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The ‘no mow’ movement could transform our lawns

April is "No Mow Month" in Greenbelt, Md., when residents hold off on cutting their lawns to benefit local pollinating species. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)
4 min

At the base of a northern white cedar tree amid some black-eyed Susans, a white sign pokes out of Kevin Carpenter-Driscoll’s front lawn. It informs anyone visiting the section of homes lining Gardenway in Greenbelt, Md.: “This yard is participating in NO MOW MONTH to support pollinator habitat.”

Carpenter-Driscoll, Greenbelt’s environmental coordinator, says he hasn’t mowed since the beginning of the year.

“It’s not all one thing,” Carpenter-Driscoll says as he squats on his lawn dotted with wood sorrel and purple speedwells.

“No mow” initiatives such as this one are becoming an increasingly popular springtime effort to help support bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Mowing grass too short can cut the tops off flowering plants, creating lawns that are inhospitable for pollinators seeking habitats in which to feed, rest and nest, experts say. Keeping your lawn neat and trim not only is resource-intensive but can also affect its overall health.

Native flowering plants provide food and shelter to pollinating species when left to grow. (Video: TWP)

You — yes, you! — can help the planet. Start in your backyard.

Across the Lower 48 states, there are about 40 million acres of lawn, according to a 2005 NASA estimate derived from satellite imaging. These spaces could be havens for pollinating critters, many of which are facing widespread habitat loss. Having more food sources available for pollinators in the early spring is especially critical for their survival.

Transforming a traditional turf lawn into a more pollinator-friendly area is probably easier than most people might think — and it doesn’t have to look wild, says Melinda Whicher, a supervisory horticulturalist at the Smithsonian Gardens. “There are plenty of very low-growing flowers where you can still mow and the flowers will still be there.”

Still, creating a pollinator lawn will take a bit more thought than just letting grass grow freely, experts say.

“If you have a traditional lawn, letting the grass grow to a foot tall or whatever it would be at the end of May is no value whatsoever,” says Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Grass that long could be harmful to lawn health and become a mowing nightmare.

Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them

How to do no-mow right

To help pollinators, a good first step is to stop treating your yard with chemicals, Carpenter says. Ideally, grass should be allowed to grow to around six inches before it’s cut to roughly four inches. Experts widely recommend mowing on the highest setting.

Some research suggests that cutting grass only every two weeks could help boost the number of bees. Another recent study found that turf lawns enhanced with flowering plants supported more-diverse bee communities.

Longer grass generally has deeper roots, making it more drought-resistant, says Rebecca Krans, a consumer horticulture extension educator at Michigan State University.

Beyond mowing less frequently, you can also consult local experts to learn more about native plant species you could introduce to your lawn or how to set up a pollinator garden. Experts say pollinator lawns and gardens typically require less maintenance and can thrive without fertilizers and other harmful chemicals such as insecticides or herbicides.

Laura Moore, who lives in Greenbelt, transformed her yard by removing much of her traditional turf grass and planting milkweed for butterflies, among other native flowering plants.

“Once you get it going, it’s pretty low-maintenance,” says Moore, 53.

Shifting the idea of a lawn

Instead of mowing, Paul Richardson, 38, mostly spends his time in his yard “seeing things change and emerge and bud and blossom.”

Richardson, who moved into his house in a D.C. suburb several years ago, says he initially let the grass grow because he and his wife were not really interested in keeping up with the maintenance the original landscaping required. At the same time, he says, he intuitively knew longer grass would have ecological benefits.

The Richardson family in a D.C. suburb lets their front yard grow wild for the ecological benefits. (Video: TWP)

“Creatures other than myself spend more time in my yard than I do,” he says. “If there’s a way to make it more hospitable to birds and bees and insects and bunnies and all that, then I would feel better having that than a nice manicured, landscaped patch of land.”

The more people shift their views on lawns, the better pollinators will do, experts say. “No mow” initiatives are helping to start those conversations.

“At the end of the day, what we really need is to change the American mind-set about having a perfect lawn,” Whicher says, “and that’s tough to do.”

Creating a garden as a refuge for pollinators — and myself