We gardeners have focused on primping, prodding, and perfection to the detriment of bird, bees, and butterflies for far too long. As a whole, Americans are addicted to the impossible goal of creating a manicured, pristine lawn. This continuous failed quest is the bane of my existence as a professional horticulturist as I’m bombarded incessantly with questions about unacceptable lawns. Sadly, most of our Baby Boomer (which includes me) generation grew up with the notion that fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation would ensure us a magic green carpet of pristine lawn. Unfortunately, I can attest that most of the problems that I’m presented with are caused by the overuse of irrigation, herbicides, fertilizer, and fret. In other words, the harder folks try, the more resources they use, and the more disappointed they are in the outcome. It seems that folks will do literally anything, at any almost any cost, to make sure they have a uniform, “pretty” lawn.
Ironically, the questions I get the most as a horticultural educator are all from subjects that I took single classes in during college under other departments: insects (Entomology), diseases (Plant Pathology), shade tree care (Forestry), and turfgrass (Agronomy).
Amazingly, according to a NASA-led study, this green mile of madness has led to turfgrass being the largest irrigated “crop” in America, three times more than second-place corn, with lawns occupying 2% of the surface of the continental United States.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate lawns. I actually enjoy mowing the lawn and have since childhood. I also worked at the turfgrass laboratories at both Texas A&M and L.S. U. What I do hate though is folks obsessively dumping gallons of water and millions of dollars, fertilizers, and pesticides on lawns and then demanding that I tell them how to solve the never-ending problems they encounter or create.
I have about two or three acres around my house that aren’t the forest. One of these acres is devoted to naturalized heirloom bulbs that in the past I’ve kept mowed from Memorial Day (after the bulb foliage has matured and withered) till frost. Another acre contains my vegetable garden, chicken yard, potato bed, a narrow perennial border, my crape myrtle allée, and a small El Toro zoysia lawn in front of the house. I typically mow this entire area about once a week but don’t fertilize, or use herbicides, or pesticides with the exception of treating individual red imported fire ant mounds with a bait product. I actually encourage diversity, especially low-growing native wildflowers and any clovers and legumes. The third acre has also been for naturalized heirloom bulbs, a bulb production block, and for about a century, what used to be the community picnic grounds for annual homecoming gatherings. This area too had been mowed up until frost in the past, starting around Mother’s Day.
But starting several years ago, the local Arcadia Homecoming began meeting each year in my parents’ barn just up the road leaving me with a choice of what to do with the historic picnic grounds. Since I’m married, work full time, tend fifty acres of forest and farm along with working on a Ph.D., I certainly don’t have time to mow anything other than what is absolutely critical. So, I decided to turn this relatively moist area into a “Marsh Meadow” dedicated to native plants that will support native birds, bees, and butterflies along with assorted bats, bugs, and bunnies.
The first thing I did was stop mowing. The next step was laying out a curvilinear walking path with a tractor and bush hog. This walking path will stay mowed (when it’s dry enough) and will also serve as a fire lane/break. Outside the path are trees that can’t take a controlled burn including white oak (Quercus alba), Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii), post oak (Quercus stellata), and a newly planted mawhaw (Crataegus opaca). Inside the fire, line will be native herbaceous plants along with several existing shortleaf pines which are naturally fire resistant.
Plants such as pines and warm-season perennials and grasses are not only fire tolerant but thrive with regular burning. I’ve historically conducted my controlled burns during spring break (March) which means that my Marsh Meadow will cater to warm-season annuals and perennials. The portion outside the fire lane will be mowed once a year around the first frost in November. I know for a fact that fire produces a higher quality, more diverse prairie composition than mowing but most folks don’t have the skills or ideal location to conduct controlled burns, and mowing once a year is better than nothing. Without mowing or burning, my Marsh Meadow would turn into a woody thicket and then a mixed forest.
Since it was mowed fairly regularly each year, there aren’t any showy wildflowers out there with the exception of a nice stand of copper iris (Iris fulva) I planted in a swale next to the woods years ago. As it’s a moist area, I divided and planted a few swamp (giant) cone flowers (Rudbeckia maxima) and spread a good deal of seed I had collected from this easy-to-grow native member of the sunflower family along with other locally collected wildflower seed. In its second year (2023) I plugged in a few Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosa) and a divided clump of prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) I had grown for years. I also ordered swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia) and showy tickseed (Bidens aristosa) from Roundstone Native Seed in Kentucky which germinated nicely with the last rain. Wildflower seed adapted to the higher rainfall, acidic soils of East Texas and the southeastern U.S. is precious and hard to come by. I will also seed more native grasses to help replace what is mostly Bahiagrass and dallisgrass now.
I also decided to add an old bulb plot in front of my barn this spring which almost doubles the size of my Marsh Meadow. Order-loving, French-Cajun Mrs. G won’t be happy, but the bees and butterflies will. Incredibly, the very first year of not mowing the old bulb rows produced a plethora of Dixie stitchwort (Mononeuria muscorum) covered with hoverflies and over one hundred spring ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes vernalis). The rest of the Marsh Meadow is far from showy, but I know from experience that it takes years to create a good-looking, functioning pocket prairie. Remember, it took them millions of years to evolve on their own so we can’t remake them in an instant. I think remembering the old groundcover/vine planting mantra is a good idea: “First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” I did fledge a nestbox each of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees that seemed quite happy with the naturalizing progress, however.
Just recently I also made the decision to remove a young Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii) that will increase the burn area since most oaks (especially young ones) aren’t fire tolerant. The annual spring burn may also eliminate my naturalized Narcissus, but I have plenty elsewhere and I’m looking at creating habitat for hundreds of other species not just eye candy for me. I will also continue to collect and plant local wildflower seed, add a third nest box to the area, and walk my path daily for mental and physical therapy.
It doesn’t matter if you are in charge of a basket, bed, or a border. Gardeners now have the fate of the natural world in their hands and need to constantly think about pollinators, pesticides, and pollution along with how their garden fits into the local ecosystem and what watershed their runoff flows into. Considering all that we have altered, it’s the very least we can do.