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August, 7

No Mow May could backfire: Here’s why

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“What do you think of No Mow May?”

The question, asked by a garden friend, caught me by surprise because I’d only seen the phrase once before in a British gardening magazine. 

Turns out I’ve been missing the boat because my state of Wisconsin has been at the forefront of the No Mow May movement for a few years. Two years ago, Appleton became the first U.S. city to officially adopt the initiative started in England that asks people not to mow their lawns during May to provide flowers for pollinators.

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Weeds make up a good part of my lawn because we’ve never used herbicides on it.

I’m sorry to say that my answer to my garden friend’s question is not positive. I think No Mow May is a well-intentioned movement that has the potential to backfire in the U.S., making the short- and long-term benefits highly questionable.

The promotional material for No Mow May (yes, it’s big enough that there is official marketing) shows romantic flowing grasses with beautiful wildflowers buzzing with bees rising above. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but those beautiful wildflowers don’t just pop up in a lawn from not mowing for a month, at least not in much of the country. 

What will pop up in my neck of the woods is mostly dandelions, which are not native to North America, and perhaps some clover and flowering creeping Charlie. And yes, these flowers will attract pollinators, although the benefit to them is questionable. 

Native bees do the lion’s share of pollinating important crops, not the non-native honey bee, according to a peer-reviewed report by Christy Stewart, of the University of Wisconsin’s Agricultural Research Unit. And dandelions are not a great food source for these bees, which benefit more from the pollen of native trees and shrubs that flower earlier than dandelions.

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I don’t have anything against dandelions, but plenty of people do, so what happens when the people who don’t like them end up with a yard full?

Where I think No Mow May will go wrong is the repercussions of all those flowering weeds, which will, of course, proliferate a neighborhood causing a carpet of dandelions that might be beautiful to some and an eyesore to others. Neighborly relations may not be up for that kind of stress these days.

Some homeowners who pride themselves on a perfect lawn will likely increase their herbicide applications to counteract a burgeoning dandelion population and even some No Mow May participants may, in time, tire of the look and resort to drastic measures to have a “good-looking” lawn again. And if there’s one thing that’s worse than hungry pollinators, it’s dead pollinators poisoned by herbicides.

The No Mow May movement has gotten some traction in its English home, but there are some cultural differences that I think make acceptance of the initiative on a wide scale a steeper hill to climb in the U.S. Lawns here are just bigger, and as a culture we have a far deeper appreciation of a wide expanse of perfect lawn (something I’ve never come close to achieving and don’t really care) that will be hard to get past.

A far better approach would be to encourage homeowners to turn a small patch of lawn into a proper native wildflower garden that will feed wild bees from spring through fall and be far more attractive than a shaggy lawn full of weeds. And, of course, to stop applying herbicides to their lawn. Or plant native trees that provide more food for pollinators than any lawn could. Or to incorporate native plants into their existing gardens.

The point is that there are a lot of ways to support pollinators, particularly important native species, that will have more impact than keeping the lawn mower under lock and key for a month.

They just need a catchy name and a marketing plan.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in Ozaukee Press.

 

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