The Making Of A Suburban Pollinator Garden

If you’re anything like me, the least utilized area of your lot is the front yard. The American Dream sold us single family homes with sprawling front lawns that ultimately have little visual appeal, serve no ecological purpose, and the maintenance of which is environmentally questionable and a chore that no member of the family wants to take on voluntarily.

Front yard pollinator garden June 20th, 2017. Almost a year to the day after installation. No watering, and minimum weeding in early spring.
Penstemon digitalis in front yard pollinator garden. May 24th, 2017 Penstemon digitalis (foxglove beardtongue). Notice how much everything has grown since this photo was taken.

Converting a lawn, or a portion of it, into a pollinator garden can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. With some foresight, good area prep, and a species list adapted to your specific growing conditions, the process is easy and extremely rewarding. There are several methods that can be used to prepare the area for installation, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. I included a brief overview of some of the options at the bottom of this piece. The area that I was converting was large enough - 75’ by 20’ at its widest - that planting quarts, or larger plants, would be impractical, yet too small to warrant starting from seed (which requires a different process altogether, worthy of its own blog post).

The perfect solution for me was to go with plugs, and as luck would have it, I had plenty of them left over from a native plant conference where I was promoting them as a new product available on our website. I had two sizes available: 98’s which are 1.25 x 1.25 x 2”, and DP50’s which are 2 x 2 x 5”. Plants in these sizes are ideal for medium to large installations. They are very affordable and easy to plant: jab a soil knife into the ground, push forward, drop in the plug, get rid of air gaps, and move on to the next plant. Other advantages are that they establish very quickly because they are at a more aggressive growth stage than their counterparts in larger pots, and that planting them disturbs less soil thereby reducing the opportunity for weeds to establish.

Transition between late-spring bloomers, and summer bloomers in pollinator garden. June 7th, 2017 Transition between late-spring bloomers, and summer bloomers (and a couple of weeds). Unfortunately I took this photo a day after finding out that deer will taste Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) flowers. At least it seems they didn’t like them much and left some for the pollinators and me to enjoy.
Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee purple coneflower) in front yard pollinator garden.
June 20th, 2017 Endemic to only a handful of counties, there’s hope that the ornamental value of Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee purple coneflower) will save it from extinction.
Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and Agastache foeniculum (blue giant hyssop) in front yard pollinator garden. June 20th, 2017 Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and Agastache foeniculum (blue giant hyssop) doing their thing.

Because I was working with available plants, rather than creating a design and acquiring the plants to implement it, my approach was more like preparing a meal with leftovers and whatever else you find in the fridge. The result turned out great, however now that the garden is in its second year I’m realizing that it needs more tall grasses to offset the many tall flowering plants I have, and create more of a rhythm and add textural contrast.

If impractical, for whatever reason, keep in mind that your design does not have to be implemented in one phase. Take advantage of annuals and short-lived perennials to fill empty spaces until such time you are ready to plant long-lived perennials. These tend to be aggressive self-seeders, which is what you want to fill in gaps and keep weeds at bay, yet because they require open ground to germinate, they will not compete with the perennials once they establish. I made liberal use of Rudbeckia hirta for this purpose.

Solidago odora (anisescented goldenrod) and Pycnanthemum incanum (hoary mountainmint), ready to burst into bloom. June 20th, 2017 Solidago odora (anisescented goldenrod) and Pycnanthemum incanum (hoary mountainmint), ready to burst into bloom.
Rudbeckia hirta (blackeyed Susan) in front yard pollinator garden. June 20th, 2017 Rudbeckia hirta (blackeyed Susan) holding their ground while the recently underplanted Asclepias tuberosa (butterflyweed), Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar), and Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhlygrass) establish.
Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master) in front yard pollinator garden. June 20th, 2017 Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master), about a week away from opening up.

Fortunately, nothing is irreversible in garden design. It is a living art form more akin to performance art. Plants will jockey for limelight positions, and as they do, you always have the opportunity to fine tune the design by removing or adding plants at will. It is important to remember this when engaging in such a project. Species availability is very seasonal, and plant inventories can change from week to week. Just be patient.

Nobody in my family would ever set foot in our front yard, except for the occasional mowing of what had become - due to a systematic lack of watering, fertilizing, and herbicides - a patch of weeds. Now, it has become a place of wonder where several times a day family members, neighbors and strangers gather to admire the ever-changing array of flowers and pollinators fluttering about.

Installation completed on July 4th, 2016.

Just after planting a front yard pollinator garden. July 4th, 2016. The grasses along the flagstone, and at the top nearest the street, were 98’s and planted first, two weeks before this photo was taken and already growing strong. The largest plants were transplanted from my back yard. All other plants were a combination of 98’s and DP50’s, planted 12” on center. The entire area was covered with 1” of mulch; thick enough to keep the seed bank from germinating, but thin enough to dry out fast and not create germinating environment for new seeds.  

Front yard pollinator garden Mid-September, 2016 2 ½ months after installation. My species list focused on plants that would tolerate dry, or dry side of moist soil, and full sun. The plugs were watered only once, immediately after planting, then left to fend for themselves through the dog days of summer.     

Plugs  98 count plug                   DP50 plug


Front yard pollinator garden in winter Winter 2016-17. The plants were left as is until new growth began to emerge in early spring. The seeds provide food for wildlife, while the stems are used as nests for native insects. This coming winter will be more impressive, especially if we get snow (the lack of snow this past winter was an anomaly). The different stems and seed heads poking through a carpet of snow is a sight to behold, and one I look forward to as much as the first flowers.
A year after planting the front yard pollinator garden. June 20th, 2017. Almost a year to the day after installation. No watering, and minimum weeding in early spring.


Area prep options:

The least recommended, but unfortunately the most often used, is tilling. Most lawn mixes rely heavily on Bermuda grass, which is a perennial rhizomatous species. Tilling will only chop up the rhizomes, in effect propagating it. Furthermore, this practice will also stir up the seed bank, finally providing the germinating conditions for the countless weeds that have been laying dormant for years.

Sheet mulching - covering the area with layers of cardboard topped with a thick layer of mulch - is effective, but slow. The process needs to begin at least a year before the installation date. It will also create a thick layer of organic material that will not favor native plants adapted to dry sunny conditions as much as it will favor weeds.

Solarizing - covering the area with heavy gauge black plastic - can be cumbersome and expensive for anything but a small area. As with sheet mulching, this is a long process, and it is also one that should be implemented in phases: alternating solarizing with uncovered periods that allow later growing species and the seed bank to germinate.

Burning can be effective at eliminating some species, but is usually frowned upon in suburban settings, unless you have a very good friend in your local fire department. It is also not a stand-alone solution, and to be successful, has to be used in combination with one of the other methods. Just to be clear, if you decide to burn, please check your local ordinance with the fire department. You will literally be playing with fire.

In my case, I used glyphosate. Before anybody jumps on me for that, let me say that I know it gets a terrible rap, and justifiably so, especially when used on an industrial scale on our food crops. It is, however, the most benign herbicide available and at times the best option. It breaks down upon contact with the soil and is the least of evils when used responsibly. It is certainly safer than the herbicides included in weed-and-feed mixes that are applied to lawns several times a year, are subject to runoff, and persist in the soil for months. I did the first application in the fall, while my lawn was still actively growing. A second light application in the spring to hit the cool season grasses and weeds. And a final spot application in late May to hit the warm season weeds. By the time I was ready to begin planting, in mid to late June, there were just a few persistent weeds left, which I removed by hand.

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