Lazy lawnmowers and landscape mullets

By Atticus Murphy

Maybe you’re the type of person who’s interested in nature but don’t know you can help. You live in a city or a suburb, with not much space and just a typical grassy lawn covering what space you have. Maybe you’ve also recently learned that insect pollinators like bees are crucial for our ecosystems but may be experiencing significant declines caused by habitat loss due to humans. What can you do to help, without breaking the bank or spending too much of your time on gardening?

 A lawn with a more and less frequently mowed portion on left and right respectively, showing the diversity of flowers that can emerge when given time to grow (Photo: Sue Pranskus). 

If this sounds like you, there’s a surprisingly simple option available to you: do less! Mowing grass lawns frequently (more than twice a month) is a good way to keep the grass cropped low and cut down on weeds. But this low, flowerless grass lawn is essentially a food desert for bees and other pollinators. Happily, studies have shown that if you simply mow a bit less, your once barren yard can become a buffet for bees in just a few short weeks. Simply shifting towards cutting your lawn every two or three weeks instead of once a week can greatly increase the number of bees and other pollinators that are able to forage there, as quick-blooming “weedy” flowers sprout up from the soil. Instead of treating weeds like unwanted invaders, to help save our native bee populations, treat them like welcomed guests! They’ll beautify your lawn for a few days at a time all throughout the growing season and they’ll do it for free. All it takes it giving them a bit more time between mowing to put up their flowers. 

If you enjoy using your lawn for outdoor activities or are required to maintain it at a certain length by local authorities, reducing your mowing frequency as much as you can within these limits is still a great way to help pollinators by giving flowers more of a chance to bloom before cutting them. Remember, this “lazy lawnmower” strategy for helping pollinators does not require drastic lifestyle changes: instead, it might be totally compatible with whatever uses you get out of your lawn now. Green grass can remain on your property for sitting, lying, and playing, and you can see significant numbers of new flowers all while still keeping your lawn looking well-kempt. If you’re concerned about appearances and don’t want to give over the front lawn to being taller, then consider only letting your back lawn grow out a little. Scientists have nicknamed this practice the “landscape mullet” because like the famous haircut, it’s longer at the back. Because pollinators are able to move around to locate flowers, they will be served just as well by a back lawn with flowers as they would a front lawn.

A monarch butterfly feeding on a mustard flower (family Brassicaceae) sprouting from a grassy lawn (Photo: Rachael Bonoan).

What types of flowers will spontaneously recruit in your lawn? It’s hard to say, and that’s part of the fun! In Massachusetts you might expect to see pollinator-friendly flowers like dandelions (Taraxacum species), clovers (Trifolium species), butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris) and other quick-blooming, low-growing species, like the mustard pictured above. Many of these species may not be native to the U.S., but they are nevertheless great sources of nutrition for native pollinator species. So if you’re interested in helping pollinators but don’t want to make the leap into pollinator-friendly gardening just yet, getting a little lazy with lawn management and welcoming some weeds into your life is a great first step towards making your property a refuge for native insect pollinators. 

To support spring pollinators, think big

In summer, pollinators are not often hard-pressed to find flowers. In fact, you might support them without even knowing it: community gardens, flowering herbs on front steps and balconies, or milkweed growing in a tree-well all provide food for pollinators during the hottest, longest days of the year.

But what about in spring? It’s not as easy to accidentally support pollinators during these cooler months of the year when the ground has just begun to thaw; there haven’t been that many warm days; and persistent rain (as continues this year) can impede pollinators from finding food. Indeed, queen bumble bees emerge from hibernation in early spring and need immediate access to both nectar and pollen in order to start their colonies for the year, and many solitary bees and hover flies are only active for several weeks in spring: no flowers means these pollinators cannot make it.

So, how can you support pollinators in April and May? Think big. Plant native flowering shrubs or trees. In New England, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better forage for insects than these woody plants. Not only do these larger plants produce copious amounts of flowers, but they are often important host plants for caterpillars of moths and butterflies. Plus, with the exception of woodland wildflowers, there simply aren’t enough growing days by mid-spring for most smaller, herbaceous (soft-stemmed) perennials to flower.

In addition to supporting pollinators, serviceberry produces delicious berries enjoyed by both birds and humans.
PC: Ryan Hodnett, Wikimedia Commons.

Choose plants that bloom sequentially from April through early-June. By selecting plants with overlapping flowering times, you will support a high diversity of pollinators regardless of when they emerge. To help you decide, here are several hardy options of native trees and shrubs that support bees, followed by average flowering times in Massachusetts:

  1. pussy willow (Salix discolor, early-April)
  2. red maple (Acer rubrum, early-April)
  3. eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis, late-April/early-May)
  4. serviceberry (Amelanchier sp., late-April)
  5. chokecherry (Prunus virginiana, May)
  6. red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa, May)
  7. nannyberry(Viburnum lentago, May)
  8. black cherry (Prunus serotina, late-May/early-June)
  9. red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, May/early-June)
  10. ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius, June)
The eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) is one of the many native pollinators that enjoy redbud flowers.

Although many ornamental flowering trees are pretty, the frills that we enjoy often do little to help pollinators. Even worse, some ornamental cherry trees sometimes lack pollen and/or nectar altogether, making them essentially useless to flower visitors. In contrast, many ornamental crab apple varieties (Malus sp.), though non-native, are one alternative that appeal to both humans and insects.

Wild cherry trees have five petals per flower, but this “doubled” ornamental produces copious petals (possibly at the expense of quality nectar and pollen) that dissuade pollinators from visiting the flowers.
PC: Yoshikazu Takada, Flickr

One last note: to further help early-spring pollinators in a different way, try “leaving the leaves” until early-May. It is tempting to clean up your yard as early as possible, but many insects overwinter as various life stages in the messy leaf piles and ground cover, e.g. butterfly eggs, chrysalises, and adults of different species. Give them a chance to emerge by delaying your clean-up a few weeks. You’ll be rewarded when all these beautiful pollinators return to visit the flowers in your garden!