May is here at last! With the promise of sun and fun comes the familiar chore of lawn maintenance. Neighborhood associations, businesses, and homeowners are hauling their mowers out of hibernation with thoughts of dreaded chores, therapeutic pastimes, or something in between. Here’s some things to consider when planning this year’s yard care routine.
The plus side of “No Mow May”
- Food sources for early spring pollinators are encouraged in a time where flowering plants are generally scarcer.
- Taller grass shades out weed seeds and keeps soil cooler.
- Taller grass creates deeper roots. Building good roots early in the year creates a better ability for turf to withstand drought and reach nutrients later in the summer.
- Irrigation and lawn treatments can be greatly reduced by longer standing vegetation.
- Reduced carbon emissions, herbicides, and fossil fuel usage.
- A low-cost, entry-level activity for pollinator support, exploring new lawn routines, and making a more ecologically-friendly landscape.
The downside of “No Mow May”
Going all in for No Mow May has some benefits for soil health and pollinators, but there are some drawbacks to be aware of. Beware of how the lawn transitions out of a no-mow stretch. A quick transition may cause unexpected harms to your lawn or downstream waters.
- Allowing common yard weeds to flower doesn’t guarantee beneficial or nutritious pollen for pollinators. This depends on the species of plant. Some yard weeds have a “boom and bust” cycle that may or may not have nutritious pollen.
- The U of M Extension recommends cutting 1/3 of the grass blade at a time. Mowing more than this at once can damage essential tissues in the plant, and if damaged could create more chores and inputs for the lawn to recover throughout the summer.
- Turf from a sun-loving seed mix may not recover as well as turf from a shady seed mix.
- Mowing too short after May can allow weed seeds to get more sun and increase weed germination.
- When June rolls around, a quick and heavy mowing is sure to shed lots of clippings. An excess of grass clippings on the surface can add algae-producing nutrients into our lakes, streams, and wetlands, accelerating an existing issue of excess nutrients running into waterways from the landscape. Help prevent this by 1) Planning extra time to sweep all grass clippings up off of the driveway or street, and 2) Make extra mowing passes to break down the grass clippings, keeping the nutrients in the soil for your grass to use. Extra clippings can also be raked off, bagged, and composted in a yard compost bin or at a designated County compost site.
The balanced way: Slow Mow May
Slow Mow May (or Slow Mow Summer) is a great way for communities to explore new lawn care habits that can last for the rest of the year. Consider adopting one or more of these strategies in May and beyond.
- Mow higher: Maintain a mowing height of 3-4 inches to retain soil moisture, sediment and nutrients, crowd out weeds, and buffer drought all summer. This can also be referred to as a "Slow Mow Summer" approach and can greatly reduce the need for inputs like watering and fertilizing as moisture and nutrients are better sustained on-site. Be sure to check City or Township ordinances to be aware of the maximum standing turf height allowed in your community.
- Go bee lawn: Consider an intentional bee lawn/pollinator lawn with low-growing flowering plants. Unlike a conventional lawn that’s suddenly set free to grow, a bee lawn focuses on certain desirable species that stay relatively low to the ground. For example, Creeping Charlie and dandelion are not included in bee lawn seed mixes. Bee lawns can be established passively over time or through an intentional conversion effort, or more actively and quickly with physical removal of the existing turf. Dandelions in a bee lawn can be either preserved, moderately controlled, or manually removed depending on aesthetic preference. Check out this bee lawn guide for more info.
- Go intentional lo-mow: If the pollinator focus isn’t your thing, an intentional lo-mow or no-mow lawn can still provide valuable soil health benefits and change up the yard care routine. The difference between lo-mow and no-mow is essentially how they’re treated – mowing 1-2 times per year or allowing it to grow and fold over. Common lo-mow turf varieties include fine, tall, and other types of fescues depending on the sun/shade, moisture, and foot traffic conditions. Unlike conventional turf, intentional no-mow and low-mow lawns fold and lean over when the grass gets long, providing great groundcover and lower maintenance with the ability to accommodate for municipal lawn ordinances. Check out this guide to low-mow turf for more info.
- Explore the world of groundcovers: Check out sedge or other types of groundcovers as a yard alternative, or find an example of a sedge groundcover here. Alternative groundcovers can also work well as a portion of a yard blended with a conventional turf, and maintain a manicured appearance.
- Take a trial run: Use May to test out a new slow-to-mow routine and observe how it goes. Try mowing just a few times in the month of May and when you do, mow at 3-4 inches to preserve some flowering weeds and make it easier for them to recover. This will help your lawn have an easy transition to a more regular mowing routine. Many low flowering plants will adapt to the routine by flowering lower to the ground. Keep the effort going until October to fine-tune your strategy, "train" the lawn, and help your yard be an asset soil, water, and pollinators!
- Avoid “weed and feed” lawn treatments, as these don’t apply herbicide or fertilizer in ways specific to what the lawn needs. This leads to excess product in the form of wasted nutrients and a higher risk of exposure to pollinators. The best practice is to apply treatments according to the needs outlined in a soil test, and to err on spot treatment rather than blanket treatment if necessary.
- For conventional lawns, change the mowing direction with each mow to promote upright shoot growth. Changing up the mowing path also helps reduce soil compaction, which further helps the lawn take in and hold water and nutrients.
- Turf generally only needs 1” of water per week to survive. Grass is adapted to go dormant in summer dry periods in a similar way that it goes dormant in the winter. Account for rainfall in your watering and learn about turf dormancy to be informed during a drought. Consider the trade-off of embracing turf dormancy to help build water saving-habits across the community.
- Check out VLAWMO’s water stewardship at home page for more tips and resources on yard care and yard waste disposal.
- Check out VLAWMO’s soil health grant for potential funding to install pollinator lawns, alternative turfs, and even rain barrels.
- Apply for a Fall Lawns to Legumes grant for support in installing a pocket prairie, pollinator lawn, pollinator meadow, or targeted trees and shrubs.
New yard routines take time to develop both for people and the lawn. A water-friendly and pollinator-friendly landscape is possible and will require a team effort, patience, and a curiosity to learn as we go.
Mowing practices for healthy lawns
No Mow May Blog – U of M Turf Lab
Pollinator Lawns Installation
Kare 11 news story