Many of us would like to do more to support our pollinator insects like bees and butterflies. They are important to all of us who like to eat delicious and varied meals! One action step often suggested to support our insect friends is that we plant more pollinator gardens. However, we don’t all have a lot of sunny areas to turn into flower beds for the bees, butterflies, and other helper-insects. The good news is that even small yards can support pollinators – a lot of them.
How is this possible? One very easy way is to include flowers in your lawn.
Clover, dandelions, and other lawn flowers support pollinators
An increasing number of studies show that lawns that contain flowering “weeds” are important resources for pollinators. If we think about it just a little, these results make sense.
Flowers of plants like dandelion, clover, wood sorrel, and violets are sources of nectar and pollen, which are food for the pollinators. When a lawn has all one kind of plant, like fescue or Bermudagrass, there is less food to support many of these insects.
Here are two example studies:
Lerman and Milam’s 2016 study includes a table (Table 1) that shows a trend: lawns that include more flowers have more bees.
Larson, Kesheimer, and Potter (2014) , in another study, collected about 50 different kinds of bees from Kentucky lawns that included clover and dandelion flowers.
Some neighborhoods have only small patches of lawn. The studies suggest that even these small yards can support pollinators by allowing flowers like clover and dandelion to bloom.
This works for farms, too
Joe and I used to volunteer at a small garden/farm in our county. We mostly worked in “weed management”, with hoes, but we still had fun. The garden included a couple of large fields that were tilled, planted, and fertilized by tractor. It also had some very large raised beds for growing additional vegetables. The garden produced an astonishing abundance of food.
The only flowers that we planted on purpose were sunflowers. The upper field had a row of sunflowers along one edge every year.
A visiting friend asked me once, “where are the pollinator beds?” This was a serious question, and the answer was only obvious if you knew where to look.
I had been working there for a few years, so I already knew the secret.
Patches of lawn separated and surrounded all the crop-areas, and flowers of weeds like dandelion and clover sparked the green expanses like stars. Plants that supported pollinators were all around us!
Bees and other pollinators could be seen visiting all of those flowers. In addition, beehives on the property produced enough honey that it was obvious the bees were finding plenty of nectar.
Work less and be a fashion leader
You can support pollinators with less work by allowing volunteer flowers to grow in your lawn. A separate bed of herbs and flowers that support pollinators is nice, too, but it is not the only way to go.
The main difficulty in allowing dandelions to brighten your lawn may be to your sense of social acceptability. In many suburban neighborhoods, these bee-friendly flowers are not allowed! However, the current ideal of an all-turfgrass lawn is just a fashion — like a beehive hairdo or bell-bottom jeans. We can allow it to pass from its current state of desirability to one of “well, that’s what we did in those days”.
My own flower-filled lawn might not be enough to start a new trend, but I have seen some wonderful landscapes that are underlain by mixed-plant lawns.
Examples of flower-filled lawns
This is my second summer to be in Italy for Joe’s work (an interim position, so next year we will not be here). One of my great joys has been seeing clover-filled lawns around historic buildings. The beautiful church, San Biagio, just outside Montepulciano, sits in a flower-filled lawn.
It is great to walk up to the church and see bees and bee-mimics (flower-flies) zooming through the clover!
More convincing for others, though, may be the formal La Foce estate gardens in the Val d’Orcha, in Southern Tuscany. The lines of cypress trees, clipped boxwood hedges, fountains, and grand staircases are set on a lawn (clipped very short) that includes clover and other flowers.
It is possible that I am the only person to visit this amazing landscape who turned her camera to photograph the ground. However, I loved seeing the clover and admired the practicality of not-messing-with the lawn. The role of the lawn seemed to be as a backdrop to show off the geometric shapes of the boxwoods, the tall cypress, and what we call “the hardscape.” It worked, too, even with clover.
Associating flowering lawns with beautiful landscapes might help turn the tide in favor of clover, dandelions, and other lawn flowers. Then, owners of even small yards will be proud to support pollinators from edge-to-edge.