If you’re not much of a lawn person, you’re not alone. Most gardeners realize that lawns have their place around every home, but if you minimize the amount of space your grass takes up and diversify the area with wildflowers and shrubs, you can easily turn your yard into a habitat. It's always nice to have some grass for your kids, grandkids, and pets to run and play on, but if you're looking to attract pollinators like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to your yard, you're going to have to make a change. Lawns just don’t provide the enticing diversity that flower beds and shrubs do. This year, do your local wildlife the favor of swapping your grass out for some colorful varieties and a few easy-to-reach sources of food and shelter.
From Lawn to Flower Beds
Converting a lawn into a wildflower sanctuary will require you to do some work in the fall, but remember that you'll be rewarded for your efforts as soon as the following summer. First and foremost, the lawn has to go. Get yourself a good sod cutter to slice away rows of grass. Remember to set the depth gauge to at least two inches, or you won't be cutting deep enough. Depending on the quality of your grass, you'll want to either compost it, replant it a different location, or even put it up on Craigslist for someone else to haul away. Once the grass is gone, bring in as much new soil as you need. Tamping down the soil will provide a firm base for the seeds you plant in it later on.
Check your local nursery or favorite gardening catalog for wildflower seed mixes. Different mixes serve different purposes: some attract pollinators, some provide floral diversity, and some are tailored to thrive in certain climates. If you can, buy seeds that are native to your area.
Just like reseeding a lawn, you can choose to spread your wildflower seeds by hand or with a spreader. Of course, larger seeds like lupine and sunflower will have to be broadcast by hand. Don’t worry about walking over the seeds afterward, because you’re going to want to tamp them a little bit into the soil anyway. Cover the newly-planted seeds with a thin layer of soil to keep any hungry birds at bay. While your wildflowers grow, you’ll want to keep an eye out for weeds — new soil is the perfect target for invasive plants.
Vigilance is Key
Since you're planting your wildflowers in the fall, you might have to water them occasionally, but these seeds won't need much of any major resource once they start to overwinter. Water as needed to keep everything growing, and never let the area get so dry that the seedlings become stressed. Then it’s a matter of weeding and watching your sprouts grow and, eventually, bloom in the late spring or early summer.
Typically, wildflower mixes contain a combination of annuals and perennials. Save yourself some work by letting the flowers go to seed. That way, they'll reseed the surrounding area for you. Alternatively, you could choose to collect some native wildflowers and work them in between your existing varieties.
Chances are, there's a community garden or wildflower sanctuary in your area that can give you some great ideas on what to grow in your own space. Ask your local extension office for some advice on native species, or arrange a seed swap with them to help minimize the cost of purchasing seed. While you're at it, be sure to look out for local plant sales on the off-chance a gardener there wants to swap some of their excess plants for some of yours.
Your new wildflower beds will provide you with a beautiful display of summer color and your local pollinators with food, cover, and a welcoming habitat. Unfortunately, a lot of natural wildflower habitats have been destroyed to make room for shopping malls and housing developments. Consequently, many insect species have seen declines in their populations. Keeping these pollinators alive means better garden production for everyone. Plus, we kind of owe it to them.
If you really want to help these insects out, take the time to add a few host plants like dill and fennel to your garden, as larvae generally feed on different plants than their adult counterparts. It’s not just about a pretty field of summer flowers. It's about creating a better space for all to exist in.