MANSFIELD — A few weeks ago, Becky Scheidler was scrolling on social media searching for inspiration to start gardening again, a favorite hobby of her past.
“I did it a lot when I was younger with my grandmother, and it’s something in the spotlight again for me recently,” she said. “If I’m going to have a garden, I need to also have wildflowers to bring pollinators to my garden.”
The importance of wildflowers to a garden is no small thing. They provide a habitat for pollinators (which 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend upon to reproduce), prevent erosion, and improve water quality and soil health.
So wildflowers were already on Scheidler’s mind when she came across an article about the United Kingdom embracing the “meadows revolution.” Such a revolution means letting a well-manicured lawn grow out to make way for “managed messiness” that allows wildlife to thrive.
It got her thinking: Could this be possible on a larger scale in Mansfield?
She sent the Guardian article to the Richland Source newsroom with a note:
“I know how we all complain about how our city is not that beautiful…I need someone to help present this to the city and area businesses and see if we can do something like this.
“I thought it was something that would brighten up the area and give people hope and encouragement,” she said later in a phone interview. “I wish there could be more community involvement and more pride in the city.”
An increased presence of wildflowers in the city of Mansfield is an intriguing idea. The effort could result in two immediate outcomes: An increase in pollinators, and a decrease in mowing.
“Adding wildflowers could have wonderful benefits to the environment in Mansfield,” said Mark Hoover, director of horticulture at Kingwood Center Gardens. “Wildflowers can be a great source of food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.”
Hoover pointed to the perennial garden at Kingwood Center Gardens as an intentional introduction of wildflowers to the area.
“In this scenario, one plants a mixture of grasses, perennials and other bulbs creating a ‘wildflower’ garden with more control than just spreading seeds into a bare patch of soil,” he said. “You still get the benefits listed above but can also reduce mowing time and lawn inputs including watering and fertilizing.”
However, before you start planting, it’s important to clarify that any wildflowers being grown in the city or your own backyard aren’t quite “wild,” but instead native to the area. Some flowering plants in fields or meadows could actually be invasive species that threaten local flora.
“While they may provide some nectar resources, they have not evolved with local pollinators and provide nothing as a host plant for any of our pollinators in their early stages of life,” said Vickie Eichof, a volunteer at the Richland County Fairgrounds Nature Park. “They are crowding out the native plants that do provide that resource, that feed pollinators in their larval stage. No host plants, eventually no pollinators.”
Fortunately, native wildflower efforts are already happening in Mansfield’s parks. The Mansfield City Parks master plan, first released in April 2020, recommended “opportunities for butterfly or pollinator gardens” in Dickson Park, John Todd Park, Optimist Park and Sterkel Park.
Another goal in the master plan was to “reduce the amount of manicured mowing and develop no-mow areas within the parks where feasible.”
Mark Abrams, manager of the city’s Parks & Recreation department, said in peak season his staff of four spends 40 hours a week mowing close to 300 acres across the city’s 22 parks.
According to the city of Mansfield’s 2022 budget, the Parks & Recreation department is operating on a budget of $869,459 this year. Abrams said about half of that budget goes to personnel costs, but expanding the city’s flowerbeds would reduce his department’s mowing footprint (not to mention their carbon footprint — reducing mowing frequency can save water, help your lawn become more resilient to drought, and reduce emissions from gas-powered lawn equipment).
“It’s not an actual dollar savings because I’m still paying personnel, but what we look at is more of a time savings,” Abrams said. “It probably takes half an hour to mow an acre, so for every acre of flowers we plant, we can save half an hour of time.”
One example of this strategy is the new mowing pattern of Middle Park, where Abrams copied the habits of states like Virginia, only mowing a few strips of path and letting the rest “go back to nature.” A couple swipes of grass will be mowed for security reasons, but otherwise the new strategy cuts “a huge chunk” of mowing time off of Middle Park.
Another colorful example can be found at Burton Park, where the city planted a field of sunflowers over the old baseball field for the public to admire and take pictures. The effort was inspired by the Fackler Farms sunflower field that popped up in Ontario in August 2020.
Abrams said the Burton Park sunflower field saves his team approximately 45 minutes of mowing time.
“The main goal was for its uniqueness, but it turned into an experiment in bringing people to the park and reducing mowing,” Abrams said. “The outcome was attracting a ton of wildlife. So for me it was successful and something we want to expand.”
Abrams said wildflowers have always been a topic of conversation in his eight-year tenure with the parks department, but a purposeful, concentrated effort to increase flowers and reduce mowing hasn’t been made. However, he’s not opposed to the idea.
“It would warrant further discussion, and we’d have to locate places where it made sense, but I think it would be a worthwhile conversation to have,” he said.
Nearly 400 miles northwest of Mansfield in Appleton, Wisconsin, the city has an initiative that involves not just their parks department, but a huge chunk of the community reducing mowing to increase wildflowers.
“No Mow May” is a conservation initiative first popularized by the UK-based organization Plantlife, and it’s gaining traction across North America. Under No Mow May, communities suspend the enforcement of their long-grass rules for the month, allowing property owners to delay lawn care as a way to promote pollinator-friendly habitats.
In 2020, Appleton’s city council agreed to suspend their weed ordinance for the month of May. More than 435 registered property owners participated in the campaign, amounting to around 40 acres of land that was protected for pollinators.
Researchers from Lawrence University in Appleton collected data on the abundance (the number of individuals) and species richness (the number of species) of flowers and bees found in un-mown yards of 20 properties participating in No Mow May. They then compared those numbers to the abundance and richness of flowers and bees found in nearby urban parks that are regularly mowed.
Turns out, the benefits of an un-manicured yard are plentiful: Researchers found a five-fold increase in bee abundance and a three-fold increase in bee diversity from the lawns that participated in No Mow May.
“The big message here is that this shouldn’t be a one-year trial experiment,” researcher Israel Del Toro said in June 2020. “This should become part of our regular culture. If we want to have a prolonged, positive effect on our pollinators, these are the types of practices that we should start considering as a community.”
Appleton is also promoting pollinators by being an affiliate of Bee City USA, just like another city in Richland County: In October 2021, Shelby passed a resolution to officially become part of Bee City USA, with initiatives like a city-owned, 13-acre pollinating field and the housing of privately-owned beehives at the wastewater treatment plant.
The resolution struck a personal chord with Shelby Mayor Steve Schag.
“I remember as a boy growing up on Hickory Lane (in Madison Township) it seemed like when you walked across your yard, there were always dozens of honeybees humming along collecting nectar/pollen from clusters of clover and bright yellow dandelions,” he recalled. “Today, I walk across my yard and wonder, ‘Where are all of the honeybees?'”
Part of Shelby’s initiative, in addition to hosting educational events and adopting non-chemical pest management methods, is to create or expand pollinator-friendly habitat on public and private land. This means identifying Shelby property that could be enhanced with pollinator-friendly plantings, and creating a list of recommended native plants found at local suppliers.
Schag said becoming an affiliate of Bee City USA was also about bringing citizens together to make their communities better places for hard-working pollinators of all species, which are key to a healthy environment and sustainable food supply.
“Creating pollinator habitat is not only good for pollinators, but those plots of native plants and flowers are very pleasant to the eye as well,” Schag said. “In Shelby we are in the process of transforming acres of property that required hours of summer mowing into colorful, productive sites that benefit both people and pollinators.”
In the borough of Southwark in London, England, as more city councils are favoring “managed messiness” over well-manicured lawns, parks manager Will Walpole said people are increasingly understanding of the need to share our cities with wildlife.
“I think if we decided to do this maybe five to 10 years ago I would have had an inbox full of complaints about how we didn’t cut the grass. We didn’t get that this year,” Walpole said in 2021. “I think public opinion has moved a little bit towards understanding the climate emergency and how we need to improve biodiversity, not just do the same thing in the same way we’ve always done it.”
However, on this side of the pond, Abrams worries public opinion is a bit different.
“There is some pushback when the parks aren’t perfectly manicured; you run into people who like their parks mowed like their front yard,” Abrams said. “So we do get complaints about it not being completely mowed, and that’s understandable.
“People have expectations for how things have been done the last 50 years.”
In Appleton, detractors contended No Mow May would make the city look trashy, aggravate pollen allergies and start or magnify conflicts among neighbors. Appleton’s director of public works Paula Vandehey said in May 2019, the city received 275 weed complaints, compared to 232 complaints in May 2020 and 287 complaints in May 2021 after No Mow May was officially instituted.
“As much as we need more bees in these neighborhoods, we need harmony amongst the people who live together in this city,” said Appleton council member Sheri Hartzheim.
However, a disgruntled few were not enough to deter the city from voting on March 16 to make No Mow May a permanent annual fixture of Appleton. The effort even expanded to include eight more Wisconsin communities in 2021.
“Good things are being done,” said researcher Israel Del Toro. “Our bees are being fed, our citizens are being educated, and we are building a community that is much more resilient.”
When it comes to downtown, Mansfield’s parks master plan recommended Central Park be designated as an integral part of the city’s park system, as downtown offers “the opportunity for community activity and festivity” as well as “passive recreation,” an “extremely positive contribution to the character of the community.”
But could that downtown character include more wildflowers?
A 2019 evaluation report from America In Bloom says, “As the downtown area evolves and continues to attract investment, it is critical to review and enforce ordinances covering landscaping for new development. Green space requirements should include use of native plants.”
America In Bloom also recommended increased naturalization on the OSU Mansfield/North Central State campus, and reduced mowing at nuisance properties owned by the Land Bank to allow the interior of the lots to naturalize and become pollinator plots.
“We recommend that resources involved in mowing land bank lots be reduced by mowing strips around the perimeter on a regular basis and leaving the interior of lots to naturalize. This will maintain a look of tidiness and intent,” the report says.
“When the taller growth on the interior un-mown sections becomes too aggressive, perhaps 2-3 times a year, address the issue. In the meantime, you have created a kempt look, provided wildlife habitat, saved labor costs, and reduced unhealthy emissions.”
One town near Denver, Colorado even turned a former brownfield site — not unlike the former Westinghouse property — into a park that, along with wildflowers, grasses, and gardens, has walking trails, a play area for children, and a pond to help prevent localized flooding.
Once a dumping ground for trash and industrial pollution in Globeville, the development of Platte Farm Open Space was a million-dollar, 14-year journey — a collaborative effort between the community members of Globeville, the city of Denver, and Groundwork Denver, a nonprofit organization that works to create green spaces to help improve community health.
Through a process of remediation, contaminated land was replaced with fresh layers of topsoil, and is now home to prairie habitat that attracts foxes, rabbits, birds and butterflies.
“Platte Farm Open Space really is the epitome of a community-led project,” said Cindy Chang, executive director of Groundwork Denver.
“This was a unique process because the community was at the table for almost every design meeting, almost every construction stage, and they even helped decide which kinds of trees would be planted. They were involved in the details in a way that Denver has almost never designed a park before.”
In further evidence towards the cause, studies show access to green space in urban areas can bring considerable benefits to the health and well-being of city residents. These benefits may include improved cognitive development and functioning, reduced symptom severity of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reduced obesity, and positive impacts on mental health.
For Becky Scheidler, she’d be happy with even a small step towards embracing wildflowers in Mansfield.
“I would like to see community wildflower gardens or vegetable gardens, kids being taught how to garden and how to be self-sufficient, how to take care of the environment … I’m looking for community building and flower gardens,” Scheidler said.
“The ecosystem is so important for us, because if we don’t have the pollinators to pollinate the vegetables, we don’t have food to eat, and if they don’t keep the soil healthy we won’t have produce,” she continued. “And if we have flower gardens in urban areas, maybe we can inspire other cities and maybe even the state to do more.
“We should know the purpose and where our food comes from and what we rely on, and how it’s not just us that we have to worry about on this planet. Without them, there wouldn’t be an us.”
Plant flowers native to your area. Installing native plants not only supports pollinators and other species in your region — they’re easier to grow, too, because they’re already adapted to your climate and don’t require loads of fertilizer or pesticide. Local garden centers, university extension programs, and nonprofit organizations can be great resources for finding the best plants for where you live. The U.S. Forest Service cautions against picking or digging up wildflowers on public land, however, which is illegal and does more harm than good.
Aim for a diverse mix of flowers. One of the mistakes people often make when they plant flowers for wildlife is they buy plants that bloom all at once — in a healthy grassland, you have plants that grow throughout the season. By thinking over the course of a year, you’ll be rewarded with a burst of colors and scents that unfold over the course of several months. In addition to planting a range of flowers that flourish at different times, think about complementary species too. For example, flowers and other plants can help control pests in a vegetable garden.
Be active in your community. You don’t need your own big plot of land. All you need is a pot, a window box, or another small space to plant wildflowers. But no matter how much space you have, also consider seeking out a community garden or local nature reserve where you can volunteer and help support the planting of native species. Pay attention to policies that affect natural ecosystems, such as the U.S. Farm Bill, which funds grasslands conservation programs.
Pay attention to the environment. No matter where you decide to plant, make it a habit to visit regularly and watch what’s happening. Which plants are thriving? Which ones are having trouble? What insects and birds do you notice? What do the flowers smell like?
From National Geographic.