If you are like most Minnesotans, your lawn is probably looking crisp and brown this summer. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor map, 98 percent of Minnesota is currently experiencing drought conditions, with 52 percent of the state in a severe or extreme drought. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that it would take 3-5 inches of rain over the next two weeks to restore us to normal conditions. Unfortunately for our lawns, farms, forests and public water supplies, however, the climate is expected to remain dry.
Meanwhile, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, a wide strip of grass along the sidewalk stands out lush and green against a backdrop of crunchy brown turf. Cheery yellow signs along the path offer an explanation; this verdant corridor is actually a newly planted “bee lawn.”
Unlike typical lawns, bee-friendly lawns feature a mix of drought-tolerant fine fescue grasses and low-growing flowers such as Dutch white clover, creeping thyme, and self heal. For people hoping to include additional native species, ground plum, lanceleaf coreopsis, and calico aster are also options. Bee lawns can be mowed at a height of 3-4 inches; over time, the plants “learn” to flower at a lower height.
In some ways, bee lawns are a return to simpler times. Prior to the 1950s and the advent of the modern suburban lawn, most American yards contained clover and other low-growing plants. In the post-World War II era, however, lawn care companies worked hard to establish a new norm, with tidy lawns comprised primarily of Kentucky bluegrass and maintained with constant doses of fertilizer, herbicides, and water. Now, some Americans are ditching high-maintenance lawns in favor of low-mow, bee lawn, and other turf alternatives.
As the name implies, the flowering plants in bee lawns provide nectar for bees and other pollinators, many species of which are on the decline. As an added bonus, they are also better suited for dry conditions and do a better job than conventional lawns of soaking up rain due to their deeper root systems. For people reluctant to attract bees to their yards, low-mow turf is another alternative that allows for a more traditional lawn-like appearance without the need for frequent watering, mowing, or fertilizer.
Though there are many benefits to bee lawns and low-mow turf, both are best suited for relatively sunny sites with low foot traffic. At Trinity, members of the church’s Green Team elected to plant the demonstration bee lawn along an edge of their green space that is rarely used for gatherings. They also retained a buffer of conventional lawn along the sidewalk to alleviate concerns about accidental stings to passers-by. Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization provided an incentive grant to help fund the demonstration bee lawn and staff from the Washington Conservation District offered advice on how to get started.
If you are interested in establishing a bee lawn or low-mow turf on your property, there are how-to instructions and other resources available at www.BlueThumb.org. Blue Thumb and the East Metro Water Education Program will also co-host a free, online workshop on Sept. 15, 6-7:30pm, with a keynote presentation by James Wolfin, an entomologist and land care manager at Metro Blooms. The workshop is designed to help people prepare for a late fall dormant seeding in November. Register at: tinyurl.com/beelawn2021.