No Mow April—Cut Lawns Less, Help Pollinators More
It’s that time of year when lawnmowers come out of hibernation. But in a growing number of communities, the mowers are still lying about doing nothing. Why? Because of a No Mow movement taking hold around the U.S. It’s not about laziness; it’s about providing forage for pollinators, particularly during the early part of the growing season.
In this country, the practice of No Mow May first took root up north in a Wisconsin college town. In our warmer climate, the Piedmont Master Gardeners encourage the community to adopt No Mow April as well as other measures to support beneficial insects.
This movement seems at odds with Americans’ love of their lawns. Large expanses of lawn became popular in France and England in the eighteenth century among the upper classes. By the end of the nineteenth century, the use of lawns had spread to the U.S. largely through the influence of Frederick Law Olmstead. With the rise of suburban communities around the country in the next century, a front yard with a well-manicured grass lawn became the standard and a symbol of success.
According to a 2005 NASA study , there are more than 40 million acres of residential and commercial lawns, golf courses and parkland in the U.S. These turfgrasses represent 2 percent of the land in the continental U.S. and are the single largest irrigated crop in the country. Lawns are a heavy consumer of resources (water, fertilizers and pesticides), a source of pollution of our watersheds, high maintenance and expensive.
While turfgrass provides little natural habitat or food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, most lawns nevertheless harbor flowering weeds that native bees and other pollinators need. Even weeds like dandelions provide essential pollinator food—nectar and pollen—early in the season when flowering plants are in short supply. In fact, dandelions are a superfood for bees and butterflies, producing 9 percent of the lawn’s pollen and 37 percent of its nectar sugar in one study.
With proper care, lawns can be managed to mitigate some negative impacts on the environment. But those practices do not address the effect that turfgrass has on pollinators.
Because human activities like development and intensive farming have contributed to a decline in the number of pollinators and reduced the supply of pollinator nutrition, we must do all we can to remedy that shortfall. As vegetable gardeners know, food production depends in large part on pollinators. The U.S. Forest Service website reports that “of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination.”
Leaving weeds to flower by not mowing for a month is the simple idea behind this growing movement. No Mow May started in the United Kingdom in 2019, and jumped the pond in 2020 to Appleton, Wisconsin, at the urging of two local professors, Dr. Israel Del Toro and Dr. Relena Ribbons.
In its first year, 435 Appleton residents signed up to participate in No Mow May. Professors Del Toro and Ribbons then proceeded to gather data on the impact of the first No Mow May in 2020. The result? They discovered that the No Mow lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species as nearby mown areas in town parks. By 2022, at least 25 U.S. cities participated in the No Mow initiative. Communities have adopted this initiative in April or May, depending on the start of the mowing season, when temperatures consistently reach at least 40 degrees F.
Penn State’s Pollinator Research Center offers these tips on the no “No Mow” strategy:
- Adopt a “lazy lawn mower approach.” This entails mowing less frequently or at a higher mower height “to sustain more low-flowering plants in your lawn,” such as dandelions, bird’s-foot trefoil and clover that provide pollen and nectar resources for foraging bees.
- Use the one-third rule. Mow no more than one-third of the lawn at one time to a height of 3.5 to 4 inches, allowing flowering plants to survive and produce flowers to support pollinators.
Since a tidy, well-mown lawn may be required by local ordinances or HOA rules, most No-Mowers have found it helpful to post a sign alerting neighbors to the purpose of their “lazy lawn mower” approach. Most communities implementing the No Mow initiative have enacted ordinances authorizing participants to leave lawns un-mown for the month.
There are more ways to help our pollinators. One of the professors who helped launch No Mow May, urges us all to do exactly that:
“The initiative is only a starting point for bee conservation. What you did for one month, that’s cool, that helps,” Dr. Del Toro said. “But what are you going to do the rest of the summer, or the rest of the year, to make sure that our pollinators are protected?”
Here are some more options to consider:
- Create a “bee lawn” by cultivating flowering plants in your turf grass. According to experts at Minnesota Extension, “Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), and creeping thyme (Thymus praecoxssp. arcticus; formerly Thymus serpyllum)are three species that benefit pollinators and will flower in a mowed lawn. White clover offers the additional benefit of adding nitrogen to the soil, plus it tolerates drought. For more about bee lawns, view this video.
- Create a pollinator habitat in your yard by planting native plants with a variety of blooming times, so there is nectar and pollen available throughout the season, along with nesting habitat and water resources.
- Mow less throughout the growing season. Instead of mowing once a week, mow every other week.
- Limit the lawn area by leaving areas uncut, enlarging garden beds, planting groundcovers, or establishing “islands” of edible or ornamental plants in the middle of the lawn. Do I Have to Mow All That? provides more ideas on ways to reduce the lawn.
- Use lawn best management practices, to avoid practices that can cause damage to the environment.
- Reduce or avoid herbicide, insecticide and pesticide use in the lawn. If using a chemicals, follow the recommendations the Virginia Cooperative Extension Pest Management Guide.
- Educate yourself and others about factors related to bee decline and other pollinator decline. Pollinators are critical to our food security, so we all need to know why they are threatened and how to protect them.
We are now in an era in which declines in pollinator populations (including birds) and more extreme weather events make a compelling case to think differently about lawns and how to manage our landscape more sustainably. Residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County may also want to take advantage of the Healthy Virginia Lawns program, which provides an on-site visit, soil analysis and assessment of your lawn, or our new Healthy Landscapes program, which provides a site assessment and recommendations for establishing habitat in your yard that supports our native flora and fauna.
Based on an article in the May 2022 issue of The Garden Shed by Piedmont Master Gardener Cathy Caldwell.