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Our Backyard Gardens: Mow, or #NoMowMay

by Amy Halsted

Mow. No Mow. Low Mow. Less is Mow!

The #NoMowMay movement has its roots in the U.K. and was started in 2019 by the nonprofit Plantlife. As a strategy to support pollinators, #NoMowMay is simultaneously encouraged and discouraged, and as with most movements, its evolution is underway. Plantlife’s “Don’t mow this May and let it grow!” is intended “…to provide a feast for pollinators, tackle pollution, reduce urban heat extremes, and lock away atmospheric carbon below ground.” Critically, the initial idea was to recover lost pollinator habitat of “approximately 97% of flower-rich meadows since the 1930s” in the United Kingdom. Plantlife offers considerable resources to support the No Mow May movement, including articles (Guide to a Nature Friendly Lawn, Simple Ways to Increase the Number of Wildflowers in Your Lawn), #NoMowMay logos, posters, signs, social media posts and coloring pages. 

In the United States, lawns cover 40 million acres. Lawns are monocultures. There is considerable agreement that they do little for biodiversity while requiring lots of time, money, fertilizer, chemicals, and other resources. “When we think of habitat loss, we tend to imagine bulldozers and rutted dirt, but acres of manicured lawn are as much a loss of habitat as any development site,” writes Bee City USA.

The first instance of #NoMowMay in the U.S. was in 2020 in Appleton, Wisconsin; since then, the concept has taken hold. Letting lawns grow in the spring provides food sources—dandelions, clover, violets—for bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and other insects while flowers are scant. If you are going the no-mow route, it’s beneficial to augment a lawn with low-growing plants such as creeping thyme (Thymus spp.), selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), and native violets (Viola spp.). 

Noble in its intent, #NoMowMay has its detractors. First, there are vast regional climate differences in the U.S., homeowner association requirements, weed and lawn ordinances, neighbor complaints, and a growing chorus of decriers. A recent article in Real Simple includes a quote by Dr. Doug Tallamy: “Dr. Tallamy sees little logic in letting lawns grow longer for a few weeks. If people simply let their grass grow for a month and then revert to a clipped green monoculture, they are teasing pollinators with short-term snacks followed by starvation.” 

Inadvertently creating tick habitat is also of concern. Long grass is a tick favorite. Adding low growing pollinator plants to grass and mowing less (to a 4-inch height) are recommended strategies. Adding a pollinator-plant area in the yard and going ahead with May mowing if concerned about ticks also works.

In our area of Western Maine, lawns vary from laid turf to former cow pastures to in-town mingling of flowers and grass. Two area gardeners, Katina Colombotos of Bryant Pond and Sara Hemeon of Bethel and owner of The Philbrook Place, have largely embraced #NoMowMay while adjusting its application to suit the needs of varying landscapes with a nod to the changes in weather and to protection of people and pets from tick proliferation. 

No mow meadow, photo by KATINA COLOMBOTOS

With gardens close to the house, some grass and a very large meadow, Katina deploys a variety of techniques. “New ideas like #NoMowMay are always worthy of consideration. The more we understand, the more we respect the natural world,” she says.

No mow fern stand

Like many regional fields and lawns, Katina’s landscape is an old pasture and former woods. “Our place was never planted with monoculture sod. It’s mossier with Creeping Jenny, clovers, and some grass,” says Katina. “We bushwhack the meadow once a year in the fall, cut a 4-foot path through it during the summer, and keep the grass shorter around the house,” she says. “The shorter grass helps with tick management, is augmented with clover, and keeping it shorter allows a variety of low growing pollinator plants to flourish.”

In town, since taking ownership of The Philbrook Place—which primarily features eco-friendly and sustainable products, re-use consignment, and many local artists—Sara Hemeon has worked tirelessly to bring back old gardens and, ultimately, to eliminate grass altogether. “I heard about #NoMowMay a few years ago. It sparked more than an idea. I realized I could use the space at The Philbrook Place in a better way,” says Sara. “#NoMowMay is a great idea. Lawns are a waste. Last year, I made the decision to get rid of any lawn around Philbrook. It was a lot of work to dig up the grass, terrace the hill it grew on, and to put down a whole lot of landscape fabric and mulch to suffocate what remained.” 

“At Philbrook, lawn mower gasoline is replaced with perennials, annuals, edibles, fruit trees and pollinator-friendly planting. I’m growing food for my family and teaching my daughter how to grow it. It’s how a movement and an idea has evolved into a learning environment,” says Sara.

Consider how you can incorporate a version of #No Mow May into your yard-care routine this spring. The idea is to support emerging pollinators before flowers are fully blooming and to reduce carbon emissions. 


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