SARATOGA COUNTY–Some local lawns might look a little shaggier this month. That’s because Sustainable Saratoga has launched a No Mow May initiative asking residents to refrain from cutting the grass until June to provide more food to critical pollinators like bees and butterflies.
For some homeowners accustomed to lawns being tidy carpets of green, the idea of letting the grass grow may be unthinkable. But proponents see No Mow May as an easy lift — not mowing your lawn is easier than mowing it, after all — with enormous upside for the environment. In Midwest communities, where No Mow May has been in practice since 2020, pollinator populations are on the rise. And as government entities mull their mowing methods, there may soon be a time when we all get used to seeing long grass flecked with wildflowers.
Marge McShane didn’t have to be convinced to take part in Saratoga County’s No Mow May initiative this year. With the help of a professional landscaper, the Stillwater resident of nine years was already in the process of building a “lasagna garden,” which involves covering the grass with cardboard, topping it with compost and putting in plantings. McShane said the idea is to let natural plants take over the whole front lawn so she doesn’t have to mow or use pesticides.
“Making a contribution tends to be individuals doing individual things. So the idea that we’re all going to change the world or stop global warming, it really comes down to individual decisions. This is our individual decision,” McShane said.
McShane’s lawn, in stark contrast to her neighbor’s bright green grass lined with crisp mow marks, could serve as the poster lawn for No Mow May. For now, it’s simply displaying Saratoga’s unique No Mow May sign.
A head start
Saratoga’s initiative is part of a nationwide movement that began in the United Kingdom in 2019 before arriving in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 2020, then spreading throughout that state as well as to Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.
Participating communities in the Midwest have seen their pollinator populations increase significantly. In Appleton, where 435 households participated in 2020, lawns not mowed saw five times as many bees and three times as many bee species, according to research compiled by Lawrence University scientists.
Not mowing in May gives pollinators wintering underground a critical first meal of the spring, be it from dandelions, clover or other sources, advocates say.
That strong start to the season helps pollinator populations that have been on the decline around the world. Research published in 2017 by the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than half of bee species are declining, with a quarter of those species in crisis due to habitat loss, among other factors.
Pollinators are essential to ecological function, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination by animals,” reads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website on pollination. “Visits from bees and other pollinators also result in larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields.”
In the U.S., pollination of agricultural crops is valued at $10 billion annually, according to the USDA.
All of these factors contribute to why it made sense for Sustainable Saratoga to bring No Mow May to the area, said Wendy Mahaney, the organization’s executive director.
Locally, the program came together quickly with the help of volunteers such as Paul Murphy spreading the word and handing out signs designed by a Skidmore College intern.
“People know we’ve got a problem, but they don’t always know what to do about it,” Murphy said. “This is a way to get them to start thinking about actions that they can take individually.”
So far, Murphy, Mahaney and others have distributed about 100 signs throughout the county. But the effort this inaugural year is really about advocacy, Mahaney said.
“The goal for this year is to raise awareness about why you may want to do it and what the benefits are, and then build on it each year,” she said.
Moving forward, the hope is for wider adoption, making No Mow May a standard practice in the region, Mahaney said.
Others are hoping No Mow May is a step toward a total rethinking of the way people care for lawns.
“For us, No Mow May is just the first step,” said Matthew Shepherd, director of outreach and education at Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which promotes No Mow May as part of its Bee City USA initiative. “We would love to see people going beyond that and think about what more they can do. Can you let part of your lawn stay long for the whole year? Can you have a meadow?”
Getting municipalities and government agencies to change their mowing practices will go a long way toward creating more habitat for pollinators, advocates say.
In fact, mowing practices have already been changed on public lands across New York state. For instance, state Department of Transportation mowing guidelines encourage maintenance groups to look for ways to reduce and alter mowing where possible. Altered mowing has occurred in Rochester, Buffalo, Utica and Poughkeepsie, and is on the increase, according to New York State’s Pollinator Protection Plan.
In addition, the New York State Thruway Authority is looking for places to establish meadows, with a goal of creating 20 acres of meadows in one year, according to the pollinator plan.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation supports No Mow May and other limited mowing initiatives.
“Less frequent yard mowing allows some flowering plants to bloom and benefit pollinators. On larger landscapes, field nesting birds are typically on nests in May and June, so deferring mowing as long as possible can allow for successful breeding and avoid nest failure,” a DEC spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “Reduced mowing can also help create or preserve plants and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, can save energy, reduce emissions and perhaps conserve water.”
Maxine Lautenberg, a council member in the town of Saratoga, is starting the conversation locally. She’s meeting with another council member and the town’s highway superintendent to discuss mowing practices and No Mow May this week.
“To me it’s a really easy lift. This is a super easy lift for something that can actually do quite a bit of good,” Lautenberg said. “This really seems like a pretty benevolent, benign way to start to have some sort of an impact on the town’s environmental stand.”
Don Ormsby, the town of Saratoga’s highway superintendent, said he’s willing to work with Lautenberg and the Town Board on possible changes to mowing practices on the 60 miles of roadside that he and a crew of six workers maintain with two mowers.
Still, Ormsby said he does have some reservations. One concern is that not mowing for an entire month could put his crew behind on its schedule come June, when the extra-long grass would require more time to cut.
In addition, Ormsby said mowing along roadsides — where the practice is to typically mow back about 15 to 20 feet, depending on the area — is really about safety.
“It’s a line-of-sight issue. If the grass is too long, you may not be able to see people or cars coming down the road,” Ormsby said. “It’s just a safety issue.”
Still, Ormsby said he’s open to the idea of No Mow May in some capacity and some locations, and he said residents are welcome to maintain their grass — or not maintain it — however they see fit.
Getting residents to support limited mowing might actually be easier than the rows of manicured lawns around the county suggest. Lawrence Yaw makes his money in landscaping as the owner of Lawn Monsterz. Yet Yaw said he’s been trying to get his customers in Clifton Park and Halfmoon to reframe the way they see their lawns.
Rather than spending thousands of dollars a year maintaining 3 inches of grass, Yaw said he often talks to customers about planting fruit and vegetable gardens on a portion of their land. He said customers could still employ his services, but he’d specialize in tending to gardens rather than spraying pesticides and clipping grass.
But Yaw said many customers simply laugh when he brings up the garden idea.
“Instead, people prefer a green carpet,” Yaw said. “People are stuck in their ways. We’re programmed to maintain a green lawn.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.