On the Cutting Edge:
When to Mow Your Lawn or Meadow
By Brie Quimby
May is Garden for Wildlife Month, says the National Wildlife Federation. But sometimes “to garden” doesn’t mean weeding and mowing and planting; it means leaving well enough alone.
Mowing is a case in point. Come May, most of us are running around the yard pushing a noisy, smelly, gas guzzling machine – gas powered yard tools, mowers mainly, produce around 5 percent of the air pollution in this country. The No Mow May movement wants you to give the mower – and yourself – a rest.
No Mow May got its start in England, when Plantlife, a conservation nonprofit focused on “securing a world rich in wild plants and fungi” found that lawns that were “let go” for the month of May produced 10 times the amount of the nectar than ones that were mowed regularly. More nectar means a healthier, more prolific pollinator population. And more pollinators mean more flowers and more food for the other bugs and creatures that are vital to a thriving and diverse backyard ecosystem.
But then what? Come June, do we go back to our old ways?
Not if pollinators are a priority. Consider changing up your old lawn routine. Raising the blades on your mower to 5 inches allows the blades to pass over some of the low lateral growing plants. Revising your opinion of dandelions and white clover, both of which are low growers, will mean more flowers for bees of all types.
And relax about the mowing. Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, investigated bee abundance on a variety of properties in Springfield, MA. She and her colleagues found that, if the lawns were herbicide free already, mowing every other week increased bee diversity the most. Three-week intervals meant more flowers but a lower bee count because, the researchers surmise, taller and competing turf grasses made the flowers harder to find.
If you are lucky enough to have a meadow, when you mow is very important for the long-term health of the plants growing there, the pollinators they feed and the small animals who may be nesting in holes in the ground. Most experts recommend a late fall mowing (after the first frost). An alternative is before May 1, according to Xerces whose mowing plans reflect the breeding and feeding practices of Monarch butterflies.
You can also mow selectively. Consider mowing just some of the meadow, saving the other half for next year to vary the types of flowers you’re encouraging. Or divide your meadow and keep your mowing blades to 10 inches in one section. This means more pollinator-access to smaller plants and encourages more low growing plants to thrive. But feel free to mow invasives and weeds as regularly as you like.
Other sources of information:
https://homegrownnationalpark.org/: Homegrown National Park, Doug Tallamy’s call to action to regenerate biodiversity one backyard at a time.
https://www.xerces.org/blog/bee-friendlier-with-your-lawncare, Xerces Society
http://www.pollinatorconservationassociation.org/best-practices.html: Pollinator Conservation Assoc.
“When mittens are put away, garden gloves come out to play.” That’s the word of the Xerces Society, a conservation group focused on invertebrates. Here in CT, late April is about the time to begin cutting back perennials and clearing out beds. Any earlier, and you could disturb overwintering bees and other pollinators who are hibernating in grasses or plant stems.
Take bumblebees for example. By early April, you may have already seen a few out and about; these are the queens. Bumblebees are solitary creatures; all bumblebees, except the queen, die when cold weather comes; she hibernates, often underground, alone all winter. In late March/early April, as the soil warms up, she leaves her winter home and goes foraging for nectar so she’ll have the energy to build a nest and lay her eggs. Her nesting site may include the very grasses and leaf litter we are all so tempted to clear away. So, get out and weed what you can, trim hedges, neaten up -- but don’t disturb the baby bees.