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From: Jon Koplik4/28/2023 4:35:06 PM
   of 139
WSJ -- Some say a break from grass cutting helps nature -- others abhor ...................


April 28, 2023

Neighbors Fight Over No Mow May: ‘What in the World Is Happening in This Place?’

Some say a break from grass cutting helps nature -- others abhor the ‘shaggy raggy’ look

By James R. Hagerty

As May 1 looms, Americans face a complicated moral choice: Whether to mow their lawns.

Scores of U.S. cities and towns are embracing a British movement called No Mow May, whose supporters refrain from cutting their grass during that month. The goal is to allow more flowering plants to thrive, and provide nectar and pollen to nourish bees and other pollinators, vital parts of the food chain.

No Mow May has been promoted by the British charity Plantlife over the past four years and is gaining ground in other countries. The project stirs warm and buzzy feelings in many homeowners’ hearts. “Pardon the weeds! We’re feeding the bees!” declare cheerful signs popping up in meadow-like yards.

Yet No Mow May puts bees in the bonnets of other people. Opponents question the science behind No Mow May, deplore what they see as a sloppy look and even suggest it’s just an excuse for laziness.

It’s the ultimate grassroots issue. “Even lawns have become politicized these days,” said Israel Del Toro, a member of the city council in Appleton, Wis., who supports No Mow May.

Sheri Hartzheim, another member of that council, opposes No Mow May and wants Appleton authorities to enforce an ordinance requiring grass to be cut to no more than 8 inches. She abhors the “shaggy raggy” appearance of some lawns. “Visitors will see us in May and wonder, ‘What in the world is happening in this place?’” she said.

In St. Peter, Minn., last year’s No Mow May led to sightings of more woodchucks, raccoons and snakes, said the city administrator, Todd Prafke. Some people, startled by those snakes in the grass, call the police to report them.

Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware professor who has a Ph.D. in entomology, sympathizes with the sentiments behind No Mow May. He describes the typical American lawn as an “ecological dead zone” and has called for turning half of all lawns on private property in the U.S. into natural havens for bees, other insects and animals.

Dr. Tallamy sees little logic in letting lawns grow longer for a few weeks. If people simply let their grass grow for a month and then revert to a clipped green monoculture, they are teasing pollinators with short-term snacks followed by starvation, he said. A nonprofit he co-founded, Homegrown National Park, urges homeowners to reduce space devoted to regularly clipped grass, add native plants and remove invasive ones.

“What I’m talking about works,” said Dr. Tallamy, who reports having found 1,199 species of moths on his 10-acre property. He has been delighted to encounter predatory stink bugs, horrid zale moths and spun glass caterpillars.

Those who follow Dr. Tallamy’s advice risk blowback, however.

Frank Swift, a retired lawyer in Jacksonville, Ark., turned more than half of his 5-acre property into a natural habitat. Most of his neighbors, he said, “not only don’t object but they send their kids over to fish in my pond and collect bugs in my meadow.” One neighbor publicly objected, however, and Mr. Swift began receiving citations from the city, ordering him to mow.

Mr. Swift hired a lawyer and fought back. In October, a county judge ruled that the city’s lawn ordinance didn’t apply to his cultivated meadow.

A year ago, Jack Trimper let the grass grow around his home in Arbutus, Md., to avoid disturbing buttercups and clover. “I don’t like to cut anything that has food for bees,” said the retired teacher, now an artist and poet. “My neighbor didn’t like the idea, put in a complaint and then life got real complicated.”

Baltimore County threatened to fine him $100. A lawyer, Carl R. Gold, volunteered to help. Mr. Gold argued that the county’s height limit on grass conflicted with a state law barring “unreasonable limitations” on environmentally friendly landscaping. After May, Mr. Trimper trimmed his lawn. The county dismissed its charges against him.

LeighAnn Ferrara’s yard in White Plains, N.Y., is a mosaic of aster, native roses, blueberries, milkweed and monarda. Bees make a beeline for the anise hyssop, she said: “Oh, my God, it’s crazy. It’s just buzzing so loud.”

Most neighbors appreciate her unruly plot, she said. “One neighbor asked me, ‘Are you going to clean anything up?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’”

If the city council’s agenda is any guide, mowing is one of the hottest political topics in Appleton, Wis., this spring. At a recent meeting of the municipal-services committee of the Appleton council, discussion of No Mow May took up 66 minutes of a 71-minute gathering. Debate can veer deeply into the weeds, such as when members speculated about the ideal height of grass for nurturing dandelions.

One council member, Chad Doran, proposed to resume May enforcement of lawn length. The no-mow policy “has no scientific basis behind it,” he said.

Mr. Doran disputed findings of a scientific paper co-written by another member of the council, Dr. Del Toro, an associate professor of biology at Lawrence University. That paper, published in a journal known as PeerJ, found more pollinators in yards of people participating in No Mow May. It was retracted last November because of what the journal described as “potential inconsistencies in data handling and reporting.”

Dr. Del Toro said the basic findings of the paper were sound but he has improved his methodology and expects to publish a revised version. For the initial paper, he said, he identified live bees while they were trapped in nets. To improve identification, later research involved killing some of the bees and examining them in a lab.

His co-author on the paper, Relena R. Ribbons, accused opponents of No Mow May of bullying her by questioning her scientific integrity. “There’s no space for that in Appleton,” she said. “We’re not that kind of community.”

Vered Meltzer, another member of the council, said No Mow May gives people the opportunity to “explore different practices” in their yards. “Every time you go in there with your mower, you are destroying the worlds that these creatures live in, and you are destroying the only food they have as they emerge from the winter,” he said.

The committee voted 4-to-1 to continue supporting No Mow May.

In St. Peter, Minn., meanwhile, Mr. Prafke said he won’t participate this year in that town’s No Mow May project. He tried last year, he said, but “by the second week in May the grass was so tall, already 8 to 10 inches, that I would have needed a large tractor at the end of month to mow it.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at

Copyright © 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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