Many gardeners are adding perennials, shrubs and trees that support pollinators to their landscapes. But, how about your lawn? We're seeing more interest in "bee lawns," including support from the state of Minnesota to encourage lawns that are good for pollinators and the planet.
What is a Bee Lawn?
Most lawns in our climate consist of a mix of turf grasses, primarily Kentucky bluegrass. A bee lawn includes low-growing flowers as well as turf grasses. Bee lawns have many benefits, including providing foraging and nesting spaces for insects, reducing the amount of water, fertilizer and mowing required, and a greater ability to withstand periods of flooding or drought. These are tough, pesticide-free plantings that look green most of the season, but have periods of flowering that can be delightful and are important to many species of bees. Bee lawns are especially appropriate if your lawn is basically aesthetic (that is, it functions as a green space between your house, garden and the street). Those whose lawns are largely recreational (that is, children playing) may prefer to plant a pollinator pocket garden.
The University of Minnesota Bee Lab recommends a mix of non-native, but bee-beneficial flowers, such as Dutch white clover, creeping thyme and lanceleaf self-heal as well as fine fescue grasses for bee lawns. While dandelions and creeping Charlie have some pollinator benefits, they aren't recommended due to their tendency to invade lawns and choke out other flowers. University of Minnesota studies found that lawns with bee-friendly, flowering plants saw more bees and more variety of bees than traditional lawns. Having Dutch clover alone in a lawn attracted 55 species of pollinating insects, according to one study.
Lawns to Legumes
In 2019, the Minnesota Legislature funded the Lawns to Legumes project, which provided $900,000 for workshops, planting guides and some city and individual project funding to encourage homeowners to replace lawn areas with pollinator-friendly plantings, which can vary from small pocket plantings to full meadows.
Planting a Bee Lawn
To add a bee lawn to your property, you can either replace the current lawn with a planting mixture of seeds of fescues and flowers. Or you can add flowers to your current lawn. The benefits of a fresh start approach are that you will have the correct mix of grass seed and flower seed and they will grow up together. Supplementing your grass with flowers is less expensive, but the flower seeds must compete with the grass and may not fill in as well. If you decide to take this approach, scalp or mow grass 1 inch or shorter, aerate and then add flower seed.
The best time to plant a bee lawn is in fall. Seed overwinters and then germinates in spring. You can add a bee lawn in spring, too, and Metro Blooms has several workshops scheduled for this spring explaining how bee lawns work and how to install them.
Caring for a bee lawn could not be simpler. You can keep it mowed—preferably at 3 inches or so in height. An organic fertilizer can be applied at planting and it should be watered regularly as it is getting established. Beyond that, just let it grow and watch all the pollinators that come to enjoy it.
For a deep dive on both the history of lawns (fascinating!) and how to establish a bee lawn, check out this helpful video from 2015 from the University of Minnesota.