No Mow May
Updated: Aug 23
We received a call last week from Elle’s father. He was in a state of nervous fury. He had stepped out of his back door and seen his neighbour mowing their lawn. He had stomped over, fixed a stern expression on his face, and gave him a piece of his mind:
“You can’t do that!” he had shouted across the dividing hedge. “No mowing! It’s No Mow May!”
Apparently, his neighbour promptly stopped mowing and said he’d leave it to grow for a little longer. We can only imagine this change of heart had more to do with being aggressively scolded than being suddenly convinced by the cause.
So, what is No Mow May?
No Mow May, as well as the Every Flower Counts survey for which it was originally proposed, is run by Plantlife, a British conservation charity that works to protect and restore wild flowers, plants and fungi.
Since the 1930s, we have lost 97% (or 7.5 million acres) of our wildflower meadows in Britain. The scale of this loss is bewildering, but Dr Trevor Dines, Botanical Specialist at Plantlife, puts this into perspective: the amount of lost meadowland in the UK is equal to 1.5x the size of Wales…
This loss has had massive implications on both wildflower diversity in this country and on the populations of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The fortunes of these two are interlinked: if bee and butterfly populations decline, this has an impact on the vitality of wildflower habitats, which in-turn impacts the availability of nectar for pollinators. It is a sad cycle, but it is one that Plantlife campaign to break.
No Mow May asks gardeners to leave their lawns uncut for the whole month, providing an important source of nectar for pollinators and precious habitats for rarer wildflowers. There are approximately 23 million gardens in Britain, totaling more than 1 million acres, and by encouraging gardeners to leave their lawns unmown through May (and beyond), the No Mow May campaign hopes to repair some of the damage that has been done to our wildflower numbers, and therefore protect our pollinator populations.
At the end of May, we are invited to take part in the Every Flower Counts survey, a citizen science activity (like the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and The Big Butterfly Count) that allows Plantlife to calculate a National Nectar Index to see the benefit British lawns have for bees and butterflies, and track trends over time.
It is more of a challenge to let your garden run wild if you live in an urban or suburban area than it is for those with more space in the English countryside. Cow parsley and buttercups may look quaint on the edges of a cottage garden, but on a housing estate it’s likely to incite gossip. And nobody likes being gossiped about.
Nevertheless, the cause is a good one, so this year we decided to register, and the garden has been growing wildly ever since. At first things just looked untidy, but after nearly a month, our little wilderness has acquired a strange kind of beauty. Not that everyone seems to think so: those who have seen our garden in the last week have been a little taken aback by just how wild it all looks. But we have come to love our uncut garden, and it has been amazing to see just what a difference it has made to what has been growing and visiting the garden.
We have waist-high thistles, and the nettles (those that didn’t end-up in the cooking pot) are growing freely attracting the butterflies. We don’t actually have much lawn space in our garden – we have given over most of our lawn to vegetable beds – so the wildness is mostly limited to the spaces between the raised bed and areas besides the path, as well as a ‘wild corner’ beneath the elder.
Our cottage-garden inspired path is now framed by a dappling of common daisies. When we first put down the curving path we had imagined the small red stones being covered in daisies, but had imagined we’d have to plant them: now the daisies have come to us instead. Further away from the path, where our feet less regularly tread, the grass is much longer.
The tall grass around the base of the plum tree has gone to seed, and the gently waving sea of grass has proved a hit with the birds. From our backdoor windows we watch the robins, wrens, blue tits, blackbirds and starlings playing in the long grass, pecking at the seeds. We have even had goldfinches. A common enough sight in the countryside, but this was the first we had seen here on our housing estate.
We’ve also seen greater diversity in the wildflowers in the garden. The dandelions were – of course – the first to make an appearance, followed by the daisies. But now we have cat's-ear too, and our favourite addition has been the beautiful cobalt-blue-and-yellow forget-me-nots growing under the elder and along the path: a wildflower no one could claim is unsightly!
Perhaps the most interesting addition to the garden has been the bees. After only a few weeks of unkept lawn we noticed that our bumblebee population was increasing, and rapidly. Was this really just because we were letting the lawn grow freely? Partly, perhaps. But it seems there has been a more significant reason of these fuzzy pollinators. Our compost heap, that we designed roughly in the shape of a bee hive, has actually now become what it imitated. We can proudly say that we have our very own a bee nest in the garden – evidence that we are doing the right thing in our small suburban garden.
Elsewhere on the housing estate, things haven’t been quite as wild: the local council doesn’t seem to have much time for No Mow May. After a lull last year during full lockdown, 2021 has seen a resurgence of frenzied council mowing, and most weeks we can hear the distant hum of a council tax-funded lawnmower somewhere in the not-to-far distance. Hopefully they can learn a lesson from our other nearby councils, in more rural parts of the county, who seem to let the hedgerows and roadsides grow wild enough for a while, cutting back only once the growth obstructs visibility on the roads. Just a week or so ago we walked to Great Barton church, which lay anchored in an ocean of swaying cow parsley that surged up against the churchyard’s tall flint walls.
So, whether you have taken part in No Mow May, or your council are letting the road verges get a little longer, make time to enjoy these wild moments before they are mown back. Our lawn will receive a light trim as we ease into June to reclaim a bit of space, but even in this small suburban garden we will be leaving some areas unkept to provide food for our bees, and for the satisfaction of welcoming a bit of natural wildness back into our little plot.