Environment

To mow or not to mow? Why there's a culture war happening on your lawn

"No Mow May," the great grass debate dividing homeowners, gardeners, and conservationists.

To mow or not to mow? Why there's a culture war happening on your lawn
Rich Pedroncell / AP

As the weather warms and your yard comes to life, so does the debate over what should be done with America's lawns.

"No Mow May" is the three-word directive dividing neighbors across the country as grass begins to slowly creep up in height. Odds are you've seen it popping up in headlines, trending on social media, or even setting off heated debates in your local gardening chat groups. So, what exactly is it?

"No Mow May, at its core, is such a simple idea. You know, you don't mow for a few weeks, you have flowers and you have happy bees," Matthew Shepherd said.

That's Matthew Shepherd with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting pollinators and their habitats—think bees, butterflies, moths, and flies.

The "No Mow May" movement was launched in 2019 by the U.K. conservation group Plantlife, with the idea being that if you don't mow your lawn the whole month of May, declining pollinator populations and the native plants they feed on would have a chance to rebound in your area.

The idea spread across the Atlantic, first being picked up in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 2020, before spreading elsewhere in the states, with environmental groups such as Xerces taking notice.

"Make it fit what you want. It's not like there's rules. There's no 'No Mow May' police sneaking around, checking out your lawn, and citing you, you know," Shepherd said. "If you would like your lawn to be longer, I mean, let it grow. Maybe it means instead of mowing it twice a week or once a week, you mow it. Once every other week, you know?"

But not everyone is buzzing about a break from yard work.

"Gardening is work. And if you want to have pollinators visit your garden all year round, not mowing your lawn is not the way to do it," Elizabeth Licata said.

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Licata is an editorial writer for The Buffalo News and longtime gardener. She's been digging into the "No Mow May" movement, most recently in an op-ed, where she points out that consideration for pollinators needs to extend beyond just a month if we want our actions to have a long-term impact.

"You have to put a little more thought into it than that. You have to maintain perennials and even flowering trees and shrubs that will provide a steady diet for these pollinators that they can come back to month after month," Licata said.

And Licata warns that if you do go to mow your lawn after taking a month off, don't be surprised if the grass doesn't respond well.

"When you do mow that lawn, presuming that you still want to have it, you're really damaging it. You're cutting off about three-quarters of its growth, and you're shocking it. You're quite literally shocking your lawn, and you're hurting it," Licata said.

There's also the chance that not mowing your lawn could set off testy exchanges with neighbors unhappy with the sight, or worse, violate homeowner association policies in your area, some of which have taken residents to court in the past over the height, color, and makeup of lawns.

The Washington Post cites 2005 data from NASA that estimates that there are roughly 40 million acres of "ornamental lawn" in the U.S., making up roughly two percent of the land area of the lower 48 states.

And to maintain all of that, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spend roughly nine billion gallons of water each day on landscape irrigation. As a result, lawns have increasingly come under scrutiny by state and local officials for water use, especially in western states.

Some have begun encouraging residents to swap out their grass for more drought-resistant landscapes, such as clover, cactus, artificial turf, and even gravel.

"The ecological I.Q. of this country is really low. We don't get that we are living off the life support that healthy ecosystems provide. If we don't support those ecosystems, we don't have that life support," Doug Tallamy said.

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Tallamy is an entomologist at the University of Delaware and the author of "Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conversation That Starts in Your Yard."

"We now need to practice conservation outside of parks and preserves. And what's outside of parks and preserves is private property," Tallamy said. "So, the private homeowner is actually the future of conservation. And my job has been to tell them that they don't know that."

And the group best suited to tackle these conversations might not be who you'd expect.

"The most powerful people in the country right now in terms of the environment are baby boomers. They're retired. They've got money. They're trying to figure out what to do with their lives. They can be a really powerful source, but it wasn't part of our upbringing. Nobody was trained in this," Tallamy said. "So, the biggest hindrance is that they simply don't know that they are the future of conservation and that plant choice is the way to go."

Tallamy says ultimately, he'd love to see the area of lawn in the U.S. cut in half, but that doesn't mean getting out your shovel and digging up your grass right away.

"The easiest thing to do is plant a tree, plant two or three trees, and you put a bed around that tree, and immediately you have less lawn, and that tree's going to grow," Tallamy said.

Like many environmental debates, this one is not going away anytime soon, but experts like Tallamy, Licata, and Shepherd say they are happy that these conversations are finally getting the attention they deserve.

"We're a lot farther along now than we were 20 years ago. You're interviewing me; that wouldn't have happened 20 years ago, and you recognize that this is an issue. People recognize that the 135 million acres we have in residential neighborhoods count. We're recognizing that our parks are not enough to preserve the biodiversity that we need. So we've got to do conservation outside of the parks, Tallamy said.