Friday, May 05, 2023

No Mow May

A bunny contemplating my growing grass. Is he wondering about no-mow May?
Or is he contemplating a nibble from our just-emerging hostas which he also ate last year?

The Ann Arbor City Council recently adopted a resolution encouraging property owners to reduce mowing in the month of May, and making it legal for lawns to grow between 6 and 12 inches high. The resolution notes that “Pollinator populations and water resources are threatened due to habitat loss, pathogens, parasites, and widespread use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids and other toxic chemicals,” and “Research suggests that bees and other pollinators make use of less-intensively maintained lawn spaces.”

Allowing lawns to grow higher not only benefits pollinating species, but also reduces the use of fossil fuel for maintaining the grass, reduces noise levels, decreases compacting of soil, and thus enables better stormwater flow. Households in Ann Arbor are encouraged to let lawns grow to 6-12 inches, as well as to reduce the removal of leaves in the fall and to plant more native species in their gardens.

Our house is situated on a rather small lot, as we are in the older center of Ann Arbor in a neighborhood that was subdivided 100 years ago from a farm that had occupied this area.The design of homes and gardens in this neighborhood featured mowed-grass lawns in the front and back of every house, as had already become traditional in the 19th century. City ordinances have required the maintenance of short grass, not weeds or natural native plantings; this is specifically changed by the proclamation above.

At present, many of our neighbors continue to cultivate standard all-grass weed-free lawns, but several  of the houses on our block have some combination of grass and other plantings, and a few have no grass at all. We have left only a small part of our yard as grass, and we do not use chemical fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides; in fact, by usual standards we have a TERRIBLE lawn. This means we should be very good at No-Mow May!

Thinking of the Pollinators

A bee working in a flower in our neighborhood last summer.
We hope to do our small part encouraging bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, and other species.

Bee City USA is an organization dedicated to encouraging wildlife, especially pollinators, by cultivating flowering plants rather than standard, chemically enhanced grass. They write: 

“The start of the growing season is a critical time for hungry, newly emerged native bees. Floral resources may be hard to find, especially in urban and suburban landscapes. By allowing it to grow longer, and letting flowers bloom, your lawn can provide nectar and pollen to help your bee neighbors thrive. Mowing less creates habitat and can increase the abundance and diversity of wildlife including bees and other pollinators.”

Note that the lawn-maintenance industry and a few other sources have published discussions claiming that not mowing your lawn is bad in several ways, including bad for pollinators (lots of trade-off info here). In particular, dandelions may or may not be an especially good source of pollen for bees and other insects, so if you end up with a big crop of them you might not be doing a good thing (excessive detail here).The arguments against minimized mowing mainly apply to very well-tended, chemically treated lawns, so I’m ignoring these nay-sayers. 

Why do we have lawns, anyway?

The tradition of having a broad green expanse around one’s home began several hundred years ago:

“Closely shorn grass lawns first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of large, wealthy landowners. While sheep were still grazed on many such park-lands, landowners increasingly depended on human labor to tend the grass closest to their homes. Before lawnmowers, only the rich could afford to hire the many hands needed to scythe and weed the grass, so a lawn was a mark of wealth and status.” (source)

Mount Vernon
Lawn bowling and other games were played on the short grassy expanses. In front of George Washington’s mansion on his plantation at Mount Vernon is a wide lawn referred to as a bowling green. Washington carefully planned the landscaping at Mount Vernon, including the lawn, to be impressive to the many visitors who came to see him after his retirement as President (source). It’s painful to realize that the extreme amount of labor required for his lawn was performed by the slaves who worked on his estate.

Washington’s vast lawn was one of the models for the American ideal of a personal garden space, first only for the rich, and increasingly for middle and lower-middle class households. By the end of the 19th century, lawns were common in American urban environments.

Throughout the 20th century, private lawns became more and more socially expected, and suburban housing developers created increasingly large lots to accommodate them. The expanding obligation of keeping up these lawns included possession of motorized mowing and trimming machines, use of chemicals for enhancing grass and killing anything that interfered with its growth, and devotion of personal leisure time to lawn care. 

The result is that grass is the largest crop in America. The details:

“There are somewhere around 40 million acres of lawn in the lower 48, according to a 2005 NASA estimate derived from satellite imaging. ‘Turf grasses, occupying 1.9% of the surface of the continental United States, would be the single largest irrigated crop in the country,’ that study concludes. Conservatively, American lawns take up three times as much space as irrigated corn.” (Source)

Can we collectively free ourselves from the obligation to maintain our lawns? Or will climate change free us whether we like it or not? I guess we have to wait and see what happens.

Blog post © 2023 mae sander


eileeninmd said...

No-mow May is a great idea. Protecting the pollinators is important and benefits all of us. We are on well water so we do not use any chemicals on our lawn. Take care, have a happy weekend!

Tina said...

Excellent idea. Somene mows our field twice a month on the grass segment, about 2 1/2 acres, but the rest is wooded. We ahve been putting loads of plants in which attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. As it expands we'll have less grass in the front of the house.

Love the rabbit photo. We saw one today and were quite excited because it had been a long time since seeing a rabbit.

DVArtist said...

Interesting post. If it were up to me I would not have a lawn at all. I rent so I have no say so in it. However, when we owned our home in ID. the first thing we did was to get rid of the lawn. Here in OR. we have so much rain that if we didn't mow for a month it would be as tall a me. LOL Have a great day today.

Iris Flavia said...

As soon as it´s warm wild-flower-seeds for bees go into the balcony beds.

Lori said...

We do this every year. We do not use any chemicals on our lawn or any of our trees. In the fall we do pick up a lot of our leaves but the ones that haven't fallen yet we leave until the end of April. I love that your city has promoted this. We all need to rethink our yards.

Jenn Jilks said...

I really agree with changing up this practice of crazy lawns, with micromanaged weed killing.
I did see a piece somewhere that the bees primarily feed on tree blossoms at this time of year. I don't know.
I like leaving it longer.

My name is Erika. said...

I think it's great when communities don't get all crazy about the length and conditions of people's lawns. I did enjoy learning about why we have lawns. Have a great weekend Mae. hugs-Erika

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Manicured lawns are green deserts and I suspect will become a thing of the past. We have no grass and have naturalized our property with native trees and perennials. We don't rake our leaves in the fall and we have created a tiny wildlife oasis. Others on the street are beginning to follow suit. In Europe, I have seen vegetable gardens in the front of houses, and that makes perfect sense doesn't it? More cities in North America need to follow the lead of yours.

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

That's interesting. We have such mild weather here that the mowing goes on all year long. It doesn't take many days for the grass to be a foot high! Enjoy your weekend!

Valerie-Jael said...

I'm always happy to see lawns that aren't mowed. Quite a few people here let their grass grow long, and I like it! Valerie

Cindy said...

I have never heard of a no-mow month but sounds like a great idea! How a good weekend!

Breathtaking said...

Hello Mae :=)
Great post with several good articles. As you probably already know you can buy rolls of turf with a mix of pretty wild flowers, which does not necessarily include dandelions, It would encourage even more pollinators than just long grass. Many European gardens are substituting their pristine lawns for the more environmentally friendly field lawns. I'm in favour of leaving grass to grow longer in the month of May, in fact I hope we never decide to forgo having a lawn of some kind.
All the best.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm deeply intrigued by the actions of Ann Arbor's City Council. My husband and I have been visiting a county park once a week for about two and a half years. We are participating in a citizen science survey for butterflies across Texas.

One of the most interesting things I've seen is the devastating effect of mowing on the butterfly population. Last summer the park was mowed regularly (in the summer it was once a week) even when there was almost no grass because of dry conditions. And the butterfly population plummeted after every mowing. The most extreme mowing---mowing along the edges of the bayou---resulted in the most extreme losses of butterflies.

And why do so much mowing?

I guess I can understand why the areas around the play equipment need to be kept mowed. I lived in a neighborhood that adjoins this park when I was growing up, and we commonly ran across the four poisonous snakes of Texas (though no child or adult ever received a snake bite). But why do we mow so often?

I have thought about speaking to the director of parks with my findings. I'm happy to see Ann Arbor taking the lead in this movement.

JoAnn said...

I applaud no mow May! Our property in FL has no grass/sod at all... it simply cannot grow here with irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides. The city encourages its residents to use native trees and vegetation and there are ordinances limiting non-native plantings. One of the reasons we selected this house was the all-native, low maintenance, no mow landscape. Of course, it took a hit from Hurricane Ian, but much of it is starting to come back now. I'm sure once rainy season hits, it will begin to look even better!

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

What a great thing to do for the wildlife! I approve!

reese said...

What a fascinating and enlightened idea on the part of Ann Arbor. Our lawn's pretty terrible, but that's because of trees and too much shade, so I feel that's OK...

Literary Feline said...

I love the idea of no-mow May. I don't think my Home Owners Association would like it very much, but if it was a government lead event, perhaps they would go along with it. They had to when we had to cut back on watering because of the drought. I have thought about getting rid of our lawn and going to a more drought resistant yard, but haven't looked too closely into it yet. I really should do that!

thecuecard said...

We are planning to keep our lawn higher than normal to keep in the moisture. I love trying to maintain the lawn -- I must admit and I ove a green healthy lawn, but we will be relying on rain mostly for water.

Jeanie said...

this is interesting and well done, AACC. My yard was definitely looking like no-mow May til Rick came by last night with the mower. Between the rain and travel, it wasn't happening! I love that bunny -- bet he's happy as a clam!

Yvonne said...

I've had dandelions on a mowed lawn blanket the entire grassed space. In our current garden and lawn, leaves are allowed to settle where they fall. The small grass patch along the street is mowed on the highest setting. We joke that it is a weed lawn these days. We still have dandelions, but they never take over an entire space anymore. We have rabbits visit our garden and sometimes live in it. It brightens us up emmensely on the occasion when we spot one. Lovely bunny photo. Enjoy your May!

Yvonne said...

I always joke about our lawn, calling it mowed weeds. We don't rake off the leaves or fertilize, so wildflowers are mostly what is left. We're required to keep ours mowed 4" or less. Very nice photo and caption of the bunny.

Yvonne said...

Woops! I see my first comment I couldn't get to post, actually posted. Double the comments on a very nice post.

Adam Jones said...

Lovely capture of the bee, and I fully agree with the no mow May initiative. It makes a lot of sense.

eileeninmd said...

Just stopping back to say sorry, I am late commenting! Thanks so much for linking up and sharing your post. Take care, have a great day and the rest of the week!