If you happened to drive through an office-industrial park on the south side of Oakdale last month, you may have noticed a woman lying on her stomach, army crawling across the lawn in front of the only building on the block with remotely interesting landscaping. Spoiler alert – it was me, and I was taking pictures of bees. Obviously.
When the Washington Conservation District moved to its current location eight years ago, it inherited a turf lawn, rock-bed foundation plantings, and a large asphalt driveway. The landscape aesthetic was dreadfully boring and out-of-step with the organization’s mission to protect land and water resources in Washington County.
Today, the land surrounding the Washington Conservation Center is awash with color and life. The front entry is framed by a vibrant mix of sun-loving and drought-tolerant native plants, and there is a small hill of prairie along the northern property border. Penn sedge, wild geranium, and columbine grow beneath a cluster of trees, and if you happen to arrive on a busy day, you can park your car atop permeable pavers and grassy pave in the overflow parking lot. The re-designed landscape allows rainwater to soak into the ground instead of running off into nearby storm drains, and creates pockets of habitat for pollinators, birds and wildlife.
Most recently, the Conservation District added a wide swath of bee lawn to its demonstration landscape. This low-growing lawn alternative features calico aster, creeping thyme, self heal, Penn sedge, and fine fescue grasses; the goal is to cut down on mowing and irrigation, while also providing nectar for bees and other pollinators. After crawling around in the Conservation District’s bee lawn for a few minutes, I can confirm that if you plant it, the bees will come.
It is hard to say whether bee lawns are a hot new trend or a throw-back to the early 1900s. Prior to the arrival of power lawn mowers, synthetic herbicides, and suburban neighborhoods, most people’s yards contained a mix of clover, low growing plants, and whatever happened to be growing nearby. Then, in the 195,’s turf companies and landscape designers began a relentless push toward monoculture lawns with nothing but green grass, close-shorn and perfectly weed-free. Today, however, with populations of bees and butterflies declining, many people are re-considering what it means to have a “perfect” lawn.
Bee lawns are a good option for lesser-used lawn areas that you aren’t actively using for lounging and recreation. For example, bee lawns work well for boulevards, steep hills, or the edges of large yards. Since they really do attract bees, they aren’t a good choice for beneath a swing set, picnic table, or in a soccer field. Likewise, if you have ample space and height is not a concern, it is always better to plant a pollinator garden or meadow to provide better habitat for birds and pollinators.
If you are interested in converting a portion of your existing lawn to bee lawn, you can find information and instructions online at www.BlueThumb.org in the “Turf Alternatives” section. Bee lawn can be over-seeded into conventional turn by simply cutting your grass very short, raking the soil, and then spreading the new seed. Late October to early November is an ideal time to do this, in order for the plants to come up in the spring and be able to compete against weeds.
Head to z.umn.edu/buyseed to find a list of local stores and online retailers in Minnesota that see bee lawn seed mixes. In Washington County, some watershed districts also offer incentive grants to convert conventional lawn into bee lawn. Sign up for a site visit at www.mnwcd.org to learn more.