Could we all play a part in preserving pollinators? At what cost?
That’s the question Cleveland Heights residents, business owners and officials contemplated during “No Mow May.” The city-wide campaign temporarily suspended ordinances that mandate grass must be kept short for the month to allow for foliage to grow and help bees, butterflies, moths and pollinators flourish.
From May 1 to May 31, many once-tidy lawns, medians and landscapes throughout the city were left undisturbed to allow for nature to take its course. That meant knee-length grass, wildflowers, weeds and whatever critters they would
inevitably bring. The community’s reviews? Quite mixed — and quite strong.
While some praised the initiative as an experiment to draw awareness to the environment and the ability to do their small part in attracting pollinators, others shared grievances surrounding the unkempt look of the city as well as safety concerns.
We dug into the science and the outrage behind Cleveland Heights' initiative and found some ways you can promote pollinator health in your yard.
Pollinators Are Facing Peril
A harsh reality is that pollinators are on the decline.
In fact, honey bee hives have decreased by 59% in the past 60 years.
Researchers cite myriad reasons for this, including poor nutrition, pesticide use, pathogens and more.
Pollinators are important not only to keep our beautiful gardens alive but also to sustain the world’s agricultural crops that feed animals and people. On their quest for food, pollinators move from plant to plant, picking up and delivering pollen they brush up against along the way. Because plants themselves are stationary, pollinators are critically important to plant reproduction. According to the nonprofit group Bee City USA, lawns cover 2% of land in the United States. That’s more than 40 million acres.
The problem with lawns is that they are monocultures, which is one species of one plant in a large area.
“That doesn’t happen naturally, ever, because of competition and diversity,” says Margaret Lehnert, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at Cuyahoga Community College. "You have a lot of different organisms that would be in the same space. They’re going to compete with each other for resources and they ensure that no single organism grows a whole bunch more than everything else."
How ‘No Mow May’ Came to Be
The concept of “No Mow May” emerged in the United Kingdom in 2019 from a group called Plantlife.
Research from the organization, cited by Country Living, found that small changes in mowing could lead to enough nectar for 10 times more pollinators. Studies from a small Wisconsin town produced the same result two years ago.
Outcomes like these inspired Cleveland Heights’ new mayor Kahlil Seren to implement “No Mow May” here in Northeast Ohio.
“When we talk about … the concerns that people have about the impact that we’re having on the populations of pollinators, we could either continue talking about it and do nothing or we can really ramp up what we’re allowing ourselves to do,” Seren says.
Seren says he believes as many people were for “No Mow May” as they were against it, based on the feedback he’s received from the community.
Opponents of “No Mow May” mainly have cited safety concerns. Most lawns may grow between 12 and 24 inches in a month, and tall grass can obstruct driveways, sidewalks and corners, making it unsafe for pedestrians and drivers.
Michael Fisher purchased a home in Cleveland Heights’ Potter Village neighborhood last year and participated in “No Mow May” as a new resident.
The choice to do so was both for environmental reasons and out of convenience. Fisher had been traveling through the months of March and April, so he allowed his lawn to grow right through May before cutting it for the first time in 2023.
Seren participated in “No Mow May” at his own Cleveland Heights residence and found that the experiment to be
“We saw violets; we saw other plants [like] daisies coming up in our yard that we never would have seen if we had been diligently mowing,” he says. “From my perspective, I thought it added a great deal of color and interest to the yard.”
That said, some plant experts question the efficacy of a "No Mow May," including Ohio State University Horticulture Professor Dr. David Gardner.
“In Ohio, dandelion peak bloom is April, clover peak bloom is late May into June,” Gardner is quoted saying in the University's Buckeye Yard and Garden Online blog. “Peak grass growth is May. To me it almost makes more sense to tell folks not to mow in April or June or both and properly mow to ensure turf density in May. The weeds that peak in May for bloom are some of the winter annuals, like Veronica, but also ivy and violet and these are not the weeds we necessarily want to give an agronomic advantage.”
Thinking Bigger and Into the Future
Beyond residential lawns, Seren is also taking a look at how to transform public spaces to be more helpful.
Those solutions could be to replace grass with other plants that are better for the soil, such as clover.
Seren wouldn’t confirm whether or not he’d re-institute “No Mow May” in 2024, though he says he is “leaning towards yes.”
“I am cognizant of the need to allow the process to evolve significantly so we continue to learn from our experience and make this something more and more people can buy into,” he says.
Fisher says that if “No Mow May” returns next year, he hopes it sparks better dialogue amongst his neighbors.
“We’re all doing this for a reason,” Fisher says. “Use it as your opportunity to ignite community rather than separate it.”
How to Make Your Yard Pollinator-Friendly: There are options for you, says Margaret Lehnert, an assistant professor of biology at Cuyahoga Community College. She offers these tips:
Check With Your City. “The biggest thing would be to check your city ordinances” to see if you are permitted to participate in a No Mow May. Otherwise, “someone might show up to your door with a citation.”
Implement a Hybrid “No-Mow” System. Instead of allowing your entire yard to run wild, you could allow some parts of your yard to grow, and mow a pathway to walk through. Leaving portions untouched “would still benefit the diversity of insects and plants in that space,” Lehnert says.
Add Native Plants to Your Yard. When adding pollinator-friendly plants to your yard, you want to make sure they are native to your area, Lehnert says. Here are a few local options:
Spring: Wild Blue Phlox, Eastern Redbud Tree, Common Blue Violet
Summer: Common Milkweed, Black-Eyed Susans, Purple Coneflower
Fall: New England Aster
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