No Mow May

Few things have obtained the hegemony in the American landscape as that of the short, manicured lawn. Aesthetic edges and flat seas of green can appeal to our sense of geometry and order. 

But these yards are a relatively modern invention. Humans transitioned from natural spaces to gardens and grasslands for livestock to cultivated lawns in the 18th and 19th centuries. Once the purview of royalty, who had the resources to employ dozens or hundreds of workers to hew green spaces, technological advances allowed the average person to craft their lands. In the United States, specifically, during the pioneering eras and through the turn of the 20th century, yards tended to be functional, filled with food plants, spots for grazing animals, and workspaces. As the 1900s progressed, mowers, sprinklers, fertilizers, and pesticides grew in popularity, transforming most homes to lawn-centric layouts.

In many places, however, the grasses that adorn lots are not native. One of the most common species used in lawns is Poa pratensis, known as Kentucky Bluegrass. This title is a significant misnomer, as Kentucky Bluegrass is native to Europe and Asia. Though we love it for our sporting fields and front yards, this species is invasive and can quickly drive away grasses that have thrived for millennia.

The National Mall, adorned with tall fescue, native to Europe - photo by Matii Blume

We’re currently in the midst of a strange push-and-pull when it comes to lawns.

In the United States, we live in a paradigm in which some areas can cite homeowners for not properly manicuring or growing “acceptable” lawns, while other places have been forced to limit or ban the watering of non-functional lawns. In Las Vegas, for example, where a lawn is as alien as the beings in nearby Area 51, officials have been compelled to limit the amount of time one can water grass. All across the West, as the lifeline of the region – the Colorado River – dries up, people are reconsidering the necessity of a sodded yard.

Pollinators worldwide are in a state of crisis. Since the 1990s, up to 25% of wild bee species have “gone missing  and up to half of bee species are in decline. Butterflies also face significant threats. The plight of the monarch butterfly is now relatively well known, but studies illustrate drops in populations across the board. In the United Kingdom, for example, butterflies are now absent from 42% of the places they once lived.

Though the quandary of bees and other pollinators is complex, owing to a mixture of changing climate, loss of habitation, pesticide usage, and disease, some people have started to wonder what we can do to help these beings. After all, according to many estimates, three-quarters of the world’s food supply depends on some form of pollination. Acres of short lawns are not oases for pollinators, especially if reared with large doses of chemicals.

In 2019, an organization in the United Kingdom – Plantlife – began an initiative called No Mow May. The goal was to give an extra boost to early-season pollinators by hitting the pause button on cutting grass in the month of May.

An informational sign by the city of Green Bay and De Pere

When we cut grass, we usually sever any flowering plant that resides in the turf. The notion behind No Mow May is to give bees that are just starting for the season a buffet of possible pollination targets. In the United States, turfed lawns make up 2% of the landmass. This figure might sound inconsequential, but it translates to 40 million acres and makes grass the largest irrigated crop grown in the country. Researchers estimate we grow more grass than three times all the corn in our massive breadbasket. Further, many grassy cultivars reside in residential and urban areas, spots in which pollinators have an increasingly difficult time living.

Perhaps if we just shaved a bit off our grass shaving, we could have a tangible effect.

More than 180 cities in 46 states have become “Bee City Affiliates” with Bee City USA, a group that provides “a framework for communities to come together to conserve native pollinators by providing them with healthy habitat.” Add all the individuals who chip in and we can make a big difference.

Not everyone is on board with No Mow May, however.

Like the tax preparation industry in the United States, which actively lobbies to keep the tax code as complicated as possible, some in the lawn industry do not sing the praises of the idea. Unlike the critiques of the tax preparation industry, at least one of the arguments against No Mow May from the lawn industry might make some sense.

An article for the Associated Press by a “Garden Coach” named Jessica Damiano outlines some reasons to continue normal mowing. She worries that some of the pollinators will be killed in the first mow of the season, after being attracted to your longer grass. Perhaps some will perish, but that is likely during every mow. She claims grass will become shaded by tall weeds, leading to fungal diseases. This eventuality borders on ultra-rarity. She then claims that weeds and invasives won’t disappear when normal mowing resumes, leading to a potential usage of chemical pesticides people “wouldn’t normally otherwise use.” The Venn diagram overlap of people who would care about invasives in their yards enough to use chemicals and those who participate in No Mow May would seem to be fairly low. She ended by asking, “And what about rodents, snakes and other undesirables that also will likely avail themselves of the shelter?” The king cobra isn’t moving into your yard if you skip a few mowing sessions.

In the critique, “turf specialist” Tamson Yeh does raise one possible issue. To Yeh, the idea is a “stopgap measure” and not a complete solution. Yeh claims that bees have memories of where food is and spread information to others. If food suddenly shows up in your yard but is gone the next month, that might be detrimental to the pollinators. If one wants to make a real difference, No Mow May is not enough, Yeh argues. The real solution is to provide year-round pollination targets.

An unmown lawn in May - photo by Jessica Damiano

This hesitation seems valid, but not in a way to invalidate completely No Mow May.

Experts urge people to add pollinator targets to their parcels, which might mean reducing the amount of turf in a yard. If you must continue to mow your lawn, adding spots where non-grass can house pollinators is a fantastic way to help the ecosystem.

The real critique against No Mow May is that it doesn’t do enough. However, the idea does not seem to be designed to be a silver bullet for pollinator problems. Instead, it’s a baby step we can take toward achieving better harmony with our surroundings. Various organizations have christened certain months in dedication to good intentions. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month; Movember or No Shave November aims to raise awareness toward the health of men, particularly prostate cancer. Does not shaving my mustache for a month, hoping to raise money for a good cause, do enough to cure cancer? Of course not. Should we raise money to fight breast cancer every month? Of course! Is the movement invalid since we only do it for one month? Certainly not. The main goal of these types of initiatives is to raise awareness, pushing people toward making better overall decisions. No Mow May might not be enough to solve the bee problem in one’s area, but incremental change can be powerful.

Asking someone to ditch their yard for good is likely a non-starter. Perhaps planting native grasses or dedicating space toward flowering plants, instead of cultivating the perfect row of Kentucky bluegrass is the ultimate step. Skipping a few mows on our way to making that step seems a worthy endeavor.

This May – and every month – think about the little beings that help make our food. Give them something good to munch, even if that means sacrificing a few square feet of sacred green turf.

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