Traditional lawns—as in, the ones that require ripping up a piece of land, removing any plant life, and then planting and growing a uniform type of grass, which society dictates must be maintained in a certain way—are not the only option for your yard. (For more background, read Lifehacker writer A.A. Newton’s lawn explainer/takedown from September.)
One of those options is what’s known as a “bee lawn,” which has elements of a traditional lawn, but is better for the environment (including bees). Here’s what to know and how to grow one.
What is a ‘bee lawn’?
We need bees to pollinate our plants and crops—including much of the food we eat—so it’s in our best interest to keep them around. And one way to do that is by planting and maintaining a bee lawn, which is a combination of low-growing flowers and turf grasses, according to the Minnesota Horticultural Society.
Yes, some of those low-growing flowering plants are what we’ve been conditioned to believe are “weeds,” so if you have a lawn traditionalist in your household or neighborhood, they may not be thrilled with your bee lawn (even though they’re benefitting from it).
But, it’s still up to you to decide how to maintain the lawn—and that can include mowing it as you usually would. In fact, the Minnesota Horticultural Society says that the ideal height of a bee lawn is three inches. Everything—including the flowering plants—will grow right back.
And bee lawns aren’t only a win for bees; here’s a quick rundown of some of their other benefits:
- Require less water and fertilizer than traditional lawns
- Require less frequent mowing
- Better suited to survive through periods of drought or flooding
- Pesticides aren’t used
- Looks green most of the season (other times there are flowers)
- Provide foraging and nesting spaces for insects
- Improves the condition of your soil
- Lower cost (especially to maintain)
- No gardening skills required
How to start a bee lawn
Starting a bee lawn isn’t difficult, but you do have to know what you’re doing in order to make it work—starting with opting for plants that are up for the job.
The best plants for a bee lawn
Most bee lawns consist of a mix of flowering plants and turf grasses (which do just fine being mowed and stepped on constantly). Although the bees aren’t too picky about their pollen, there are certain flowering plants that are better suited for bee lawns than others. According to the University of Minnesota Extension (UME), plants for a bee lawn must be the following:
- Perennials (meaning they grow back year after year)
- Can adapt to being mowed
- Flower at low heights
- Tolerant of foot traffic (and kids playing, and whatever else happen on your lawn)
- A good source of nectar and pollen for pollinators
- Moderately competitive (meaning they can hold their own with the turf grasses without taking over)
A few examples of flowering plants at work well in bee lawns include:
- White clover
- Creeping thyme
- Ground Plum
- Lanceleaf Tickweed
- Calico American Aster
As far as turf grasses go, the experts at UME recommend using a mix of fine fescues (standard perennial turf grasses) that includes:
- Strong creeping red fescue
- Slender creeping red fescue
- Chewings fescue
- Hard fescue
- Sheep fescue
Although technically, Kentucky bluegrass will also work for a bee lawn, it needs more fertilizer and water than the fine fescues, making it more work and less environmentally friendly.
Planting a bee lawn
Once you’ve chosen your plants and know where the bee lawn is going to go, it’s time to prep and plant. UME experts say that the best times to establish a bee lawn are spring and late fall.
There are two methods for converting land into a bee lawn—overseeding and renovation—and your decision should be based on what’s currently growing in your yard. The UME has several detailed guides to starting a bee lawn (including step-by-step instructions), but here are some general tips as to when it’s best to opt for each method:
Overseeding is recommended:
- If your lawn is healthy and has relatively few weeds
Renovation is recommended:
- If your lawn is mostly “bad” weeds that aren’t good for pollinators
- It has multiple bare spots
- It needs correction for unevenness, compaction, or grading
If you could go either way, overseeding is less work than renovation.
Living with a bee lawn
Use UME’s explanations and instructions to walk you through the prepping and seeding processes. Then, be patient. In its first year, your bee lawn will probably be mostly turf grass, with some foliage from the flowering plants mixed in, and maybe a few white clover flowers. The second year is when it really gets going, with more foliage and flowers, as well as the pollinators they’re meant to attract.
If you’d like, you can also put a sign up in your yard indicating that you have a bee lawn. That can be a way to preemptively answer any questions and address any concerns from neighbors about why your lawn looks different than others on the block, and also raise awareness of bee lawns in general—possibly prompting other people to plant their own (or at least look into it).
The University of Minnesota has several bee lawn signs that you can download and print, as does the U.S. Forest Service (including one that reads “Lazy Lawn Mower Alert”).