Rethinking the Lawn

By Mack Swenson on June 6, 2022 in Blog

It’s an idyllic neighborhood. Lush lawns free of weeds, meticulously trimmed to the proper height. House after house, lawn after lawn, neat little green squares all the way down the block… 

Is there anything wrong with the above scenario? A UK-based organization called Plantlife thought so. Three years ago, Plantlife started the ‘No Mow May’ campaign to challenge the perception of a ‘perfect’ lawn, with a focus on helping pollinators. Since catching on in the U.S., No Mow May has become a viral movement, leading homeowners across the country to let their lawns grow wild and free for the entirety of May in the hopes of creating a beneficial environment for pollinators. You might have seen an apparently unkempt lawn while strolling through the streets of a city or town in Iowa, where the movement has gained particular traction. 

At the movement’s center is a harsh reality about the amount of water and chemicals required to create a manicured lawn on par with societal standards. No Mow May also encourage homeowners to be mindful of their water and chemical use – for the benefit of pollinators as well as the environment as a whole. 

Although No Mow Way won’t return for another 11 months, the concept prompts vital questions about the value of the neatly clipped and meticulously weeded lawn. What type of lawn is desirable, and more importantly, why? What types of plants are desirable in one’s lawn, and why? If nature looks so different from our hyper-managed turf, why is it the norm? Such questions can guide how we approach the management of nature, regardless of the month.  

The Reality of Hyper-Managed Lawns 

Lawns comprise approximately 2% of land in the U.S., making them the country’s largest irrigated crop. On top of their water use, the chemicals used to treat weeds and pests can harm bees and other invertebrates, while the monoculture lawn they create offers few floral resources for these vital pollinators. “The weed wars have been raging for 10,000 years,” as one homeowner put it, and the biggest losers are bees, wasps, butterflies, months, bats and even the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. An estimated 70 to 87 percent of flowering plants rely on these pollinator species, yet their critical role in ecosystems is often overlooked.

The most popular justification for No Mow May is that these pollinators benefit from having access to plants that pop up in an unmowed lawn, such as dandelions, creeping charlie, violet and clover, at a time when few other food sources are available. In some lawns, flowers may not appear during a single month without mowing or weeding, leading to critiques of No Mow May’s effectiveness in helping pollinators. But since many participants in No Mow May also end up using fewer pesticides and herbicides, creating a less artificial lawn space—regardless of the presence of wildflowers—can still benefit pollinators, other wildlife, people and our water. Solely scrapping the lawnmower for a month does little to remedy underlying problems regarding the hyper-management of our lawns like the overuse of chemicals, but being less hypervigilant about maintaining a monoculture, perfectly trimmed turf benefits the environment in and of itself. While No Mow May is certainly a start, homeowners can translate the concept into overall healthier waterways—and by extension, healthier people—by using fewer chemicals in their lawns throughout the spring, summer and fall. Although this doesn’t fully address the issue of lawns being artificial spaces, reducing the harmful impact of lawns on the environment is a worthy goal. 

Alternatives to No Mow May 

Fortunately, mowing less or reducing chemical use aren’t the only actions homeowners can take to support pollinators and an overall healthier environment. One summer-long alternative to No Mow May is to establish a pollinator garden filled with a variety of flowers that bloom at various times. In addition to looking beautiful, these gardens can provide a consistent food source for pollinators, especially in conjunction with other pollinator-friendly gardens or natural areas. (Sounds like it’s time to get the whole neighborhood involved!) Finally, replacing turf with insect and wildlife-friendly plants is a great alternative to No Mow May. Transitions to shrubs, trees, perennials and other native plants can increase pollinator habitat and soil quality while reducing water consumption, pesticide use fertilizer use—even when the transition is gradual. 

Creating a pollinator garden or replacing turf also reduces the artificiality of the lawn space, therefore resolving the fundamental questions introduced earlier. Transforming the lawn from managed turf into an eye-pleasing variety of native plants challenges the notion that natural beauty can only result from hyper-management. While any lawn space will still require maintenance, a pollinator garden or other turf alternative featuring a variety of native plants more closely approximates nature and provides valuable habitat for wildlife. Besides that, lawns that don’t fit the monoculture, grass-only model challenge the idea that grass is the only acceptable lawn plant. When nature provides us with an abundance of biodiversity, why settle just for Kentucky Bluegrass or Tall Fescue?  

The Bigger Picture 

We may never be able to achieve ‘true nature’ in our lawns, but we can reduce the negative impacts of our lawns while also benefiting pollinators, other wildlife and—ultimately—ourselves. Besides this, we can work to protect our natural spaces. No Mow May is a start, but the valuable lessons it teaches about learning to live in harmony with wildlife are applicable to broader issues concerning the environment.