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A visit to a Wisconsin hotbed of the No Mow May initiative

No Mow May sign
Chuck Quirmbach
A No Mow May sign in a yard in Appleton, which is in its third year of the program aimed at helping bees and other pollinators.

Need an excuse not to cut your lawn? Here's one — scientists say leaving your grass a little longer in the spring can actually help bees and other pollinators. A few dozen U.S. cities have joined a program called No Mow May.

The Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield joined the initiative this spring.

Appleton is in its third year. That's where Matthew Normansell stood in the small side yard of his house last week, and said he likes what he's starting to see poke through the ground.

"You can already see the dandelions starting to pop up. You get a little bit of the creeping charlie, a few small violets, a lot of daisies as well. But they'll all be flowering kind of at some point during May and providing, you know, pollen to these pollinating insects," Normansell said.

Matthew Normansell's house and yard in Appleton.
Chuck Quirmbach
Matthew Normansell's house and yard in Appleton.

Those plants will flower in May because, Normansell says, he'll be leaving his lawn mower in the garage and joining about 500 other Appleton residents taking part in a city-backed program to not mow at all for a month. This community of 75,000 has become a U.S. leader in the No Mow May movement, which began in England and has spread to more than 30 cities, mostly in the Midwest.

That's where May is considered a key time for pollinators to come out of hibernation or their winter habitat. Israel Del Toro teaches biology at Lawrence University in Appleton. He says an initial study of unmowed yards in the city shows a fivefold increase in the number of bees, and they're very hungry in the spring.

"So when we leave our weeds, or things we would normally call weeds, to grow, those are like little cheeseburgers for our pollinators, and they're able to get some cheap calories really, really fast and put on some weight that'll give them a leg up for the season," Del Toro says.

Lawrence University professors Israel Del Toro and Relena Ribbons
Photo supplied by Del Toro and Robbins
Lawrence University professors Israel Del Toro and Relena Ribbons

Relena Ribbons teaches geosciences at Lawrence. She says not mowing in May also helps people start thinking about other ways to support pollinators.

"Planting native plants, alternative lawn scenarios where you just grow clover, for example. That's also something that puts nitrogen back in the soil, fertilizes your lawn. There are other ways to think about the American lawnscape. This is a way to have that conversation with a lot of landowners, which is great," Ribbons says.

In many U.S. cities, not cutting your grass in May could get you a citation. But communities in this initiative have agreed to waive that. Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford is taking part in the No Mow program, too.

"And it's, you know, not been without its hiccups or its frustrations from some community members. But by and large, there's just been incredible support for the effort, a lot of buy-in, a lot of participation," Woodford says.

But hearing about increasing pollinator populations has not convinced everyone of the value of letting the lawn grow.

At the service area of the Northside Power Center, a lawnmower sales and repair outlet in Appleton, Steve Schick says during a rainy springtime, the grass can grow really tall by June. "Now you've got to struggle getting it back under control. And a lot of people will have a problem with their mowers when they try to get it back under control. ... A lot of times it will damage them," he says.

Lawnmowers in the service area of Northside Power Center in Appleton.
Chuck Quirmbach
Lawnmowers in the service area of Northside Power Center in Appleton.

Backers of No Mow May advise raising the lawn mower blade height in June or using a string trimmer first.

Appleton is one of about 150 communities with a Bee City designation under a program coordinated by the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

The group's Matthew Shepherd says, while valuable, not mowing is just a first step. "It's not like the endpoint. You know, we can't say, 'Gosh, we've let our lawn grow. We've saved the bees, yay.' "

But Shepherd and others say they hope keeping lawn mowers in storage for a month will further habitat awareness and the central role pollinators play.

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