Anti Being “Anti No Mow May”

I’ve got a bone to pick with the “anti” No Mow May movement.

For years, natural resource professionals have struggled to find messages that resonate with the public to move people AWAY from conventional, high-input lawn care and TOWARD natural yards that exist as part of their surrounding ecosystems.

Americans buy 70 million pounds of fertilizer per year[i] and use 125 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides to kill grubs, insects and oh-so-pesky dandelions[ii]. Suburban communities are forced to drill dozens of new wells to meet peak water demand during the summer, and the average American spends 384 hours of their life just…mowing…their…lawn[iii].

The thing is, most people don’t even care that much about having a perfect lawn. They’re just trying to keep up with cultural norms and avoid being scorned by family and neighbors.

Enter No Mow May, and finally it seemed we’d found a message that works. After two long years of COVID – working full time while homeschooling kids, daycare shortages, school bus driver shortages, rising food and health care costs, and declining time and patience – finally, the world had given us an excuse to cross one thing off of our to-do lists.

No Mow May asks people to delay mowing in the spring so that low-growing flowers like violets, clover and dandelions are able to bloom and provide a source of nectar for pollinating insects. It is a simple entry-level action that anyone can take without spending money or needing to develop botanical expertise.

Walking through the streets of Stillwater, Minnesota last spring, I got the impression that my entire city had decided to participate in mass. The front yards I passed were a symphony of color and my childhood heart leapt with joy.


Reply to @coochiecoochiechoochoo I’m loving the flowering lawns I see around town on this beautiful spring day #nomowmay #lawn #pollinators #minnesota

♬ original sound – Angie Hong

Now, this year, there seems to be an “anti” No Mow May movement underway, led not by lawn care companies, but rather by environmental professionals who are encouraging homeowners to plant flowering trees and native gardens instead of letting their lawns grow tall. I fear we are missing a golden opportunity to ride the wave of public enthusiasm and begin breaking the green grass chains that bind.

We can all agree that native flowering trees, shrubs, and forbs are a better source of nectar for pollinators than clover and dandelions; in fact, I’ve spent nearly twenty years teaching people why and how to plant native in their yards. However, No Mow May offers many additional benefits beyond providing food for pollinators. A one-month pause in mowing translates into less fossil fuels mined, fewer carbon emissions, and less herbicide dumped on the ground to kill dandelions and clover. Most importantly, it disrupts the social norms that make many Americans slaves to their lawns.

This ^^ is what lawn care companies, real estate developers, and landscape architects have been promoting for 80 years. If environmental professionals come down hard on No Mow May, most people will just revert back to lawn as usual.

Social science research conducted by Doug MacKenzie Mohr[iv] shows that people are more likely to make BIG changes if they make SMALLER changes first. When a person participates in a movement such as No Mow May, their self-perception changes and they begin to think, “I am the type of person who cares about the environment.” As result, they’re more likely to consider more impactful actions in the future, such as planting a native garden or volunteering in their community. Metaphorically speaking, No Mow May becomes a gateway drug that leads people down a road toward ecological landscapes.  

It’s important to remember also that it takes time and money to plant a native garden or convert a conventional lawn into a pollinator-friendly landscape. In contrast, anyone can let their lawn grow tall or turn a smiling face to the dandelions.

I’m pro No Mow May because a lawn like this should be ok.

Sadly, this spring, I’ve seen numerous people attacked on social media for promoting No Mow May. I understand the science and know that a native prairie or woodland will beat an un-mowed lawn any day. But I also understand how hard it is to change a social construct that has been in place for decades. No Mow May gives people a good excuse to take it easy while avoiding public scorn, and if we come down hard on the movement, most people will just go back to lawns as usual.

Let’s not make perfect be the enemy of good. We can keep teaching people about native plants and pollinators and encourage them to take the next step in their ecological journeys. In the meantime, though, let’s ride the wave of No Mow May and enjoy a judgement-free break for a while.

[i] US EPA

[ii] National Gardening Association