Lawns, people love 'em or loath 'em. I'm not in the group that thinks all lawns are evil. There's a time and a place for grass. Lawns provide cooling effects, places to play and a spot for your eye to rest in the garden.
But acres and acres of turf that only exists to be mowed, well there's gotta be something better. Actually there is, consider planting a bee lawn. What's a bee lawn? It's a less than perfect carpet, a combination of cool-season grasses and low-growing flowering plants that produce nectar and pollen for vital creatures like bees and butterflies.
People used to have bee lawns but they just didn't know it. Before lawns received attention from lawn care companies they often were infiltrated with white clover, and tolerated. In fact, lots of grass seed mixes contained clover seed as well. The clover not only fed the bees, it produced seeds for birds.
Clover increases nitrogen in the soil improving its health and decreases the need for fertilizer. Not bad, huh?
Not every yard is a candidate for a bee lawn. But within every yard there might be a place for some type or small area for a bee lawn. Sloping areas where kids don't play sports or backyard areas that get little usage are good spots to try this sort of "turf". You could just leave the edges a little wild.
When I lived in England I was always fascinated by all the tiny flowers within our lawn that created a meadow effect. As you can see in this grainy photo there were small daisies, buttercups and clover. Rather than weedy, it was wonderful. Of course that was a milder climate, but there are hardier plants up north that might do the same thing.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab are trying to develop a bee lawn seed mix that would contain low-growing, foot-tolerant, non-invasive, pollinator-friendly plants. Their hope is that it could be used in places where traditional lawns still are the preferred look, like cemeteries, commercial landscapes and golf course edges. Bee lawns would also reduce the need for water, pesticides and fertilizers.
Meanwhile you could create your own bee lawn by overseeding the area with white or alsike clover. Simply letting your lawn go will not give the same effect. You might get a situation that could be described as weeds without benefits (to the bees). Once your bee lawn is established, make sure to mow high enough to avoid cutting off the buds and flowers.
Just as I began to think about what to plant in the window box, a duck planted herself instead. Hmm I thought, a more suitable tenant for the garden than the nest of bunnies I wrote about last month. What could a clutch of ducklings bring about but a few moments of waddling, quacking cuteness?
Mama duck in the window box, safe from four-legged creatures
I did wonder about the height of the box. At almost six feet above the ground, I worried about when it came time to make the descent to local water. Others told me she was a smart duck, placing her brood above possible predators like the neighborhood foxes. I read up on duck behavior and found out that sure enough the ducklings, pliable and bendy at birth could indeed survive the fall.
As time passed I watched her pattern of sitting and leaving, each time an ivory egg deposited to join the others in the nest. A mother duck doesn't start incubating until all the eggs are laid. I counted six eggs from my upstairs spying spot. And occasionally I would grab a step stool and peer at her through the small garage window.
Five eggs so far in the perfect circle of downy feathers
Documenting her progress from up close would bring about a huffing, puffing, literal hissing fit. Although she did get used to my daily presence in the garden. Sometimes I forgot all about her and then I would look up to see her watchful and waiting.
Towards the end of the 28-day incubation I started to worry about mama duck in the hot south-facing location. One day she appeared to be almost passed out. I took her a shallow dish of water which ticked her off. I splashed her with a bit of water. Not pleased with that either. Then I saw her fly away for a few minutes, toward the creek between the two lakes, a water break I bet.
Meanwhile lots of news stories on wild baby animals appeared, the general advice being, don't intervene, the mothers know best. So I trusted mama duck to know what she was doing.
Yesterday I noticed broken eggshells and hurray, ducklings. I facebooked and instagrammed the sweet little guys with a #makewayforducklings hashtag like a proud grandma. But still I wondered how she would keep the wiggly things in the box. Too soon I heard a constant cheeping as I sat on the porch. The first escapee running through the rhubarb had me retrieving it and taking it back to the nest. Mama duck protested.
I placed large cardboard boxes underneath to catch them before they were ready to leave for water, according to research, ten hours after hatching. I went to check a little later and found a sad, sad sight in the nest. Six ducklings dead. Instead of keeping them warm, the heat had killed them. Mama duck was squawking as I looked.
I went away wondering how long she would stay. And then I thought again. I grabbed a slotted spoon from the kitchen and prodded her to reveal one more duckling still alive. I scooped it up and placed it the water feature on our patio. It bobbed. Mama duck scolded me and flew off to the front yard.
I improvised a makeshift island and ramp to compensate for the steep sides all the while to the tune of constant quacking. I went inside and watched until she returned. The quacking continued while the duckling swam and nibbled. Then it jumped out and waddled away with her mom through the yard. The creek is a quarter mile away.
I couldn't watch anymore.
Bees get thirsty just like you and me. They are out seeking water as often as they are foraging for nectar and pollen. They find it in places like puddles, ponds and creeks. They drink from the tiny beads of water collected in a leaf. But they are just as likely to search it out in dog dishes and birdbaths. Damp laundry on a line will do.
Water lilies, a beautiful water source for bees
Bees need water for more than just a cool drink on a hot day. The bee version of air conditioning uses a film of water placed over the cells of their hive, which some of the worker bees then fan for evaporative cooling. Water is used to dilute honey to feed larva. It's also needed to dilute crystallized honey during winter.
Bees gather and transport all this necessary water in their crops. They then transfer it to other hive members for whatever purposes are required at that time. It accounts for lots of trips between hive and water source.So a consistent, reliable source saves energy.
It is said that bees like "aged water". An explanation may be that water with some algae in it has a notable smell whereas bees haven't evolved to detect chlorinated water. Yet why do they always land in the pool?
Birds and bees both prefer a shallow water source where they can stand or cling to a platform of sorts while they drink. Providing a safe source may be as simple as using landscaping rocks or pavers with shallow indentations that accumulate rain water. Bees may be using your water feature or koi pond already, so make sure there are some floating plants they can use for secure footing.
Hopefully any water source provided specifically for bees is free from pesticide runoff.
Dr. Marla Spivak, noted bee researcher at the U suggests floating tennis balls in the birdbath. This gives them a fuzzy surface to cling to while drinking.
And finally there's a "bee waterer" project going around the internet right now. It's a shallow saucer or basin like that of a flowerpot or birdbath. It's filled with inexpensive marbles that florists use in vases for anchoring stems. Water is added so that the bees can make their way over the marbles while drinking in the crevices in between.
Lately I've been adding foliage to my landscape that has the potential to collect water like the Hosta 'Abiqua Drinking Gourd', lady's mantle or water lilies. I'm always interested in seeing plants from a bug's-eye perspective and this is a fun way to evaluate your plants for possible habitat value.
For years I’ve been saying that herbs are the best plants anyone can grow. They’re easy and forgiving. They’re tasty and fragrant. They’re beautiful. And one more thing, they’re great for bees.
Plant an herb garden and let it grow for a while. Pinch and pluck the leaves for any number of uses, like cooking or cosmetics, eat the flowers, eat the foliage, go for it, because most herbs love to be sheared and pruned; the act of harvesting actually makes them grow fuller and bushier.
Then do something for the bees. Stop snipping and picking half of the herbs, or more if you’re feeling generous, and allow them to bloom. Herbs are always trying to bloom, you’ll see their stems start to lengthen like in the case of oregano or sometimes the leaves grow smaller and even change shape, as does basil or mint. Pretty soon the flowers will be covered with bees.
Bees love herb blooms because many consist of lots of little florets, perfectly shaped for browsing and foraging. When bees can work over a large number of blooms in a small area, it helps them to save energy while increasing the amount of nectar they can consume. Herbs save them from making extra trips back to the hive and that’s a good thing.
Bee on fennel flowers
Yes, herbs are easy to grow. But some gardening publications will say they thrive on neglect. It is true that established plants can survive without much attention, but whether planted in the ground or in containers a new herb garden needs care at first; lots of sunlight, well-drained soil and adequate water. (And no matter what you see on Pinterest, you can’t grow herbs in Mason jars. Without a hole for water to drain, they will quickly rot.)
Here’s a list of herbs to start your bee-friendly garden. Get bzzzzy!
My gardening friends think I've lost my mind. It wouldn't be the first time.
It started the other day when I was inspecting a possibly dead lavender plant. As I poked around pulling fallen oak leaves from underneath the dry, silvery fronds my trowel made contact with something spongy feeling. Oops. A bunny nest.
I quickly put the leaves back over the cavity in the ground, just then noticing the downy fur placed around the edges. I quickly counted five, tiny but plump, pink-gray shapes nestled together shivering in the cold. Their eyes weren't even open yet.
The bunnies at the center of debate
Of course, you know me. I mean if you read this blog, you know I'm curious when it comes to critters. I pulled out my phone and took the first in a series of the darnedest cutest baby pics. As I posted them to Facebook my gardening co-horts snickered and harrumphed about how those evil little sods wouldn't last the night in their gardens and it wouldn't be a coyote that took care of them.
The stuff of gardening nightmares?
As it happens this isn't my first rodeo, I mean rabbit nest. In previous gardens, even enclosed, supposedly rabbit-proof ones, I've hosted rabbit families. Maybe it's just the mom in me, but I always feel honored when animals find my garden a safe place to raise their young.
(I do make exceptions for snakes, that's well-known, when it comes to them you might say I'm shovel-ready. And pro-snake people save your breath, it's not gonna change).
Before when I've found the nests I worked around them. It's always funny when Mama Rabbit builds it smack dab in the lettuce patch, kind of cliche almost. I loved the one where the mother had used Swiss chard leaves like a canopy.
Any potential damage was forgotten after I got the chance to show the two year-old neighbor girl all the baby bunnies on Easter Day, with her talking about Mr McGregor. That's a future gardener there.
When baby rabbits are ready to leave the nest, and a friend tells me that is when the small white spot on their head disappears, they too simply disappear. And sure enough they did.
However the next day I looked down in the window well and saw a small, trembling shape huddled in the corner. My fears that they would find this deep abyss were founded.
I didn't want to open the window from inside and chance a rabbit in the house with our dog. So I got my hoe and leaned over a neighbor's fence, hooked and borrowed their pool scoop. I rescued the little guy and relocated him to the backyard, telling him that was it, he was on his own, that the next time we met might not be on friendly terms.
I've seen rabbit damage around the garden, but none of it is too bad. I continue to spray repellent and put up netting on young seedlings. It's a hassle but I believe in planting something akin to the angels' share. There's enough to go around.
-------Meanwhile a mother duck has started laying eggs in our window box, six feet off the ground. Stay tuned.