No Mow May: Pro’s & Cons of This Pollinator Movement

Written by Greenwise Team
Published on April 29, 2022
No Mow May has been buzzing lately in the media and probably on your social media. This movement began in the UK and is intended to help increase our bee population.

As an organic lawn care company with a sustainable landscape design focus, we love that people are caring about the environment and especially trying to help our pollinators. That’s what we’ve been about for the past 17 years!

While we love the idea of this movement, it does present some real issues for those of you with lawns, and we don’t think it achieves the long-term solution that we’d like to see happen, such as creating a native garden or a rain garden to more permanently increase pollinator and wildlife habitat and pollen sources.

Typically, our lawns aren’t great sources for pollinators or wildlife habitat, unless yours is covered with dandelions and clover. And luckily, our Greenwise lawns are already safe for pollinators, which certainly isn’t the case for most homeowners.

Obviously one of the most important ways to save our pollinators is to not use pesticides or herbicides (as Greenwise clients, you can check that off your list as done). Did you know you are in the vast minority when it comes to wanting an organic, safe approach to your lawn?

According to Beyond Pesticides, 78 million U.S. households use home and garden pesticides. That’s more than the agricultural industry uses, which is frankly hard to fathom. More than 90 million pounds of herbicides are applied to lawns and gardens every year!

As Greenwise customers, you can be proud that you are not contributing to that ugly statistic, and you are already helping Mother Earth one yard at a time.

The Pros of Not Mowing in May

You may have heard that Appleton, WI experimented with No Mow May in 2020. According to a study, the yards that weren’t mowed for the month had three times higher bee species richness and five times more bees than the regularly mowed lawns.

What we don’t know about those lawns is whether they were chemically treated before doing this experiment. Given how many yards are treated with pesticides, we can presume they might have been. In any case, we are thrilled to see bee populations thriving in that area, and hope that those homeowners change how they see their lawns—natural habitats rather than striving for golf course perfection.

Want a more sustainable solution to No Mow May? How about planting native gardens as a lawn alternative? It’s a great long-term solution to enhancing our bee population, as well as our other beloved pollinators. Maybe you can reduce the size of your lawn to accommodate a small native garden, filled with easy-to-maintain perennials that will thrive in our area and help our pollinators populate.

Our landscape designers can help you design and build a garden that works for you. Or, maybe you’ll decide to allow growth in a part of your yard—there might be a back corner that would work well for letting the grass grow unattended.

Here are some examples of our clients who chose a low-maintenance approach to their lawn with sedge grasses and perennials. We have lots of ideas for how you can quickly or slowly transform your yard into a natural habitat.

The Cons of Not Mowing in May

We’ve been getting a lot of rain this spring, which is great for our plants and wildlife, and means our grass will grow! When you allow grass to grow long and then suddenly cut it, the mowing can send grass into shock. Grass roots become diminished and your lawn weakens, making it susceptible to insects and diseases. There are a lot of unwanted pests that love tall grass, such as mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks.

Typically, our residential turfgrasses offer little to no biodiversity. Any flowers for pollinators in our lawns (dandelions, clover) are typically deemed unwanted or invasive. We know clover (and others) do have ecological value, but the majority of Evanston property owners do not have a clover-dominant yard.

By the end of the month, especially with all this rain, your lawn could be about a foot long and difficult to clean up. The base of the grass may yellow, and when it is mowed, some of the lawn may brown out from the stress (see image below).

It will most likely require a serious cleanup to get it back in shape. It will need to be mowed and raked and mowed and raked again. For our maintenance clients, this will incur additional fees.

We are concerned it may damage the lawn in areas because the grass will get so long that it will flop over on top of itself, shading itself out and potentially causing dead spots. Some spots may need spot seeding.

Most of our clients live in residential neighborhoods and while you might be okay with a wild lawn, your neighbors might not be so thrilled, as it lacks curb appeal, especially if someone is trying to sell their home next door or down the street.

One of our biggest concerns (not with our clients) is that the general public will allow their lawns to go untended for the month of May and find their lawns get infested with weeds, which they will then treat with herbicides or pesticides, which brings us back full circle to harming our pollinators.

I found a blog called Gardenrant that’s written by a garden writer, teacher, and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. She is not a fan of the movement and below are some sources she quotes. She also plans to photograph lawns in the month of May to document how they are doing, so it might be interesting to check in and see what she’s discovered.

According to the University of Maryland, “Infrequent mowing allows the turf to grow too tall. Subsequent mowing removes too much leaf surface and may shock the plants. …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.”

Sylvia Thompson-Hacker, one of the administrators of the popular (25K+ members around the world) Garden Professors Blog Facebook Group, had this to say:

“’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 on 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.”

Encouraging Long-Term Pollinator Solutions

We do love the attention our pollinators are getting with No Mow May—we all need to care a lot more about them—we just want to encourage a long-term solution that is truly meaningful and not one that makes us feel good for a month.

We’d like to see cities and villages encourage their homeowners to stop spraying herbicides. Now, that will make a difference in our health, our pollinators’ health, and Mother Earth.

Please reach out with any questions. Your Greenwise team is here to help you!

Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Larson @selfoto