Transform Your Lawn into Wildflowers
One of the easiest things you can do as a homeowner to support and nourish bees is plant wildflowers in your garden. I wrote a book called Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth, and Soul, and when people ask me about my top tips, they're often surprised by what I recommend: limit the size of your lawn and plant wildflowers instead. Why is this so impactful? Because of its holistic nature, it can have a pretty positive impact on your health, wealth, and soul. Before we dive in, it's important to understand the problems with traditional turfgrass.
What's Wrong with My Lawn?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, turfgrass is the single largest irrigated "crop" in the country, covering about 50 million acres of land. If you think about the prevalence of lawns, it's almost silly. (See this conversation between God and St. Francis that highlights our weird relationship with yards.)
The next time you walk around a residential neighborhood, take note of how lawns are prevalent. Do you see people using them? I'm not against all lawns—they do look nice and manicured and are fun for picnics, croquet, bocce ball, and walking barefoot. But does all that land need to be a lawn?
Lawns are not inherently wrong; in fact, they are far better for our ecological systems than paved surfaces. The problems arise from (1) how you maintain the lawn and (2) the absence of what else it could be (kind of like an opportunity cost). Both play a significant role in the impact on your health, wealth, and soul. Here's why.
Impact on Your Health
(1) Maintaining your lawn. First: it requires mowing, right? The EPA says that gasoline-powered garden and lawn equipment is “a prevalent source of toxic and carcinogenic emissions.” This includes harmful VOCs like benzene and formaldehyde, carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas), nitrogen oxides, particulate matter—which is smog—and of course, carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. These pollutants are particularly worrisome for workers, children, seniors, and people with chronic illnesses. An electric mower or hand-powered mower is of course better—we do have options.
Second: lawns are frequently treated with fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides, which are harmful to our skin and groundwater. Gardener's Supply Company says that each year, "U.S. homeowners apply more than 3 million tons of synthetic lawn fertilizers and 70 million pounds of lawn pesticides and herbicides." Have you seen these signs: "Unsafe for children and pets"? (That's what lawns are for!)
(2) The second piece: What else could a lawn be? It can be trees or shrubs, which are great for carbon sequestration. It could be edibles, like raspberry bushes or hearty kale plants. Or my favorite: native and adaptive drought-tolerant flowers. These types of plants do not require mowing or chemicals, so by themselves, they are healthier for our air and soil.
Impact on Your Wealth
Lawns can also cost a lot to maintain. Annually, keeping yards can cost several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on how big the lawn is and the watering, mowing, and fertilizing requirements. According to the EPA, landscape irrigation accounts for about 30% of all residential water use—about half of which is wasted due to evaporation, runoff, and overwatering. Most people have no idea how much they spend on irrigation. Take a look at your monthly water bill and compare January to July. It might surprise you!
The initial costs of planting a wildflower garden are hard to compare to a lawn. It depends on whether you seed your yard (less expensive) or purchase existing plants (more expensive). For ongoing costs, though, I can tell you from firsthand experience that these perennial gardens are relatively low maintenance—no mowing, no irrigating, no fertilizing. So, we save time and money, year after year.
Impact on Your Soul
What does a wildflower garden do for your soul? It's that piece of goodness you feel when you know you're making a difference in the world, even if it's small. By not mowing, you are reducing pollution (both air and noise) in your neighborhood. With less irrigation, you are putting less stress on the water supply. And by forgoing fertilizers and herbicides, you are improving the health of the soil and water. By providing flowering plants for pollinators like bees and butterflies, you are providing an essential ecological service.
But if doing something good doesn't pull on your heartstrings or help you get to heaven, think of the beauty the flowers bring to you and your neighborhood. Plan it out (as outlined below). You can have a cornucopia of colors splashing outside, changing through the spring, summer, and fall. Seeing early blooms is life-affirming, and witnessing the changing landscape and colors brings a spice of variety to your landscape
I know this from personal experience. We attempted a native grasses/prairie landscape from 2009-2011. That failed, so we replaced it with primarily native wildflowers in our front yard. Several years later, we changed out our small backyard and replaced it with native and adaptive perennial wildflowers and some hardscape. I've seen our water bill decrease, we spend less time mowing, we've brought more beauty into our lives, and the bees and butterflies love it!
You've Convinced Me. How do I get Started?
Step 1: Make a Plan for the Area
Take a look at your lawn. Do you need all that space? Or is there some of it that doesn't do well and would be better re-purposed? Figure out as a big an area you can manage—preferably with at least partial sunshine—where you will begin your yard's transformation. The Xerces Society publishes a practical Habitat Assessment Guide for Pollinators in Yards, Gardens, and Parks.
Step 2: What's Your Budget?
You'll need to decide if you want to plant seeds or plant plugs—or both. Seeds will be much less expensive, but it will take longer for the garden to become well established. You could also mix—plant just a few plants to make an immediate impact, and seed the rest.
Another easy, low-cost option, if you don't want to work on getting a perennial garden established, is to plant sunflower seeds in the spring. They grow into mighty, beautiful, happy flowers, that produce hundreds more seeds by the end of the summer—so you can roast and eat them, save them to plant next year, or give them away to friends and neighbors. Sunflowers come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, from small yellow ones to giant (and I mean 10 feet tall) red ones.
Step 3: Decide on the Types Plants or Seeds
- White anemones – the earliest spring bloomers (just after bulbs like daffodils or tulips
- Wild geranium – these can be purple or pink, bloom early and all summer long
- Coreopsis – small yellow flower with soft green leaves
- Echinacea/coneflowers – some of the best flowers for bees and butterflies
- Rudbeckia / black-eyed Susan – lovely yellow flowers
- Asters – fall bloomers!
- Nepeta / Catmint – hearty perennials that bloom beautiful light purple flowers in June. (We use these for border plants. They can get a little mangy-looking by late summer, but the bees still love them, so we don’t clip them back.)
- The Xerces Society provides pollinator-friendly native plant lists by region; you can filter the list by choosing your state.
- The Pollinator Partnership publishes planting guides tailored to specific United States and Canada regions by simply entering your zipcode.
- Heather Holmes, a native bee expert, offers posters of native plants that help native bees thrive in different types of soil.
- If you have two acres or more of land to convert, contact the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund to apply for the Seed a Legacy Program. The organization provides free (or heavily discounted seed mixes depending on the project size) pollinator seed mixtures and guidance on how to prepare, establish and manage pollinator habitat for five or more years.
Step 4: Plant or Sow
You'll want to rip out the sod completely; otherwise, it will try to take over. Make sure to till the soil underneath. If you can find some organic compost to add, that will help nourish your plants. If you need guidance, YouTube has a plethora of how-to videos.
Step 5: Water and Weed (Nobody said it was maintenance-free)!
If you've planted drought-tolerant plants, you probably won't need to water them very much. Still, it's essential to water them at first. If the summer of 2021 is a sign what's to come, droughts are likely—so keep an eye on your plants.
For weeding, please do not spray weed-killer on your garden, as it can hurt the bees. Hand-pulling is the way to go; the sooner the better (it's always more manageable after a big rain because the soil is softer). Suppose you're not sure what is a weed or a wildflower. In that case, I highly recommend the Picture This app for plant identification. You take a picture with your phone, and it identifies the species and gives you the detailed information. (I used it almost daily!) I also use the free iNaturalist app and website for plant and bee identification.
At Project Hive Pet Company, we donate a percentage of our gross revenues to the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund because of their ability to make change effectively. The organization establishes healthy wildflower habitat for large (two acres or more) plots of land. As a company, we're working to create a movement in residential lawn transformation. Imagine if every homeowner converted 50% of their lawn and to native and adaptive wildflowers. It would reduce air pollution due to less mowing, decrease water usage, and put more money in homeowners' pockets. It would reduce the amount of pesticides and chemicals polluting our soil and water supplies. Most importantly, it would add 25 million acres of healthy habitat for the bees! So make this summer (or next summer) your transformational summer—for yourself, your community, and the bees!