A Tale of Two Lawns

Happy National Pollinators Week! This is the week in June, every year, that the Pollinator Partnership uses to focus attention on the plight of declining pollinators and the role pollinators play in our ecosystems.

With so much going on in the country and the world, it’s tempting to ask if this isn’t just a distraction. I assure you that it isn’t. Pollinators play such an important role in our world that without them, humans literally cannot survive. We need to care for them because they cannot afford to be wiped out.

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So with that being said, take a look at the photo of these lawns. It’s pretty clear that there’s a line between them. The one at the bottom–or closest to the eye–or in front of the “thank you first responders” sign–is my lawn.

As you can notice, it’s all full of clover again, thank goodness. Why is this important? Clover is a great resource for bees and butterflies like the sulphur. I regularly see all sorts of bees on the flowers–I need to be careful when walking the dog through there, although I think the bees are so busy gathering nectar that they would most likely just move on. Still, I don’t want to test my theory on her.

The lawn in the upper portion, beyond my garden, belongs to a neighbor who uses Trugreen. Most of my neighbors use some service who treat the lawns chemically. Therefore, it’s possible to walk down the street and see who treats and who doesn’t by the clover. It’s really interesting.

Of course clover isn’t the only “weed” that we have, but surprisingly, many of those other “lawn weeds” are also butterfly nectar sources as well. Violets host frittalary butterflies. Plantains host the buckeye, painted ladies and crescents.

Once you begin to see your lawn weeds as food for pollinators, having a perfect lawn becomes far less important. At least it does for me. And it’s nice to know that I never have to worry about letting the dog walk on it either (except where the bees are nectaring)!

A Walk on the Wild Side

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Through a series of unfortunate events, we are dog sitting for this cute little guy while his owner is in the hospital (not Covid related, but his owner will likely be there awhile. We have already had the dog 10 days). He is as unlike our current dog as is possible so we ramble around the yard.

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It gives me the time to see lovely little nature pairings like this, which I might ordinarily miss.

We also hear lots of lovely bird song. And just yesterday we startled a large rabbit just outside the door. That’s trouble (but it was still nice to see so close up).

The “resident” dog and I have had a few wildlife encounters this week as well, but less pleasant. She and I encountered a coyote so close that even she was able to see it (normally she ignores the coyote and bear that cross our path when we’re walking). Luckily it scampered into some woods instead of making a stand.

We also came home one afternoon to a good sized garter snake sunning itself on our walk. She was oblivious so I just took her inside through another door and tried to return for a photo but as is usually the case, the snake was camera shy.

Ah well. It’s always good to respect the wildlife.

Persistent Fruit?

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Back when I worked in retail gardening, there were certain plants that everyone wanted–until they understood what was required for fruiting. Hollies (the genus ilex) was one of these. Everyone wanted the red berrying hollies.

No one wanted to plant a male plant (in other words, one without berries) so that they could get the red berries. If you knew how many times I answered the question about “but my neighbor has a holly. Can’t I just use theirs for the male?”

So we sold far fewer hollies than we should because they are lovely, deer resistant native plants for New England and they have persistent fruit (meaning their berries stay on the shrub and don’t fall off and make a mess) until they ripen after the winter. That’s why the birds harvest them in the spring and why they’re available if you choose to cut them for winter decorations.

Since my retail gardening days, hollies have come a long way as well. Breeders are making smaller shrubs and more heavily berrying shrubs. You still need plants of both sexes for most kinds of hollies to get berries–but now at least, the sizes of the shrubs are a bit more manageable for home gardens!

Another small tree that was a near impossible sell was the crab apple. Crab apples have come a long way and they too have persistent fruit. But many folks remember the older variety that dropped messy “apples” and so won’t even consider them.

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Crabapples are another fruit that remains on the tree throughout the winter and is available for returning migratory birds in early spring so it’s a valuable resource.

Take a little time to learn about our new and improved plants the next time you are shopping for a small tree or evergreen shrub. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Non-Native Shrubs for Wildlife

This may look like an out of control mess (more about what’s actually gone on here in a moment) but this wild hedge of hibiscus syriacus actually serves a wonderful purpose. As you might actually be able to tell from this photo, the land approaching this garden–which is not mine–in a slope. You can see the hibiscus flowers lying on it.

My neighbor mows it with a riding mower. For years I struggled with this garden and with painfully hand pulling the grass that his riding mower threw into the garden (actually it was the grass seeds, which then germinated–but I digress). Now that I have the Great Wall of Hibiscus, it fairly impenetrable.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (And in another digression, isn’t this what gardening is all about? Happy accidents–and some not so happy ones?) That huge white hibiscus you see is one that was sent to me as a test shrub. It is called Lil’ Kim and was supposed to be 3-4 feet tall.

So, as I always say, plants can’t read–but in this case, Lil’ Kim apparently reverted to her parentage, whatever that was.

Here’s the true Lil’ Kim. You can probably tell that her foliage is more delicate and her flowers are smaller than anything in that gargantuan hedge.

By comparison, here is her “reverted” sister, parentage unknown. Same color scheme, same type of flower, just much larger.

So why do I let this behemoth stay? Simple–the wildlife love it. Bees and hummingbirds adore it. The fact that it has created a hedge from the grass clippings is an unintentional bonus.

And you might have noticed some purple hibiscus in my photo too. Both these plants, when they self-sow, occasionally throw off purple seedlings. I let them stay on the idea that purple is a desired wild life color.

Here’s a close-up of the the “purple” one. I guess it’s more lavender. Anyway, I like it. Coming up in the kolkwitzia, it makes it look as if it’s blooming a second time–almost.

The Fish Can See Clearly Now

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I always say that my backyard pond is the one place in my yard where I spend the most time and do the least amount of work.

That definitely isn’t true on the weekend when I have to clean it, however. It’s an “old-fashioned” pond–pre-formed, not liner with rocks on it, so that in and of itself causes a lot of issues.

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It was put in over 35 years ago–before they knew about putting in filters and building filters into the waterfall feature–so I have to plop a filter box onto the bottom to house the pump.

But despite all the drawbacks, it works to keep some smallish fish alive, even through New England winters. And the sound of moving water definitely helps you to feel cool on a hot day!

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The fish are probably 12-13 years old–I’ve lost count now–and when I was cleaning it this year, I found a 2 year old that I didn’t know that I had. So that’s always a nice bonus. We’ll see if it lives long enough to grow into an adult, although if it’s made it this far, chances are good it will survive.

I don’t generally put plants in the pond anymore although I used to. The photo at the top of the post is from several years ago. The fish, rooting around in the gravel and the mud just made a much bigger mess for me to deal with when I was cleaning. I want the fish to eat the algae that forms–and there’s plenty of that–and any bugs that might fall in. Obviously it works or the fish wouldn’t have survived this long.

I also don’t use that fountain feature. The birds loved it a little too much. They would try to perch on it, which was really funny to watch, but then they would tip the whole fountain and pump over if they were heavy enough–think something like a mourning dove.

Even the robins would sometimes knock it over flying too quickly around it. So it had to go.

But the end of the day, to sit beside the pond is one of the best things in life.

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.

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.