The mowing down of the garden in spring has always been straightforward – a crew would ride their mulching mowers around the garden making a clean palette for the anticipated crocus and tulips.

Lurie Garden strives to grow in its ecological benefit while maintaining its beauty and accessible to visitors. Last winter Laura Ekasetya, the garden’s Director and Head Horticulturalist, embarked on a new experiment to be more helpful to native bees, wasps and other bugs, especially in light of insect populations plummeting, by not cutting parts of the garden all the way to the ground.

The Mariani Landscaping crew cuts the designated areas by hand.

Many insects use standing spent plant stems as nesting sites, particularly bottom 15-inches of the stem. According to insect expert, Heather Holm, “Cavity nesting insects which include most cavity-nesting bees and some solitary wasps use the hollow stems…A few bee species, including small carpenter bees and mason bees, construct their nests in pith-filled plant stems, chewing the pithy material from the center of the stem to create a nesting cavity.”

An array of tulips wouldn’t be as instagrammable mixed in with a bunch of twigs sticking up from the ground, so it was decided to experiment slowly while leveraging the strengths of each area of the garden. Laura surveyed the overall design plan and chose areas that are a little less picturesque in the very early spring to leave 15-inch stems standing and areas where tulips and crocus bloom en masse were cut down completely as previously done. By mid-spring, the standing stalks were camouflaged by the grown plants and looked as it always has.

Flags designated areas for the cut-down crew for where to stop mowing the garden.

Plants are cut back to leave 15″ of stems standing.

Areas planned for 15″ stem cutting for insect habitat in 2019 are shown in purple.

This year the mowing plan includes an expansion of the areas reserved for insect habitat. Even though most of the garden will be treated as it has in past years, it still is offering plenty of ecological value. As the mowers pass, the plant material is pulverized and left on the ground which acts as a natural mulch. This mulch keeps moisture in the soil, provides nesting materials for birds and insects, and fertilizes as it decomposes.

As the mowers pass, the plant material is pulverized and left on the ground which acts as a natural mulch.

As the season proceeds, the staff will assess how the respective areas fill out, to see how the mowing for the next winter could be adjusted to add the greatest value. They will be on the lookout for nesting insects, indicated by shavings next to stems in hopes to catch a glimpse of their efforts paying off.

The mow-down has been tentatively scheduled for early morning on Friday, March 8, 2019.
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