During recent morning walks, Fredericton City Councilor Kevin Darrah found his neighbours’ lawns were increasingly neglected. They correspond to the grassy pastures around the maritime capital’s water towers, fire stations, arenas, riverside trail network and public parks.
But the overgrowth is by design: Fredericton is one of many Canadian municipalities to take part in No Mow May, a grassroots movement encouraging people to keep their mowers retired until June and allow plant life to thrive to give pollinators such as bees, butterflies and beetles better access to nectar early in the year. Darrah, chair of the city’s environmental stewardship committee, said Fredericton did not mow 25% of its city-run lawns during the month, and many citizens also chose to participate.
“It’s a small thing we can do to help the environment…and I have an excuse to tell my wife why I don’t mow our lawn!” Darrah joked.
No Mow May was created by UK conservation charity Plantlife in 2019. The movement has grown to include thousands of lawns across the UK by 2021, and the charity’s Head of Engagement, Felicity Harris, said 2022 is expected to be the biggest year yet.
Now the campaign is gaining momentum in Canada, as municipalities and environmental activism groups across the country plead with their constituents to let their lawns grow during the month. The Kahnawake Environmental Protection Office has encouraged community members on the Indian reserve to wait until June to mow the lawn. Living Earth Council, an environmental group based in Truro, Nova Scotia, has also lent its support to the movement. The city of Dieppe, New Brunswick, suspended a bylaw prohibiting grass lining sidewalks higher than 20 cm, and the city of Winnipeg encouraged its residents to create “year-round pollinator habitat” on part of their lawns.
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The movement is rooted in research: several studies show that less frequent mowing can be a boon for biodiversity. Findings from the UK suggest that allowing plants to flower in May can create enough nectar to support ten times as many pollinators. A 2018 study from Massachusettsmeanwhile, found a dramatic increase in the abundance and diversity of bees in lawns that are mowed every two weeks instead of every week.
Some environmental experts in Canada support the movement, believing that it is high time to support bees and their contemporaries. Sandra Rehan, a researcher in bee biodiversity and social evolution at York University, said many of the 4,000 different bee species in North America are experiencing population declines. Keeping them, she says, is essential for the flowering of various flowers, trees and shrubs that provide us with beauty, cleaner air and even food.
“Without bees, we wouldn’t have our green spaces,” she said. “Furthermore, one in three bites we eat comes from the pollination services of bees. We need it for our vegetables, fruits, nuts, coffee. Without them, you get a lot less diversity, and we would be in trouble very quickly.
Plus, she said, giving up weeding can save us time and expand our notion of what a beautiful yard can be.
“The need to have that pristine lawn has been overstated,” Dr. Rehan said. “If we calmed down, we could live more in harmony with nature.”
But while many experts agree on the importance of fostering good living conditions for pollinators, some argue that leaving your mower in the garage is not enough, and may even distract attention from better solutions.
Samantha Knight, national conservation science lead for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said the species proliferating due to No Mow May are mainly dandelions and clovers, which are often not native to Canada and are not very nutritious for local pollinators. In addition, longer grass could increase the construction of habitats for pollinators and other small animals throughout the month, only for habitats destroyed by the first mowing.
“People want to do things to help, and No Mow May is an easy thing to understand,” Ms. Knight said, “but I think it’s more of a feel-good initiative than a helpful initiative. We need to do more than just not mow – first and foremost: plant native plants.”
The Conservancy supported No Mow May last year, but this year they’ve updated their messaging to encourage Canadians to instead focus on adding native plants to their yards and balconies to better support pollinators. In Canada, willows, poplars and maples are often a good bet, but evolution posits that bees and butterflies tend to benefit most from the natural flora of their own regions.
“There are a lot of nuances in what is indigenous from province to province,” Ms. Knight said. “I always recommend going to your local nursery or google local native plant groups in your area and planting them.”
Dr Rehan agrees that taking action and planting specific flowers would do pollinators a better service, but worries that replacing No Mow May with a more expensive initiative could lead to less adoption.
“The likelihood of convincing every homeowner to change their grass to wildflower meadow is quite low,” she said. “Asking people not to mow their lawns – basically to do nothing – will probably get more people to participate. Conservationists try to meet everyone else where they are.
“Dandelions aren’t superfood for bees, but if it’s the only food they have, it’s better than nothing.”
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