A lawn full of colourful wildflowers

If you make some of the changes below, you're likely to spot more pollinators such as bees and butterflies in your garden, and perhaps even frogs and hedgehogs © Tim Green (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

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How to grow a lawn that's better for wildlife

A manicured lawn is something many people are very proud of but why not add value to your lawn by making parts of it more beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife.

Start with little changes that make a big difference or do a full makeover and impress the neighbours.

Gardens are crucial for nature - they cover more space than all UK National Nature Reserves put together.

Lawns are a home for beetles, other insects and worms, and they attract birds such as starlings that feed on the invertebrates hidden below. They also help rainwater to drain away.

Standard turf lawns, however, need a lot of maintenance - mowing, watering and feeding. Making some of the changes below will attract more wildlife, bring new sights and smells into your garden and make your lawn more resilient to heavy rain and droughts. They will also give you a rest from mowing.

Blackbird pulling and earthworm from a lawn

Lawns are an important source of food for some bird species, including this blackbird © Airwolfhound (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Hands off the mower

If you stop mowing your whole lawn or part of it, for a month or a season, you can create a busy wildlife habitat. Plants already present will have the chance to grow and bloom.

Clover seeds may already be in your lawn as they used to be included in packets of lawn seed. Other seeds get blown in or dropped by birds. 

You might also expect to see daisies, speedwell, selfheal, buttercups and cowslips. Even orchids might appear.

Bee orchids among grass and clover

Dainty wild orchids could be among the flowers that appear in your lawn if you mow it less

The pollen and nectar of flowering plants will attract pollinating bees, butterflies, beetles and more. Longer grass will provide shelter and somewhere for animals such as frogs, newts, hedgehogs and lizards to forage.

'Don't underestimate the value of the plants already in your lawn,' says Museum ecologist Sylvia Myers.

'Whatever your plans for meadow creation or improvement, it is a good idea to let things grow and see what is already there.

'Dandelions, yarrow and buttercups are all brilliant sources of food for pollinators, but observe what flowers are visited by insects in your garden - not all of them have the same tastes!'

A hedgehog poking its nose into a patch of long grass

Longer grass will provide good foraging ground for hedgehogs © Mike Pennington (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

Bees love clover

Red clover flowers are a favourite of the common carder bee, red-tailed bumblebee and many other long-tongued bumblebees. They are also popular with domesticated honeybees, as is white clover.

Short plants such as clover can be mown with your blades set to about seven centimetres, so your grass stays healthy. But by mowing less often you will give them a chance to produce the flowers that bees need.

Black, yellow and white-striped bumblebee on white clover

Clover creates a great lawn for bees © Orangeaurochs (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Clover helps prevent unwanted weeds from growing and makes lawns more resistant to drought. It also adds nitrogen to your soil, so it's worth composting mowed clippings.

Is it a weed?

Some wildflower species are traditionally thought of as weeds because they spread easily but they are actually very beneficial for bees and other pollinators. For example, the low-growing bird's-foot trefoil, lesser celandine and selfheal.

Museum botanist Fred Rumsey suggests, 'Work out what you have in your garden and what possible problems it may cause. Could you learn to love it as the wildlife does?

'Try setting aside areas of your garden where management can be a little more relaxed. Learn to distinguish and love native species - finding space for them in gardens is very valuable for biodiversity.'

Common blue butterflies on the yellow flowers of bird's-foot trefoil

The caterpillars of multiple butterfly species rely on bird's-foot trefoil as a foodplant, including common blues (pictured) and green hairstreaks © Pete Beard (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Give your tree a border

If you have a tree in your lawn you can leave a border of grass to grow around it. Plant some flower bulbs such as daffodils (native ones, not double-petalled) and bluebells. Also try crocuses, snake's head fritillaries and snowdrops.

These pretty spring flowers are an important early source of nectar, helping bumblebee queens emerging from hibernation and the hairy-footed flower bee, for example.

Other bulbs that are good in shady spots include wood anemone, winter aconite and alliums.

Purple and white crocus flowers in a lawn

Crocuses grow well in lawns and around trees. The flowers are an important source of nectar in spring. Photo: George Hodan (CC0 1.0)

Some wildflower seed mixes grow well under the shade of trees. Look for selections labelled as woodland or hedgerow mixes.

Turn your lawn into a wildflower meadow

To get bigger and more diverse blooms of wildflowers you could add some plants yourself.

Try common knapweed, red clover, musk mallow, kidney vetch, tufted vetch, viper's bugloss, yarrow, Devil's bit scabious, thrift and oxeye daisy, for example.

The following plants are also pollinator-friendly, and less likely to be swamped by grass: field scabious, teasel, meadow cranesbill, cowslip, selfheal, red campion, betony and meadow buttercup.

The pendulous yellow flower heads of cowslip

Cowslip's pretty yellow flowers are popular with pollinators. The plant competes well with grass species that might overwhelm other wildflowers. © Roger Muggleton (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr

As well as providing nectar, some of these plants are also butterfly caterpillar foodplants

Many places sell wildflower meadow mixes. It's best to use suppliers who guarantee their seeds are native to Britain, so you don't get harmful species cropping up. Wildflower lawn mixes, with or without grass species in them, can be great for seeding bare patches of soil.

It's relatively easy to create a mini wildflower meadow, particularly if you start with plant plugs, putting them in the ground in spring. Gardener's World gives guidance on this method.

Alternatively, you could try just scattering seeds into your lawn, but you're likely to have more success if you prepare the ground first. It's usually best to sow seeds in autumn. Check out the Wildlife Trust and RSPB websites for useful advice on how to create a wildflower lawn this way.

Red-spotted black moth on a pale purple flower

Six-spot burnet, a day-flying moth, on field scabious © Peter O'Connor (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Add variety to your grass

A typical lawn will only have a very limited number of grass species in it (perhaps only one), as these cope well with regular mowing, wear and tear and periodic drought. But grasses are a diverse group and there are many species native to the UK. 

If left unmown, grasses will produce flowers and seeds which are important for many animals, including insects and birds.

Blades of tall, flowering grass

Flowering meadow foxtail grass. The species provides habitat and food for lots of invertebrates, including Essex skipper butterfly caterpillars. © Martin Addison (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

Grasses can also add structure, movement and colour to your garden. Consider sowing a wildflower lawn seed mix with a blend of different native grass species to add more variety to your lawn. Give the grasses a chance to flower by leaving them to grow.

When to cut a wildflower lawn

The aim here is to maximise flowering time while preventing grass from taking over. Both wildflowers and native grasses are beneficial - it's about striking a balance.

In the first year of establishing your mini meadow you will want to cut it down to about seven centimetres roughly every six to eight weeks. This will help keep vigorous species under control and encourage good root development by any perennial flowers. 

In future years, mow until early April but then leave any further mowing until late in the flowering season, to give the wildflowers the chance to set seed. Wait until September if you can, or at least mid-July. Cut to a few centimetres in height.

After you mow, leave the clippings for a few days to let any seeds fall. Then rake up and remove the clippings so you don't add nutrients to the soil.

Don't fertilise your lawn

Nutrient-rich soil favours thick grass growth, to the detriment of wildflowers. To increase wildflower diversity in your lawn, don't add fertiliser, manure or compost.

Flowering yellow rattle

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) can help stop grass growing out of control and smothering wildflowers © Evelyn Simak (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

Consider including yellow rattle

If you aren't getting the growth of wildflowers you had hoped for, try adding yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This plant parasitises and weakens the grasses that can suffocate wildflowers and is also a favourite of bees and other insects.

Create thyme and chamomile lawns

A thyme lawn provides colour and aroma, is low maintenance and drought resistant. It can tolerate a small amount of footfall.

Ensure there is plenty of drainage as thyme doesn't like to be waterlogged.

Lots of low, purple flowers

Creeping thyme will give you a carpet of pretty purple flowers and smells lovely © Flower_Garden/ Shutterstock.com

You’ll need to remove weeds before laying your seeds or plants. You can do this by covering the ground with old carpet or black plastic for a few weeks. 

Chamomile is another low maintenance herb. A chamomile lawn has an apple-like scent when crushed, which is why it was used in Elizabethan times for lawns and seats.

It is perfect for a sunny spot with low footfall and it likes sandy soil that is not too dry or too moist. You can even spread the contents of a chamomile teabag as a cheap and easy way to get going. Mow or trim off the dead flower heads at the end of the season. 

Avoid lawn treatments

One of the easiest changes you can make is to avoid weed killers. These kill off plants that could attract bees and other pollinating insects and may harm the animals themselves.

If you spot a fast-spreading weed like thistle, nettle or dock, try and remove it by the root.

Purple flower with a visiting bumblebee

Selfheal is often called a weed because it can compete with the grass species used for manicured lawns, but its purple flowers are brilliant for bees. Photo: AnRo002 (CC0 1.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Say no to pesticides

Avoid buying plants, bulbs, seeds or compost that contain pesticides or insecticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides (known as neonics), for example, are associated with mass honeybee deaths and harm wild bees too. While they are targeted at 'pest species', the chemicals can also affect beneficial insects, other invertebrates and larger animals.

Research published in 2017 found that many garden plants labelled as 'pollinator friendly' contained significant amounts of pesticides, including neonicotinoids.

Try to buy organic gardening products, source them from a trusted local nursery or farmers' market, or swap plants and bulbs with your friends. By making your garden more wildlife-friendly you are in fact encouraging natural predators such as birds, hoverflies and parasitic wasps, which will help to keep pests under control. 

Yellow hoverfly drinking nectar from a white flower

Many hoverfly larvae help control pest species such as aphids. Adult hoverflies are important pollinators.

Consider alternative treatments to control problematic species. Spray water with washing up liquid on plants with an over-abundance of aphids, for example, and use serrated copper tape around prized pot plants to dissuade slugs and snails rather than resorting to slug pellets, which can harm their natural predators such as hedgehogs.

Should I get rid of moss?

Often viewed as a weed, moss provides food and shelter for invertebrates so it's beneficial to lots of wildlife.

Moss is able to grow practically anywhere, so if you are struggling with bare patches, moss could help fill them in with a luscious green area. Moss lawns have been popular in Japan for hundreds of years. They need almost no maintenance, and no mowing.

Long-tailed tit with moss in its beak

A long-tailed tit collecting moss for its nest © LecartPhotos/ Shutterstock.com

Not only will lots of larger animals benefit from the extra food available, but moss is also a popular nesting material for birds.

What else should I think about?

Do you need to walk through your lawn? A mown path looks attractive or you can position your meadow away from walking areas.

If you have young children running around barefoot, a whole lawn covered in bee-attracting wildflowers may not be ideal. Why not just have patches of meadow at the edges instead?

It's also worth checking for poisonous species if you have children or pets. The Royal Horticultural Society provides a list of potentially harmful garden plants and advice.

Remember: mowing less often means your lawn won't require as much water. And brown patches will grow back.

If you really can't bring yourself to makeover your lawn entirely, how about pinching a slither from around the edges? Make your borders bigger and fill them with wildflowers instead.