The Freedom Lawn

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We’ve grown a little too obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere we look. If we turn on the television, all we have to do is tune in to the commercials to see that we are being sold a bill of goods: buy the perfect vehicle, or clothes dryer, or clothing, or grass seed and we too can be perfect (and don’t even get me started on the pharmaceutical commercials!)

What exactly is a “Freedom Lawn?” Well, like the name suggests, it’s a lawn that avoids inputs–so no fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation or other input beside mowing. So what happens?

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As you can well imagine, nature happens. Wildflowers–or to the uninitiated–weeds grow. And granted, not all wildflowers are welcome. For example, we have far too much plantain in our lawn. But it’s there and it’s not terribly unsightly and were we motivated it’s fairly easy to remove with a stand on step weeder–so clearly we’re not terribly motivated.

This strip is right next to the driveway as you might be able to tell. Plantain loves compacted soil. So we would be working at cross purposes by trying to remove it and grow grass in a spot where folks keep driving.

Dandelions are creeping back in, I notice. That’s one thing that doesn’t bother me at all. If you’re a “lawn person,” they drive you crazy. If you’re a pollinator person, you rejoice, because they are one of the earliest flowers for pollinators. Just deadhead them before they seed. I think I can still count them on 2 hands so they’re not a nuisance.

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And violets. I love the violets. I would have an entire lawn of violets if I could–again for my pollinators. This lovely little one is a species of viola moderate that I planted called ‘Freckles.’ The photo at the top of the post afe all wild violets.

Certain butterflies will nectar only from violets–why would anyone want to get rid of them? (Again, you can see that I am clearly NOT a lawn person!)

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Ants have naturalized these muscari for me. Maybe you can see why I am fond of ants. They also spread my violets around.

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We used to have much more clover but since my neighbor’s landscape company mistakenly poisoned my property, most of it was killed off. It’s just beginning to return, thankfully. Where the plantain has run amok used to be wild clover. Ah well.

As the season progresses, I get tiny little St. John’s wort coming up–I’ll post that at some point. The plantain blooms. And of course we get more unwelcome wildflowers like purslane and the vetches and oxalis–not welcome to us, but valuable to wildlife like the later nesting goldfinch who love the seeds.

So rejoice and enjoy a more nature looking lawn–and maybe even consider a “freedom lawn.” Your birds and pollinators will thank you.

Bee Aware

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You may remember this clump of bulbs from a week or so ago. I love my “minor” bulbs as they are called (to distinguish them from the tulips, daffodils and hyacinths–which I also love but which aren’t nearly so reliable for me).

These lovely ones are called “Glory of the Snow”. Their botanical name is chionodoxa. They also come in pink and white but I love the blues in the garden.

On a very busy evening, I was rushing out of the house to a choir concert but I happened to notice that there were bees all over this clump of flowers. So the next day when I had more time, I sat down on the walkway to try to figure out what was happening.

I was delighted to see the same bees building nests in the ground right there all around this clump of bulbs.

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If you look just past the green cord in the photo, you can see the excavation where the bee has dug its tunnel. There were at least 6 or 8 of these tunnels all around the clump of bulbs.

I guess that I won’t be planting here this year.

Spring Clean-Up

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What?! Dead trees again?! Actually no. Take a look at what’s beneath them. See all those leaves? Every cultivated garden bed in my yard looks similar to that. And it’s going to for awhile yet.

I postpone my spring clean-up until at least May most years. Some years, things happen and the beds never get cleaned out. In that case, I call this “mulch.” Nothing terrible happens to my plants. I don’t harbor over-wintering insects (at least not the bad kind–more on that later) and I don’t have a whole slew of fungal diseases.

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So why–or perhaps more important–how can I tolerate this look–in my garden beds? (Here’s what this really looks like, with some of the spring foliage coming up through it, in my “wildlife garden”.)

It’s pretty simple: These leaves are sheltering all kinds of over-wintering things: good bugs like spiders, over-wintering larva of mourning cloak butterflies. The stems of the upright perennials may be sheltering bees that use hollow stems like mason bees (which don’t sting, by the way). I have ant colonies under here (and you know that I love my ants and consider them pollinators). I have earthworms. I know that I have ground beetles because I see lots of them all summer.

So I ask you–with all that “goodness” going on here, could you put up with some ugliness for a bit into the spring?

Because I tell you, I sure can!

Dead Trees?

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Why are you looking at 2 dead trees? I know that I am always whining about spring coming too slowly to Connecticut (actually I usually say that it doesn’t come at all and that all we have is winter and July.) But surely this isn’t a post about that.

No, it isn’t. And if I carefully think about it, most years, our trees leaf out about the first week of May and stay in leaf until the first week of November when the leaves come down almost like a blizzard. If we’re lucky, there’s enough time between leaf fall and snow fall to get them off the grass.

But the 2 dead trees are important. They are in the portion of our yard that will shortly be leafy woods. We leave them there as “snags,” or wildlife nesting places.

Even if they were to fall, there is enough land around them that nothing could be harmed.

And there are several fallen trees in our tiny woods as well, to provide cover for small creatures and habitat for their young.

Most people don’t have the ability to leave a type of wild place like this in their yards, but a brush pile out of sight can also work (on a smaller scale, of course).

We need to try to provide habitat for our wildlife or we will lose it.

Gardening for Some Other Pollinators

I’ve talked about gardening for bees and butterflies and some of nature’s “happier” pollinators.

But what happens when we garden for some of nature’s less popular pollinators? I think I mentioned that ants are some of my favorite pollinators. Here in the northeastern United States, they pollinate our spring ephemeral wildflowers. In fact, they pollinate anything with a specialized structure called an eliaosome.

Without getting too technical, this is a food source for the ants–and a way of dispersing seeds for the plants. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is a post that explains things far better than I can and lists several of the plants that rely on this wonderful means of seed dispersal.

Plant pollination isn’t the only reason that I love ants–but we’ll save that for some other time.

Another great pollinator that’s a sort of “out of the box” pollinator is the beetle–or more correctly, beetles. Most of us see beetles in our garden and we run of some sort of chemical but did it ever occur to you that they might actually be serving as pollinators? There are several types that do as this article can attest.

And it doesn’t really require any effort to attract these “out of the box” pollinators. They just show up in our gardens, particularly if we aren’t using pesticides to begin with.

The next time you see an insect–or insects–in the garden, before grabbing something to spray it with, try to determine its function. It’s said that 90% of all insects are benign. If that’s true, you might accidentally be spraying pollinators–and no one wants to do that.

We all have phones that have cameras now–snap a photo and try to ID the bug before deciding it doesn’t deserve to live. Chances are, it’s just something harmless–or even better, something beneficial.

You’ll be helping your garden, your ecosystem and our planet.

Gardening for Butterflies

Gardening for butterflies is actually a two-step process, although you don’t have to participate in both parts of the process if you don’t want to. But remember, the adult butterflies that we see are first caterpillars–and those are the more finicky eaters that you hear about when you hear “monarchs will only eat milkweed,” for example.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed. Adult monarchs will seek nectar from a variety of flower sources. But when adult monarchs go back to lay eggs, again, they seek out milkweed. And again, in different regions of the country, different types of milkweed predominate.

So it’s not just as simple as saying “monarchs eat milkweed.” For more on this complicated–or symbiotic–relationship, take a look at this handout prepared by MonarchWatch.

Other butterflies are equally finicky, if you want to put it that way. Every butterfly that visits your area will have a “host” plant–that’s the plant that the caterpillar form of the butterfly feeds on, as well as nectar plants that they prefer (although they are not as fussy about those)

This awesome list of resources from Prairie Nursery lists host plants for a wide range of butterflies as well as additional resources to find out more.

What else is good for butterflies? In general, sunny spots that are protected from wind and protected from their predators, the birds–so that means no birdhouses in the butterfly garden. Birds love caterpillars, remember!

Make a “puddling” area for them to get water. This is even more shallow than the places where bees drink–if possible, it’s just a wet spot on the ground where they can absorb moisture and even salts from the earth. That can be tough to achieve so some folks fill a shallow saucer will sand, water and even some salt.

This site has some ideas and even an embedded video to give you a sense of how it’s all done.

Finally, what’s most important when watching butterflies is time: take the time to be still in your garden and watch them. One of my best moments last year was the 15 minutes I took to sit in the grass and watch the monarch larva on my milkweed. It wasn’t quite “forest bathing,” but it was certainly peaceful. I highly recommend it.

Planting for Bees

There’s a lot of information out there about planting for butterflies and hummingbirds but there’s less available about planting for bees. I’m not sure why that is–perhaps because until recently we were only thinking about honeybees, which are a managed species, and not perhaps about our hundreds, if not thousands of native bee species.

Thankfully we’re coming around now. In the last few years there have been a couple of good books on the subject both on planting for bees (which you can see here –and no, I am not and Amazon affiliate; I get nothing for this reference!)
and gardening for bees.

One of the best resources for bees is the Xerxes Society. You’ll notice the first book I recommended is published by them. They’re quite reputable and a great source for all thing “bee” related. The publish great Pollinator Conservation Resources for North America––I’ve linked to my own regional guide for the northeast.

The list of plants is not something that one might readily find in every garden center. These are native plants (in fact, the boneset (#8)comes up naturally in my yard and the Spoiler keeps referring to it as “that white weed.”) However, some, like milkweed, tradescantia and mountain mint are certainly readily available now and can easily be obtained many places. Lists for different regions will of course have different plants.

Another handy guide is to Bumblebees. I thought (and still do think) that bumblebees are about all the same. As much as I don’t have a fear of bees, I am not hanging around to examine their stripes! But it was really instructive learn that there are so many native to my region.

Of course it goes without saying that planting for bees requires you to forego pesticides as much as possible. If you must use pesticides, Xerxes has guides for how to do so to maximize safety to bees and other invertebrates.

Finally some tips that I find handy: first, try to have something in bloom from the very earliest days of spring to the last days of fall. I don’t worry about whether these plants are native plants or not, although of course it’s nicer if they are. One of the first plants that blooms in my yard is a shrub called japanese andromeda (pieris andromeda). It has clusters of fragrant white lily of the valley like flowers and when they open in late March, the bumblebees are there.

One of the last things blooming in my garden is a stand of goldenrod planted by the birds (or the “yellow weed” as the Spoiler has dubbed it.) Again, it blooms up through early November, maybe and as long as it has flowers, it has bees of every size, from bumblebees and honeybees down to the little bees that I love but have no idea of their names.

In between I try to have something blooming, even if it’s just hydrangeas. And the bees come, even to hydrangeas–again, they’re non-native, but they make ME happy (and if the gardener’s happy, everybody’s happy!).

And of course, between the birds and the beneficial insects I rarely need to use an insecticide. If I do, I try to do it as late as possible in the evening–once the bees have left. And even then, I just use insecticidal soap–not that that wouldn’t harm a bee, which is why I wait until almost nightfall.

My last tip is to try to have some very shallow dishes of water for bees to sip from. Just be sure to change them daily so you don’t breed mosquitoes!

Finally, and people differ about this, but many of our native bees are ground nesting bees. Personally I have never been stung by these bees. I may have been lucky. I have even accidentally dug up their nests in early spring and escaped unharmed. After that, I was careful to mark the nesting spots and give them a wide berth while gardening later in the season.

If you aren’t feeling as confident about this, just be aware that native bees are ground nesters–and this includes bumblebees. So be observant while working in the garden (no pun intended).

Then, enjoy your bees!