If bright yellow dandelions and purple clovers are growing on lawns that usually look like carpet, or if it’s eerily quiet on your street on a Saturday afternoon when you’d otherwise hear the hum of lawn mowers, it’s possible that your neighbors participate in the No-Mow May Campaign.
The idea behind it is this: in May, when native pollinators like bees and butterflies wake up after winter, they need a major calorie boost to jump-start the coming season. Faced with manicured lawns with no flowering plants in sight, our pollinator friends are hungry for a meal. By not mowing for a month, you create habitat – and a foraging spot – for bees and other early season pollinators.
Not mowing for a month in the spring is a step forward in protecting our food chain and biodiversity, but pollinators need more than a meal in May – they also need food during the summer and autumn. Lawns are also largest irrigated crop grown in the USA and requiring exorbitant amounts of water to maintain, so maybe what we really need to do is redesign our lawns for the entire year.
This is where Doug Tallamy comes in. Tallamy is a professor of agriculture in the Department of Wildlife Entomology and Ecology at the University of Delaware. He has authored books on the importance of becoming indigenous to your garden and is the founder of the Terroir National Park (HPN), the largest cooperative conservation project ever undertaken in the United States. HNP is a grassroots call to action to restore biodiversity and ecosystems by planting natives, with the goal of creating 20 million acres of native plantings in the United States – the equivalent of half the area occupied by mowed lawns.
Here’s why Tallamy thinks we need to redesign our lawns and what the alternatives are.
The disadvantages of a well-kept lawn
A perfect lawn may be visually pleasing, but it offers no benefit to wildlife. Tallamy puts it bluntly: “Lawns, with all the chemicals they contain, have the worst environmental record. A lawn, especially without clover, does not support pollinators either. From an ecological and biodiversity point of view, a lawn is a total wasteland.”
Lawns high in chemicals can also be harmful to humans. Children and pets that roll and play in the grass can be directly exposed to insecticides and pesticides that have been applied to the grass. Mowing also creates noise and air pollution – all petrol lawn mowers are 5% of total air pollution in the United Statesaccording to the EPA.
In 2021, Nevada became the first US state to ban certain types of water-absorbing decorative grasses, leading to lawns being dug up and replaced with native succulents, mulch and crushed stone. And states like California and Florida, accustomed to drought, limit how often you can water your lawn.
Reduce the size of your lawn
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a lawn at all. Instead, think about how much lawn area you really need and for what purpose. If 40% of your garden offers spaces to relax and play, you have 60% left that you can replace with natural habitat. This approach can be applied regardless of the size of your garden.
Although a lawn may look neat, it stays the same throughout the season. When you replace it with other plants, you create a kaleidoscope of seasonal interest, from short-lived spring flowers to sturdy, vibrant asters in the fall.
Create more shade or an edible landscape
A large lawn left to bake in the unforgiving sun becomes dull quite quickly during dry spells. Instead, get rid of part of your lawn and plant a tree to create more shade in your yard, then fill in the area below with ground cover – but be sure to select natives. Similar to our obsession with lawns, there’s also the widespread belief that “imported species are what make a landscape attractive and valuable,” says Tallamy. “Our ecosystems, however, are built on a foundation of native plants.”
You also don’t have to stick to planting native ornamentals, such as red oaks. Native edibles such as highbush blueberries, blackberries, papayas, and American persimmons make great additions to the landscape. The native plant societies in each state are a great resource for finding out which plants are native to your area.
Replace your lawn with a mini meadow
If you prefer something lower than trees and shrubs, or a more uniform look, the closest thing to a lawn is a prairie-style meadow with native grasses and sedge, or a mix of perennial wildflowers and native grasses. Each region has its own native grasses that are perfectly suited to your local climate and less affected by drought and other environmental conditions. Look for seed companies that specialize in native grasses. Again, size doesn’t really matter – you can have a mini meadow even in a small backyard.
As with a traditional lawn, a meadow takes time to establish, but grasses do not need to be mowed regularly like a lawn. In fact, a meadow only needs to be mowed once a year, if at all – in the spring it will regrow on its own. Many grasses have eye-catching seed heads and some are even fragrant, like prairie seed, which smells like coriander. And in the fall, many of them have a striking color palette, like bushy hairgrass that turns golden late in the season.
City dwellers can take action too
What about the city dwellers who don’t have a garden but are still eager to contribute? Does it make sense to grow natives in containers in urban settings, or is it more of a symbolic contribution to the movement? “Of course,” he says, “if you put Joe-Pye grass in a pot, butterflies will come. And potted milkweed or fall asters will attract native bees. So you can change the things in your own little ecosystem – an individual box make a difference.”
What about invasive weeds?
The question that inevitably arises when replacing a lawn is: what can be done about non-native and invasive weeds? It seems impossible to create a sustainable native habitat such as a meadow in your garden without constantly battling invasive plants such as tree of heaven, oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, kudzu and mustard. garlic, to name a few. Is it possible to eradicate them without resorting to a broad-spectrum herbicide? “It’s the lesser of two evils,” says Tallamy. “The harmful effect of herbicides is not comparable to the damage caused by invasive plants. However, instead of spraying, I use the cut and paint method, in which you apply the herbicide to the stem cut from a woody or perennial plant. This is a more targeted use.”
Plant the species, not the selected cultivar
When considering replacing your lawn and filling it with native plants and meadows, does the type of planting matter? the pure species or a cultivar? Tallamy’s answer is unequivocal. “Unfortunately, cultivars that have been bred as novelties have absolutely no nutritional value for pollinators; they are just ornamental. So there is no point in planting cultivars whose genetic makeup has been altered in a way that makes them unpalatable. for native insects – and ornamental plants with no value for insects are like a house built of wallpaper instead of walls.”