Over the last few years, the No Mow May movement has spread faster than a patch of Japanese knotweed. Started in the U.K., No Mow May encourages homeowners not to maintain their lawns the month of May, the thinking being that letting the grass grow out allows wildflowers to bloom, which helps at-risk pollinators and does away with the need, at least for that month, for lawn additives (like fertilizers, water, and fossil fuel used for mowing)—two great goals. However, if you’ve tried No Mow May, you may have found it’s easier said than done: An unmown lawn starts to look unkempt quickly—and tall grass is hard to mow back into submission.
“The movement that has the absolute best intentions, but when actually followed through into practice, it is definitely flawed,” says James Wolfin, an entomologist who as a graduate student worked in both a turf grass science lab and a pollinator conservation lab. Today Wolfin is a conservation specialist at Twin City Seed; his research on bee lawns was recently published in the journal Urban Ecosystems. As Wolfin points out, “May is one of the months where grass grows the fastest. So, we’re encouraging folks to not mow their lawns during the time when mowing is most beneficial as both an aesthetic and an ecological practice.”
What Wolfin would like us to embrace instead is a “slow mow summer,” a phrase coined by one of his colleagues at the University of Minnesota hoping to create an equally catchy name as No Mow May. “We view Slow Mow Summer as a replacement for No Mow May that’s trying to best achieve the same goals all summer long,” says Wolfin.
We spoke to Wolfin to get his definition of a “slow mow summer” and tips for how to make it work in your yard. Here’s his and other experts’ advice:
1. Mow less frequently.
“The easiest thing that folks can do is simply raise the height of their mower,” says Wolfin. “If we simply mow higher, it will reduce our mowing frequency, and it’s going to allow more flowers to bloom within those lawns.” A UMass Amherst study found that lawns mowed every three weeks had as much as 2.5 times more lawn flowers than lawns mowed weekly or every other week.
2. But don’t let your lawn get too long.
“If you mow a plant down, from say from 18 inches back down to a conventional height of, you know, four inches, it’s going to really hurt—and potentially kill—that plant,” says Wolfin. According to Wolfin, cutting to anything more than one third of the total height of the plant would be considered detrimental to the health of a plant. So, instead of mowing on a set schedule pay attention to the length of the grass, never cutting more than a third, so if you let grass grow to 6 inches, then cut to 4 inches or if you let it grow to 4 inches, only cut a little more than an inch.
3. Weed strategically.
Of course, you should remove any invasive or thuggish plants, but try to keep an open mind about “weeds.” In their course on diversifying your lawn, the Association to Protect Cape Cod and The Wild Seed Project, a non-profit organization based in Maine, suggest identifying what’s growing on your lawn, then cut the flowers off unwanted plants before they go to seed (a method called “chop and drop”). Let native plants like violets and barren strawberry flower and go to seed.
4. Leave your clippings.
Skip bagging and removing lawn clippings of an inch or less. They will fall down to the soil surface and decompose quickly, feeding the soil. However, longer clippings can smother the grass beneath causing lawn damage, so do bag those and add them to your compost pile.
5. Be selective when reseeding.
“Most folks go into the big box store and just pick seed based on the amount of sunlight that they have,” says Wolfin, but Kentucky Bluegrass, which is the standard turf grass, requires a lot of management and inputs. “There are grass species out there that require far less maintenance, for a much more conservation friendly lawn,” says Wolfin.
For the northern third of the U.S. and Canada, Wolfin points to fescue grass species, which require less fertilizer and have deep root systems that make it drought tolerant. To maximize conservation choose fine fescue grasses, which Wolfin says have 1/6 the fertilizer requirement of traditional turf grass and need to be watered only about once every 3 to 4 weeks; they’re also incredibly slow-growing, so you might need to mow only twice per year. You can simply seed them into the existing lawn like you would any other grass and over a few years, the fine fescue will begin to take over.
In The Climate Conscious Gardener, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden says to avoid fescues and Bermuda grass in the dry western states and instead suggests UC Verde (Buchloe dactyloides), a buffalograss cultivar, and in very dry areas, they recommend blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis).
6. Overseed with wildflowers.
To go one step further, you can intentionally seed low-growing wildflowers right into your lawn. Wolfin says you want to make sure you choose flowers that are known high-quality forage. Wolfin and his team at Twin City Seeds settled on Dutch white clover, creeping thyme, and self-heal for their “bee lawn” mix because they are high-quality bee food that isn’t cost prohibitive. While Dutch white clover isn’t native, Wolfin says researchers at the University of Minnesota observed “a ton of bee diversity” on white clover—and it costs a fraction of what a native plant like pussy toes would (but if you have the budget, pussy toes are a great way to diversify your lawn!).
7. Rewild a section of lawn.
The Wild Seed Project encourages “diversifying your lawn” and published a book on Northeastern native ground covers that is a great resource for lawn alternatives. Writing in the introduction, executive director Andrews Berry encourages replacing unused expanses of grass with low-growing natives, as she did in her own lawn. “Wild strawberries now provide tasty treats for my family when not gobbled up by our backyard chickens. Bumblebees adore the plantings of partridge pea. Stans of ferns provide cover for chipmunks and squirrels. Rewilding with ground covers has quickly transformed our once barren lawn into a vital habitat.” Wild strawberries and less yard work? Sign us up!
- Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Have a Healthy, Toxic-Free Lawn
- Fields of Green: 5 Favorite Lawn Substitutes
- Ask The Expert: How to Plant a Meadow Garden, with James Hitchmough
- Gone Wild: Tinkering With Turf
Frequently asked questions
What are some tips for summer lawn care?
Some tips for summer lawn care include mowing your lawn higher, watering deeply but infrequently, and keeping an eye out for pests and diseases.
Why is it recommended to mow the lawn higher in summer?
Mowing the lawn higher in summer helps to promote deeper root growth, which can make the grass more resilient to drought and heat stress.
How often should I water my lawn in the summer?
It is recommended to water your lawn deeply but infrequently during the summer. Aim to provide approximately 1 inch of water per week, either from rainfall or irrigation.
What are some signs of pest or disease problems in the lawn?
Signs of pest or disease problems in the lawn can include brown patches, thinning grass, chewed or discolored blades, and the presence of insects or fungi. Regular inspection and prompt action can help prevent damage.
How can I prevent weeds from taking over my lawn in summer?
To prevent weeds from taking over your lawn in summer, maintain a healthy and thick lawn through proper mowing, watering, and fertilizing. Additionally, consider using pre-emergent herbicides before weed seeds germinate.
Is it necessary to fertilize the lawn during summer?
Fertilizing the lawn during summer is not always necessary, as it can stimulate excessive growth during hot weather. However, if your lawn needs additional nutrients, choose a slow-release fertilizer and apply it according to the manufacturer's instructions.