No Mow May: The benefits of not mowing your lawn

Mowing less lawns is an easy way to help insects and promote local ecology, writes David Suzuki

Daniel Watson / Unsplash

With May bringing sunnier weather to Canada, many will celebrate the season by lighting their lawnmowers. Before dutifully joining the hordes of grass mowers, I encourage you to heed the No Mow May movement, which encourages a month-long break in this well-intentioned gardening for the benefit of insects like bees and butterflies.

Although social pressures could push you to keep your lawn clean, researchers have found that mowing regularly, especially in early spring, has unintended environmental consequences. Mowing less is an easy way to help insects and strengthen the local ecology.

This is important. Insects pollinate plants, provide nourishment for other life, and help recycle waste naturally. But many insects, especially native bees and butterflies, are in trouble due to pesticides, light pollution, habitat destruction, climatic disruptions, and more.

Insects benefit from flowering plants that bloom in lawns that allow them to grow. Sources of nectar can be scarce in early spring, so a flower-filled lawn can provide a much-needed May buffet. UK charity Plantlife, which started the No Mow May movement, estimates that past participants’ lawns can have five times more bees and three times more species of bees than regularly mowed lawns in the same neighborhood.

An added benefit of a less-is-more approach to lawn care is that more mowing can be associated with increased pests and allergy-causing plants such as ragweed. So instead of splitting your precious free time between mowing and going to the pharmacy for seasonal allergies, maybe this spring you can relax and enjoy a cold beer (or a nice glass of rosé or iced tea) while enjoying the buzzing and fluttering creatures in your yard.

Although peat grass has a long history in Canada, most of the types of grass in the lawns here come from far-flung places like northern Europe, where the climate is cooler and wetter. This includes Kentucky Bluegrass, which is neither blue nor from the “bluegrass state”. This explains why most of our lawns look like life sustaining for most of the summer, as thirsty grass is supplied with massive amounts of municipal drinking water – nearly a third of all residential water use each year.

While less mowing can be beneficial and time-saving for insects, it is even better if you can cut out a little more lawn specifically for insects. It doesn’t take a lot of space to contribute. The influential US National Academy of the Sciences suggests that converting just 10 percent of residential lawns and public green spaces to minimally disturbed natural vegetation could do a significant job of protecting insects while reducing lawn maintenance costs by more than a third.

If you are considering alternatives to traditional turf grass, turn to local nurseries and garden centers that specialize in local wildflowers and grasses. Choose native species that have adapted to the local climate and soil, and evolved with local wildlife and insects. They tend to be more drought tolerant and require less maintenance once established.

One of the most fertile (and fantastic) species to choose from is the wild strawberry, which produces beautiful white flowers in May, small berries in June, and low-lying, hardy ground cover the rest of the year. (Be sure to find local species in your area.)

If you want to join this growing movement, let your neighbors know what you’re up to. In Canada we have a collective cultural association where uncut and seemingly unkempt lawns are a sign of negligence. There is no better way to signal the intent behind transforming your lawn from an ecological desert to an ecological desert than with a clever garden sign. Many groups offer signs, including the David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway project. Or make your own. Anything to do with bees is usually great fodder for clever pun-filled characters.

Lawn has not been the target of ambitious conservation campaigns in the past. But they are one of the greatest opportunities landscapes, especially in times of the pandemic when we are all spending more time at home and gardening has met with unprecedented interest.

Turf is the largest irrigated crop in North America. Canada has over six million yards, which is about half the area in our cities. Imagine the potential of turning a corner of each of them into flower-filled bee and butterfly runways.

Strawberry fields forever? Sit back and enjoy the buzz.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Strategist Jode Roberts. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

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David Suzuki

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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