Or by Simply Changing Mowing Regimes
By Alina Harris
This article originally appears in November 2021 Xerces Society Creating Wildflower Meadows from Scratch or by Simply Changing Mowing Regimes | Xerces Society and is reprinted with their permission and the authors.
When a land steward asks for recommendations for increasing the number of pollinators in their landscape, many times the initial request is to start a pollinator meadow from seed. Their vision is usually a diverse meadow with an emphasis on native flowers and grasses. These meadows not only provide nectar and pollen as food for our native pollinators and beneficial insects, but also provide nesting and overwintering habitat in the stems, bunch grasses, and undisturbed ground. We love successful wildflower meadows started from scratch because they can have a high diversity of native species, can be showy with continuous blooms, and promote beauty in natural areas, backyards, and on farms—and even support agritourism.
When starting from scratch, however, it’s important to note that during the first couple of years of establishment, it’s not all flowers and butterflies. To learn about some of the detailed methods and timelines used, download a copy of the Xerces publication Organic Site Preparation for Wildflower Establishment. For New England specific site preparation methods including black tarp, visit Native Pollinator Biodiversity: The Contributions of Native Pollinator Meadows.
In towns and cities, a growing number of gardeners are converting mowed lawn to pollinator habitat. On farms, it is common to begin with old hay lands that are mowed less frequently. These sites are dominated by non-native grasses and tend to have thick, mat-forming root systems with lots of thatch and residue on the surface. Aggressive site preparation is needed before sowing tiny native seeds into the prepared soil surface. Some of the native perennials take up to three years before flowering. Funding is also a consideration. It isn’t exactly cheap to buy high-quality, locally adapted native seed, as well as the other materials needed to prepare the site. It’s hard work, but when all these steps are taken, starting from scratch can yield glorious results for years to come. It has made many pollinators, larger wildlife, and humans overjoyed across the United States!
Many times though, landowners don’t have necessary funding or labor hours to put towards from-scratch pollinator habitat projects. They are interested in helping pollinators, but might have a larger landscape to manage and are looking for more casual methods that are affordable over a larger scale. If there is already the beginning of decent pollinator habitat in a system, a suitable option is to change the mowing regime—which may be as simple as to not mow it during the summer months and wait to mow after a frost or two in the autumn. Over time, existing flowering plants that are already present in the soil will begin to increase.
Habitat areas managed by delayed mowing may not exhibit the same diversity of native plants as a from-scratch meadow. For example, there may be a prevalence of introduced species such as Queen Anne’s lace and red clover in areas previously managed by humans. At the same time, native pollinators such as bumble bees and monarch butterflies forage on non-native red clover flowers. Delayed-mowing meadows may result in less flower diversity, but can still provide meaningful pollinator value in areas with just a simple change of the mowing regime. Ideally, sites would mow about one-third of the acreage per year on a rotational basis: Since native invertebrates overwinter in the stems and bunch grasses, two-thirds of the area may be left undisturbed while one-third is mowed to reduce woody encroachments and maintain open pollinator habitat.
For more information on delayed mowing regimes, visit page 18 (“Adjusting Mowing Practices to Benefit Pollinators”) of the Xerces Society publication Roadside Best Management Practices that Benefit Pollinators.
Your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service field office can also help if you are interested in establishing new pollinator habitat or changing your mowing regime to increase flowering diversity on private land. Reach out to your local NRCS field office to start the conversation and potentially receive funding towards your conservation efforts.
For gardeners who want to reduce time spent mowing their lawn and gradually increase flowering species diversity, check out Bee Friendlier with Your Lawncare on the Xerces blog.
Download a copy of Organic Site Preparation for Wildflower Establishment
Find plant lists, habitat management guidance, and much more in the Pollinator Conservation Resource Center
Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program.
Discover how you can help Bring Back the Pollinators.
About the Author
Alina Harris Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management Specialist and NRCS Partner Biologist As part of the Xerces team, Alina works collaboratively with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and with the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Cooperative Extension. She serves as a liaison between farmers and these organizations by providing technical and financial assistance in Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management (IPPM).