Pollinator fans take a break from lawn mowing

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – You might see unusually tall grass in your neighborhood this month. 

That’s because a few Michigan cities and various residents have adopted the “No Mow May” initiative, aimed at promoting a healthy habitat for pollinators like bees to thrive.

Michigan cities promoting No Mow May this year include Ann Arbor, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Jackson and East Lansing. These participating communities will suspend enforcement of grass and weed codes in May.

Muskegon Heights resident Chelsea McKinley calls herself a “proud supporter” of No Mow May. 

She used to live in Newaygo County, where she said people with unkempt lawns were fined. 

“(Fines) are probably much more of a burden on the taxpayer than it’s worth, aside from impacting the environment and infringing on the rights of the people,” McKinley said.

At her Newaygo County home, she said she received a notice that her lawn — at a height of 11 to 12 inches — exceeded the acceptable length and it needed to be cut. She tried to only mow around the wildflowers and dandelions.

While Muskegon Heights has a rule that grass can’t exceed 8 inches, McKinley said she feels she can now freely participate in No Mow May because she hasn’t faced any fines yet. 

She said her goal is to help the ecosystem.

“Even small things, like insects and rodents and things that are essential to life on Earth are greatly impacted by this loss of habitat,” McKinley said. “Without having tall grasses, wildflowers, things of that nature, they really struggle to survive.”

Elaine Sterrett Isely, the deputy director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, said No Mow May can prevent stormwater runoff and challenge people’s views of a typical lawn.

She said when people cut their grass short, it doesn’t absorb water as well as native plants and grasses which have deeper roots. Mowed lawns let rainwater just run off and pick up pollutants, like fertilizers, along the way. 

Isely talked to her landscaper about planting clover in her lawn as an alternative grass. Her landscaper said clover is seen as weed and didn’t recommend planting it. 

No Mow May might also cause disagreements with neighbors who prefer a manicured lawn.

“It’s hard to break some of these traditional notions, but something like No Mow May helps with that and helps keep it as part of the conversation,” Isely said. “As more and more people do it, then maybe it will start to seem less strange to people and more people will take it up.”

She said however, just avoiding mowing your lawn in May isn’t going to promote pollinators as much as planting native grasses and plants. 

“We think about these types of (environmental initiatives) in spurts,” Isely said. “But every day is Earth Day. (The council) thinks about the planet every day and maybe we’ll have less need for these specialty movements.”

Dave Putt, the vice president of the Rochester Hills-based Wildflower Association of Michigan, said he’s “not really a fan” of No Mow May for this reason.  

Even if people let their grass grow in May, previous herbicide and pesticide treatments will prevent  beneficial insects from living in the lawn, he said. A majority of Michigan’s native bees live underground.

Putt recommends that people observe “No Mow April” instead, because the ground needs to warm up before disturbing the insects that burrow underground.

He said alternatives to No Mow May include planting native trees and shrubs and cutting grass a little higher as “protection” for underground pollinators.

“Not disturbing your lawn or your flower beds allows these beneficial insects to fully develop and release themselves when the time is right,” Putt said.

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