Redford Township resident Erin Bevel participated in No Mow May last year, despite her city opting out of the month-long initiative to encourage people to skip the blades and allow pollinator habitats to thrive during May.
Bevel is among a growing movement of people embracing the transformation of their yard space into pollinator or native lawns. What could appear as wild and unmaintained is, in fact, a return to what green spaces once were: full of plants that created food for others within the ecosystem.
No Mow May started as a movement in the U.K. in 2019 and went to the United States shortly after. Adopted through the Bee City USA initiative, participants are encouraged not to mow their lawns for the entire month to foster habitats for pollinators. The caveat, though, is that you must live in a participating city or risk being in violation of municipal lawn guidelines.
Despite her city’s opposition, Erin’s lawn reached heights deemed unmaintained by the municipality. While they saw it as an opportunity to issue tickets for violating the ordinance, she saw it as an eye-opening experience for what lawn habitats could be.
“I just wish that people [recognized] the beauty… we are surrounded by so many beautiful plants,” she said.
Monarch butterflies and over 3,600 bee species are some of the pollinators within the United States that are crucial to ecological health, yet they are declining in population. This is partly due to climate change and a lack of pollinator habitats.
The number of Michigan cities adopting No Mow May is rising, with Royal Oak, Ferndale, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and Albion among those opting in.
Imported from Europe
Meghan Milbrath, an assistant professor in the entomology department at Michigan State University, suggests that not mowing lawns for a month goes beyond the initiative.
“One of the really important things is the acknowledgment that lawns are a trend on their own,” she said. “So maybe it’s just the ending of the love affair with perfectly-manicured only-grass sod – it’s not like that’s the natural native state of the land.”
It has been reported that lawn – including commercial, residential, and golf courses – is the largest irrigated crop, covering about 2% of the country’s land, about 49,000 square miles.
“Because the loss of habitat has been so profound, it’s hard to estimate how much land has been taken out of being supportive for pollinators,” Milbrath said.
The trend of perfectly manicured lawns, created by turf grass, originated in Europe during the 17th Century when well-trimmed, green lawns symbolized class status.
Later, when Europeans colonized Indigenous land now known as America, their ideals followed, allowing for the representation of the perfect lawn to evince in city planning efforts and in constructing the commercialized “American Dream.” This led to the visualization of the suburban community with perfectly manicured lawns, causing many a sense of pride in ownership.
Typeical allowed grass height for many suburban cities throughout Michigan is 6 inches or less, while cities such as Ypsilanti allow grass heights no taller than 10 inches.
The phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder” was coined in 2005 when the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” was published. Milbraith said that having even small areas of lawn space dedicated to pollinator habitats helps to support space to interact with species we cohabitate with for well-being while providing a learning experience.
“When you’ve got people [going] from sod to sidewalk to road landscape, there’s no opportunity to interact with anything,” she said. “ You don’t see birds, insects, flowers – none of the things.”
Aside from its beauty and indirect wellness benefits, turf-replaced lawns mean improved soil health, with benefits of helping stormwater retention when replaced with native plants.
“Turf grass has an itty bitty root system; it’s not great for maintaining soil,” Milbrath told Planet Detroit. “The other thing is many native plants; when you have a flower, it ultimately produces a seed. And that seed produces a ton of food for birds and other animals. So you’re improving the soil health, but you’re also improving all of the diversity.”
Pollinator plants help nourish the ecosystem in totality as their existence helps fuel pollinators needed to sustain the global food production chain. About 75% of crops depend on pollinators for their production, mostly fruits and nuts.
A ‘grassroots’ movement
Royal Oak has voted to again support the effort in 2023. Ann Arbor city council has approved a resolution, “No Mow May 2.0”, encouraging residents to grow lawns up to 12 inches during the spring months. East Lansing has recently joined the movement, also encouraging lawns to grow up to 12 inches despite issuing violations to residents who participated last year.
There’s a slow embrace happening across the U.S., but Erin suggests that there shouldn’t be ordinances regulating lawn heights in the first place.
“I think it’s so wack that we have ordinances that criminalize plants,” said Erin.
Milbrath suggests that changes can be made as more people are educated on the importance of pollinator habits and the benefit of revising the ordinance preventing grass heights that would support pollinator habitats. For example, having signage visible for neighbors to acknowledge that the lawn supports pollinator habitats helps to educate them on why the lawn is presented a certain way while reducing complaints.
According to Erin’s local municipality, though, the concern with overgrown grasses is fostering rodent habitats and the fire hazard it creates. On the other hand, Erin believes overlooking the assumption to understand better the importance of fostering pollinator habitats could benefit the city.
“I would certainly support efforts if people in Redford wanted to go to the city council and say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t make sense to criminalize growing plants or allowing native plants to grow,’” she said.
Milbrath suggests that there is a need to address the perceived vs. actual risk of creating pollinator lawns when trying to convince local municipalities and neighbors of the need for changes to lawn habitat allowances.
“There’s no increased actual risk by having pollinator habitats, but the city is going to have to deal with that perceived risk,” she said. “One of the ways they can deal with that is through signage and education.”
Milbrath mentioned Michigan State University, for example, having the ability to provide education when advocates are in need of support when presenting before the public and their local municipality.
“We can’t advocate for anything, but we can come in as background experts that can talk about perceived risk vs. actual risk [for example],” she said.
While not everyone may be on board for overgrowing their lawns, adjusting a fraction of a lawn space significantly contributes.
“One way is to evaluate what places you don’t need, even if you just cut it in half, or cut 10% out, that can still make a huge difference,” said Milbrath.
Michigan State offers a free, self-paced course for those wanting to learn more before changing their lawn. For those ready to jump in for changes, resources offer suggestions for helping your lawn to adapt to a pollinator habitat over time.
Milbrath told Planet Detroit, “Hardly anybody in Michigan understands how many, and how diverse and beautiful our native bees are – we have 465 species in Michigan. And if you don’t have the plants to support them, you don’t even understand that they’re there.”
A dedication to adapting to pollinator lawns means decolonizing land, and welcoming habitats for species that promote a healthy and sustainable environment while reprogramming our minds to understand our relationship to our lawns from a new perspective.
“Some of the things that we need to do are reinforcing local ecosystems that suburban ideals had destroyed,” Erin said.