We can make our lawns more nature friendly by readjusting our notions of aesthetics: a perfectly manicured lawn that looks like an indoor green carpet need not be the only ideal of lawn beauty. Instead, a lawn with some variety of plants which includes a few broad-leaved “weeds” has its own kind of natural beauty; let us call them “grass companions”.
The very first step, naturally, is to avoid pesticides and herbicides whenever possible. The choice of broad-leaved small plants that you can allow in your lawn is a little trickier and it may take some time to get the right combination; but the final product would be a pleasant lawn that requires less care and less fertilizing, providing more resilience to droughts and pests in addition to being more hospitable to desirable wildlife. There are a number of little flowering plants that grow in lawns completely uninvited that we are constantly trying to eradicate; however we could start welcoming some of them. Ideally, you want only non-invasive lawn flowers, preferably native ones, but this would require effort beyond that which any gardener would be willing to invest. So it makes sense to accept some non-natives too; after all most lawns are made up of grasses which may not be native to your region.
Some of my favorite grass companions, such as violets, bluets and spring beauties do well only where foot traffic is minimal, or where mowing is less frequent. Others can take a good amount of abuse:
• Cinquefoils, (Potentilla).
• Wild strawberries (Fragaria, several species). The five lobed leaves of this and those of cinquefoils are very similar in appearance.
• Yellow violets (Viola pennsylvanica), and other kinds of violets too.
• Spring beauties (Claytonia)
• Wild geraniums, crane’s-bills (Geranium)
• Azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea).
• Speedwells (Veronica), there are several species, some of them are native others introduced.
• Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), used as ground cover by some gardeners.
• Chickweeds include two genera: Cerastium and Stellaria. They are also known by several other common names; some species are native and small enough to do well in lawns, such as field chickweed, (Cerastium arvense) and star chickweed (Stellaria pubera).
• Smartweeds, knotweeds, many species in the genus Polygonum; some are small enough to do well in lawns. There are some native species and others that are introduced.
Among the non-natives, a very useful one is clover, (white clover, Trifolium repens) a European plant very well established in the United States; it used to be included in grass seed mixes because it helps fix nitrogen, enriching the soil as a consequence. There are a few species of clover that are native to some regions of North America. Chickweeds, also known as starweed, bindweed, winterweed, as mentioned above some are native others aren’t; the seeds of some are eaten by some birds, hence the name chickweed. Gill over the ground, or ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), is rather pretty but it can be very invasive. Thyme, (Thymus several species) has been used as ground cover sometimes. Scarlet pimpernel, (Anagalis arvensis) a European plant with small pink flowers. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is among the non-native invasives which you may not want to see around. Some think that it doesn't provide much of anything to pollinators despite its colorful flowers, others fear that it may compete for pollinators with some native flowers, reducing their pollination.
A simple practice that can be helpful to pollinators in your lawn is to allow some bare spots in dry and sunny places that can be used for nesting by bees and some insect eating wasps. Some leaf litter, especially on or near flower beds, can provide shelter for fritillary caterpillars and hummingbird moth caterpillars and a few other wintering moths and butterflies.
Lawn for pollinators, part II
Lawn for pollinators, part III
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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012