The UK-based initiative No Mow May™ is the center of some controversy this year in gardening and conservation circles. No Mow May encourages people with lawns to take the month of May off from mowing, to allow other plants that are growing within the lawn to flower and provide food for pollinators. The initiative was started by the British conservation charity Plantlife and has spread throughout the U.S. over the past few years. Some communities have even suspended lawn care ordinances to allow residents to participate in the campaign.
Proponents of No Mow May argue that as bees and other pollinators become active in the spring, allowing flowering plants to bloom provides valuable nectar and pollen for pollinators. A small study in Wisconsin titled “No Mow May lawns have higher pollinator richness and abundances: An engaged community provides floral resources for pollinators” suggested that homes participating in the program had greater bee diversity and abundance than those not participating. While we may not often think of plants like clover and dandelions as wildflowers, they still serve as food sources for local pollinators.
But the initiative has seen some pushback, and not just from lawn enthusiasts who are aghast at the idea of encouraging “weeds” to grow in the lawn. This year, several gardening and conservation articles have been written arguing against the premise of No Mow May. Pamela Corle-Bennet, with the Ohio State University Extension, wrote an article in the Dayton Daily News arguing that not mowing for a full month would allow for enough grass growth that subsequent mowing could greatly harm or kill the grass, as well as allowing weed growth that may ultimately encourage more pesticide use. Corle-Bennet also mentions that May not be the month in which many common plants like clover and violet bloom in this geographical area.
So, should you lock up the lawn mower for the month of May? It seems like the jury is still out, but there are still plenty of measures you can implement to help pollinators.
There is a long-standing rule of thumb to not remove more than 1/3 of the length of the grass with each mowing. While violating this general custom will likely not result in immediate death of your lawn, lawns can be stressed or damaged by a harsh scalping after a long period of growth. If weather conditions are right during May for periods of intense growth, it is certainly possible to damage the lawn by mowing to the normal length June 1. A compromise could be mowing less frequently during the flowering season. Another small study in Massachusetts, “To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards,” suggested that mowing every two weeks might greatly increase the quantity of bees without causing the access issues for bees that excessively long grass may pose. You may not need to sit out a whole month of mowing to see some of the benefits of No Mow May.
If you are not interested in altering your mowing habits or are restricted by local ordinances, you can fill your garden with native pollinator-friendly plants or create a wildflower bed that will provide a rich food source for pollinators. Avoid use of insecticides and other pesticides in your landscaping, especially during spring and summer while these essential insects are especially active.
Pollinators are essential to food security and ecosystem health. Making your property more pollinator-friendly is a great conservation practice and hopefully we will see more large studies to provide more clarity into this issue in the future. To learn more about the work of the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District, please visit our website at SoilAndWater.co.delaware.oh.us or call us at 740-368-1921.
Julie Watson-Ables is resource conservationist at the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to https://soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us/.