Pollinator Lawns, Bee Lawns, Freedom Lawns
All of these terms refer to the same idea - creating a lawn that is more friendly for insects.
Turf performs very well in full sun, but the monoculture of grass requires many inputs to keep it healthy and attractive. Bee lawns are mixes of traditional turfgrasses and other plants. By interplanting turfgrass with other broadleaf plants, you can increase the diversity of plant species which reduces the time and money needed to keep it looking good. This mix of plants is beautiful and provides more food and habitat for pollinators. Additionally, when the right plant species are selected you can still maintain the same functionality of the lawn as a recreation space and a beautiful backdrop for the home and garden.
Plants for Pollinator Lawns
Flowering plants that can support pollinators and grow in the lawn must have the same characteristics that turf grass has along with being a good food source for pollinators. Good plants for bee lawns tolerate mowing and still flower when mowed. They are perennial, tolerate foot traffic, and can compete and survive when growing with turfgrasses.
The University of Minnesota has done research on species well-suited for pollinator lawns. Flowering plants that their research has found work well for bee lawns include:
- Dutch clover (Trifolium repens)
- self-heal (Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata)
- creeping thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus; syn.Thymus serpyllum)
- violets (Viola spp)
- dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus)
- lanceleaf tickweed (Coreopsis lanceolata)
- calico American aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)
Some turfgrasses work much better in pollinator-friendly lawns than others. Of the handful of turfgrass species typically grown in Iowa, fine fescues (including chewings, creeping red, and hard fescues) and Kentucky bluegrass are better for bee lawns. Perennial ryegrass and tall fescue are not ideal turfgrasses in these settings.
Establishing Pollinator Lawns
Establishing pollinator-friendly plants like Dutch clover and self-heal in your lawn looks similar to establishing a typical turfgrass lawn.
If the Lawn is Healthy - Overseed
If the lawn is relatively healthy with few non-desirable weeds, overseeding is a good choice. Good soil-to-seed contact is important. Just before sowing, mow the grass very short (1 inch) to help expose the soil. If soil is compacted or turf is really thick core aeration or power raking may be needed before overseeding.
If the Lawn is Not Healthy - Renovate
If the lawn is thin, has an abundance of undesirable weeds (such as foxtail, spurge, plantain, oxalis, crabgrass, etc.), and is otherwise not healthy then a renovation of the turf would be best. Renovation involves removing and killing all the vegetation in the area and reseeding the entire space with a new turfgrass and pollinator-friendly plant seed mix. Several techniques are available to kill the existing vegetation and which you use depends on the time you have, the amount of labor you will invest, weather and site conditions, as well as personal preference. Physical removal with a sod cutter or spade, solarization, and herbicides are all options to kill the existing lawn. More information about removing turf can be found in this article: How to Kill Grass to Create a New Garden Bed
Seeding is Best Done While Dormant
Once prepared you can spread the seed. This can be done much as you would with turf grass, with one key difference - the timing. Fall is an ideal time to sow grass seed, but for bee lawns dormant sowing the seed in late fall (late November, early December) or early spring is the best time.
Care After Seeding
Care after seeding is just like care with newly seeded turfgrass. Water frequently at first to support the small root systems of the germinating seed. Avoid walking on the area and monitor carefully for undesirable weeds. Remove weeds by hand-pulling when they are found to avoid these unwanted plants from taking over while the bee lawn is still getting established. Once fully established, the lawn will be very competitive with weeds. Wait until the lawn is 5 or 6 inches tall before you begin mowing. Bee lawns take time to become established. Most will really start to flourish during the second growing season.
Maintaining Pollinator Lawns
Maintaining your pollinator lawn involves all of the same steps as a traditional turfgrass lawn but often with fewer inputs.
Watering is needed while establishing the bee lawn, but once established the pollinator lawn should only require irrigation in times of prolonged drought.
Mow the bee lawn at a higher height of 3 inches or more which is taller than most traditional lawns. Bee lawns also benefit from mowing less frequently - every 2 weeks instead of once a week.
Bee lawns require much less fertilizer than traditional lawns. Too much fertilizer can be detrimental as it promotes the growth of turfgrass over the pollinator plants. Most bee lawns only need, at most, one light application of lawn fertilizer in the fall. In many cases, they can be healthy with no fertilizer at all.
As with traditional lawns, weeding is critical during establishment and a healthy lawn is the best defense against unwanted weeds. While many plants considered weeds in a traditional lawn, such as clover, violet, and dandelion, are welcomed additions to a pollinator lawn, many other weeds are not beneficial. Crabgrass, foxtail, spotted spurge, plantain, and purslane are a few common lawn weeds that do not produce flowers that are beneficial for pollinators and should be removed to prevent them from crowding out desirable plants.
Hand-pulling is the best option as you will not be able to use most lawn herbicides. Many herbicides used on lawns are broadleaf herbicides that don't kill grass but do kill other plants. If these products are used on a bee lawn, they will kill the clover and other pollinator-friendly plants. On established lawns, preemergent herbicides for crabgrass and other annual weeds can be used, but avoid the use of weed and feed products as they contain broadleaf herbicides. For particularly difficult-to-control weeds, spot spraying with a non-selective herbicide can be done.