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It’s spring 2022, and the varied homes of Montgomery, Alabama’s Historic District are linked by a common thread. They’re each growing the United States’ most widely distributed horticultural staple: lawn turf. I grew up on Southern lawns just like these, sneaking cigarettes and cheap beer in side-yards away from the prying eyes of parents with one of my best friends, Wes. It’s amazing to me how much life is lived in these green deserts, and the reason I’m here is because Wes and his wife, Katie, have asked me to rip up theirs.

Wes and Katie’s yard, before.
Wes and Katie’s yard, before.

A big priority in demolishing said wasteland was to create a space that encouraged native pollinators and wildlife back into the fold. So in short succession, here are four things we considered in welcoming the wild into this sleepy neighborhood but can also be applied to gardens beyond Alabama state lines.

A List of (Some of) the Plants We Used in This Southeastern Garden

Courtesy of Nick Spain
  • Penstemon digitalis
  • Viburnum dentatum
  • Itea virginica
  • Monarda fistulosa
  • Heuchera villosa
  • Geranium maculatum
  • Oenothera lindheimeri

Plan for More Than Just Bees 

The yard, under construction.

You’ve probably heard about the extreme decline in our honeybee population. While it’s very important to consider the various species of bees and ongoing efforts to rectify this situation when designing a garden, in reality bees are part of a much larger web of pollinating species—from beetles and moths to hummingbirds and more. Because of this, it’s critical to plan for a variety of flower shapes and bloom times.

Hummingbirds have adapted their beaks to tubular flowers, and moths are attracted to light flowers that are night scented. Tools like the National Wildlife Association’s Native Plant Finder are a great resource to reference just what pollinator species a native plant will benefit. 

All Pollen Is Not Created Equal

Just because a plant is pollen rich doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be great for our native pollinators. Why? Because many growers use a group of systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids. A chemical cousin of nicotine, the compound is used to deter sap-sucking insects, but it’s ultimately expressed in all parts of the plant, including its pollen. Studies on bees show the compound can build up in colonies over time and lead to a host of issues that ultimately cause death, similar to how mercury builds up in fish populations. So it’s important to choose material that has been grown organically or to ask your nursery if it knows what chemicals have been used, since the insecticide is currently banned or regulated in only four U.S. states. 

Nix All That Mulch

The yard, under construction.

Mulch will always be a crucial part of every garden. It effectively keeps roots cool and the ground moist so that you have happier plants. But if you treat each and every single plant as an island meant to stand alone in a sea of brown mulch, you’re missing the point.

Instead, think about planting densely and using plants to create a living layer of mulch by employing a mix of ground covers and low-mounding perennials in between shrubs and vertical species. You’ll be creating a multitude of microclimates for different pollinators to inhabit with the added benefit of suppressing weeds and reducing the need for weeding later in the season. 

Reconsider Aesthetics

Oftentimes the wilder landscapes that prove beneficial to pollinators are considered “messy” in the traditional horticultural sense. However, there are subtle clues that show a human visitor that an outdoor space is managed, which the landscape designer Claudia West calls “cues for care.” This can be as simple as neatly edging the front of a bed or creating a mown path through a meadow. Additionally, structural elements like the rectilinear brick pathways and clipped box we used at Wes and Katie’s can serve as an excellent foil for all that vivaciousness. Gardens like Stoneleigh in Pennsylvania are even making a case that structural elements like pruned hedges can be made using all kinds of native, pollinator-friendly species.

The garden is now in its second season, and even though it is still very much a work in progress, this spring I received a flood of texts from Wes and Katie about new visitors to the garden, the most-welcomed one being their newborn daughter. I’m excited by the fact that she will get to exist in this garden surrounded by nature; that maybe she will learn to walk or scrape her knee or sneak around with friends in this space we created. I’m excited that she will let life in. 

Additional Resources (in No Particular Order)