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Guest Blog: Attract Pollinators With These Plants

This is the final installment of Rethinking the Traditional American Lawn, a four-part series by High Country Gardens founder and chief horticulturist, David Salman. Salman also writes The Xeric Gardener. Click here for Part I, Part II and Part III.

dandelion2222

News Flash: Dandelions Are Flowers, Too

Villainized by chemical lawn-care companies for decades, these harmless little plants have a greater place in our pollinator-depleted world than ever before, and they’re edible, too.

February 28, 2011

SANTA FE, N.M. — Years of marketing by fertilizer and lawn-care companies have convinced us that the beautiful little dandelion is our mortal enemy; that it’s our duty to create a perfect, weedless green carpet to match the other yards in the neighborhood. To have its cheerful flowers buzzing with honeybees in our spring lawns is to have fallen to the siege. We’ve been shamed by peer pressure into embracing a lawn-care regime that’s expensive, unhealthy to the environment (and ourselves and our pets), energy intensive, carbon generating and counterintuitive to common-sense gardening.

And if the folks at Harvard University can stop using herbicides and pesticides, the rest of us can, too.

The Harvard campus, maintained primarily with organic techniques, is showing far greater root depth and grass vigor.

In a landmark project undertaken by Harvard to become a carbon-neutral community, the administrators switched to an organic lawn-care program, swearing off the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The program embraced recycling and composting leaves and lawn clippings for use as fertilizer and compost tea — a foliar spray or soil drench derived from steeping compost in water. In two years, even the skeptics among the staff have had to admit that organic lawn care is nothing short of miraculous. Keystone metrics include reduced water consumption (by 30 percent), an imperiled campus forest restored to health and greener campus lawns now able to withstand the wear and tear of constant use by a hefty student population. When this illuminating New York Times article came out in 2009, 25 acres of the campus had been fully converted to the organic agenda, with Harvard’s groundskeeper, Wayne Carbone, expressing the university’s hope to turn 80 campus acres organic by this year.

Examples like Harvard make the scientific basis and benefits for organic lawn care glaringly undisputable. In light of this, the most important concept we need to shake off is the notion of a “perfect lawn,” because it’s an illusion created by years of propaganda and advertising, a corporate siren calling us to harm in the pursuit of imagined beauty. Dandelions feed our habitat-starved pollinators, and us too. The leaves and roots of these vigorous little beauties are edible, and a little help from epicurious.com makes it clear that, when we wage war on them, we’re just throwing away good food. And if we still can’t learn to appreciate them for their beauty and sustenance, all we have to do is mow them before they go to seed to prevent those fun little puff globes that have enchanted children since time immemorial from blooming.

It’s time to for the country to switch to natural organic lawn care so we can enjoy the benefits of what lawns have to offer. Lawns should be part of a landscape that provides cooling in an overheating world while absorbing rain water and filtering it on its way to recharging our aquifers. And like natural meadows, they should grow under and around the urban forest without being a source of damaging herbicides and harsh chemical fertilizers. Ironically, we’ve forgotten the simple steps necessary for a low-care lawn, having been brainwashed for years into an expensive, high-input chemical war against the imagined enemies of a perfect turf.

Let’s allow our natural pollinator plants to do their work, and let’s help them out by planting a few perennials around them to provide our honeybees with a constant, recurring food source. For some suggestions on perennials offered exclusively from High Country Gardens, read below, and then check out our how-to video for planting them.

blueblazes

Agastache ‘Blue Blazes’: ‘Blue Blazes’ is a large, vigorous hybrid that blooms non-stop from mid-summer into fall, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds with its nectar-rich flowers. While the plant takes two growing seasons to reach its full size, it blooms the first year from planting. Situate it in full sun with well drained soil. Pinching back the plant in late spring keeps it more compact. ‘Blue Blazes’ is an amazing hybrid between our own Agastache ‘Desert Sunrise’ (introduced in 2000) and the blue flowered eastern native Agastache foeniculatum. Bred by Kelly Grummons, owner of Timberline Gardens in Arvada, CO. Special Notes: Pinching back in late spring keeps it compact.

blueflame

Salvia pachyphylla ‘Blue Flame’ PPAF: ‘Blue Flame’ is a selection of the xeric sub-shrub Giant Purple Sage, chosen for its huge, brightly colored 10-inch-plus flowering spikes. Like a gas flame, the long tubular blue flowers poke through the rose-pink bracts attracting hummingbirds from the entire neighborhood. To help support the huge flower spikes, it’s helpful to pinch back the tips of the new shoots in mid-spring to thicken up the plant. This beauty likes full sun, good air circulation and fast-draining soil conditions. Zones 5-9. Not recommended for fall planting in Zones 5-6.

View our entire catalogue online for more information, and be sure to look at pages 89-98 for alternative suggestions to the traditional American turf lawn. Again, if you haven’t signed up for our e-zine, you’re missing some great deals on waterwise, low-maintenance, gorgeous plants, and spring’s on its way, so there’s no time to wait.

As always, happy lawning! And thanks for reading.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • http://pollinators.blogspot.com/ Beatriz Moisset

    I agree with the basic premises of this article: we should welcome a variety of little wild flowers blooming in between the blades of grass and we should be growing plants beneficial to pollinators.
    However I don’t agree with the choice of plants listed here. Dandelion is not a native plant and it isn’t very good for pollinators. Of course, it is still better than toxic herbicides, so I am not against having a few in my lawn. However there are a number of so called “broad leaf weeds” growing in lawns which should be called “grass companions” instead.
    They are a lot better than dandelions for the following reasons: They are native, they are beneficial to pollinators, they contribute to the health of the lawn by adding biodiversity to it and some enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. See: Lawn for pollinators, http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2010/04/lawn-for-pollinators.html.
    As for the other plants listed as good for pollinators in this article, there are many better ones. Most Agastache species are not native (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agastache). A hybrid of a non-native and a native one such as the one mentioned is a little better, but it is important to keep in mind where it is native to. Other regions of North America may have other native plants that would be preferable.
    Salvia pachyphylla is native to CA and neighboring states only (http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SAPA5). Other plants should be recommended for other areas of the US.
    For pollinators gardens there is a growing number of resources in the Internet. I recommend two in particular:
    The guide by region published by http://www.pollinator.org/guides.htm the Pollinator Partnership
    The USDA publication, Gardening for pollinators: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/gardening.shtml
    It is also important to know that honey bees are not the only pollinators that matter to us. There are thousands of native species of pollinators, and native plants are what they need in most cases.

    • http://highcountrygardens.com David Salman

      The point of the article is not to advocate growing dandelions as much as it is to point out that the dandelion has become the “whipping boy” of chemical lawn care companies and chemical manufacturers that vilify this pan-global herb. Low growing clover species have traditionally been used as a natural source of nitrogen for lawns. That is until the advent of “Weed and Feed” fertilizer/herbicide blends which kill clover and dandelions.

      Regarding Agastache, Beatriz is incorrect. With the exception of one species from the Korean peninsula, this genus is native only to North America with the greatest concentration of species occuring in the western US and northern MX. They are incredible plants to attract honeybees, native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in great numbers. They are widely growable in the West and the mid-section of the US.

      Salvia pachyphylla has shown it’s suitability as a native xeric shrub over much of the Intermountain West not just its small native range in CA and NV. The notion that a native plant can only be grown in its native range is not a widely held belief in the horticultural community.

      The fact is that honeybees remain the primary pollinator of most of our vegetable and fruit crops. Planting both Old World plants (like the Dandelion) and native plants to feed the honeybees is of vital importance. There is room in our landscapes for both native and Old World plants if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of plants to provide habitat for all types of bees.

  • Marma Na

    Thank you so very much for these posts about lawn alternatives. When I move here to this country I am mortified about all the lawn, but I know not what plants to grow instead. These words help.

    You make so many words on this site. It be amazing. I can barely keep up with all of them; it must take so much time to write them all.
    Marma Na

  • Lucy

    I second Beatriz. Paul should go one step further: native plants should be recommended for different regions, soils types and wild pollinators value as well as pollen source for beneficial insects to keep bad pests in check

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