I love a good compromise where everyone wins, especially when Mother Earth is involved. So let’s talk about “Slow Mow May.”
We’ve all likely heard that lawns are basically monoculture wastelands unable to sustain native insects or wildlife. But many of us still maintain at least some lawn. Realistically, not all of us plant to transition to bee lawns or other ground covers—and that’s fine.
For those of us who want to do better with what we have, many have tried “No Mow May.” Some of us did OK with it, some managed disgruntled neighbors, and some of dealt with lawns that never really bounced back.
Why Not Mow?
In general the idea of not mowing to help the pollinators makes good sense. The early season is sparse picking for many native pollinators, and the taller the grass the deeper the roots. Keeping the soil surface shaded keeps other weeds from germinating along with keeping the soil cooler, which then requires less watering. All this leads to an overall stronger, healthier lawn that will need less inputs (water and fertilizer) later in the season.
That is, up to a point. Then the scales seem to tip.
When you do eventually mow, if you cut more than 1/3 of the total grass blade length, you will likely damage the plant’s ability to regrow. Suddenly exposing the soil surface to more sun by mowing shorter than 3 inches high can put roots into shock, germinate weed seeds and scald the plants that are left.
These are hard-to-handle transitions for any plant, especially at a time when the sun is at its most powerful around the summer solstice. It’s been shown that sunny grass does worse recovering from No Mow May practices than shady grass.
Enter the Compromise of Slow Mow May
Use the month of May to try out a slower mowing routine (maybe half as often) and see how it goes. Using this practice can give you a feeling of freedom and help you stretch your own ideas of what a an attractive lawn should and could look like. This also gives you some time to talk with neighbors who might have concerns.
Don’t mow grass shorter than 3 inches high to help retain good root structure, crowd out weeds and keep the soil surface shaded, which will help withstand possible droughts later in the season.
Overseed with bee lawn or ground cover seed to passively add in lower maintenance options. Or go big and install a bee lawn or other ground covers in less used areas. There are many ground cover options like sedges and low mow turf options out there.
The overall idea of low- or no-mow spaces is to create a better overall environment for pollinators, better soil health and less work (lower carbon footprint) for us as home owners. States like my own (I’m in Minnesota) have started offering cost share programs for folks to install a pollinator habitat called Lawns to Legumes. Programs like these are gaining momentum as we all realize how much of an impact we can have on Mother Nature with whatever spaces we have.