You’ve heard that the pollinators are in peril and want to help.
If you have a lawn, there’s actually a fair amount you can do to help restore habitat and food for the insects that we rely on for much of the food supply.
That’s because lawns can be part of the problem. They provide little or no habitat, and can add fertilizers or toxins to wetlands, streams, and rivers. They require a lot of upkeep, like frequent watering.
But there are many lawn alternatives that aren’t complicated or labor intensive, like perennial flowers, creating a meadow, or a pollinator garden. Simply mowing less often has benefits, like allowing more flowering plants to grow. The nonprofit Pollinator Pathway recommends mowing less frequently — only once every two to three weeks.
Here’s how to make your yard a friendly environment for bees, butterflies, bats, and more.
Find a site
The first step is to choose where you want to put the meadow or garden. Figure out how much light this area receives. Whether it’s full or partial sun will determine the kinds of seeds that can survive and thrive in that area. The quality of the soil and how much moisture the area gets are other important factors.
You will also want to figure out how big of a space you’re using, to determine how much seed you need.
If you still want to keep some grass, you can reduce the size of your lawn by adding shrubs, trees, or clover. Or you can let just part of your yard go natural.
Prepare the site
“Site prep is the beginning, middle, and end of all successful gardens,” according to David Hammond, founder and executive director of Creating Habitats for Pollinators. “You can’t just scatter the seeds out there or it won’t work and you’ll be disappointed.”
There are two ways to do this without spraying pesticides to kill the grass. One option is to till the site. This can stir up dormant weed seeds, so Hammond recommends tilling three times over a seven- or eight-week period to make sure you’ve killed the seeds.
Otherwise, a tarp can be used to kill any grass or weeds growing beneath it. This method takes at least a few months. “The downside is you have to keep an ugly piece of plastic on there for three months,” Hammond said.
Pick out plants
Ecologists and pollinator experts recommend choosing plants that are native to your area. They’re evolved for the local conditions and will require less upkeep, like watering. Plus, they’ve found local native pollinators prefer local native plants.
Theresa Ong, a professor of environmental sciences at Dartmouth, recommended flowering plants. “The more diversity in your flowers, the better,” she said. Look for plants that will flower at different times, spreading out resources for the pollinators over time. “Columbines, milkweed, and lupines grow well here and support pollinators,” she said.
She warned against choosing a plant based on looks alone: People can unwittingly introduce an invasive plant into the ecosystem.
This list from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension includes wildflowers and pollinator plants, and it indicates whether they’re native to the Granite State and when they bloom. Red columbine, yellow wild indigo, cardinal flower, and New England Aster are a few examples of colorful species native to New England on the list.
Choose your seeds wisely
Not all seeds are created equal. Beware of seeds that are coated in pesticides called neonicotinoids, a synthetic insecticide banned by the European Union in 2018 because of the threat they pose to pollinators. They are a “primary culprit” responsible for the die-off of pollinators, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Neonics are these persistent pesticides. Seeds are coated with neonics and every generation of that flower that comes from that seed, every generation contains the pesticide,” said Patricia McGovern, who planted and maintains the pesticide-free pollinator pathway in Lebanon.
She said to steer clear of commercial scale plant or seed sellers because the default includes herbicides and pesticides. She buys plants at Bagley Pond Perennials in Warner. And Pollinator Pathway includes a list of several online native plant nurseries.
Hammond recommends seeds from a Vermont company American Meadows. The seeds are free of neonicotinoids, according to the company. He said the prices are reasonable and the company offers a free helpline. “These gardeners will walk you through your project,” he said. Hammond creates a mix of 70 percent native perennials and 30 percent bold colored annuals so the garden will look beautiful in its first years as perennials are still getting established.
Many of his projects are at towns and schools, and this allows for “a quick win,” when the annuals flower within four to six weeks of planting, holding the weeds out to leave room for the perennials. “They grow fast. They’re beautiful flowers. People say ‘Wow, what a great idea,’” Hammond said.
You can plant either in the fall after the first frost or in the spring. Hammond warned against overseeding. A quarter pound of seeds can cover up to 500 square feet. Even though it won’t seem like a lot of seeds, trust your calculations.
And you can mix the seed with sand to ensure the seeds are evenly distributed, using a ratio of 1 pound of seeds to 8 pounds of sand.
Hammond recommends taking two passes when spreading seeds: first moving from left to right and then from north to south. After you’ve sprinkled the seed, tamp it down to ensure that it’s in contact with the soil. You can either do this by stomping with your feet or laying down a piece of plywood to compress it into the ground. This will also prevent birds from eating the seeds before they’ve had a chance to start growing.
Keep an eye on what is growing in the new garden. If weeds or invasive plants appear, weed them before they get established.
Ong said noxious weeds can easily establish themselves as people are transitioning a hyper-manicured landscape into something more natural. If they grow unfettered, there’s a risk they will “escape your lawn and enter forest ecosystems and take over,” she said.
Some of Hammond’s plantings are over an acre, which he said is too big to water, so he doesn’t worry about it. But, he said, if it’s an especially dry day, a little bit of water won’t hurt.
“Typically speaking, if you can get it established that first year, it’ll pretty much take care of itself,” Hammond said.