Granite Geek: Pollinators or pristine lawn, the decision is getting complicated

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 09-11-2023 5:30 PM

I have a confession to make: I really like the look of a mowed lawn. But I’m trying to kick the habit.

I know the classic suburban lawn has the ecological value of a parking lot, that the model of a weekly-mowed monoculture contributes to the alarming decline of butterflies and wild bees and other pollen-spreading beasts, and that keeping our yards pristine wastes water, fertilizer, time and fuel for noisy machines. Messy is better when it comes to ecosystems, even small ones.

But when I do get around to mowing my yard, reducing my haphazard non-monoculture to a level height, I think it looks a lot better. I’m not sure if this is because of my suburbia upbringing or some ancestral memory of the East African plains where humanity evolved, but I’m definitely not alone.

“People like their lawns. I totally get it,” said Dr. Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, who admits to kind of enjoying cutting the grass. “You start something, you finish something, you get to see the result. It’s satisfying.”

But she, like most ecologists, knows that we have overdone our worship of flat, green spaces surrounding our homes and would like to see us dial it back.

Lerman knows because she led a 2018 study about the frequency of law cutting. She and other researchers cut the laws of 16 homes around Springfield, Mass. on three schedules – weekly, every other week, every three weeks – and then studied the results for plants and bugs. They found that waiting two weeks to mow instead of doing it weekly resulted in a significantly higher pollinator abundance but that waiting three weeks didn’t improve it mostly because a lot of our natural pollinators are tiny, as small as a grain of rice,  and tall grass can hide small flowers.

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The study also confirmed people’s preferences for their surroundings, if confirmation was needed.

“When we’d come to the house after three weeks, the householder would run to our car while we were still getting the mower out, saying I’m so glad you’re here, my neighbors were getting upset and offering to come over and mow the lawn!” she recalled.

I thought of this research because of a story last week out of Somersworth via Foster’s Daily Democrat. It concerns a woman who has been ordered to cut her lawn since parts exceed the town ordinance height of 8 inches. The ordinance is taken from the International Property Management Code, a set of guidelines adopted in part by many communities.

This section of the code says “premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of (jurisdiction to insert height). Noxious weeds shall be prohibited. Weeds shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants or vegetation, other than trees or shrubs provided; however, this term shall not include cultivated flowers and gardens.”

Violators can be fined or, depending on the community, the town can cut your lawn and charge you for it.

Concord has also adopted this part of the code, setting a height limit of 10 inches. Code Administrator David Hall says he knows of no enforcement against any homes, and “only one issue with a business that was not maintaining their landscaping.  That issue was resolved with a letter.”

Note that this doesn’t cover private homeowner associations, which are infamous for their Draconian approach to making everybody’s lawn an interchangeable green mat.

A decade ago, the Somersworth argument would have been a slam dunk in favor of lawn-mowing but things have changed. There is growing concern about the decline in pollinators and increased awareness about our surroundings as the climate turns feral, while droughts out West are contributing to the anti-green-lawn trend.

You may have heard of “no-mow May,” a push to leave lawns alone for a month when many bugs are hungry from winter, and about creating “pollinator gardens” with a mix of local flowers, which are often not very showy and go under the general title of weeds, to attract native bugs.

Most people, however, still like the look of lawns consisting entirely of short grass of a single species that stays green in winter (meaning it’s probably not native here). They argue that this look preserves property values and keeps out ticks, rodents and weeds. Peel back the arguments, though, and you’ll find they’re based on “I like the way it looks.”

For their part, pollinator fans argue that we’ve gone way overboard in making our properties look pretty. We’ve turned vast swaths of America – NASA estimates lawns cover 49,000 square miles throughout the country, about five times the area of New Hampshire – into herbicide-laden wastelands. 

That argument is gaining sway. The state senate in Maine, for example, recently passed a law that seems to undermine town ordinances about grass height, saying communities cannot put “an unreasonable limitation on low-impact landscaping if the property owner owns or has the right to exclusive use of the property and maintains and regularly tends to the low-impact landscaping.” There are exceptions that I suspect will generate a lot of arguing.

For her part, Dr. Lerman is delighted with the new attention to lawn ecosystems but fears it can go overboard and generate too much pushback.

“For no-mow May, the intent is lovely but what I’ve heard it changing to ‘Oh no May’,” she said. “This summer with all the rain we’ve had, lawns are going crazy, and no-mow May kind of boxes everybody in.”

She argues for “reducing maintenance throughout the entire growing season” and increased tolerance for something other than Kentucky bluegrass or whatever commercial seed type you’ve spent big bucks on. Variety is the spice of ecosystems.

She also says that signs help. Putting up a “bee-friendly” notice or the like lets neighbors know you’re not a slob who avoids yardwork. You’re making an active choice for your property.

That argument is echoed by Donna Miller of Canterbury, a Master Gardener who serves on the Pollinator Garden Certification committee. She notes that the certification includes a number of conservation practices, some as simple as leaving clippings on your yard when you mow, but most are concerned with creating areas of plants favorable to native pollinators.

One possibility, Miller said, is mowing by stages – mow a bit this week, another bit next week and so on, so that it never looks entirely ragged but still leaves time for small flowers to grow amid the grass. Another is to tidy up the front yard but leave the back yard wild.

She’s even got a name for that last one: mullet gardening. “It’s business in the front, party in the back!”

That’s my new motto. I’m not mowing, I’m mulleting!

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