Last year, I stopped mowing the lawn - or, to be strictly accurate, the husband stopped. I had read that when a bumblebee queen emerges blinking in to the cold spring light, she needs to visit 6,000 flowers a day just to be able to feed her offspring. I knew that our bees were in trouble. And that butterflies, hoverflies, beetles and other insects were disappearing too.
o more mowing, I decided. My patch of front grass would be a welcoming banquet of wildflowers.
"The most ecological way to grow a wildflower lawn is to go for 'natural colonisation'," says Mark Bryson of EcoSeed who has been planting, tending and advising on Irish wildflower meadows for over 25 years. "That means just letting your grass grow for a season, look what comes up, see what's there."
To some people that might sound like heresy. As one gardener put it to me, closing the gate and doing nothing is not gardening.
But to more and more of us, concerned about our pollinators and biodiversity, it's a really simple way to help our hungry insects - it's also nicely low maintenance.
There are more strenuous ways to grow a wildflower meadow, of course. You could start from scratch by removing the top sod, clearing out weeds like dock that would soon take over, and raking the soil to a fine tilth - no bigger, says Mark, than the size of the seeds you're planting.
Then you plant your wildflower seed mix. It's best to go as local as possible - Design by Nature (wildflower.ie) sell a range of Irish wildflower mixes aimed at small gardens or pollinators or different soil types as well as larger meadows, while Mark's not-for-profit EcoSeeds includes a bee mix that flowers during 'the hunger gap', among others.
Next, either press the seeds into the ground with a roller, or place a plank on the soil and walk up and down it, to press the seeds into the soil. Mark advises against watering.
First up on my lazy lawn were dandelions, zillions of them. I've had a zero tolerance policy on them for years, beheading them before they could release their seeds to the four winds. "Dandelions? Great stuff," says Mark. Bees love them and because they flower in early spring they can feed pollinators when there is little else around. Let them be.
Next came daisies, clover, chickweed, vetch, some mosses and the usual grasses. "Get yourself a wildflower book," suggests Mark. "Once you get interested, it opens up a whole world to you." Zoe Devlin's The Wildflowers of Ireland is a good start, while the National Biodiversity Data Centre of Ireland publishes a guide to grasses (biodiversityireland.ie; €15).
When you first let your grass grow, lots of 'indicator species' appear that give clues about your soil, whether it's acid or alkaline, and what wildflowers might grow happily there. If your soil is wet and acidic, for example, you might find species like the pretty white cuckooflower (it blooms at the same time that the cuckoo arrives, hence the name), where the endangered orange tip butterfly likes to lay its eggs.
"It's much more valuable than buddleia," says Mark. "Buddleia is like a restaurant, but cuckooflower is like a butterfly's kitchen."
If you've had a lawn for years, says Mark, its cultivated grasses may drown out any wildflowers. Plant yellow rattle as it feeds off the roots of grasses, siphoning off their energy for growth and opening up more light for the seed bank that is lying dormant in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to spring into life. Foxglove seeds, for example, can lie dormant for 200 years before they germinate.
Think of your garden from a bird's perspective too, says Mark, plant flowers that have different heights, especially in urban gardens. Teasel is a perfect example - it grows to about 6ft tall, birds like to perch on it to check for cats, insects love its flowers, while finches like the seeds.
We finally mowed the grass last autumn, raking up the clippings to keep the fertility of the soil down and give wildflowers a chance against the grasses this year. It had some glory days in the summer when clover and vetch were in bloom and loud with buzzing. And it was a lesson in patience, in learning to love its shagginess.
This year, I'm in stage two - putting in plugs of Irish wildflower plants to add more variety to the banquet. Both the conservation charity Trueharvestseeds.org in Co Down and EcoSeeds sell plugs, though they encourage you to grow your own from seeds collected in your neighbourhood (download a guide on pollinators.ie, the website of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan).
So, if you see me lurking with a paper bag outside the lovely garden of No 64, that's what I'm at.
Have your say
Should Trinity College Dublin turn the formal lawns under the feet of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a biodiversity-boosting wildflower meadow? Have your say at https://vote.onestepcloser.to/tcd/wildflowers