In Iowa: How I learned to stop worrying and love the weeds

They're not weeds, they're food for pollinators

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I am sitting on my back porch as I write this, staring at my yard, which is full of creeping Charlie and dandelions and clover and wild violets and who knows what else.

It is an unkempt riot of purple, white and yellow flowers instead of smooth green grass. I think it’s beautiful.

Last year, when I started the adventure of homeownership, I wanted to control it. I Googled and asked advice and tried 10 different methods to pull the creeping Charlie — if you’ve ever dealt with this pervasive plant, you know getting rid of it is practically impossible.

Any bit of root that remains in the soil will grow into more creeping Charlie. Even poison, which I do not want to use anyway, doesn’t always work.

So this year I decided to let go of the impossible quest for a flawless suburban lawn and embrace those plants. Society has labeled them weeds, but this year I got a new label for them, via Linn County Master Gardener Becki Lynch.

They are food for pollinators — the butterflies and the bees we are losing at an alarming rate but that are vital to our ecosystems and even our industrial food systems. Without these insects to pollinate our crops, human life as we know it would be in danger.

There are many factors at work in their decline, some of which are unknown, but increased use of pesticides and decreasing habitat and food sources play a part.

That’s part of the reason the Linn County Master Gardeners have declared 2016 the Year of the Pollinator. They are focusing on raising awareness and encouraging gardeners to plant with pollinators in mind.

Lynch said most pollinators stay within a one-mile radius their entire lives — monarchs being a notable exception — so individual yards can make a difference. Monarchs, by the way, depend on milkweed, another plant long considered a weed.

The cities of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha also are getting involved with a “1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative,” which seeks to transform at least 1,000 acres of municipally owned property in Linn County into pollinator habitat.

That will include things such as replacing some non-pollinator-friendly landscaping with grasses and flowers, often plants native to Iowa, that bees and butterflies use. It also will include some public education about why certain areas may look more unkempt than before.

They’re not neglected, said Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins — rather, they’re being very intentionally managed to help pollinators thrive. I like that phrasing. I think I’ll use it the next time some one tells me I should be poisoning my yard.

Those so-called weeds are doing their part. So instead of heading out into the lawn with weed killer and digging tools, I’ll stay here on the porch, pour another cup of coffee and watch the butterflies hovering over the grass.

Interested in learning more about planting for pollinators? Call the Linn County Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.

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