In Wisconsin and other states, an initiative called No Mow May is spreading faster than the creeping charlie in my yard. Basically, local governments agree to suspend enforcement of ordinances requiring homeowners to maintain their lawns while pollinators are coming out of hibernation. Plants normally considered detrimental to suburban property values and neighborhood harmony (a.k.a. weeds) provide important food at a critical time for bees and other insects. Those pollinators are threatened in urban ecosystems as well as agricultural lands, and declining bee populations threaten our food security.
I couldn’t be happier that more people now take reversing pollinator decline seriously. But folks traveling through rural areas this month will see us and many of our neighbors mowing. Some may jump to the conclusion that we don’t know what they know about pollinators – or that we just don’t care. Misconceptions like that take root faster than pigweed on bare ground. So to help them better understand us, here’s why we don’t not mow in May.
May is also National Lyme Disease Awareness Month. Tick-borne illnesses are a public health matter in Wisconsin, where the average number of Lyme’s cases has more than doubled over the past 15 years. The situation is so serious there’s a Tickborne Illness Center in the Northwoods, which has some of the highest concentrations of Lyme’s in the state.
When you live here, it’s practically impossible to entirely avoid ticks. So we take precautions. Keeping the area around the house mowed is one of them. When we venture farther out into taller grass we know to wear light colors (easier to spot ticks) and tuck pant legs into our socks to make it harder for the nasty little beasties to crawl up. My husband forgot to do that recently when we were gathering wild ramps, and almost had to pull over and drop his pants at the side of the road to intercept an eight-legged hitchhiker. When he comes in from turkey hunting, he strips on the porch (to avoid bringing ticks indoors) and heads straight for the shower. We check ourselves daily for ticks in the bend of the knees, groin, beltline, hairline, and armpits.
Four of our dogs have had Lyme’s or anaplasmosis (another tick-borne disease). Our dogs get the Lyme’s vaccine, but there isn’t one available for humans. Blue wears a tick collar year-round because we’ve seen ticks as late as December and as early as February. Our vet says the effectiveness of different topical treatments and collars varies from region to region and seems to diminish in an area over time, presumably because the ticks develop a tolerance.
We tolerate ticks because we don’t have much choice. Mowing around the house is part of that effort.
Spring is the peak season for wildland fires in our area. Despite a recent four-inch rain that greened up our yard (and washed out roads east of us), our fire danger is still high. Low relative humidity and gusty winds are ideal conditions for burning dry grasses, pine needles, and leaf litter. As green growth pushes up that combustible material, a pocket of air between new growth and that dry fuel above it makes it easy for a fire to spread. So we mow a buffer zone to protect our house, shop, two large propane tanks, and where we park our vehicles.
We’re set back from the road at our place, but that’s not the case for all of our rural neighbors. So many of them mow their ditches as a defensive measure against sparks thrown by passing vehicles. Unsecured chains, thin brakes, exposed wheel rims, and even trailers that come unhitched are as likely to spark a wildland fire as careless flinging of smoking materials.
Mowing can help minimize the ability for fire to spread but isn’t without risks itself. I’m sure my neighbors have heard me hit rocks with the mower blade. Thanks to deposits in runoff from a couple of lobes of the Wisconsin Glacier, we have lots of rocks here. It’s harder to avoid them when the grass is tall. So to try to avoid hitting a rock and possibly throwing sparks I set the mower deck as high as I can and mow more often in spring when the grass is growing fast.
Because our house and buildings are set back, we don’t mow most of our property along the road. But we have to mow enough near the end of the driveway to see oncoming traffic before pulling into the highway. They’re traveling at 55 miles per hour (or more). I don’t need to keep the grass super short there to see. And once again, I can’t mow short anyway because of rocks. In this case, the rocks are gravel left by snowplow blades.
All winter long the highway crew throws gravel from the shoulders into our ditches and the neighbor who plows for us pushes snow and dirt and stones from our gravel driveway into the yard. We rake up as much as we can before the grass starts to grow. Last year we had a mild autumn, and the ground wasn’t frozen when we had to start plowing snow. So this spring while I raked gravel – lots and lots of gravel – I pondered ways we could reduce our snowplowing and thereby minimize rocks and raking. But that won’t happen. Some winters we have so much snow we run out of places to push it. So standard operating procedure is to push it as far as possible from the first snow to the last. In 32 years of marriage, I have learned that the snowplow zone is non-negotiable, and trying to alter its boundaries is a waste of breath. I’d dearly love to not rake gravel, and wouldn’t mow the areas where the plow drops gravel at all if it weren’t for ticks, fire prevention, and visibility.
The fact is, we don’t mow much of our property at all – and not just in May. The wild and woody parts harbor all kinds of bees, butterflies, and other insects, as well as birds, bats, bunnies, and other critters. But let’s talk about my lawn.
When we built our house, the excavator said we could probably sell the sand from where he dug for the basement. Playground quality sand, he called it. We didn’t, of course, needing it for backfill and leveling. The following winter we had hardly any snow. The ground froze and thawed and the construction zone was a sea of muddy grit that made me glad we hadn’t installed anything other than plywood subfloor yet. By spring, I was desperate to see anything green growing around our new house. But we couldn’t afford to bring in topsoil, and seeding grass on sand sounded like a waste of money we didn’t have. So a neighbor brought in two spreader loads of well-aged horse manure. He warned me it was loaded with weed seeds, but it was free. I didn’t mind raking that, and in no time it sprouted dandelions, quack grass, clover, pigweed, creeping charlie, and other things you might not consider ideal in a lawn.
But those weeds held that bare soil in place. And soil (even sandy, stony soil like ours) needs to be held in place. Like pollinators, our soils face dire threats – including the loss of biodiversity.
The nicest soil and the lushest grass on our property is where a livestock pen used to be when this was a farm. It’s probably for the best if that part of our lawn gets scraped up by the snowplow and littered with gravel from the driveway. That way the rest of the lawn doesn’t look quite so shabby in comparison. And I’m quite content with a shabby-looking but a healthy crop of dandelions and creeping Charlie, all mowed high enough to minimize the throwing of gravel projectiles.
We salute the individuals and communities that, in the service of pollinators, are learning to accept a bit of shabbiness in their normally picture-perfect lawns. Initiatives like No Mow May can spark important conversations – conversations where it’s important to understand different points of view. Thanks for understanding why my rural point of view includes some mowing. And trust that I’m leaving plenty for the bees.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.