by Henry Homeyer
CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – In 2019 a British non-profit called Plantlife coined the phrase “No Mow May.” They proposed that gardeners leave their mowers in storage for the month of May in order to let wildflowers and weeds bloom and provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. And of course the caterpillars of many pollinators feed all our baby birds, so the ramifications are vast.
Early spring is a tough time for pollinators, especially here in New England as there are not many flowers to visit. I like the idea of a simple action that can have positive effects on so many species of wildlife.
The most obvious advantage to you is that you have a few extra hours to do other things in your garden. May is a busy time for most of us: raking out beds, pulling weeds that wintered over and are starting to grow in our beds. Planting early vegetables and flowers. Shopping for new plants. We can even bask in the sun like seals if we have the time to do so.
Next, you are not spending any money on gas or electricity (if you have a battery-powered mower). Most gas powered mowers do not have the emission controls that are required for cars. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one hour operating a new gasoline lawn mower emits the same amount of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide as driving a new car 45 miles.
According to the EPA, lawn mowers and other garden machines like leaf blowers, string trimmers, etc., contribute as much pollution as our cars and homes. The statistics on lawns are deceiving; two percent of the land mass in America is lawn. But that is more square miles of land than all the corn grown here. Roughly 80% of homes have at least some lawn.
If we mow our lawns from May to the end of October, that’s six months of mowing. Eliminating one month of mowing reduces those emissions by 17%. Good for the environment, good for the wallet.
For the last two years I have been installing trees in what was a five-acre lawn in Hanover. So far we have planted about 150 of them and we largely stopped the mowing, just leaving pathways throughout. The owners now have their field mowed everywhere just once every two years to control growth of unwanted woody plants like poplars, which spread by root.
We were delighted last spring to see the field come alive. At least a dozen species of flowers bloomed, probably more. And the bees and other pollinators just loved it.
You must be wondering what happened when we just stopped mowing. Grass grew, and largely flopped over as it got taller. It was nothing like the unruly two- or three-foot tall mess that the mowing guys predicted. We were always able to walk anywhere in the field even though it was not mowed. Of course, when the mowing crew shows up soon, they have big, industrial-scale mowers that will chew up anything.
For your home lawn you may want to pay attention to how tall the grass gets in May. Presumably your push mower or electric mower will not mow tall grasses as easily as the riding mowers used on the field described above. If you can only avoid mowing for two or three weeks, it’s still better than mowing it short every week in May.
Another advantage to the No Mow May is that you will probably end up with a better, more resilient lawn in times of drought. The longer your grass, the more food it produces for the roots, allowing them to grow longer and deeper.
Your lawn might complain about being mowed short on June 1. So put the blades up as high as they go, to avoid giving the lawn that “scalped” look. The lower parts of blades of grass may be a little pale in color as they were shaded out by the taller parts. Leave your lawn a little longer this year: it doesn’t have to look like the infield of Fenway Park.
What about bare spots on the lawn? These are often filled in with crabgrass, an annual weed. For large areas, you will need to plant new lawn seed, the sooner the better.
Filling in empty spots can be done in May by scratching the soil with a short-tined rake to loosen the surface. Add half an inch of compost and mix it in with the soil. Then spread seed over it: just broadcast it with your hand in small areas. I use a lawn-leaf rake to mix the seed in with the soil: I flip over the rake and drag it lightly over the area, which mixes in the seed well. If you have a metal tamper, use it to press down the planted area. If not, use a small board and step on it.
I never fertilize my lawn, and it looks fine to me. If your lawn is a little feeble, check the soil pH. If it is too acidic, you can spread some limestone. Lawn grass prefers nearly neutral pH.
So take a break from mowing this May. Tell your neighbors what’s going on, so they won’t call you a lazy slug! You are just being environmentally conscious.