Under the Microscope

No mow may helps our pollinators


Stumbling over bicycles and skateboards in the back of the garage, your fall is broken by the lawn mower handle. Wrestling your new turf terrorizer out of its winter hold, a vague memory forms of the electric mower sales person having said something about sharpening the blade a few times per year. An hour later with the battery mostly charged, the whirring blade makes its first seasonal spins, ready to start chopping away.
The electric mower signaling environmental credentials to supervising neighbors gives you confidence as you set out in your old tennis shoes and tall socks to start chopping through that thick May turf. But what is this? What is this trendy new sign hanging out in your neighbor’s lawn proudly proclaiming a fashion statement heretofore unmentionable in dignified communities, “No-Mow May."
Suddenly you’re buzzing with a stinging awareness. As you look down at the lawn about to perform what was going to be your first amazing landscaping feet of the season, questions root themselves deep into your subconscious. What do the neighbors know that I don’t? Is it possible to be proud of a shaggy lawn? What is that little flower near my shoe? Why don’t my socks match? Then the ultimate question hits you like a soft breeze; why continue to chop away, if we could all no-mow May?
With the cities of Edina, Mendota Heights, New Brighton, Roseville, Vadnais Heights, and West St. Paul, all now encouraging residents to participate in no-mow May, the trend in the Twin Cities appears to be a hardy perennial event. Originating in the U.K., this wholesome habit hopped the pond when a group of Appleton, Wis. residents lobbied their city council to pass a no-mow May resolution in an effort to protect pollinators.
April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers bring in the bees. Even the lowly dandelion, while not a perfect nutritional source, is an important portion of the diet of many Minnesota pollinators including bees and painted lady butterflies. White clover, another early blooming lawn weed was shown to feed over 56 species of bees, according to a scientific study conducted in Minneapolis parks by James Wolfin, a U of M researcher. Allowing yourself and your mower to rest for the months of April and May will give the pollinators a chance to feed on these common lawn weeds that flower all around us.
Lawns are the largest irrigated crop in America covering approximately 2% of all U.S. land. Barren as a desert, offering no habitat or sustenance for wildlife, manicured lawns without weeds are being recognized as a blight on local ecosystems.
Maintaining the American lawn is a past time with participation rivaled only by sports and religions. Ted Steinberg, author of "American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn," informs us that the average homeowner will spend 150 hours per year maintaining the lawn. According to Beyond Pesticides, a national organic advocacy organization, lawns receive up to seven pounds more pesticides per acre annually than agricultural crops and herbicides account for the highest usage of pesticides in the home and garden sector with over 90 million pounds applied on lawns and gardens per year. Herbicides like Roundup© have been shown to cause several harms to bees including disrupting their gut microbiomes, disrupting bumblebees’ ability to regulate the temperature of their colonies, and interfering with the growth and survival of honeybee larvae.
Recovering from no-mow May is something that has been little covered in all the excitement from people extolling the virtues of mowing reduction. Some people choose to no-mow for the full season, waiting till all the blooming activity is finished and mowing only one time after the middle of September. The no-mow till September strategy mimics what happens in a natural meadow where grazing might occur in sunny areas after the high heat of the season has passed. For that first mow whether it is in June or at the end of the summer season, you’ll want to raise your lawn mower to its highest possible setting so that you don’t hurt the lawn by chopping off more than 1/3 of the turf height at a time. Remember what the mower sales person said and sharpen the mower blade before hacking away at the lawn – a sharp blade makes a clean-cut that will reduce recovery time for your turf.
No-mow-May is not a new concept to cutting edge Minneapolis residents. A healthy percentage of Minneapolis households have been practicing no-mow May long before it was popular. As a landscape designer, I am often asked to remove as much lawn as possible from people’s landscapes. With landscapes like no-mow bee lawns, pollinator pocket gardens, prairie meadows, and food forests taking over yard after yard, block after block, the desire for standard turf as a ground cover is quickly waning. Replacing as much of your lawn with native plants as you are comfortable with will ultimately serve pollinators a more robust, productive habitat to call home in your landscape. Instead of restarting your mowing habits in June, consider replacing lawns with native plantings.
No-mow May is a huge time saver and a small step toward a more productive local ecosystem. Allowing grass and weeds to grow out and ultimately replacing lawn with native plantings will turn your turf into habitat for bees, butterflies, birds, and more.


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