UPDATE: More assessments on the no-mow-month campaign since publication of this post:
- This article in Real Simple includes a quote from Dr. Doug Tallamy: “Dr. Tallamy sees little logic in letting lawns grow longer for a few weeks. If people simply let their grass grow for a month and then revert to a clipped green monoculture, they are teasing pollinators with short-term snacks followed by starvation, he said.”
- From the wire service AP News: “Good intentions, bad approach, critics say.”
- From Maryland Extension, a big-picture assessment with details about clovers and other lawn replacements.
- Elizabeth Licata in the Buffalo News: “No Mow May? No thank you.”
The No-Mow Month campaign (April or May) arrived in our world last spring, when I called it “The no-good, terrible lawn-care advice from the Xerces Society,” citing concerns that it could both harm lawns and encourage ticks.
My Rant partner Elizabeth added her skepticism of the campaign in her post, focusing on more effective ways for gardeners to provide for pollinators. I so agree with her conclusion:
But you know what I most dislike about all these directives coming down from various wildlife organizations (some with more credibility than others)? I don’t garden by meme and I am not going to encourage others to do it. Let’s put some thought into gardening. Let’s exercise our creativity as well as our common sense. Let’s be gardeners.
It’s been a year and the campaign is back in my town, so time for an update. I’ll start by admitting that I didn’t document the progress of flowers on the no-mow lawns of my neighbors, as it seemed too intrusive. Plus, I can’t ID enough of the local lawn weeds for my observations to count for much.
Instead, I offer assessments of the campaign by some knowledgeable advocates for wildlife.
In Rewilding Magazine
Three authors of a book about creating habitat posted “The Surprising Downside of #NoMowMay” in Rewilding Magazine that:
There’s huge value in challenging monocultural lawns and the enormous ecological damage they have caused, but offering a feel-good moment of aesthetic rebellion risks obscuring, and even undermining, the bigger goal.
Instead of encouraging #LazyLawns what we need to do, urgently, is to steward, tend and nurture landscapes for native biodiversity and ecological integrity. A month of long lawns filled with dandelions and other non-native weedy species just doesn’t cut it. It’s the ecological equivalent of opening a fast-food restaurant on every corner – for a short amount of time. At best, burgers and fries for a while, but not a sustained full-service menu of healthy nutrition and habitat for pollinators.
While we need to loosen the grip of the lawn on our collective landscape imaginings, here’s what the little research done to date on dandelions tells us. Dandelion has allelopathic pollen, a scientific term that basically means the pollen of dandelions can reduce reproductive success in native wildflowers, disrupting the native plant communities it invades. Another study showed that queen bumblebees (some of the early emerging wild bees that pro-dandelion campaigns say dandelions help) resorted to eating their own eggs when fed a diet of protein-deficient dandelion pollen.
Causing queen bees to eat their own eggs? Damn, just when dandelions were starting to be forgiven for their status as weeds. She concludes with a plea for less lawn in favor of “densely planted native plants.”
From Benjamin Vogt of Monarch Gardens
Then GardenRant contributor Benjamin Vogt posted “Native Plants Are Not No Maintenance, And No Mow May is Unwise” on his blog The Deep Middle – Monarch Gardens
That’s a two-part rant, starting with correcting the mistaken notion that native plants are all drought-tolerant. (Which I also covered here.)
And native plants aren’t automatically drought tolerant — they aren’t full of magic juice. Right plant, right place. Also, it’s very helpful to water native plants during the establishment period — and if your soil is sandy, it’s critical to do so for months…There are plenty of exotics plants that also have deep roots or are very hardy or drought tolerant.
Kudos to this native-plant purist for refusing to overpromise about them! That shouldn’t surprise us, though, since Ben is a do-er, someone who creates native -plant gardens for actual customers who expect success, not just feel-good signs to put in their yard. Ben writes:
No mow May continues to frustrate the heck out of me. Just letting your lawn go will not result in a lovely meadow that neighbors or wildlife will admire. If you’re on an urban lot, chances are you won’t be getting aster and indigo and prairie clover and coneflowers — they aren’t in the seed bank because your house was not recently built on top of a remnant prairie.
What you WILL get are a host of plants with marginal to little benefit to wildlife, and several that will be terribly aggressive: crabgrass, creeping charlie, barnyard grass. And of course invasive species placed on most city’s noxious weed list, like musk thistle or garlic mustard.
On the Garden Professors Blog
Extension Specialist Abi Saeed wrote:
Based on what we’ve learned so far: lawn weeds can sometimes be an important food source for bees (especially in urbanized areas, where the diversity and availability of floral resources are fewer) and mowing less frequently results in more of these flowering lawn weeds for bees. We also know that slightly higher (though not too high) mowing heights for many lawn turf species make for healthier root systems and make turf more resilient to stress, pests, and disease issues.
If you have flowering lawn weeds and pollinator conservation is your intention, your best bet would be to aim for a sweet spot between the extremes of mowing way too frequently and not mowing at all. Mowing every other week could be a way that you can reduce the amount of time spent mowing and also support urban and suburban pollinators by letting your lawn weeds flower (in addition to maintaining your lawn at the recommended heights for healthy turfgrass).
Even better yet, you can reduce the amount of space in your landscape that is dedicated to a traditional turfgrass lawn and incorporate a flowering groundcover and/or a pollinator garden that hosts an abundant array of diverse floral resources that provide food for bees all season long!
From Iowa State
In their “Tips for Participating in No Mow” we find these revealing topic headers:
- It Will Take a Lot of Effort to Get the Lawn Back Under Control,
- You Will Encourage the Growth of More Weedy and Invasive Plants
- Consider an Alternative to No Mow May – Participate in Mow Less May
Some small preliminary studies show that mowing every two weeks can still significantly increase bee population size. So instead of No Mow May, participate in Mow Less May. Mowing less frequently can support the cause and avoid many of the drawbacks. Most flowering plants in lawns, like dandelion and clover, flower even with mowing. By extending the time in between mowings from every 7 days to every 10-14 days, you can continue to manage your landscape in a way that supports the pollinators with more flowers and avoids many of the drawbacks such as citations, undesirable weeds, and stress to the lawn.
Mowing less frequently will require you to set the mower height high to avoid removing too much leaf material at once. The good news is that mowing grass at a taller height promotes a healthier lawn. Mowing at a height of 3.5 to 4 inches promotes a larger, more drought-tolerant root system, can help shade the soil surface reducing undesirable weeds, and allows you to use less pesticide and herbicide on the lawn because the turf is healthier.
The author adds these suggestions:
- Create a Well-Designed Pollinator Garden
- Consider Eliminating the Lawn
Consider eliminating the lawn altogether and replacing it with plants or garden spaces that don’t require frequent maintenance and support native insects and wildlife. Replacing turf with perennials, groundcovers, shrubs, and trees can reduce water consumption, pesticides, and fertilizers while increasing soil organic matter, building soil quality, and helping to retain and infiltrate stormwater.
We’re seeing a pattern here, right? Mow Less Often, which is also part of Cornell’s low-maintenance lawn-care advice, summarized in the very sensible meme “Do Less!”
Press Inquiries on the Hot Topic of Lawn-Hate
I was surprised in the last week by two requests for interviews about lawn – specifically, the anti-lawn message we’re seeing so often these days.
A writer for Science News wanted to talk about the movement to get rid of lawns, about which I had lots to say and enough links to fill her reading list for weeks. What surprised me is that she was pursuing the lawn-replacement angle for a story about reactions to climate change. I opined to her that the focus of anti-lawn message was on pollinating insects, not climate change. I referred her to this 2007 article about gardening and climate change, which emphasized the need for plants that are adaptable.
Anyway, I had a great time zooming with her and look forward to a promised repeat.
Then a reporter for NBC, after finding my rant about the No-Mow campaign, asked to interview me on the topic. It may surprise readers to learn that I turned down that request because (honestly) I don’t like being on camera but also because I’d had some unpleasant encounters with local proponents and didn’t want to stir them up again.
In one such encounter I was told that I obviously didn’t GET it. See, I had cited U.Maryland advice about lawn care practices that raised concerns about the impact of the no-mow month on lawn health – an impact that didn’t concern them because “We don’t want anyone to have lawns.”
So now I get it. Her group wants lawns to fail, hoping that’ll lead more people to get rid of them. Too bad details like that don’t fit in a 3-word meme.
Curiously, though my town distributes No-Mow literature and signs, it follows the practice in only a few out-of-the-way spots. Yesterday I noticed mowers making the usual rounds everywhere else.
another well researched column with as always. mowing less often and at a higher setting seems like a sensible middle ground for anyone that is interested in being ‘sensible’ (a trait that seems to be in short supply these days). the comment about dandelion pollen being allelopathic was interesting. many plants have allelopathic qualities that help them compete in nature. walnut trees are a classic example. out here in the northwest our native western cedar is known to suppressing growth. as to the deleterious effect of dandelion pollen on bees, i can’t help but wonder happens back in Europe where dandelions are a native fixture. at the end of the day, no mow May or April may be well intended, but it is miss guided.
I haven’t found any information on red cedar (Thuja plicata) allelopathy. I know it often looks like they have that ability, but it may only be that they can grow at lower light levels and just shade everything else out.
Postponing mowing in shady places where the grass grows thinly allows us to also grow crocuses, erythroniums, and other spring bulbs.
Thank you for helping to put lawns and native plantings into perspective. There’s no such thing as black or white.
Agree with all. I would also add “mow later.” When COVID first hit, our local parks department delayed the beginning of mowing until well into April, and the results were spectacular. Our warm season turf in North Texas does not really get growing until the temps hit a consistent 80 degrees. By delaying the start of mowing from March to mid-April that year, we saw the emergence of blue-eyed grass, grape hyacinths, native anemones. It was a delight, and because the turf wasn’t out of control, the landscape still looked well-kept.
why are people so obsessed with grass lawns? either obsessed to grow them perfectly (poisons of both weeds and insects, noise of mowing & weedeaters, wasted water) or obsessed to eliminate them entirely? this must be a society of leisure and money since poor people have more important things to worry about–like eating and paying for medical care and the rent. Incidentally I am a member of Xeres which is focused on the ever-diminishing insect population worldwide–from all causes. And since when do bumblebees eat only dandelion pollen? science in support of an agenda should always be taken with skepticism.
Simply not cutting grass will not produce wild flowers. A wild flower meadow must be created, it has to be sown on purpose with a wildflower seed mixture. It must then be cut the third week in July in order to keep it. So it is not a matter of just not cutting grass. The person who drew up this, is no hoticulturalist, and is spreading erroneous information. I am sure David Attenborough knows this.
Since our grandchildren play on our lawn we came up with a solution that we can all live with. Expanded the borders with natives plants and trees. When the lawn needs reseeding we sow clover and Oregon native yarrow. So far it is working out just fine.
The anti-lawn crusade has resulted in horticultural bullying in California. There is new legislation being considered in California (Assembly Bill 1572) that will “ban the use of non-functional turf on non-residential properties and replace it with water-saving local native plants,” according to the California Native Plant Society.
I am opposed to this bill because:
• The State should not dictate the landscapes of local jurisdictions, which need the freedom to plant landscapes suitable to their climate and environmental conditions. Local jurisdictions must choose landscapes that they have the resources to maintain and they need the freedom to be responsive to their constituents’ needs for recreational areas and their horticultural preferences.
• Many non-native plants are as drought tolerant as native plants and in some cases, more drought tolerant.
• Lawns do not require irrigation during dry months to be functional and to survive until the rains return. Many native plants are brown and dormant during dry months unless they are irrigated.
• Lawns in which flowering weeds—such as dandelions, clover, English daisies, oxalis, etc.—are tolerated are as useful to pollinators as any native plant.
Claims about dandelions using allelopathic chemicals to kill native plants are fabricated. Such claims have been made about many non-native plants and many have been disproven. More would be disproven is there were more resources to conduct the empirical studies to disprove them.
Oxalis pes-caprae is a recent example. It has been continuously sprayed in our local parks for over 25 years. There is more oxalis now than there was 25 years ago. An empirical study was done that found that oxalis is not a strong competitor and that it increases available phosphorous in the soil, fertilizing plants that succeed the oxalis when it harmlessly dies back in April.
What is considered to be “non-functional turf”?
Turf not being used for an activity that needs turf, I believe.
Which would be open to interpretation. It probably excludes playing fields, but perhaps not open areas where people could picnic, play ball or frisbee, or sunbathe. We visited the park this morning where families were picnicking on the grass, setting up a wedding, and having an Easter egg hunt.
The legislation does not define “non-functional turf.” I tried to supply a link to the legislation, but this platform doesn’t seem to allow links. Sorry.
Excellent article Susan – thank you for all those links. I went back to Sheila Colla’s article that mentioned alleopathic pollen and there are no research citations. I am not good with her statement “What we now know….etc…” when there is nothing cited for readers to explore for themselves. I continue to be mystified that we accept without question the co-evolution of species as currently observed, but absolutely refuse to accept the genesis of new adaptions and co-evolutions. Those two philosophies absolutely contradict one another. – MW