What's the Buzz? Letting flowers in your lawn feed pollinators until other plants start blooming, that's what!
CREDIT: COURTESY OF ANNE READEL
by Anne Readel
What is No Mow May?
The idea behind No Mow May is to leave your lawn alone for the month of May. This allows lawn flowers to bloom and feed hungry native bees emerging from hibernation when other flowers are scarce. Several studies done in areas of Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Massachusetts have shown that lawn flowers can support a high diversity of bees and other pollinators.
I learned about No Mow May when I was looking for ways to make my own yard more bee-friendly. I had recently read that one in four bee species in North America is at risk of extinction, in part because of habitat loss. Neatly kept lawns typically provide little food for bees but No Mow May made me realize that it doesn't have to be this way. I helped organize No Mow May in my own community and documented its rise in Wisconsin. As part of this effort, I spoke with bee experts, city officials, and residents. Here are the most helpful tips for making No Mow May a success that I learned along the way.
Tips for Participating in No Mow May
For some people, going a whole month without mowing their lawn can seem like a wild idea. When participating in No Mow May, you and your neighbors will have the most positive experience by following these tips:
Educate your neighbors.
After a few weeks of not mowing, your neighbors are going to wonder about the long grass (and perhaps if you've moved away or died!). Free, print-at-home signs are available through the Xerces Society. There's even a kids' version that can be colored in so the whole family can be involved in helping the bees. Once your neighbors understand why you're letting your lawn get "weedy", they may even want to participate in No Mow May themselves.
Check your local rules.
Many cities and homeowner associations (HOAs) restrict grass height to eight or ten inches. If grass height rules are in effect, you might end up getting fined if your lawn gets too tall. Find out if your city or HOA has any grass height rules before you participate in No Mow May.
Involve your community leaders.
Contact your city officials or HOA board members and ask them to adopt No Mow May in your community. Communities that adopt No Mow May will suspend enforcement of grass height rules for participating residents. And even if your community doesn't have grass height rules, an official endorsement may make other residents more comfortable with participating.
Remember, even if your neighbors, city, or HOA do not embrace No Mow May now, they may warm to the idea over time. Ana Merchak, a resident of Stevens Point, Wisconsin participated in No Mow May last year. "Our lawn probably had the most dandelions in the neighborhood but a lot of people on our street and in the surrounding residential neighborhood were participating with us," says Merchak. "Now that it's more of a commonplace type of thing to participate in No Mow May, I don't think people look at our lawn like it's eyesore anymore and I certainly don't either."
Cut back your lawn gradually.
Lawns can grow pretty shaggy after a month of not mowing. When it's finally time to mow, the best strategy is to reduce the height of your grass in stages. Paul Koch, an associate professor and turf grass extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin, explains that "you never want to remove more than one-third of the green leafy tissue at any one time." Depending on how tall your grass has gotten, it could take a few weekends with the mower to get back to your usual lawn height. "As long as you're taking care to go back down at a gradual level to normal mowing height, I don't think there are any long-term effects that you're going to have on the health of the lawn," says Koch.
Consider if "No Mow April" makes more sense.
No Mow May is a catchy phrase. However, depending on where you live, it might make more sense to practice "No Mow March" or "No Mow April" instead. The idea is the same, though: Bees emerging in spring need food. So, whatever your climate, refrain from mowing when lawn flowers start blooming.
CREDIT: COURTESY OF ANNE READEL
Create a Permanent Pollinator Garden
No Mow May lasts one month, but there are many other ways you can help pollinators all year long.
Manage your lawn as a "bee lawn."
Allow your lawn to flower throughout the growing season by raising your mowing height or mowing less often. "Just raising your mowing height to four or four-and-a-half inches really keeps the majority of flowering plants intact," explains Koch. One study also found that lawns mowed once every two weeks attracted more bees than lawns mowed every week.
Another option is to reseed your lawn with a "bee lawn" seed mix, which combines turf grass with low-growing flowers, such as white clover and creeping thyme. This option may be more palatable to folks who don't like the look of dandelions or creeping Charlie. Over time, you might grow to appreciate the new wild aesthetic of your lawn and wonder why you ever did all that mowing in the first place.
Avoid pesticides and weed-killer.
If you're trying to grow lawn flowers and feed the bees, avoid applying chemicals that will harm them. For example, "weed and feed" products will blitz your lawn flowers. And some products designed to kill grubs contain toxins that are deadly to bees and other pollinators, such as neonicotinoid insecticides.
Grow native flowers.
Think beyond the lawn and try some native plants in your beds and gardens. You'll be amazed at the variety and beauty of the plants from your area that bees and other pollinators love.
Even if No Mow May isn't possible for you, taking any of these steps can help both native bees and honeybees, as well as a variety of other important pollinators. If nothing else, you're sure to make a buzz!
Anne Readel is a writer and photographer with a Ph.D. in conservation biology. Her stories often highlight the incredible animals and plants that live in our own backyards. A believer in the power of stories to create change, Anne uses her writing and photography to promote conservation. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Audubon, and Better Homes & Gardens, among others.