Since the 1970’s, conservationists and campaigners have been working to remove peat from composts. It is tempting to despair at the sluggish pace of change and the derisory measures implemented by the horticulture industry and government to reduce peat use over that time. But not all campaigns are the same…some catch the public imagination in an instant and revolutions can happen in the blink of an eye, or in the flower of an ox-eye daisy.
So it is with Plantlife’s No Mow May campaign, which has spread like wildflower fire across the UK, blazing trails of pink, white and blue. Indeed the ‘no mow’ idea has entered the zeitgeist and many of our clients have independently chosen to join in. Last year, over 200 species of plant were found flowering in ‘no mow’ lawns around the country, with over half a million nectar rich flowers counted as part of the ongoing No Mow May Survey. Given the media focus on ‘planting for pollinators’ you might assume that the campaign has been a universal success and we’ve certainly encouraged more wildflower lawns in the gardens we manage, like this new ‘meadow’ sown just last year.
It could come as a surprise then that the hashtag #NoMoreNoMowMay has been used on Twitter by a number of respected ecologists and entomologists. We were also shocked when Kate Bradbury pointed out that hedgehog rescue centres warn of a seasonal spike in strimmer injuries that coincide with the start of June. As we are huge fans of No Mow May, to address these concerns we have put together a guide on how to do No Mow May the right way.
To start with the small things, how could No Mow May be damaging to insects and raise the ire of some entomologists? We need to consider what happens before and after May.
As pollination ecologist Professor Jeff Ollerton points out, the first principle of gardening for pollinators is to ‘do no harm’. By the beginning of May, you may be lucky enough to have a colony of ground nesting or ‘mining bees‘ in your garden. On our allotment we are treated to colonies of both Ashy and Tawny Mining Bees with their tell-tale miniature ‘volcanoes’ of soil dotted amongst the bare earth. Just a few weeks ago, we were delighted to find a large aggregation of Early Mining Bees in a short lawn beside a clients driveway.
All of these species and many more besides like to nest in low turf so it would be counterproductive to remove their favoured habitat by allowing your lawn to grow long, or worse still to turn the soil over prior to seeding with a meadow mix. The only way to know if your garden supports these species is to have a good look at your lawn before May and watch for signs of these delightful bees! If you have them in your garden, keep the area they are nesting in short. Set your mower a little higher and mow every two or three weeks which gives you the best of both worlds; short enough grass for the mining bees but long enough for the daisies and clovers to flower.
Assuming you don’t have mining bees, then go ahead and grow the lawn long but consider first what you will do after May. Think about your prospective meadow as a plush penthouse apartment, offered for free to the surrounding wildlife. Bees, wasps and hoverflies will stop by to feed on the pollen and nectar your lawn provides and then jet off elsewhere. Other species will want to move in full time, enticed by the prospect of a safe place to raise their young or by good hunting grounds. All manner of beetles and bugs, spiders and snails, even grasshoppers and grass snakes could make your lawn home. The wildlife you attract assumes their new lodgings are a long-term let…they don’t know you are taking part in No Mow May. As entomologist and previous guest of our podcast, Dr Ian Bedford points out, if you don’t continue until ‘Let it Bloom June’ or ‘Knee High July’ then many hundreds of animals could be killed when you mow the grass down at the end of May.
This is the same period when hedgehogs are at most risk. Generally a month high lawn is too long to mow and strimmers are used to take the top off. But it is hard to see what is hiding below. Accidental injuries to Hedgehogs but also reptiles, amphibians and birds are all too common when strimming at any time of year. You can reduce this risk by running through your lawn slowly with a rake before cutting, taking the area one section at a time. If you have the hips for it and want to unleash your inner Poldark, you could also have a go with a scythe which is an altogether more gentle garden tool. But this still wont protect the larvae, caterpillars or spiders removed after the cut, which are next year’s butterflies and beneficial predators keeping your garden pests in check.
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Better than wasting the habitat you have nurtured over a month, it pays to think before hand about how you will use your garden throughout the year. If you know you will need to mow the area down after May, think about raising the height of your mower’s cut and mowing every two or three weeks over the whole year instead. You will be amazed at what flowers could pop up in just a slightly longer lawn. A garden full of daises, white clover, self-heal and lesser trefoil will be a pollinator paradise as good as any other. When you mow, you will remove some flowers, but these species have evolved to deal with grazing and will readily spring back into flower within a week of being cut. Every lawn is different, so let it grow until the grass starts to obscure the daisies etc, then that is your que to mow.
On the other hand, if you have space and the inclination to let your meadow mature through the summer then here are a few tips. Meadows must be cut at the end of the summer or they will become dominated by stronger grasses and will become less floriferous as the years go by. However, even if you can stay your hand until September or October to give the meadow the chop, there will still be many creatures removed in the process. The best option is to choose an area in your garden to become a meadow long-term. Then each year in September, cut down 70%, leaving 30% to stand over the winter and into the spring of the following year, alternating which patch you leave un-cut each time. This will give adolescent butterflies and moths the chance to fully develop, and will also provide shelter for overwintering beetles and foraging ground for garden birds. Better still, if you can commit to an area of garden meadow, you can start to introduce new species from wildflower suppliers, or even Yellow Rattle which is hemi-parasitic on grasses, keeping their growth down and leaving space for more flowers.
Or, final choice, have a bit of everything! Choose an area of your lawn to turn into a full-time meadow and leave the rest short, but just a little longer than you used to. The area needn’t be big, we have left patches of only 2m2 to grow long within a larger mown lawn; truly a mini-meadow. Blackbirds will hunt for worms and leather jackets in the low grass, while Goldfinches will feed from your meadow’s Great Burnet and Teasel seed heads in the autumn. Hoverflies will swarm your lawn daisies while Orange-tip Butterflies lay their eggs on the meadow’s Cuckoo Flowers in spring. How you layout this arrangement of lawn and meadow is up to you, but for larger spaces a great idea is to mow shorter areas within the meadow patch so that you can sit in the middle and enjoy the buzz.
As for Plantlife and their campaign, this is similar to what they recommend. Here is a quote from their website:
“For flowers, bees and butterflies there is one lawn ‘haircut’ that really suits: the mohican. Most should be given a monthly cut to boost short sward plants but there should also ideally be an area set aside for longer grass where floral diversity abounds.”Dr Dines, Plantlife
For our part, despite the criticisms we are thankful that Plantlife has been so successful with their campaign. Having worked and campaigned for environmental charities ourselves, we are well aware of how hard it is to get any project off the ground, let alone to have such reach and engagement with the public. Against the disastrous rise of plastic lawns, we need catchy ideas like No Mow May to sway gardeners in the right direction. With just a little extra advice and a few pointers along the way we can turn the No Mow May phenomenon into a gardening revolution, good for all garden wildlife, and us.
- Check your lawn before May for ground nesting species, particularly Mining Bees. Avoid disturbing nesting sites but continue to mow with a high setting to keep grass short.
- Decide which lawn areas should stay short all year, and which can turn into long-term meadow.
- In short areas, continue to mow but less frequently and with a higher mower setting.
- In meadow areas, leave to grow from spring to September/October. Cut 70% down in and remove cuttings, compost if you can! Leave 30% over winter and cut down the following spring, ideally April or even May once the rest of the meadow is in full growth.