Updated: May 24
Most homeowners want to have a green grassy space to toss a ball or play games on. A good degree of push back the pollinator movement receives is related to people who don't want to give up their lawns and manicured landscapes. How can we reserve that space in our yards while nurturing our native flora and fauna? Here are some thoughts about how to maintain lawns that mingle peacefully into a native habitat.
Remember, the goal is to "rethink" as well as "reduce" lawns.
The key to maintaining a healthy green lawn is to understand lawn grasses. Most lawn varieties are cool season plants, which means they look lush and beautiful in spring and fall but demand lots of water to stay green over our hot summers. Basically, once June hits many of our lawns start to go dormant, eg. brown. Kentucky bluegrass, which is common in most seed mixes, is actually difficult to maintain in our lawns for this reason. Red fescue is perhaps one of the more tolerant, rugged grass varieties that can grow in shade or sun and, if allowed to grow tall, will develop deep enough roots to withstand the heat of summer. And it's a soft, emerald shade of grass which feels good underfoot and looks lovely when allowed to grow uncut.
This leads to understanding how helpful "rethinking" a maintenance schedule can be. Pollinator Pathway endorses the idea of "No Mow May," asking homeowners to refrain from mowing their properties in order to allow early pollinators to access dandelion, clover and violets. Aside from being pollinator friendly, an added benefit to this practice is that by allowing your grasses to grow taller, they develop deeper root systems.
Rethinking also means mowing less and allowing your grass clippings to remain where they fall -- no artificial fertilizers required! However, because most lawn grasses require a pH of 6.5--7, it is helpful to have your soil tested to determine if an application is needed to help your lawn to access nutrients more successfully.
Rethinking also involves letting go of the need for a perfectly uniform lawn. Some weeds can be pulled by hand, but many can be controlled by mowing before they go to seed. A weed, after all, is just another green plant that can go almost unnoticed in a healthy lawn. Get rid of the herbicides! As for pests, the biggest problem may be grubs (great food for the resident skunk!) which can be controlled by an application of milky spore or other organic product. While expensive, these inoculate your soil with helpful bacteria that last indefinitely -- no repeat application necessary.
The call to reduce our lawns is an important way to provide the best habitat for our native critters, but rethinking how we maintain the lawns we wish to preserve is an integral part of this process.