors and get planting!