Ranting Locally – a Letter to the Editor

I submitted this letter to the editor of my local paper with the title “No-Mow Presents Problems for Lawns”

This year the City of Greenbelt’s “No-Mow April” campaign encourages residents to avoid mowing this month, in order to encourage flowering for bees. I’m pro-bee, too, but according to experts in lawn care, this practice can seriously damage healthy lawns. U. Maryland’s advice is typical and implicitly warns against waiting a whole month of strong growth to mow again: “Infrequent mowing allows the turf to grow too tall. Subsequent mowing removes too much leaf surface and may shock the plants. Weekly mowing may not be enough, especially during the peak period of leaf growth in the spring. Remove no more than one-third of the grass blade each time you mow. Removing larger amounts of leaf surface may result in physiological shock to the plant, cause excessive graying or browning of leaf tips, and greatly curtail photosynthesis reducing the health of the grass.”

One expert I consulted about the No-Mow idea echoed that concern and added that “In urban situations many if not most of the blooming turf weeds aren’t native and tend to be easily spread, many by wind. Encouraging pollination can exacerbate the situation, leading to more weeds and perhaps encouraging the homeowner to resort to chemical control. And many of these nonnative turf-invading plants can be kept in check by regular mowing.”

Local Reactions

I’m sure the campaign makes sense to many of my neighbors (because they don’t keep up with lawn-care advice like I do – and why should they?) but others cited problems on the city’s Facebook account:

  • What are you thinking?!?!?!? Did you get this harebrained idea from [a well-known lefty town nearby]? You have all those early blooming pear trees, crocus, daffodils and the list goes on.
  • People relying on landscaping jobs have to work.
  • You already have ticks way out of control.
  • The city will look awful if people don’t now their lawns.
  • I’m mowing mine.
  • I’m sorry, what part of tall grass promotes ticks is being ignored here? [This link to tick info.]

And one local horticulturist posted (then deleted) his prediction that good lawns might be damaged by this practice but the mostly-weed lawns he sees around town will probably be fine.

Xerces Connection

So where did my town come up with the (harebrained indeed) idea of a “No-Mow April”? Definitely not from the faculty of the University of Maryland, about 5 miles down the road from us, which I quoted in my letter. No-Mow is a campaign that originated in the U.K. as No-Mow May, then appeared in Wisconsin, again targeting May. Now it’s being promoted by the Bee City USA program of the insect advocacy group Xerces Society. Towns pay the Xerces Society to get bragging rights as “Bee City,” with the fee based on population. 

Over-Generalization Galore!

My go-to rant on this blog focus has always been the egregious over-generalization in messaging about gardening and what gardeners can or should be doing to help the environment in some way.

I called the “Leave the Leaves” campaign by the National Wildlife Federation and others “no-good and terrible” because not all plants are the same. Some can be killed by leaf coverage all winter. And the leaves of some trees won’t compost for years, meanwhile suffocating the plants they’re lying on.

Dandelions in a “freedom lawn” at the Rodale Institute.

Then there’s the anti-lawn messaging that’s become so popular, usually including the total national acreage and angrily claiming that lawns demand high input of pesticides, fertilizers, and water. Oh, they sure can – conventional golf courses come to mind – but that doesn’t describe the lawn-care practices of anyone I know. My friends have lawns like the one I used to have, that survive with no inputs at all and no labor except mowing.

Having gotten rid of a lawn myself, I found replacing lawns to be extremely challenging, and the “just plant natives” message from the anti-lawn zealots is misleading and ultimately time- and money-wasting for so many homeowners eager to do the right thing. (I’ve blogged repeatedly here about lawns – good and bad lawn care, and the quest to get rid of lawn altogether.)

My former back yard before and after lawn replacement with groundcover Sedum and clover – an experiment that eventually failed as the clover overpowered the Sedum.

And with the “No-Mow Month” push we see yet another campaign by a wildlife-advocacy group that completely ignores potential harm to the garden plants we’re subjecting those practices to. Makes you wonder if wildlife advocacy groups are simply opposed to gardening. Sometimes it sure seems like it.

Pesky Details Not Considered in the No-Mow Month Campaign

  • Whether your lawn even has flowers that will appear in April.
  • Whether such flowers, if they are allowed or encouraged to be pollinated, are flowers you want more of.
  • The risk of damaging any thick, healthy and weed-free lawn by waiting a whole fast-growing month to mow it. (And what mower could do a good at that, anyway?)
  • And probably more details I’m missing.

The opinion cited in my letter to the editor was by Sylvia Thompson-Hacker, one of the admins of the popular (25K+ members strong around the world) Garden Professors Blog Facebook Group. Here’s the rest of her comment, before I shortened it for print:

“No mow” doesn’t necessarily mean more benefits to pollinators. The assumption that plants blooming in the lawn are attractive to pollinators is fallacious. But let’s assume there are plants attractive to bees in the lawn. The controlling point is the turf mix percentage, the grass : blooming forbs ratio. Not mowing and allowing them to bloom more would be a benefit to insects, that makes sense. But if the lawn is largely grass allowing it to grow long won’t provide the same profit. Plus letting grass get too long between mowings isn’t good for the grass itself.

Another admin to respond when I posted the campaign was the one I know best – Linda Chalker-Scott. She wrote:

I don’t believe this is a science-based recommendation, at least not plant-science based. Letting the grass grow too long is bad on lawns health and integrity. Thin or dead patches that are apparent after the top layer is mown are invitations to weed invasion. And that means homeowners are likely to use herbicides.

What’s more, this is certainly not germane to other locales. I will have to start mowing this weekend (in the Pacific NW), as our lawn is already growing like gangbusters. There is no way I’m waiting for another 6-7 weeks to mow. [Posted in mid-March]

If anyone has a peer-reviewed and published study to the contrary, please provide it in the comments.

Here’s the Garden Professors recent post about plants for bees.

Observing Flowers and Post-Mowing Lawn Health

This month I’ll be watching and photographing the progress on No-Mow-certified lawns around town, especially documenting what flowers actually appear. Then soon after May 1 I’ll document the post-no-mow effect on local lawns of all types. Maybe our lawns are so weedy it won’t matter.