Life & Style
Thinking About Mowing That Lawn? Not Yet!
Multiple species of violets volunteer eagerly in lawns, where they are life-giving hosts to fritillary butterflies, among other creatures. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
The Pollinator Pathway is sponsoring No Mow May in the state. Visit its website to find out more or to sign up. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
A dozen species of native violets light up our region in spring. You’ll find many of them on display at Conn College Arboretum in New London. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Standing tall among roadside grass, fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) attracts pollinators at the entrance to a Lyme Land Trust property. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Canada violet and bellwort make a pretty picture in May at the Conn College Arboretum in New London. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) make a beautiful show in the May lawn at Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Blue-eye grass, a diminutive member of the iris family, volunteers in a bare patch alongside a lawn. Two species are native in New England, Sisyrinchium angustifolium and S. montanum. Native yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is in the background. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Landscapes and plants are making some noise and gaining some important allies.
The U.S. Senate, in a rare but entirely welcome show of bipartisanship, declared April National Native Plant Month, recognizing “the importance of native plants to environmental conservation and restoration, as well as in supporting a diversity of wildlife.” It also recognizes the benefits of native plants to the economy of our country.
Now, some organizations around the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have followed up with “No Mow May.” Connecticut’s fast-growing Pollinator Pathway organization was quick to take up the cause and is advocating for it right here in our yards.
Yes, that means you can, and should, wait a few more weeks before dragging the old lawn mower out of storage.
Why choose this merry month?
“Because many ground-nesting bees emerge and begin their search for pollen this month,” says Jana Hogan, a member of the Pollinator Pathway steering committee. “If they are successful, the females can launch this year’s young.”
Spring lawns are full of budding flowers, a sort of pollinator grocery store.
We all know that dandelions, clover, and buttercups grow in lawns, none of which are native. It’s important to understand that lawns nurture native plants, too. They are “hidden in plain sight.” The upshot: We don’t have to visit a garden center to find native plants. We can protect what we have.
Why protect native plants?
All pollen and nectar sources are not alike nor equal in value. The dandelion, for instance, provides forage for bees—but research shows that its quality is low compared to many native plants. Native plants, in general, provide the highest-quality forage for the most significant number of native insects. Furthermore, some insects are feeding specialists—entirely dependent on just one or a handful of plant species for sustenance during part or all of their lives.
Skip the Weedkillers, Too
Consider our region’s dozen violet species, for instance. Petite and pretty in the April grass, they are often bulldozed by lawnmowers in May. Some people dowse violets with weedkillers.
Yet violets offer exclusive relationships with numerous butterflies and one bee.
“The 14 species of greater fritillary (butterflies) and 16 lesser fritillaries will only lay their eggs where there are violets for their larva to feed upon,” writes Xerces Society author Justin Wheeler. He continues, “Violets are also hosting plants for the mining bee (Andrena violae), a specialist pollinator common to the Eastern U.S. that only visits violets.”
See bit.ly/Xerces-violets for more information.
Ants, it turns out, are violet farmers. Violet seeds offer a “snack pack” on their surfaces, which entices ants to carry the seeds home. The insects consume the snack and bury the seeds, assuring next April’s purple, white, and yellow drifts. Birds and other critters also consume and disperse violet seeds.
I’m always pleased to find diminutive, native blue-eyed grass volunteering near shady edges aside from violets. Native bees and pollinating flies obtain both nectar and pollen away from this little flower; birds eat the seeds.
Bluets or Quaker ladies are tiny light blue natives that take up residence along tree roots and among blades of grass. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects visit bluets.
From a Tiny Seedling, a Tall Tree
Violets, blue-eyed grass, and bluets are short, but lawns launch taller natives, too. Fleabane, for instance, is a two-foot-tall, daisy-like flower that hosts 19 species of butterflies and moths, according to the National Wildlife Federation’s pollinator host plant database. See bit.ly/pollinator-host-plants.
Purple anise hyssop is another tall pollinator plant that often volunteers near lawn edges.
Tree seedlings appear in lawns as well. I’ve plucked many an eastern red cedar from the grass and potted it. Some of those volunteers are now 15 feet tall. Eastern red cedar is a food and nesting source for at least 18 regional birds, according to the native plant finder offered by Audubon.org. Those species include colorful cedar waxwings and cardinals. See bit.ly/birds-native-plants.
Sassafras is a familiar volunteer on lawn edges, considered by many too aggressive to keep. Yet the National Wildlife Foundation plant database shows that sassafras hosts 30 butterflies and moths, including the spicebush swallowtail and promethea silk moth. Might there be room for one or two sassafras somewhere on the property?
Finally, don’t forget moss. Like violets, it is often the object of weedkillers. Yet moss is a native ground cover that provides nesting materials for robins, doves, and chickadees, among others. Highly absorbent, moss is a water source for bees, butterflies, and moths. Small reptiles and amphibians use moss for water and camouflage.
If No Mow May seems like a giant leap, the Pollinator Pathway suggests starting small. Pick a tiny patch and let it grow. If you’re worried about what the neighbors will say, mow a buffer along the edges.
The only potential downside to this is that it could mean less work, and a reduced income in May, for the hardworking people who mow our lawns. But there are ways to address that as well.
Have them do the edges and a border to set the unmown area back from the neighbors, and pay the regular price.
When they do start mowing, consider paying them extra for the first time, since the grass will be higher than usual and might require more than one pass.
Ask them to do a different landscaping job, if they are willing.
And consider that some might be relieved. The entire landscaping business went a bit nuts this year, with everyone hanging out at home looking out at the landscape all day. So there may be a few landscapers who will be happy for a short break.
Above all, the important thing is to learn to recognize and nurture the natives that volunteer in and around your lawn.
See www.pollinator-pathway.org/rethink-your-lawn to learn more, or to sign the No Mow May Pledge. Also, you can search for #NoMowMay online to see what else is being planned.
To read the full text of the U.S. Senate resolution, sponsored by U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), visit www.portman.senate.gov.
Kathy Connolly writes about landscape ecology, horticulture, and landscape design. Reach her through her website www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.