By Scott Smith, Communications Director
As the growth of a new spring quickens, so, too, does the heartbeat of any avid gardener. We can’t wait to take advantage of the warming sun and longer days to get our annual veggies and flowers in the ground and tend to the budding perennials.
But come May, there’s one place in the yard where you don’t want to be busy as a bee: Your lawn. To protect bees and other pollinators, it’s time to let the grass and springtime weeds grow as you embrace No Mow May.
Launched in 2019 by the British conservation group Plantlife, No Mow May asks gardeners to leave the lawnmower in the shed and let your lawn grow long, just for the month of May. Taking this well-timed break from mowing will allow the smaller plants among the grass, like clover, daisies, dandelions and wild violets to flower, providing a feast of nectar for emerging pollinators.
Those pollinators – not just non-native honeybees but a huge variety of native wild bees and many butterflies, moths and other beneficial insects – are suffering dramatic declines, largely due to the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides and loss of natural habitat.
So that’s where you come in: Changing the way we mow can result in a tenfold increase in the amount of nectar available to bees and other pollinators, according to the experts at Gardens Illustrated.
Appleton, Wisconsin, was one of the first communities in the U.S. to adopt No Mow May, with 435 homes taking part starting in 2020. Researchers studying the impact of this “citizen-science” backyard initiative found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks.
To be sure, this initiative requires not just an adjustment in mowing schedule but also in attitude. Keeping a tidy, close-cropped lawn is something of a national obsession – you don’t have to look far beyond the outfield of Fenway Park or manicured fairway at the Masters for proof of that. What’s more, many municipalities and homeowners associations have regulations that mandate lawn-care protocols.
Bee City USA, which advocates for native bees and other pollinators, has some helpful tips for keeping local officials and neighborhood biddies off your back:
- Maintain a mowed buffer. Keeping a mowed edge in front of or around a natural planting may be all that’s needed to define “lawn” from “garden” and keep you in step with local ordinances or Homeowner Association guidelines. Maintaining a tidy mowed edge the width of a mower not only creates a pleasant walkway but also makes a busy natural planting look less overwhelming and makes these spaces look intentional rather than neglectful.
- Educate your neighbors and passersby about your landscaping choices. Displaying a simple sign designating your yard as pollinator habitat can be the difference between it being seen as a neglected area to people viewing it as an important part of a thriving landscape.
- Engage with your city council, health department, or other local officials. Tell them what you are doing, and begin a conversation about how they can support natural landscapes in your community. This fact sheet from Penn State can help arm you with facts to overcome the common myths that have led to overly restrictive weed ordinances.
For the past few years in my suburban yard in Connecticut, I’ve enjoyed creating what I call “mini meadows” in my lawn. Like most homeowners who fail to create a monoculture of perfect grass, my organic lawn, while lush and green, is actually a motley mix of all kinds of grass (fescues, rye, bluegrass, and poa annua). Thick patches of clover dot the lawn and here and there are any number of weeds, from wild strawberry to creeping Charlie to the ever-present dandelion. Each spring, I’m also always happy to see bluebells, crocuses, hyacinths, and even a few daffodils pop up here and there above the slow-to-grow grass.
When it comes time to mow, I trace the perimeter of the lawn bordering the garden beds and house but leave large patches of clover in the middle and weave my way around the pretty flowering bulbs to give them a chance to bloom in full. The early bees swarm to the white clover flowers, and the plant itself helps nurture the lawn with its nitrogen-fixing roots.
Once you decide to get back to mowing, set the lawn mower on high (it also helps to keep the blade sharp). I “grasscycle” most of my clippings so they can return their nutrients to the turf. But I also add a catcherful or two from the thickest parts of the lawn to the compost heap I started last fall. The fresh new clippings help the crumbly old leaves and the food scraps I’ve added through the winter complete their journey to becoming the new living soil called humus. If you follow suit, just be sure to thoroughly mix the new “greens” with the old “browns” to avoid mats of moist cut grass turning into an anaerobic, stinky mess. Truth be told, I also use a digger to weed the dandelions after their bright yellow blooms fade and before their seedballs flutter away with the breeze. Of course, I never catch them all.
If you enjoy leaving all or part of your lawn go wild in May, feel free to continue experimenting. I let the mini meadows grow well into June, cutting some and adding others as the summer progresses. I also skip mowing the shadier parts of the lawn, especially during dry spells. This saves time as well as water; reducing mowing frequency and letting the grass grow taller helps the lawn become more resilient to drought. And because an electric mower is on next year’s wish list, I’m also reducing noxious emissions from my old gas-powered Toro.
A recent experiment by the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, shared by Bee City USA, shows the benefits of different lawn mowing frequencies. The team mowed herbicide-free suburban lawns at different frequencies (every week, every other week, and once every three weeks) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The results of their study found bee abundance increased when lawns were mown every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns (mainly dandelions and clover) and increased bee diversity.
By July, the grasses in my micro-meadows have grown tall, the stalks bronzed by the sun and bent heavy with seedheads. The fireflies that rise from the ground in mid-summer must appreciate not having a mower run roughshod over their homes, and the “amber waves of grain” give my lawn what seems to me a very patriotic, all-American look. That suits me just fine and surely appeals to the native bees and pollinators who help the rest of the garden bloom all season long.