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is ‘no mow may’ the answer? some lawn thoughts, with mary phillips

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD the expression “No Mow May” in recent years, a campaign borrowed from an effort in the U.K. meant to increase diversity by leaving lawns unmown for the one spring month. But is that the answer for U.S. gardeners?

That was the subject of a recent conversation with Mary Phillips, head of native plant habitat strategy and certifications at the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation nonprofit founded in 1936 with chapters today in every state. How can we manage the lawn in the smartest ways possible—and not just in the month of May? And better yet, how can we replace some portions of it in favor of more diverse plantings? We compared notes. (Photo above courtesy of NWF, by David Mizejewski; photo of Mary, below, from NWF.)

Read along as you listen to the April 29, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

managing the lawn, with mary phillips

 

 

Margaret Roach: Well, I’ve been excited to see you guys sort of putting out more information about subjects like the lawn because that’s been such a hot topic for gardeners lately. Before we get started, I wanted you to just sort of tell us what do you do at National Wildlife Federation? Tell us just a little bit about your assignment, so to speak.

Mary Phillips: I started at National Wildlife Federation 10 years ago to head up our whole area that’s really focused on getting people to do more ecological gardening. Actually, it is under the umbrella of the Garden for Wildlife Certified Wildlife Habitat program that was started 50 years ago; we’re in our 51st year, so it’s been a real privilege to carry this legacy forward and involve so many millions of people that are providing food, water, cover, places to raise young, and doing all that with native plants and sustainable practices.

We have over 300,000 Certified Wildlife Habitat sites now. So it’s really grown, and we’ve really moved into giving much more education on the importance of the percentages of native plants you want to include to really do the kind of change for both wildlife and actually helping people have healthier, more approachable and beautiful community spaces.

Margaret: As I said, the lawn’s been a hot topic [laughter], that’s for sure, in recent years and not just for gardeners, really for all homeowners as more awareness about sort of the ecological wasteland that so much manicured grass, especially managed with chemicals and mown with gas-guzzling machinery, what that represents really. And not even to mention the water used to keep it green, sometimes in the most preposterous parts of the country where there’s no excuse for that. I was interested to see a data point from National Wildlife Federation the other day that you publicized, that said in 2023, 32.3 million people indicated that they were converting a portion of their lawn to native wildflowers?

Mary: Yes. That data point comes from a partnership we have with the National Gardening Survey, and we’ve been surveying around this data point and others for the last… This will be our seventh year with them, and this is the… In 2023, those were the number of actually people, but actually households that indicated they were converting a portion of their lawn to native wildflowers. That’s kind of calculated from the full number of households based on the U.S. Census Bureau data, and this then was the number that indicated this transition.

Margaret: Well, that certainly means that you’re getting someone’s attention [laughter].

Mary: Yes. It has been growing, it has been growing, along with other data points that one in four people are actually purchasing plants because they benefit wildlife. We’re really excited. And one in three purchasing actually native plants to do that role.

Margaret: Right. How much lawn is there at the moment? I probably know this number somewhere in my addled brain, but how much lawn are we talking about in the United States?

Mary: We’re talking about a significant amount, and it’s 40 million acres of turfgrass, and approximately 60 percent of those are in private gardens. [More stats on the cost of lawns, from NWF.]

Margaret: Right. We can as gardeners make a big difference, and that’s what the messaging has been increasingly in recent years. As I mentioned in the introduction, in 2019, I think it was, a campaign called No Mow May—which is very catchy—was introduced in the U.K. and it quickly was picked up on in certain media here and so forth because it sounds good. It’s like, “Oh, if I don’t mow for a month, that’s going to be really good, and it’s going to increase diversity and, oh, wow.”

What do you in the National Wildlife Federation think of stopping mowing for a month as a way to counterbalance the impacts of that vast green monoculture [laughter]?

Mary: Yes. Well, so we’ve really been kind of pushing and leaning into what we’re calling Grow Beyond No Mow May. The reason is is that, just to your point, in certain areas this might make sense, but it’s not a universal approach. Many areas don’t have the kind of growing green turf seasons, for one thing. The other thing is that it only is beneficial if the lawn has a substantial number of noninvasive wildflowers that actually benefit pollinators. If you’re just not mowing monoculture turfgrass, then nothing’s really happening for the wildlife.

Margaret: You’re just getting longer monoculture turfgrass [laughter].

Mary: Exactly, which sadly can attract ticks and other kinds of pests that you don’t want so it’s not a universal solution. The other thing that does make sense that people have really leaned into is that you are reducing carbon emissions for that window in the spring if you don’t mow for the month, but, again, you can do that… You don’t have to use a mower if you’ve actually translated some of your lawn into this either lower native wildflower groundcovers or other types of native flowering pollinator patches.

Margaret:  Last year we had strange weather where I am, I’m in a rural county in New York State in the Hudson Valley, and so I have a lot of… It was never a lawn in the sense, it was old farm and stuff like that, so it wasn’t planted as whatever, bluegrass or fescue or whatever. So it’s got lots of violets and it’s got lots of other things and over the years I’ve probably added medium white clover and this and that. Last year, the way the rains came, I didn’t mow for a while in the spring, because sometimes when it’s really wet, it’s just a mess to do that. I thought, “Wow, this looks just so great and look at everybody’s buzzing around and everybody’s happy because there was that stuff.” The violets, for instance, were just a real hit with many, many, many different organisms, animals, whatever. But that’s not the case, like you say, in your conventional lawn. Yeah. Giving back parts of it is even better, right?

Mary: Yes.

Margaret: So what are some of the ideas… You just also by the way you just hinted on… Maybe we should before we talk about getting rid of some of it, managing it more smartly. I mean, I wish they had a campaign about No Fertilize Ever [laughter].

Mary: Yes. Yes.

Margaret: Or how about No Pre-Emergence Herbicides Ever?

Mary: [Laughter.] Yes.

Margaret: How about that? Doesn’t sound very snappy or clever, though. I’m sorry. I’m not very clever.

Mary: No, no, no, it’s exactly… No, you’re exactly right. I think that’s why there was such appeal around this. Again, the intent and the concept is awesome, but you really need to put it into practicality. There are specific things that you can do.

I’ll confess, my patches of lawn, I do have some sound very similar to yours so I do not mow those areas as much either because you do see the wildlife. You see not only the bees, but where you have low-growing wildflowers in an area, those bees and insects… Some of those plants are host plants for other insects, so you’re also supporting birds in those areas as well.

But I think that’s the other really big thing about having these 40 million acres. The way you manage them is so dependent on chemicals and water use, and that is another reason to replace with plants that are naturally occurring and have co-evolved in your area, that are native, so that you’re not sucking down those resources from the watershed or also putting in those chemicals into the watershed.

The other really thing about turf lawn is that the root system is very shallow, and so it doesn’t do anything for stormwater runoff.

Margaret: Right. Right. Right. It doesn’t really have that benefit at all.

Mary: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Margaret: No, I know. There’s that, and then there’s the when we are going to mow, whatever schedule we’re on, we can change some of our mowing habits, too. I’ve been playing around 30-some… 30 or so years ago, I did my first what I call unmowing exercise where I picked an amoebic sort of big area above the house on the hillside [above] and I stopped mowing it just to see what would happen, you know?

I didn’t really know, but I’d been out in the Midwest and I’d learned something about prairie stuff, and don’t you know? Some little bluestem sprang up and I was like, “Oh, huh. I could make this mini tiny prairie.” [Laughter.] It was kind of fun, and over the years it’s evolved and so forth and it changes all the time, but I’ve been experimenting more and more recently with sort of unmown areas.

Mary: Oh, nice.

Margaret: Sort of in other words, without planting anything, seeing what comes up. Boy, it’s strange. In certain areas, lots comes up. We were just talking about some things, like you and I both have the violets, but some places I’ll get Erigeron, I’ll get fleabane, you know?

Mary: Oh, nice.

Margaret: But then across the yard, if I unmowed an area, I don’t get that. Do you know what I mean? It’s-

Mary: Yes. Unfortunately, sometimes you get invasives that are not-

Margaret: That’s what I was going to say. I bet that’s the risk, right?

Mary: Yeah. It is. It is, absolutely. Right now, there’s a number of invasives in my area. I live in Maryland, and this is in other parts of the country, too. There’s something called lesser celandine and it’s really just a nightmare. Just by not maintaining and staying on top of those, that is a really tricky one to get rid of, but if you just left an area unmown and you’re kind of not paying attention or not monitoring it, these invasive types can come in there as well. [Ficaria verna, lesser celandine, above, from Wikimedia.]

Margaret: Right. What I’ve been doing is just sort of playing, and watching, and I’m pretty good with plant ID and I have a lot of my field guides.

Mary: Nice. Oh, good.

Margaret: Now of course we have virtual field guides with our phone [laughter].

Mary: Yes.

Margaret: So that’s when something emerges, I’ll be like, “What’s that?” You know what I mean? I’ll key it out.

Mary: Sure.

Margaret: It’s kind of fun to find out what you potentially could have if you let your grass grow, but, again, mine wasn’t a planted lawn out of a bag so that’s a little bit different.

But if we are mowing, we could mow at a different height, which would mean that we would mow less frequently.

Mary: Yeah. It would be less frequently. I mean, keeping it maybe at 3 inches or a little bit higher also reduces the amount of water that’s needed, but it kind of keeps it somewhat tidy. I think it’s kind of managing that space with… Again, I would recommend incorporating other beds and other areas around it, but if you did need a green space either where kids play or whatever, you can leave it go a little bit and do kind of the no mowing, but still doing it routinely so it’s, like I said, around 3 inches or higher, and just really absolutely not using any chemicals on it. I mean, I think that’s really, really key.

Margaret: Right. I think an electric lawnmower, a battery lawnmower. Batteries have gotten so much better. My first one was many, many years ago in first generation, and besides the greenness of them, boy, is it nice not to have all that damn noise.

Mary: It is. It is.

Margaret: Do you know what I mean? They’re so much quieter.

Mary: It is. They’re wonderful, depending on the size of your space, and even if you don’t have that… I mean, for several years when I was younger, I used a push mower, the old rotor one. Those are so awesome, and actually it’s very gratifying to see that [laughter] chop away as you’re pushing around. Again, it was a small suburban area so it was easier, but there’s a lot of different options like that. But you’re right, I think what they’ve done with electric mowers has just been phenomenal with the battery life.

Margaret: Yeah. It’s great to see the technology advancing.

All right. So we’re not advocating… I mean, there are practical reasons to have something you can walk on and turf is something that you can walk on, so to get from here to there across the yard, to have an entertaining space or a play space. It’s fine to have those areas. We’re not sort of saying all 40 million acres, because, again, it does serve a purpose. What we’re saying is maybe look critically at your turf spaces and say, “Huh, this one could transition to that or this could be that, but no, this one I really want to keep because it does this function for me.” Do you know what I mean? Really look at it more carefully. What are some of the kind of possibilities of what we could do instead?

Mary: Well, sure. First off, for those that do have a significant amount of lawn, for the last 12 years we’ve been celebrating Garden for Wildlife Month, and this Garden for Wildlife Month we’re challenging people to just identify a patch of that lawn and transform it into some wildflower native plantings for their area. That would be a first step.

And then in those areas where you are going to keeping the lawn or you want that walkable space is to look at some of the really low-growing species that are out there that could be used as a ground cover. In shadier areas you could use a native moss, you could use some other different types of… Carex is a good species to look at, some of the low-growing versions of that.

Margaret: The sedges.

Mary: Yeah, the sedges. There’s options to kind of also make your yard space more interesting with all these different textures and colors that these variety of plants have.

Margaret: What I loved was to learn I guess it was about a year ago at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, the native plant research center where they did the Carex trials. When they were done with the normal length of the trial, they left the test beds in place to continue mowing trials on long-term and walking trials on them long-term. The ones that looked the most adapted from their earlier trials to being walked on and mowed, they’re going to keep testing them and see what happens: do any of them sort of hold up as a, quote, “lawn substitute” because some of them are quite different plants from what’s been cultivated as turfgrass. [An interview about Carex with Mt. Cuba’s Sam Hoadley.] [Above, mowing Carex woodii at Mt. Cuba’s trials.]

Mary: Yeah, they are different and they do have a center that’s a little… It doesn’t look like the exact thing, so I think it’s testing out… Well, also what would be native to where you live I think is absolutely a key part of this. One of the ones I think they’ve found a lot of good experience with is the Pennsylvania sedge. That one is one that it’s kind of turfy in a way. It’s still, though, in clusters so it’s not going to be exactly like a turf lawn, but it could be a good substitute.

Margaret: Yeah, but, again, I’m interested to see as they keep on sort of giving us more info about how this looks and how it looks. It’s kind of fun.

Mary: Yeah, no, I know. It’s a wonderful study, and they’ve been doing amazing studies on a variety of plants, also cultivars, in that space.

Margaret: If people are willing to give back a bed, so they can identify, I don’t know how much, even 8 x 20 feet or whatever, even just a space, and they say, “I’m going to give that area of grass back.” Are we talking about smothering it with corrugated cardboard and mulch and planting right into it or…

Mary: Yeah. I guess I would recommend where you can pull it out or dig away some of that turf, that’s ideal because then you’re also getting at some of the roots. So it would be primarily pulling that away, kind of slicing the top layer off, deeper if you can, and then using mulch as a deterrent initially to keep the grass from coming back and the weeds from coming back. The other thing is that once you start doing this and transforming this is to plant densely. That really helps also keep the weeds and grass from coming up as well with the plants that you’ve selected.

Margaret: Mm-hmm. Basically, the program that you’ve been suggesting these years has been in this kind of promotion, this month each year, is to identify an area and just make a small contribution each time, so to speak.

Mary: Exactly.

Margaret: I mean, I think one of the… Sometimes it’s easier to turn something into a shrub border or bed or whatever than it is to create a mixed perennial, an annual or herbaceous “symphony” [laughter] that really works. I mean, perennials are a lot more work. They take longer. I mean, not that you don’t need to groundcover under shrubs, but I feel like shrubs, I don’t know, they do a lot of work and they ask a lot less, and sometimes-

Mary: They do.

Margaret: You can get a lot out of them. I mean, you get your pollinators—you get flowering, you can get fruiting. They can interest various animals in the ecosystem at different seasons. They can also obviously be structurally beautiful. They can have fall color, etc., etc., so there can be a lot of… I mean, the best thing I ever did here when I first got here decades ago was plant 40 winterberry hollies and lots of viburnums and Aronia, the chokeberries. It’s like they’ve just been paying and paying and paying their own rent, I mean, and then some. I mean, it’s just wonderful.

Mary: Then you must have a symphony of birds as well [laughter].

Margaret: Oh, I have. Yeah. I’m like everybody’s favorite stopover. Yes, absolutely, the flocks, yes.

Mary: Yeah. That’s wonderful.

Margaret: They come and take them all in five minutes. It’s hilarious when you see them strip a bed of 10 30-year-old winterberries. You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pieces of fruit and they’re all gone [laughter].

Mary: It’s amazing. Well, and on that same kind of bit that you’re going with the shrubs, I mean, the other thing is there’s some gorgeous taller native grasses, like you had mentioned the bluestem, but there’s switchgrass [Panicum], and there’s just a variety of others to look at that really provide depth and texture. What people don’t realize is those obviously provide really great cover for birds and also materials for nesting birds, but the actual stalks of these grasses provide an area for hibernating, or overwintering I should say, bumblebees and other species of insects that are so critical to the variety of wildlife in the food chain. That’s something I think people don’t really realize. They just kind of see that grass there, and they bloom in their own way, not all of them the same, but there’s a lot there that people don’t realize just within those kind of grass ecosystems.

Margaret: There definitely is, and with those hollow stems, as you’re saying, there’s a lot of stem-nesting bees and other creatures that really can utilize them.

Mary: Yeah, and it gives this amazing movement to your space with the wind and the colors. Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. All you have to do is when you look at… Go look at some bird’s nests, if you have any bird’s nests being built around your place, and look at the materials they’re using. It’s pretty amazing. It’s like a real reinforcement of nothing is garbage [laughter], nothing is waste material, right? Do you know what I mean?

Mary: Yes. Right. Yeah, no, it’s all used.

Margaret: Wow. It’s upcycled so cleverly. It’s amazing. I love that. I know one of the things that can happen when we want to change the way we manage our lawn that… I get a lot of comments when I do stories for my “New York Times” columns or whatever about this subject. A lot of people would be like, “Well, that’s all well and good and sounds right environmentally, but I can’t do that in my neighborhood. My HOA, my homeowner’s association, says we can’t do that,” or

My neighbors hate me and they say I can’t do that so I had to stop it.” I think we have to in a constructive and positive way keep the conversation open and push back about that a little. Now, you’re in Maryland. There was an important case in Maryland that came up thanks to one homeowner saying, “No, you know what? I’m not going to erase my native plant front yard. I’m going to… Let’s talk about it. Let’s keep working on this.” And ended up being a law now that the HOAs can’t do that.

Mary: Well, yes, and that’s set a wonderful precedent that’s been happening in other areas. I was just on a call a little while ago with our Delaware affiliate, and they are working on what they’re calling pathway ordinances to really help homeowners and HOAs understand that these things are O.K., they can be there. And it’s really to kind of push back, like the Maryland law did, on these various ordinances that people have put in without knowing over the years that are very rigid and don’t allow people to have these natural landscapes.

We’re actually collecting… There’s a variety of ordinances and state laws that are actually really advocating for this kind of newer leaning into and turning around a lot of these ordinances that have been in place in the past, so really excited to see that.

But I think the other thing, though, just as a being courteous neighbor and a conscientious one is you can use these spaces to educate others by having signage that show what you’re doing, that it’s intentional. Again, we love our Certified Wildlife Habitat signs [above; photo by Mary Phillips] that helps people really understand what’s going on, but even in that is to provide some structure.

Even if you’re removing lawn, you can still do a permeable pathway, or something that provides structure and flow through your space, through the gardens. You can put in some yard art or a bench or something that actually gives structure and texture to the space that people realize you’re doing something intentional, and it’s not just throwing a bunch of seeds out there [laughter]. I mean, I like that too because it’s fun. I like to see what comes up. I have a couple little experimental spaces in my own yard. Actually, early, early this morning I was throwing some seed out there, but I think having those spaces either having some parameters around them, and you can use shrubs or you can use the grasses, you can use, again, some dense plantings of similar plants to kind of define those areas and spaces.

Margaret: Yes. Well, we’ve used up almost all of our time, but I’m so glad to speak to you. No, no, it’s great. I could talk about this forever.

Mary: Yes.

Margaret: It sounds like you could too, so that’s good. I think it’s really important, the last point you just made, Mary, about… Doug Tallamy at University of Delaware calls it a “cue for care,” that there’s a hint that someone’s at work there caring about the place. It’s not just a mess. I think that’s super important. But I’m really glad to connect.

Mary: Yeah, you too. Me too.

Margaret: Thank you. Thank you.

Mary: Yeah, thank you. We have a lot of Doug Tallamy’s keystone plant lists on our website, we’ve been working with him, and our Native Plant Finder is something that he created with us.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 15th year in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 29, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Margaret Manzke says:

    What a great conversation! I am slowly working toward rehabilitating the farmland I built my house on to a native plant ecological garden. This year I’ll focus on a rain garden in our lowest area. I still have a way to go to get my wildlife certification, but I’m working on it!

    1. F hancock says:

      Glad I reread this podcast. I needed the encouragement. I can only hope that these small pro- environmental changes in the lawn will no longer be so discouraged by city governments and especially neighbors!

  2. Mary C says:

    We have a 65 mph lawn. It looks great if you drive past it at that speed! It’s a mix of violets, clover, dandelion and some grass. There’s also wild strawberry and a nice patch of pussytoes, a host plant of the painted lady butterfly. We splurged on an electric zero turn mower a couple of years ago and it takes half the time to cut our yard, it’s great.

    Doug Tallamy’s books should be mandatory reading in school. He has really opened my eyes, especially when I see Bradford Pears growing along fence lines and fields. There are so many beautiful spring flowering trees that you could use as an alternative.

  3. Mary says:

    Loved hearing the perspective on No Mow May. We have almost no lawn and now I will be ok if my husband mows that one area since there are no natives there. I have planted more shrubs in the past year to help out the birds and pollinators. I will have to see if my yard fits the Wildlife Habitat criteria.
    Thanks!

  4. Lynn Brooks says:

    Hi Margaret I agree the slogan ‘No Mow May’ is very catchy. In Canada back in the 90’s which is closer to what we all want to achieve was the ‘Get your Lawn off Drugs’. campaign, it worked here in the city of Halifax Nova Scotia, as we were able to pass a bylaw banning the use of cosmetic pesticides on lawns the first city to do so in Canada. But enforcing bylaws can be tricky, it did stop the sale of chemicals such as ‘Weed and Feed’ and since then many cities have got on the bandwagon. Alas in many ways I think it has led to homeowners doing more hardscaping not planting more gardens. During the pandemic when we were all stuck at home, the use of chainsaws in my hood went thru the roof and in went outbuildings and as bigger driveways certainly not what I had hoped for……

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