Hold off on mowing
The first time a now-old friend visited, she was surprised to see flower gardens around our house.
“I thought you just grew vegetables,” she said, proffering the opinion that flower gardens were, you know, kind of frivolous.
“I like flowers,” I said.
I like to pick flowers, wild and cultivated, and bring them inside. I dig up wild flowers and plant them in my garden or around the outbuildings. Starting in June, I take my nippers with me on my morning walks, making the dog wait while I make bouquets of daisies, vetch, birdsfoot trefoil and yarrow.
Now, in the height of flower time, there are lilies and day lilies, heliopsis and black-eyed Susans, bee balm and balloon flowers, cardinal flowers and phlox — all blooming at the same time, in the garden and on the sides of the roads.
We’ve got zinnias planted in the vegetable garden, yellow daylilies hidden behind the sweet corn, and we let the mustard go to flower at the garden edges to feed the bees.
We have stories behind most of the flowers in the gardens. The heliopsis, a bright yellow daisy-shaped flower that grows in great clumps all over the yard, was given to us by an Episcopal priest whose gardens we used to care for. We still call them Father Pratt daisies. The red bee balm and tiger lilies came from other friends, and the black-eyed Susans, oxeye daisies, golden glows and Queen Anne’s lace were dug up from fallow pastures and roadsides. When you put them in good garden soil, they get twice as big as their ancestors, struggling to survive in the sand and salt on the side of a road.
Last month, just before some family birthdays, I saw two big municipal tractors parked in the triangular right-of-way near the road. Mowers.
I made sure to go flower picking before it was too late. Sweet clover, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, day lilies all found their way into the birthday bouquets. The next day those left unpicked were downed by the mower.
I hate to see them go. Roadsides need to be mowed, of course, or they will quickly grow up to brush and then trees. But they can be mowed after frost, when the flowers are done.
It’s not just for me and my vases. It’s for the birds, bees and butterflies, who rely on the nectar for their sustenance. And we rely on their existence to pollinate not only the wildflowers, but most of our food.
The fact that bees everywhere are disappearing is no longer news, but is increasingly alarming. Now we are hearing about butterfly losses as well.
The drop in some butterfly populations might be temporary — monarch populations have dived and thrived before. But any loss of habitat hurts all pollinators, and when pastures are turned into housing developments with their sterile lawns, those pollinators lose both food and places to nest or lay eggs.
Honey bees have suffered through parasitic outbreaks and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which might be caused by pesticides, mowing, hormonal disturbance or some other unknown cause.
Certainly protecting the places where bees feed can only help them, and that includes the wildflowers along the road.
Mowing in July directly hurts the insects feeding on the flowers in full bloom. It also makes it hard for the goldenrod to survive and for the aster to bloom — key nectar plants for the late summer and early fall. Bees rely on that late nectar to boost their winter food stores.
If you can’t stop your highway crew from mowing before frost stops the nectar flow, you can create your own pollinator refuge. You can plant flowers, especially wild or native species. You don’t have to let your whole yard go wild, but you can leave areas unmowed to encourage wildflowers, areas beyond the highway department’s right of way.
When I was in Minnesota recently, I read newspaper reports about the loss of milkweed as broad-spectrum herbicides were used on farm fields, and the resultant loss of monarch butterflies across the state. In a city park, I saw milkweed left to grow around a lake.
It’s a small step. The kind of small step we all can take to protect pollinators. If you like to eat, it’s a step worth taking.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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