Time to tidy up the garden? Perhaps pluck some of the weeds? Must mow the lawn. These are some of the thoughts we entertain this time of the year as we approach summer. Lawns are the main feature of most Irish gardens and there’s a great deal of effort involved in keeping them in pristine condition, to stop moss growing and generally achieving homogenous perfection, in particular making sure that no dandelions or daisies destroy its appearance! With our insect population in crisis, Eugene Daly asks why so many people are trying to keep nature at bay with the allocation of land to something as useless as a lawn?
The following are some of the headlines I have seen lately in the Cork Examiner and Sunday Independent – ‘Forty Shades of Green Could be reduced to Two’; ‘We face an Insect Apocalypse, but Recovery is Possible’; ‘Each well-kept Lawn is a Little War on Nature’; ‘Lifeless Lawns will Obliterate our Bumblebees’. Lawns are a standard presence across gardens, parks, university grounds, civic places, everywhere really. It seems that there is an antipathy to the natural world which is taking its toll on insects and birds. Dr. Una Fitzpatrick, who runs the bumblebee monitoring scheme for the National Biodiversity Data Centre, warns that our bumblebees are literally starving to death. “We keep tidying up nature so we have gardens, grassland and parkland with no dandelions or clover, or other wild flowers and the bumblebees die of hunger.” she stated.
Maybe we have been lulled into a false sense of security by Ireland’s image as a green and fertile land. The reality is that the plight of the bumblebee is worse here than in Europe overall, according to research recently published in the journal ‘Science’. The bumblebee that comes out of hibernation in spring cannot get the nectar it desperately needs because there simply aren’t enough so-called ‘weeds’ and flowering plants.
Dandelions appear at the same time of year as the much-loved daffodil, and with similar colour; it’s a pity we can love one flower and despise the other so much. Daffodils are undoubtedly beautiful plants, but planting daffodils offers as much for biodiversity as sticking plastic flowers in the ground. This is because daffodils contain little or no pollen or nectar, while dandelions offer copious amounts of this vital food for hungry pollinators at this time of year.
Bees, butterflies and other important pollinators require a varied diet, but in early spring the availability of nectar-rich dandelions can tide them over when there are few other flowers in bloom. Later birds can feast on the dandelion seed heads, a favourite with birds such as the goldfinch and greenfinch. “Between birds and bees what more could one small flower offer to the world? In this time of biodiversity crisis, can we learn to live with dandelions? If we could only let the dandelions enjoy their first spring bloom, this would be a valuable simple way to help biodiversity,” writes Juanita Brown in the Cork Examiner.
I find it strange that maintaining a manicured lawn is such standard practice. Like many of the trends that surged in the mid-20th century, maintaining a lawn is another way to maintain dominion over nature. Lawns are often sprayed to conformity and fertilised for the brightest green. Lawns are where we rigidly reconstruct nature, stamp out diversity, and impose straight lines and sharp edges. “Each well-kept lawn is its own little war on nature,” writes Anja Murray in the Cork Examiner.
Gardens are generally good for our mental health and physical wellbeing. Watching movement and texture, such as leaves swaying in a breeze, draws our attention and eases our nervous system. Making space for flowers, bees and butterflies is, of course, good for wildlife too. Allowing a lawn to grow tall and full with flowers provides nectar and pollen for wild bees, colourful butterflies, night flying moths. These, in turn, support songbirds that we love to listen to. Not a week passes where scientists and naturalists do not express grave concern about the disappearance of insects – flies, bugs, bees, moths and butterflies, ladybirds, earwigs (the little gailseach) and so on.
There is a growing appreciation in Ireland and elsewhere that nature needs space from our controlling tendencies. Even very simple changes, like reducing how often the lawn is mowed, can make a big difference to wild life. I suggest a few ways that can help to restore the wild beauty of nature.
1. Mow part of your lawn low, if that is what you like, but leave other areas to grow longer, or, if your garden is big enough, create an area of wildflower meadow. This will need cutting just once a year, provide a sequence of flowers and seed heads that will change weekly.
2. Probably the main reason behind the huge loss of insects is the wide use of pesticides and herbicides – not only on farmland but also in gardens. Stop poisoning – after all we are poisoning Mother Earth.
3. Fall in love with dandelions, daisies, red and white clover and other wild flowers.
4. If you own land, plant native trees, which have the greatest benefit to our wildlife because they have evolved together. Consider silver birch, rowan, hazel, oak, ash, beech, yew and so on. Plant the smaller shrubs and trees if you have less space – holly, elderberry, hawthorn, blackthorn, crab apple, honeysuckle, wild rose etc.
5. Set pollinator friendly flowers – lavender, aster, sunflowers, cosmos, calendula, daisy, borage, nasturtium, sage…
6. Enjoy the goodness of our wild plants – many are edible and delicious eg, blackberries, elderflowers, and nettles from which a delicious soup can be made.
7. Don’t cut low, or worse still, poison the grass and plants along the sides of our roads. Adopt and put into practice what they are doing at the entrance to Rosscarbery, cutting a couple of feet along the roadside and allowing the rest to grow higher.
A movement called ‘No-Mow-May’ encourages gardeners not to mow the lawn throughout the month of May. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and associated website Pollinators.ie has wonderful advice for anyone looking to do their bit.
Extract from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’
And now you ask in your heart,
‘How shall we distinguish that which is good in pleasure from that which is not good?’
Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.