Are those little clumps of flowering greenery in your winter lawn weeds or wildflowers? It’s possible to see them as both, and garden accordingly.
My earliest lawn care memories predate my working at garden centers helping customers sort out liquid and granular herbicides, and later studying turfgrass management at Mississippi State University. They involved fiddling with a small gas mower before cutting patterns in the clover and stickers that my parents called a lawn and pushing a reel mower through the ground ivy in my horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl’s multiple-room landscape.
Before I get any farther, let me assure you that, as a trained lawn consultant, I appreciate a perfectly manicured, uniform lawn. I understand the detail and perseverance it requires and applaud those who manage to pull it off, however fleetingly, out of devotion, which is a form of love.
It is especially sweet when those folks maintain just a small putting green-like portion of the overall lawn to such high standards and allow the larger area be more relaxed. It makes sense financially and ecologically.
Not so sure, though, about folks who attempt to chemically maintain wall-to-wall monocrops just to keep up appearances. Slowly that two century-old aristocratic approach of using the lawn as a badge of social standing is passing.
Anyway, this time of year when most lawns are supposed to be brown and dormant, a few low-growing hardy meadow plants really stand out. And despite the herbicide sales-driven barrage of warnings about them being an enemy to be fought, the flowers aren’t entirely bad news, as on every sunny midwinter day the clover, dandelions, henbit, violets, onions and garlic, and a plethora of tiny winter wildflowers are humming with bees and alight with midwinter butterflies, hungry except for what they can forage in your yard.
Back to Pearl, who for many years was the horticulture chair of the Town and Country Garden Club of Indianola, which she helped found in 1935. She was a practical hands-in-the-dirt DIGr (determined independent gardener) who grew her own vegetables, canned homegrown fruit, had a large metal “Bird Sanctuary” sign in her front yard and cherished wildflowers way before they were cool.
She never embraced the newly developed herbicides that made more genteel cultivated lawns possible. Her only tools were a clunky, smoke-belching mower and a trowel for planting little bulbs.
Which leads me to my main point, about how to pull off having a mostly mow-what-grows meadow lawn like we all used to have.
Start by raising your mower a notch or two, which helps thicken your lawn so it can out-compete a lot of really troublesome weeds, such as stickers, that thrive in close-cut lawns. And wait until April to fertilize, lightly.
Then, to throw off naysayers, deliberately plant a few violas and other low-growing winter flowers that really shine just when neighbors start fussing futilely over their weeds.
My favorite little winter bulbs include multiplying daffodils, including fragrant jonquils and the small but showy Tete-a-Tete, and purple grape hyacinth and Spanish bluebells. Pink oxalis and white clover are beautiful this time of year and loaded with starving pollinators. My fifth top five winter meadow lawn companion, which was also my great-grandmother’s favorite, is the blue starflower (ipheion).
These all peak in winter and early spring, and when you start mowing for the summer they disappear as if they’d never been there at all. Meanwhile, mow paths, not wall to wall, leaving a few clumps of wildflowers here and there
They’ll be back next winter, hopefully showing proof to all but the most critical neighbors that you are deliberate and thoughtful about what’s important.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.