Forget the perfectly manicured lawn and start planting for bees and butterflies (and your budget and health)

All of us who were around in the 1980s remember ChemLawn—and those little flags sprinkled on yards marking them as temporarily unsafe for children and pets. By the 1990s, the iconic company was going by TruGreen ChemLawn. And then it dropped the ChemLawn part altogether as Americans became increasingly turned off by “chem” and interested in all things “green.”

“Americans are obsessed with lawns,” says Seana Cullinan of Larkspur Design, and she’s backed up by the numbers: The United States has 30 million acres of lawn. “Our natural habitat is disappearing, and native plants are crucial to our native insects. Plants make themselves toxic to insects as a way to survive, and it takes insects millennia to adapt to be able to eat the plants.”

While the grass may indeed look greener on immaculately groomed and treated lawns, the uniformity of those landscapes could be the death of the honeybee, which looks for nectar on clover and dandelion. And then there are the monarch butterflies, arriving here from the Midwest and looking for milkweed so they can breed.

Monarch chrysalis 3-4 days before emergence. Photo courtesy of Eric Topper, Maine Audubon

“That’s a big part of what we do—providing habitat for pollinators,” says Cullinan, who has a five-person crew that specializes in ecological landscaping. “We need to think twice about why we’re poisoning these plants that are beneficial for the soil and for pollinating insects. Those so-called weeds are part of our ecosystem. Also, when grass is allowed to grow a little longer, it provides habitats to insects like fireflies.”

Eric Topper, director of education for Maine Audubon, planted butterfly weed and swamp milkweed in his yard in Portland to attract monarchs, whose caterpillars depend on milkweed. Last summer he had the joy of observing and filming the monarch life cycle with his 8-year-old son.

A monarch egg is tiny—about the size of the ball in a ballpoint pen. But, Topper says, once you know where the egg is, you can keep an eye on it and, if you’re lucky, witness the transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis (with monarch wings showing through) to butterfly.

Because monarch caterpillars eat milkweed as soon as they hatch, the butterflies will lay their eggs only on milkweed leaves. One of the three milkweeds native to Maine—common milkweed—is what most of us tend to think of, and it’s aggressive, sticky and doesn’t spend much of its time in bloom. But butterfly weed and swamp milkweed, which Topper planted around his back deck, have beautiful blooms and are easy to grow without taking over the landscape. Thanks to these plants in Topper’s back yard, some monarchs were able to reproduce and, with some luck, complete their migration pattern to the mountains of central Mexico.

“People with backyard gardens really do make a difference,” Cullinan says. “Think of your yard as a way station for insects who are traveling. When those caterpillars don’t have food, it affects the entire food chain. Our ecosystem cannot survive without the plants that are native to our biosystem.”

Monarch chrysalis 1 day before emergence. Photo courtesy of Eric Topper, Maine Audubon

Topper says it’s all about small choices that add up—whether our choices are changing the ecosystem in negative or positive ways.

“In nature, things bloom, they fade, and the seed blows around,” Topper says, advocating for native plants. “A lot of conservationists have given up on the developed landscape and focus on pristine landscapes, but the biggest agents of change and the biggest threats are in the developed landscapes”—places like suburban neighborhoods and city blocks.

Two volunteer-led groups in Portland—Portland Protectors and Portland Pollinators—are indeed agents of change. Portland Protectors, led by Avery Yale Kamila, lobbied for a strict pesticide ordinance in Portland, and one of the strongest anti-pesticide ordinances in the country, which prohibits synthetic pesticides on public and private property without an exemption, was passed in January.

Meanwhile, Portland Pollinators is planting pollinator-friendly gardens throughout the city, full of bloomers such as blue verbena, asters and wild geranium.

“Everyone has different concepts of beauty and what a yard should look like,” says Annie Wadleigh of Portland Pollinators. “But, with the environment in peril, the idea of the immaculately groomed English lawn is outdated. People’s attitudes are changing.”

As Wadleigh points out, not all reasons for going pollinator-friendly are altruistic.

“Having a pollinator- and wildlife-friendly garden may be less costly. Native plants are more resilient and drought-resistant,” she says. “There’s a joy to seeing a natural habitat, and an organic native garden is better for pets and children. This garden we planted on the West End is just beautiful. It’s full of bees and butterflies. It’s just humming.”

Over the 30 years Wadleigh has lived in Portland she noticed a drop in the number of bees and butterflies on the Peninsula. “But, if you plant the right plants,” she says, “they come back.”

Native Plants Sale & Festival at Gilsland Farm, Maine Audubon
Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Wild Seed Project, Portland:
Burnt Meadow Nursery, Brownfield:
Native Haunts Plants Nursery, Alfred:

“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Doug Tallamy

Portland Pollinators Partnership:

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who isn’t impressed by lawns.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here