Around the I Spy! garden and beyond
Close your eyes and picture a pollinator garden. I bet you see lots of flowers, busy bees, butterflies, jousting hummingbirds (if you’re in the Americas), hovering flower flies, maybe a moth or two. Look at the scene again. Are there any grasses (other than lawn) in your picture? If not this garden is missing an important landscape and ecological component that benefits pollinators and a host of other critters that keep the system humming. Think of a garden without grasses as a cake crafted without baking soda. The finished product is edible, but might be a bit of a let-down.
Grasses: beyond the forever mowing variety
Grasses serve multiple purposes in the landscape. Their visual interest can be magical. Some are short, clumpy, and cute. Others stand in the middle ground, some tall and supple, waving their blades and awns delicately in the breeze. Colors, ranging from light to dark green, buff to golds, oranges or red capture light and shades that change throughout the day and seasons.
Non-invasive ornamental and native grasses save water and money spent on fertilizers and other maintenance chores of traditional sod lawns. Low-care varieties can replace lawns altogether and still take traffic and look tidy. Deep root systems of native grasses make them perfect plants for water-wise gardens or erosion control while offering numerous wildlife benefits.
Grasses – links in the eco-web
As foreground, background, or intermixed with flowers and shrubs, grasses in the pollinator garden provide important areas for numerous insects and insect pollinators to feed, reproduce, and find shelter from storms and predators or to chill out during winter as they wait for spring. Grasses and sedges offer perching spots for male butterflies to scout for females.
Common ringlet (Coenonympha tullia). Adults need nectar. Larvae feed on a variety of grasses. Third or fourth instar phases overwinter in thick mats of dead grass.
Some butterflies and moths rely on specific native grass plants as hosts to hide their eggs and provide food for their caterpillars. Prairie grass research shows 36 species of butterflies and moths depend on 17 native grass species as host plants.
Adult pollinators may have plenty of flowers for nectar in your neighborhood, but if their specific grass or sedge species are missing, their life cycle ends with the adult. Your garden and, ultimately, the world will have fewer visitors next year.
Songbird babies depend on caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects to develop and thrive. Eighty percent of a hummingbird’s diet is small insects and spiders. They use spider webs to strengthen their nests.
Bluetit with caterpillar (Pixabay)
Almost 3 billion breeding birds disappeared from U.S. and Canadian landscapes over the last 50 years, primarily due to habitat loss, including native plants. Our garden caterpillars and small insects can and do play a pivotal role in bolstering the future of our bird and wildlife populations.
Quail eggs in ground nest (Pixabay)
Adult birds use grasses to construct or line nests. Bunch grasses, with their compact bases, provide insects safe winter hibernation, either on or below the soil. Their bunchy quality at the base leaves small bare dirt areas between plants that are critical to solitary and semi-social ground-nesting bees. The federally endangered Rusty patched bumble bee is but one.
Reptiles and amphibians also rely on insects, important in keeping some of our pest species under control.
Alligator lizards, for example, prey on grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches. Snakes eat insects, small birds, and mammals like mice.
Snakes, lizards, frogs, and small mammals that use grasses for cover and hunting are on the menu for raptors like the Red-shouldered hawk.
Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) on watch.
Add native grasses and plants to your garden
As you plan your fall garden work, find spaces to insert native grasses or sedges. Ornamentals have their place, but be careful not to buy and plant some of the most popular non-natives, which have proven to be unwelcome invasives. The best source of information and help (North America) is your local or state native plant society. State societies can direct you to chapters within your region or local areas. It may not be easy to find native grasses, but the website Native Plant has a list of nurseries across the states that may carry what you need. Encourage your local nurseries to stock more native grasses and plants, too.
Happy end of Pollinator Month. But every month remember — carry a butterfly on your shoulder . . .
author with butterfly – Botanical Garden, St. Andrews, Scotland
and a bee in your heart.