Although many of us long to grow a show-stopping bee meadow, we often get stuck in the beginning. The first troublesome hang-up? The lawn.
Conventional wisdom tells us to start by killing the turf grass with glyphosate. Following the die-off, we are advised to till, seed, weed, fertilize, and water for the two or three years it takes to establish a meadow. This is grueling, time-consuming work that doesn’t always pay. Worse, it’s hard on the soil.
Soil structure is key
Soil with a healthy structure will grow the best plants. Soil structure describes the way soil particles clump together to form aggregates and hollow spots. The clumps result from organic matter — roots, stems, leaves, and microbes that create gooey, slimy stuff as they rot.
The goo glues soil particles together and provides nutrition for future plants. The spaces between the aggregates form channels that allow air and water to spread throughout the ground. These minute passages carry vital supplies to plants and soil-borne organisms.
Overworked soil loses both its organic matter and its structure, becoming compact and hard. Once pulverized, the soil can no longer transport air and water, and it lacks nutrients. With no biological glue, the particles become fine enough to blow away.
Farming is a catch-22
Generations of growers have faced this perplexing problem: Tilling and disking kill weeds while ruining the soil, but preserving the soil encourages the weeds. After plowing and harvesting, we can fertilize the soil to replace the nutrients, but the soil structure is sacrificed.
Decades ago agronomists introduced the concept of no-till farming. Most often, no-till farmers remove the weeds with herbicides before planting. Then they use a seed drill to plant. This causes less disturbance to the soil, although it still requires fertilization because every time you harvest a crop or kill weeds, you are removing organic matter.
But another option is “organic no-till” where we plant amongst the existing ground cover by cutting the existing plants low. leaving the cuttings in place, and drilling seed into the ground. It’s organic because growers use no herbicide and often no fertilizer. It can be tricky and expensive, but it has its place.
The path less traveled
LR Bombus, a beekeeper and landscape designer from Illinois, wanted to plant a meadow for her bees but didn’t care for herbicides. She wrote, “It occurred to me that the turf was a great weed-suppressing groundcover already, so why not plant perennials directly into the grass and let them battle it out?
“I came across an article about an estate gardener in the UK who had done that very thing, and it was a tremendous success. That was all I needed to hear.
“Bulbs went in during the fall, perennials the following spring. Some plants are natives, some not, some provide pollen, and others are there because they’re lovely and tough and carefree.
“No pesticides, no fertilizer, no irrigation, and the meadow is a delight from spring through fall. My experience has been that the turf can work as a planting medium as long as the plants are assertive and shoot up above the grass to establish a foothold…or roothold.”
Perennials and turf grass as a team
According to LR Bombus, “We leave the meadow up all winter as habitat, for overwintering insects and other critters, as a seed repository for birds, and because it catches snow which helps insulate the crowns of the perennials. Plus, it’s lovely in all its unkempt glory.
“We cut it once a year in early spring, right as the daffodils start to poke through. What I find fascinating is that the perennials and turf grass coexist. In spring, it actually looks like a nice lawn as you can see in the photo below with the daffodils and tulips growing through the turf. By mid-summer, you don’t notice the grass at all because the perennials have shot up.
The bee meadow’s 4th year
“This is the fourth year for the meadow, and it just keeps getting better. It’s a delight seeing the many pollinators on all the different plants.
“Are there some weeds we’ve had to manage? Yes, but nothing onerous. Canada thistle would love to take over, but we just whack them off at the base before they flower and leave the stalks on the ground to decompose. QueenAnne’s lace is too aggressive, so shares a similar fate. I planted a few Valerian officinalis for the lovely fragrance, but am keeping a wary eye on its enthusiastic spread.
“We had problems last year with (presumably my bees) visiting the neighbor’s pool. I had thought that Lake Michigan would provide adequate water, but maybe it was too clean and not fragrant. So we sourced a couple of large stones and carved out bee basins. The bees love them, and I smile whenever I see them lined up for a drink.”
A memory of crocuses
LR’s photos remind me of my mom’s lawn many years ago. She planted crocuses in the front yard by digging little holes through the grass. Each winter, the crocuses popped through the snow in late February.
By the time the grass was ready for early spring mowing, the crocus foliage had died back for the year. Hidden beneath the lawn the bulbs multiplied, assuring a bigger splash of color each year before disappearing under a normal lawn.
I hope some of you give this a try and let me know how it turns out. And don’t forget to send some pictures!
A special thanks to LR Bombus for sharing her story and compelling photos. I feel inspired to try this myself.
Honey Bee Suite