gardening for bees

Grow a no-till, herbicide-free bee meadow

No-till planting within a lawn requires aggressive perennials.

Using the right techniques, you can plant a bee meadow in your lawn that will successfully compete with the turfgrass.

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.

Establishing a bee meadow can be difficult, but one Illinois beekeeper used no-till methods to make it work. Photo of blooming, muli-color flowers.
Establishing a bee meadow can be difficult, but one Illinois beekeeper used no-till methods to make it work.

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.

Bee meadow tip: Use aggressive species when planting in turf. Honey bee in purple composite flowers.
Use aggressive species when planting in turf.

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.”

This bee meadow uses no-till planting, no pesticides, no fertilizer, and no irrigation.

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.

In early spring, the daffodils and tulips shoot up through the turf.
In early spring, the daffodils and tulips shoot up through the turf.

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 pair of watering stones keep the honey bees from the neighbor’s pool.

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.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite

Flowers aplenty for a variety of pollinators.
Flowers aplenty for a variety of pollinators.
No-till planting within a lawn requires aggressive perennials.
No-till planting within a lawn requires assertive perennials.

8 Comments

  • I SO much want the results, but not the work. Can they come to Connecticut and get that started for me. Hah.
    #alwayshappytosuggestchoresforpeopleNotme

  • Before embarking on this labor of love, I would highly suggest a couple of things. 1. Understand what the zoning ordinances say about this kind of landscape. They WILL come over and mow it down and level a fine against you if you are not in compliance with the landscape ordinance. 2. Be prepared for pushback by neighbors. The “Great American Lawn” which serves absolutely no environmental purpose is also a dearly held cultural norm. Breaking this norm might get you on “the list.” Just be ready. 3. Understand your road right of way. If you plant in the ROW, the county will mow your garden down, considering it weeds even when it’s in full bloom and clearly not weeds. 4. Understand all of the easements that are on your property (noted in your deed) and plan/plant accordingly. The establishment of this kind of garden is a long-term and expensive project. Watching your pretty little 4-inch high prairie violets chopped into bits because the road commission doesn’t recognize them as native plants will not only break your heart but your wallet as well. Just know the rules. The environmental impulse will not protect your garden from hostile ignorance.

  • My challenge has been deer. I tried planning crocus and the deer ate them, so I have to be careful with which plants go where. I have a back acre that we mow once per year now with this intent, maybe 4-5 years so far. There are trees and lots of weeds. Trying to establish some shrubs in sunnier areas, and so far yarrow and daffodils do well as the deer avoid. It doesn’t have to be a lot of work, if you can just let the grass grow and every year do a little more – you just need the space. I see it as a long-term project, every year I do a little bit and hopefully improve. We get black-eyed Susans and asters now, and this year we couldn’t get it mowed until early June so we had wild raspberries grow and flower. It’s not a very good meadow, but it’s ours.

    • Erik this is helpful to the types of flowers you’ve had success with. We have deer in the field every evening. Thanks for sharing.

  • Seed drills. I guess I’m out of touch as I wouldn’t have the first idea about where to find one nor do I know the costs. Burning as prep could work.

    I have several fields that quickly need attention because of succession. Alders have their place, as do birch and spruce. I want to keep the field open. I don’t mind the fireweed, summer sweet, and field roses quite so much. My garden would appreciate it if you keep the quack grass.

    A field and brush mower (walk behind) works ok on the alder and other trees.

    What I’m doing now uses equipment I have now and techniques I’ve long learned. Till (32HP Tractor with 6′ tiller), a summer’s worth of buckwheat tilled in after flowering, (walk behind rotary drop seeder), fall planting of regional native pollinator mix (first year annuals, the 2nd year I start seeing perennials) So far so good but I appreciate learning and thinking about other techniques.

  • What makes the organic no-till meadow expensive if you’re not spraying and not tilling? Is it the equipment for drilling the seeds underground? Is it the types of plants? Actually, what are the plants s/he used that were hardy enough to fight the grass?

    I loved this article. Been wanting to do the same thing.

    • Rob,

      The thing that makes this expensive is that you need to transplant pre-established perennial plants into the freshly-mowed lawn. Seeds will not be able to establish fast enough to compete with the lawn, so you use previously potted or transplanted ones. Seeds will only work if you first use herbicides, which LR was trying to avoid.

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