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Pollinators: Chocolate, Lawns and Alternatives

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Gone are the days of a young child escaping into his yard to pick posies as a gift to his mother, flowers from her own yard. It was a brilliant maneuver; her yard, her flowers, and her own chosen favorite plants.

Today, a trip through any neighborhood will easily prove, as Rob Wile wrote in 2015 in the Huffington Post, that American lawns are the largest single ‘crop’ in the US. NASA scientists have mapped our love of lawns in the US to more than 63,000 square miles. Scientists have determined that lawns require more irrigation than many of the crops that feed and clothe us.

What are the alternatives? Many questions come to mind. How is it beneficial? How much will it cost? What could be planted instead?

Costs depend on how the lawn removal is done and what type of lawn exists. Some lawns, like Bermuda, take a herd of goats and a bulldozer. It is not as simple as just stop watering. Bermuda lawns will patiently wait for you to give up and fling water their way. There are tricks to kill a regular lawn that include those huge Costco shipping boxes to smother the light away and then the lawn. The hope is to remove the grass easily and get to dirt.

A transition to a lawn alternative, benefits other beings that may surprise you. (Of course, the additional water that becomes available may be used for drinking or feeding our communities.) Thousands of acres of lawn have helped to reduce the numbers of pollinators, including bees, to levels of concern. There are several variables to the decline in pollinators. Opting for additional floral abundance and diversity could add to pollinators’ chances for survival and increased populations.

Plant selection for your new yard may offer help to the 4000 species of native bees plus thousands of other natives including butterflies, moths, birds, beetles, flies, and bats. Landscaping choices are not limited to wild flowers. Flowering trees, shrubs, and flowers provide nectar that is high in sugar and needed amino acids, plus pollen that is high in protein – a pollinator’s buffet.

Plan to plant in groupings of the same plant. Blocks of flowering plants create a bold vision. The same plant or type of flower creates pollination efficiency; your pollinator does not have to relearn how to use the flower to obtain the pollen. Knowing your zone will help with plant selection. Choices include herbs, annuals, and natives. Low growing thymes, old fashion zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos will bring your yard alive with pollinators.

Choose varieties considering their bloom schedules. Different plants blooming from early spring to late fall will feed your pollinators throughout the season. Pollinators enjoy the same plants you do; different fragrances, colors, heights, and seasons of blooms.

By now you might think that pollinators are doing fine without your help. Not to panic you, but without pollinators—specifically a tiny midge fly—chocolate flowers would not be pollinated. Without pollination there would be no cocoa beans. Without cocoa beans there is no chocolate. Chocolate lovers unite: let’s plant some penstemons to trade the pollinators for chocolate milk!

Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.