by Brad Brotje
May. It’s the month that signals to Northeast Ohioans that winter is indeed behind us and that the cycle of life continues. Take a good look around in May as life springs eternal, April’s offerings of returned abundance come to fruition and, most importantly, that abundance displays itself in the form of wildflowers of all kinds: white and red clovers, dandelions, chickweed, goats beard, fleabane and blackberry brambles to name a few. It’s also the month when we drag out our cumbersome and polluting lawn-mowing equipment. Unfortunately, a green, weed-free lawn has become a misguided hallmark of property value and has grown to represent a homeowner’s membership in a productive society. To the contrary, when we choose to mow early, we are depriving nature’s pollinators of the nectar they need to survive and to do the work that supports agriculture; without the health and abundance of these pollinators, many food crops would go unfertilized and fail to produce fruits, seeds, nuts and young plants.
Currently, 40 million acres of land in the United States is maintained as lawns, making this vegetation not only typically free of wildflowers but also the biggest consumer of irrigation in the country. In addition, these lawns often rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that eventually end up in stormwater systems and then in streams, rivers and lakes. These issues have spawned the growing national movement known as No Mow May. No Mow May is a conservation initiative first popularized by the United Kingdom-based organization Plantlife that now is gaining traction across North America. The goal of No Mow May is to allow grass to grow without a “haircut” for the entire month of May, thereby creating habitat and forage for early season pollinators. The monthlong pause in mowing is particularly important in urban areas where floral resources are often limited.
Not only are lawns burdensome for the people maintaining them, but the millions of acres they encompass also fail to provide benefits to wildlife because the traditional monoculture lawn lacks floral resources or nesting sites for bees and other pollinators. In a 2018 experiment conducted by Susannah Lerman and the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Lerman and her collaborators explored whether different lawn-mowing frequencies influenced bee abundance and diversity. The team mowed herbicide-free suburban lawns at different frequencies (i.e., once a week, every other week, or every three weeks) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The results of the study showed that bee abundance increased when lawns were mowed every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns and increased bee diversity. The efficacy of reducing mowing may be expanded upon by altering the composition of your lawn to include more flowering species. What the researchers described as a “bee lawn” may include Dutch clover, for example, while some plants, such as native violets, may already be present and should be encouraged as they are valuable host plants for fritillary butterflies. You may even want to consider replacing that lawn altogether—planting instead a rain garden, a pollinator garden or a wildflower meadow.
Many cities and municipalities have weed ordinances that dictate not only the types of plants a homeowner is permitted to grow but also the height of any vegetation. Here are a few things you can do to avoid urban conflicts:
- Engage with your local authorities and encourage them to remove or postpone the enforcement of these out-of-date regulations.
- Suggest an “opt-in” program to your local health authorities, such as a Natural Lawn Registration program, to sidestep the need to rewrite a health-code ordinance. This registration could, for example, excuse the requirement for mowing in the month of May.
- Maintain a mowed buffer in front of or around natural plantings to differentiate “lawn” from “garden” and remain in compliance with local ordinances or homeowner association guidelines. Or, maintain a tidy mowed edge to help a busy natural planting look less overwhelming and more intentional rather than neglected.
- Educate your neighbors and passersby about your landscaping choices. Displaying a simple sign designating your yard as pollinator habitat can let people know that the area has been neglected and instead is an important part of a thriving landscape. A limited number of these signs are still available from the Kent Environmental Council. Look for our booth at the River Day celebration in Kent on Saturday, May 21. This event celebrates the importance of the Cuyahoga River in Kent and surrounding communities. Displays and information will be available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Haymaker Farmers’ Market on Franklin Avenue. Pollinator seed packets also will be available.
Finally, keep in mind the importance of minimizing your carbon footprint as you reduce your need to mow, and consider replacing your polluting gas-powered lawn equipment with battery-operated electric models. As you reduce the area you choose to mow, these electric alternatives become even more practical and efficient.