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Beware “No-Mow April”

posted in: Home and Garden, Opinion

No-Mow signup at City of Greenbelt website.

Letter to the Editor

Did you happen to see my letter to the editor of the Greenbelt News Review’s April 7 issue under the title “No-Mow Presents Problems for Lawns”? Here it is:

This year the City of Greenbelt’s “No-Mow April” campaign encourages residents to avoid mowing this month, in order to encourage flowering for bees. I’m pro-bee, too, but according to experts in lawn care, this practice can seriously damage healthy lawns. U. Maryland’s advice is typical and implicitly warns against waiting a whole month of strong growth to mow again: “Infrequent mowing allows the turf to grow too tall. Subsequent mowing removes too much leaf surface and may shock the plants. Weekly mowing may not be enough, especially during the peak period of leaf growth in the spring. Remove no more than one-third of the grass blade each time you mow. Removing larger amounts of leaf surface may result in physiological shock to the plant, cause excessive graying or browning of leaf tips, and greatly curtail photosynthesis reducing the health of the grass.”

One expert I consulted about the No-Mow idea echoed that concern and added that “In urban situations many if not most of the blooming turf weeds aren’t native and tend to be easily spread, many by wind. Encouraging pollination can exacerbate the situation, leading to more weeds and perhaps encouraging the homeowner to resort to chemical control. And many of these nonnative turf-invading plants can be kept in check by regular mowing.”

Why it Got My Attention

As a Master Gardener and garden writer for almost 20 years I’ve written about lawns more than any other topic, and my primary subjects have been::

  • How to have a healthy lawn that flowers, absorbs rainwater, and prevents erosion without fertilizers, herbicides or supplemental watering. Cornell is the leader in now offering both high- and low-maintenance options in lawn care.
  • How to replace lawns. Having done this myself when I lived in Takoma Park, I found replacing lawns to be surprisingly challenging, and the “just plant natives” message from the anti-lawn activists is unhelpful and ultimately time- and money-wasting for so many homeowners eager to do the right thing. I ended up making mistakes and reporting on them so others might be more successful in making changes.
My former back yard before and after lawn replacement with groundcover Sedum and clover – an experiment that eventually failed as the clover overpowered the shorter Sedum.

Local Reactions

But I wasn’t the only Greenbelter who saw the city’s announcement and reacted. Here are some comments posted to the city’s Facebook page:

  • What are you thinking?!?!?!? Did you get this harebrained idea from Takoma Park? You have all those early blooming pear trees, crocus, daffodils and the list goes on.
  • People relying on landscaping jobs have to work.
  • You already have ticks way out of control.
  • The city will look awful if people don’t now their lawns.
  • I’m mowing mine.
  • I’m sorry, what part of tall grass promotes ticks is being ignored here? [This link to tick info.]

And elsewhere on Facebook where the No-Mow campaign was discussed, a Greenbelt-based horticulturist posted (then deleted) his prediction that good lawns might be damaged by this practice but the mostly-weed lawns he sees around here will probably be fine. (Good news, I guess?)

Prince George’s County Master Gardener Janice Wolf thought immediately of the increased danger of tick bites. She recommends the no-mow technique only in places like managed prairies or firefly sanctuaries, not our tiny yards. She quoted from this source on the subject:

Ticks like to climb to the top of tall grass blades and look for questing opportunities—the chance to grab on to animals like deer or humans.”

By keeping grass and weeds at bay with a string trimmer, you’ll minimize those chances and make it more difficult for ticks to latch on to you or members of your family, or to travel around your property by hitching a ride on your dog.

Janice warns that :”If you’re going to let grass and weeds grow, you’ll be a magnet for ticks unless you pre-treat your clothing with permethrin, and/or use a Deet- or Picaridin-based repellent on exposed skin. Her source.

Dandelions in a “freedom lawn” at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

More Details Not Considered in the No-Mow Month Campaign

  • Whether your lawn even has flowers that will appear in April.
  • Whether such flowers, if they are allowed or encouraged to be pollinated, are flowers you want more of.
  • The risk of damaging any thick, healthy and weed-free lawn by waiting a whole fast-growing month to mow it. (And what mower could do a good job at that, anyway?)
  • And maybe more details I’m missing.

The opinion cited in my letter to the editor was by Sylvia Thompson-Hacker, one of the admins of the popular (25K+ members strong around the world) Garden Professors Blog Facebook Group. Here’s the rest of her comment, before I shortened it for print:

“No mow” doesn’t necessarily mean more benefits to pollinators. The assumption that plants blooming in the lawn are attractive to pollinators is fallacious. But let’s assume there are plants attractive to bees in the lawn. The controlling point is the turf mix percentage, the grass : blooming forbs ratio. Not mowing and allowing them to bloom more would be a benefit to insects, that makes sense. But if the lawn is largely grass allowing it to grow long won’t provide the same profit. Plus letting grass get too long between mowings isn’t good for the grass itself.

Another admin to respond when I posted the campaign was the founder of the Garden Professors Blog –  Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott at the University of Washington. She wrote:

I don’t believe this is a science-based recommendation, at least not plant-science based. Letting the grass grow too long is bad on lawns health and integrity. Thin or dead patches that are apparent after the top layer is mown are invitations to weed invasion. And that means homeowners are likely to use herbicides. Here’s the Garden Professors recent post about plants for bees.

Origins of the No-Mow Campaign

You may be wondering where Greenbelt came up with the idea of a “No-Mow April.” Well, definitely not from the faculty of the University of Maryland, which I quoted in my letter. No-Mow is a campaign that originated in the U.K. as No-Mow May, then appeared in Wisconsin, again targeting May. Now it’s being promoted by the Bee City USA program of the insect advocacy group Xerces Society. Towns pay the Xerces Society to get bragging rights as “Bee City,” with the fee based on population.

Best Possible Source of Gardening Info – MD Home and Garden Information Center

Quoting horticulture professors and a Master Gardener on this topic raises the question – how about the City of Greenbelt use the University of Maryland’s highly regarded Home and Garden Information Center as its source of gardening information for the public? I’m one of Greenbelt’s avid gardeners who have suggested privately to our Public Works Department that universities,especially UMD, be the source of their gardening educational efforts, rather than campaigns by advocacy groups. I don’t believe Greenbelt’s No-Mow campaign was initiated by that department but whatever the source, surely pro-bee information that’s evidence-based would have produced a better result for all.

Observing Flowers and Post-Mowing Lawn Health

This month let’s all observe the progress on No-Mow-certified lawns around town, especially documenting what flowers actually appear. Then at the end of the month we can assess the effect on local lawns of all types. Maybe our lawns are so weedy it won’t matter.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

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