Rethink and Shrink Your Lawn

by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

The smelly, growling beast is still in hibernation. You don’t really like to picture the time in the not-too-distant future when it emerges from the dark cave, hungry for sustenance. It’s way more fun to flip through seed catalogs right now than to think about the lawnmower. Yet now, while you’re dreaming of spring, is the best time to consider your lawn, especially how to rethink it and shrink it.

The call to reduce or eliminate lawns is nothing new, but sometimes a reminder sparks action. Lawns are our country’s largest irrigated crop—more than corn! And you can’t eat lawn. Tended lawns cover about 40 million acres in the United States. Then there’s Big Lawn, a $30-billion lawn care industry that encourages us to use fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuel to keep it going.

I’m not anti-lawn. It definitely has its uses. It feels good between your toes. It smells good when it’s freshly cut. In garden design, it gives our eyes a place to rest. On a practical note, lawns can reduce noise and glare, capture dust particles, absorb runoff, prevent erosion and retard fires. Lawns are needed for play and sport.

People are planting more pollinator-friendly gardens but there are still acres of turf that could be converted to better use.

You don’t have to obliterate your entire lawn. Consider these options:

  • You could start small and chip away at it, decreasing lawn size by enlarging existing planting beds. Bigger beds, more plants! More plants mean more food and shelter for wildlife. Deeper foundation plantings add a lushness and sophistication to your home landscape.
  • When pollinators and other vulnerable creatures have to cross over expanses of lawn they are exposed to predators. Remove small areas of lawn to join isolated island beds and create mini wildlife corridors that make it easier for them to forage safely.
  • Eliminate corners and sharp angles in your lawn to make mowing faster and more sustainable, then use those graceful, carved-out curves for more plants.
  • If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to grow grass in shady areas, quit trying. Replace the turf with shade-loving or shade-tolerant groundcovers instead. Many groundcovers can offer pollinators food and shelter from the elements or enemies. Birds and other wildlife will appreciate it, too.

 

RESOURCES FOR ALTERNATIVE LAWNS

If you’re considering a bee lawn, the University of Minnesota has lots of tips on preparing, sowing and maintaining one. Bee lawns use low-growing perennial flowers that can tolerate foot traffic and hold their own within turfgrass. They need to have nectar-producing flowers that bloom at low heights to miss the mower. The university has developed a mixture of white clover, self-heal and creeping thyme for that purpose. Go to extension.umn.edu and search for “bee lawn” for information and resources.

You can also find bee lawn seed mixtures at local nurseries, including Twin City Seed Company, Minnesota Native Landscapes and Heidi’s Grow Haus.

 

Minneapolis-based Rhonda Fleming Hayes is the author of Pollinator-Friendly Gardening (Voyageur Press, 2016).

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LEARN MORE

If you’d like to transform an area of lawn to native plantings, I highly recommend a program called Lawns to Legumes. The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources has partnered with Metro Blooms and Blue Thumb-Planting for Clean Water to administer the program. It seeks to fight pollinator decline by encouraging individual citizens and neighborhoods to create new habitat and habitat corridors that provide food and nesting sites for pollinators. You can apply for individual grants of $300 to help offset the cost of the plantings.

The program offers a combination of workshops, coaching, planting guides and cost-share funding (individual support grants) for installing pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns, according to the group. For more information, check out bwsr.state.mn.us.

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