Cut the Grass, Fill Your Stomach, Save the World

By MNR News posted 05-26-2022 08:53

By replacing some of your lawn with pollinator and vegetable gardens, you’ll help the environment and reap a harvest of good eating
We Americans love our lawns. We picnic, party, barbecue, bat balls, and even host the occasional wedding on these wide green spaces. Altogether, our verdant blades of grass blanket 63,000 square miles of the United States—an area the size of Georgia.

But there’s a cost to keeping that vast acreage green and lush, both financially and environmentally. Every year, Americans spend $36 billion on lawn care. That price tag includes 600 million gallons of gas (and $17 million of that is spilled on the driveway). And nine billion gallons of water per day—that’s a third of all residential water use. Plus, there’s all the noxious chemicals we use to keep the dandelions, crabgrass, and creepy-crawlies at bay.

In Minnesota alone, we dump 1.4 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides in the grass, and ultimately into the water table. Some of these compounds kill valuable pollinators like bees, and other beneficial insects, and indirectly impact birds by reducing their food supply. Eventually, they run into lakes and streams, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico where they contribute to an 8,000-square-mile marine-life-killing “dead zone.”

So, whether you want to save the planet or save a few bucks at the supermarket, there are many benefits to planting some of your green acres with flowering native plants, and highly productive vegetable gardens.

Catch a Buzz with Bee and Pollinator Gardens

Apart from the celebrated honeybee, Minnesota is home to 450 native bee species, including the official state bee, the endangered Rusty patched bumble bee. Working together with myriad other pollinators, including wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, and even beetles, they pollinate our food crops and a wide range of indigenous plants. Unfortunately, populations of all these insects are in steep decline due to loss of habitat, pesticides, and disease.

The good news is that homeowners can make a significant impact by transforming even a small patch of yard into pollinator habitat. Getting started is easy. Just choose an area (perhaps that troubled zone where grass won’t thrive). Lay down some sheets of cardboard and mulch. Plant some hardy natives like Black-Eyed Susans, Cone Flowers, Bee Balm, Iron Weed and others. When these beauties blossom, you’ll get a daily dose of eye candy that literally buzzes with happy pollinators. For a complete list, and detailed instructions for creating pollinator gardens, read Planting for Pollinators from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).

But won’t all those bees sting?

Most bees and wasps won’t sting unless directly threatened. And when they’re busy pollinating, they take little notice of humans. The only exceptions are social wasps with nests close by. And toward the end of summer, yellow jackets (often confused for bees) can be aggressive.

Gardener Tip – Native plants can look a little—well—wild. Tame them with stone or brick borders that define their area and make a neat transition to the rest of your yard. Also, stagger your plantings with taller ones in the back, and smaller ones upfront. This enhances their beauty and creates eye-pleasing aesthetics.

Plant an Edible Garden

Grass is the most cultivated crop in the United States, beating out corn, wheat, and soy. But unless you’re an agrarian quadruped, it’s unlikely you’ll be adding Kentucky bluegrass to your mixed salad greens any time soon. By replacing even a small patch of grass with a vegetable garden, you can reap an abundance of fresh, tasty produce during Minnesota’s relatively short growing season.

Whether you cover the grass with raised beds or till the soil directly, you can grow a wide range of vegetables, including leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and kale, and root vegetables like carrots, radishes, beets, onions, and potatoes. And of course, you can inundate your co-workers with leftovers from that bumper crop of zucchini and cucumbers.

Except for citrus and tropical fruits, you can grow just about anything in the North Star state and achieve a high degree of year-round self-sufficiency by canning your harvest. The key to success is careful planning. This includes knowing the right time to plant your crops. For example, lettuce and radishes thrive in the spring after the last frost. Tomatoes require a bit more care—planting seeds indoors during winter, and gradually hardening off before planting outdoors in late May or early June. The University of Minnesota Extension provides extensive planting and growing guides, including primers on vegetable gardening for beginners. With a little research, and a bit of dirt under your fingernails, you’ll be well on your way to making meals from land where only grass used to grow.

Dining with Dandelions is Good for Your Health

And while you’re at it, you just might want to harvest a few of those prolific dandelions for your next salad. Technically classified as herbs, these much-maligned lawn dwellers are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins A, C, and K, folate, calcium, and potassium. According to the Cleveland Clinic, potent antioxidants in the plant’s roots, leaves, and flowers can help reduce the chronic inflammation associated with cancer and heart disease. Dandelions can also help regulate blood pressure, and reduce blood sugar levels, and lower cholesterol.

Dandelion leaves can be tossed in a salad, adding a slightly bitter contrast to sweeter greens. You can also bring out their Italian side by parboiling them, and then sauteing with onions and garlic before blending with freshly cooked pasta. The flowers can be made into tea (or even wine), and the roots can be roasted and brewed into a beverage that tastes a little like coffee. Learn more by reading the Cleveland Clinic’s article, Can You Eat Dandelions?

NOTE: The only caveat is that you should not eat dandelions from areas that have been treated with herbicides or pesticides.

Paint Your Lawn with Plantings

Your lawn is a blank green canvas. So, enliven it with your own botanical creations. From bee-friendly flower gardens to rainbows of fruits and veggies, you can create a personal oasis that feeds your family and community, connects to the natural world, and helps preserve it for generations to come.