#NoMowMay: A Step Toward Abolishing the Lawn?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

This month is #NoMowMay, mostly in the UK but in the US too. The hash tag and concept was invented by the Plantlife site, “is a British conservation charity working nationally and internationally to save threatened wild flowers, plants and fungi.” From the FAQ:

Why “No Mow May”?

Over-maintenance of lawns and other grassy areas means that the wild plants in those grassy areas don’t have a chance to grow, flower and set seed. Changing the way we mow, mowing less regularly or allowing some areas to get long and leaving others short, enables a mixture of wildflowers to grow, flower and set seed.

If you change the way lawns and grassy areas are cut you will see more wildflowers; this is good for our senses and for pollinators.


What is “No Mow May”?

We’re encouraging you to leave your lawnmower in the shed and let all your lawn grow long, just for the month of May. In this way, smaller plants like daisies, dandelions, selfheal, and clover will get a chance to flower. After the survey, you can carry on and leave some or all your lawn unmown if you want to encourage flowers for pollinators.

Some people will already have left all or part of their lawn unmown from the beginning of the season. It’s great if you’ve done this – letting a mini-meadow grow like this is an easy way to encourage wildflowers and wildlife into your garden.

The month builds toward a nice piece of citizen science:

On 21st May we’ll be asking all No Mow May participants to take the Every Flower Counts survey. Simply count the number of flowers in a square metre patch of lawn and get your very own Personal Nectar Score.

#NoMowMay is big enough in the UK that it serves as a news hook. From the Guardian, “Mow problem: gardeners encouraged not to cut lawns in May“:

Thousands of people take part in Plantlife’s annual Every Flower Counts citizen science survey, the largest ever study of garden lawns in the UK. The charity says the results show a “radical shift in attitudes towards lawn management is under way”. It says 78.8% of 2,157 EFC participants last year did not mow for a month before taking part in the survey, an increase from 33.6% in 2019.

People who chose not to mow were rewarded with rare plants. More than 250 wild plant species were recorded by gardeners last year, including wild strawberry, wild garlic and very rare plants including adder’s-tongue fern, meadow saxifrage, snakeshead fritillary and eyebright. Many orchids were also seen, including the declining ​man orchid, green-winged orchid, southern and northern marsh orchid and bee orchid.

Plants considered weeds should be welcomed in lawns in summer, the charity added, especially those such as dandelions, which provide important nectar for pollinators. Despite being outnumbered by daisies 85 to one on a typical 2021 lawn, they produced 9% of its pollen and 37% of its nectar sugar. Plantlife said just eight dandelion flowers may produce enough nectar sugar to meet an adult bumblebee’s baseline energy needs.

(I confess that I am enough of a bourgeios to regard dandelions as, well, a moral failing; a faliure to take care of the property properly. It seems that I am wrong!)

And from the BBC, “Gardeners urged to let lawns go wild to boost nature“:

One gardener who has been enjoying a more relaxed approach is Tom Jennings, 45, from Buckinghamshire. He says it’s a chance to reconnect with the natural world.

“There’s an obsession with neat gardens,” says Tom. “And a lot of that uses not only obsessive mowing but also chemicals which aren’t compatible with nature.”

After letting his back garden grow out, Tom witnessed an explosion of dandelions – important for pollinators such as bees.

Tom says he’s been stunned at how quickly bugs have returned to his back garden: an encouraging signal given the global decline of insect populations.

“You could walk through the middle of the garden on a sunny day, and it throbbed with that sound of insects,” he says. “That used to be commonplace in the British countryside, but sadly isn’t these days.”

Sarah Shuttleworth, 39, a botanist who works for Plantlife, has also noticed the chirping of crickets getting much more noticeable after allowing her lawn in Somerset to grow wild.

“It makes you feel like you’re somewhere tropical instead of your own garden,” she comments.

Here are a few examples of lawns unmown: A very inviting path:

Another inviting path:

Not just bees. Birds:

A meadow:

#NoMowMay hasn’t gotten much traction in the United States — there’s no equivalent of the coverage from the BBC and the Guardian — but I did see this story from the Associated Press, which I found encouraging. (It inspired this post, because I did some searches on “lawn.”) From “America’s love affair with the lawn is getting messy“:

LeighAnn Ferrara is transforming her small suburban yard from grass bordered by a few shrubs into an anti-lawn — a patchwork of flower beds, vegetables and fruit trees.

It didn’t happen all at once, says the mother of two young kids. “, and by now the front yard is probably three-quarters planting beds,” she says. “Every year we do more.”

Ha. I always said sheet mulching, which is what Ferrara is doing, was a gateway drug:

I want to put in a plug for sheet mulch, permaculture’s gateway drug: The idea (oversimplifying badly) is to mimic the accumulation of organic matter on the forest floor by covering one’s beds with at least a layer of newspaper or cardboard, and then layering straw on top of that. (Gurus do a lot more layering than that.) You can see at once how the paper would act as a weedblocker, and I like that, because weeding is work, and I don’t like work, but what’s less evident is how good sheet mulch is at capturing and retaining water. I walked over the straw at the edge of a bed just now, on my way out to, er, mark my territory to scare off the deer, those pests, and I could feel the dew against my feet, quite wet, all captured by the time the sun has risen. Quite remarkable. I only water the garden while the plants are establishing themselves, in early June, and then I don’t water at all for the rest of the season, and I like that, because watering the garden is work. Did I mention that I don’t like work? Sheet mulch is the reason I don’t have to water.

(Sheet mulch is also good for worms.) The trend toward “messy” is a fine case of over-determination. Back to AP:

In states with water shortages, many homeowners long ago swapped out turf grass for less-thirsty options, including succulents and gravel.

Elsewhere, the pandemic has speeded the trend away from lawns. Gardening exploded as a hobby, and many non-gardeners spent more time at home, paying more attention to the natural world around them.

Municipalities across the country are handing out lawn signs with “healthy yard” bragging rights to homeowners who forgo lawn chemicals or mow less often. Many towns are slapping regulations on common tools like gas-powered leaf blowers and mowers, mostly because of noise.

“For people interested in gardening, a lot have come to the realization it can’t just be ornamental anymore. It has to serve some other purpose, whether food, habitat … pack in as many uses as you can,” says Alicia Holloway, a University of Georgia Extension agent in Barrow County. “It’s a shift in thought, in aesthetics.”

(“[P]ack in as many uses as you can” is a succinct statement of the permaculture principle of “stacking functions.”)

Personally, #NoMowMay strikes me as a bit reformist. Why mow at all? I’m an abolitionist! Here is a fine rant from David Roberts:

I hate lawns — particularly suburban front lawns — beyond all reason. Probably more than I can justify. But they really are terrible.

I’m not just talking about the environmental impacts, though they are considerable. Maintaining millions of acres of monoculture means fighting against nature. With a little googling, you can find a million articles about the enormous amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used to grow America’s most common crop.

All that stuff is true, but it’s not what sticks in my craw. What bothers me most is the trade-off of public for private space.

By which Roberts means:

Instead of public gardens, everyone plants their own garden. Instead of events, gatherings, and festivals in public plazas, everyone has their own backyard BBQ. Instead of playgrounds and parks, everyone buys their own toys and play structures and has their own f’ing lawn.

The promise of the American suburban dream is that we don’t need a public — that the nuclear family can be sufficient unto itself. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The lawn began as a feature of UK feudal estates. The whole point was to flaunt wealth, to demonstrate that one owned so much land that one could afford to turn over swathes to nothing but ornamental green.

Then as now, maintaining that swathe of green required enormous amounts of resources and labor. That was the point, to show you had those resources.

Well, we don’t anymore, do we? Some resources the lawn demands, like the fertilizers and the poisons, shouldn’t be used at all. Other resources, like the labor, the water, and the soil, should be put to productive use (and not just productive for humans, but all life).

* * *

It’s all so obvious. But not necessarily to everyone! Issuing my standard caveat that IANAL — but maybe, readers, some of you are! — I want to look at two obstacles to treating your lawn as something other than a “tidy” status symbol and “mess”-free dead zone. First, local regulations. Next — and much more complicated — Home Owners Associations ( HOAs) and their Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs). (What follows applies to property owners, but it also applies to renters, since the same rules applly to each.)

On the local authorities, Bee City, in its discussion of #NoMowMay, has these helpful hints:

Most cities and municipalities have some form of weed ordinance that dictates the height and sometimes even the types of plants a homeowner is allowed to grow. Unfortunately, many of these ordinances are woefully out of date and out of touch with the modern movement towards creating yards that support wildlife in urban settings. While local ordinances will vary greatly from place-to-place, here are a few tips for keeping local officials, and your neighbors happy:

  • Maintain a mowed buffer. Yes⁠, after spending a considerable amount of time discussing the problems with lawn, we are suggesting you keep some⁠—strategically. Keeping a mowed edge in front of or around a natural planting of a foot or two may be all that’s needed to define “lawn” from “garden” and keep you in step with local ordinances or Homeowner Association guidelines. Maintaining a tidy mowed edge also makes a busy natural planting look less overwhelming, and makes these spaces look intentional rather than neglectful.
  • Engage with your city council, health department, or other local officials. Tell them what you are doing, why, and begin a conversation about how they can support natural landscapes in their community. This fact sheet from Penn State can help arm you with facts to overcome the common myths that have led to overly restrictive weed ordinances.
  • Suggest an “opt-in” program, such as a Natural Lawn Registration program to sidestep the need to re-write a health code ordinance. Under such a model, a homeowner may register their natural landscape with their local health department. The health department can then decline to fine registered properties as long as they are maintaining the natural landscape properly and not encouraging the spread of noxious weeds.
  • Educate your neighbors and passersby about your landscaping choices. Displaying a simple sign designating your yard as pollinator habitat can be the difference between it being seen as a neglected area to people viewing it as an important part of a thriving landscape. Xerces offers downloadable signs for No Mow May and you can receive a pollinator habitat signs as a thank you for your donations through our gift center

(I really like the idea of a “pollinator habitat” sign. It has the great merit of being true!

HOAs are, I think, a tougher nut to crack. HOAs, so far as I can tell, exist to preserve [genuflects] property values:

HOAs are responsible for the community’s , so expect yours to have rules about overgrown lawns, weeds and unkempt exteriors. Be sure to check the bylaws about what types of trees, plants and shrubs are allowed to be planted.

Yes, “curb appeal” is the euphemism I was looking for; which is weird, because I got many compliments for my garden, in both it’s vegetal and floral phases, and I can’t recall a single compliment on the boring lawn. But I suppose, from the buyer’s perspective, or perhaps the real estate agents, lawns are fungible, and gardens or meadows are not. (Of course, CCRs, the “bylaws”, were also said to keep property values high by keeping HOAs judenfrei, not even to mention Black people, but all that was a long time ago and we’ll hope it wasn’t true.)

Here is an example of a CCR:

• All front, side, and rear yard areas within six months after completion of construction. Within one year, not less than $250.00 shall be spent on each lot for landscaping other than the lawn.

• Lots shall be periodically and loose debris and materials picked up and properly stored to prevent them from being spread and blown throughout the Properties.

And there are plenty of HOA members willing to do their bit enforcing the CCR. From the minutes of the same HOA:

L*** R****: Proposed a lawn committee based on the Covenant 5e that no weeds are going to be permitted to commence on properties and tree maintenance. Teach the people that the covenant is there, have conversations with neighbors. Doing some more education, cutting suckers, weeds contained.

One can only imagine what R**** would think of sheet-mulchinge one’s “sod.”)

(OK, “seeded” with what? And “mowed” like one of those cute UK paths? L*** R****: “Don’t get smart with me!”) The whole CCR thing ticks me off so much it’s hard for me to think straight. What gives these people the right to determine what I plant in my soil? (To which the answer is: “The CCR, which you signed. Did you read it?”) However, there are advantages to keeping a level head and a cool heart. From “What to do when your HOA bans vegetable gardens in your front yard?,” Nicole Schauder’s letter to the HOA:

At the HOA meeting, you asked me to speak about fulfilling my responsibility as a homeowner to ensure that my front garden is aesthetically pleasing and well-maintained.

You will see in the picture attached that we have very dutifully trimmed the browned leaves. We have also raked the leaves from our neighbor’s yards. We promise to continue to maintain, prune, harvest, prevent rot and keep our garden as beautiful as possible. Currently, we do not have anything growing on the trellis as it is winter. We were planning to decorate it with evergreen long wreaths for Christmas.

If you find our front yard unmaintained, let us know immediately so that we may rectify the situation as soon as possible. We tend to our gardens every single day.

We use a “cottage style” aesthetic with minimal borders and lawns. I have also taken a short-course on garden aesthetics. Thanks to that course, my front yard design has been featured in the Hall of Fame designs of English garden designer, Rachel Mathews.

I believe that the maintenance of our front vegetable garden increases the market value of Fox Creek Community for the reasons elaborated above:

– Overall health of the people that our garden feeds

– Happiness of our neighbors, through friendships, community tours, sustainability education

– Beauty of our lawn

– Environmental Impact & Green Living

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and considering the reasons we have given to allow us to grow fruits and vegetables as we would like.

This worked, apparently. (I bet it was the “featured in the Hall of Fame” bit that did the trick. Though whether L*** R**** would have been persuaded is an open question. (Reading between the lines, Schauder was also quite a networker, and a lot of other HOA members were gardening, too. HOAs do, after all, vote.)

* * *

Hopefully, lawns will collapse in The Jackpot, so there’s an upside! In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing from readers who have abolished their lawns, and even more from readers who faced and overcame regulatory and legal obstacles. And have you at least left the mower in the shed?


If you want “tidy,” here’s tidy: