Growing environmental movement now has local roots – The Daily Gazette

SARATOGA COUNTY – Some local lawns may be looking a little more scruffy this month. That’s because Sustainable Saratoga launched a No Mow May initiative, urging residents not to mow the grass until June to provide more food for important pollinators like bees and butterflies.

For some homeowners, used to lawns being neat green carpets, the idea of ​​letting the grass grow may seem unthinkable. But proponents see No Mow May as a simple lift – after all, not mowing your lawn is easier than mowing it – with huge environmental benefits. In Midwestern communities where No Mow May has been practiced since 2020, pollinator populations are increasing. And as government agencies reassess their mowing methods, there may soon come a time when we all get used to seeing long grass dotted with wildflowers.

Marge McShane didn’t need convincing to attend Saratoga County’s No Mow May initiative this year. With the help of a professional landscaper, the nine-year-old Stillwater resident was already creating a “lasagna garden,” where the grass was covered with cardboard, covered with compost, and planted. McShane said the idea is to let natural plants take up the entire front yard so she doesn’t have to mow or use pesticides.

“Contributing usually consists of individuals doing individual things. So the idea that we are all going to change the world or stop global warming really comes down to individual choices. It’s our individual decision,” McShane said.

McShane’s lawn, in stark contrast to her neighbor’s bright green grass fringed with sharp mowing marks, could serve as a poster lawn for No Mow May. For now, it simply features Saratoga’s unique No Mow May sign.

A head start

Saratoga’s initiative is part of a nationwide movement that began in the United Kingdom in 2019 before arriving in Appleton, Wisconsin in 2020 and then spreading to that state, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.

Participating communities in the Midwest have seen significant increases in their pollinator populations. In Appleton, where 435 households participated in 2020, unmowed lawns saw five times as many bees and three times as many bee species, according to a study compiled by Lawrence University scientists.

Not mowing in May gives pollinators wintering underground an important first meal of spring, whether from dandelions, clover or other sources, proponents say.

This strong start to the season is helping pollinator populations that are in decline around the world. A 2017 study published by the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than half of bee species are in decline, with a quarter of those species facing a crisis due in part to habitat loss.

Pollinators are essential to ecological function, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Of the 1,400 crops grown worldwide, which produce all of our food and industrial vegetable products, nearly 80% require pollination by animals,” according to the US Department of Agriculture’s pollination website. “Visits from bees and other pollinators also result in larger, tastier fruit and higher crop yields.”

Pollination of agricultural crops in the United States is estimated at $10 billion annually, according to the USDA.

All of these factors contribute to why it made sense for Sustainable Saratoga to bring No Mow May to the region, said Wendy Mahaney, the organization’s executive director.

Locally, the program took off quickly with the help of volunteers like Paul Murphy, who spread the word and handed out signs designed by a Skidmore College intern.

“People know we have a problem, but they don’t always know what to do about it,” Murphy said. “It’s a way to get them thinking about actions they can take individually.”

So far, Murphy, Mahaney and others have placed about 100 signs across the county. But the effort this inaugural year is really about advocacy, Mahaney said.

“The goal for this year is to raise awareness of why you might want to do it and the benefits of doing it, and then build on that every year,” she said.

In the future, we hope to see broader adoption, making No Mow May a standard practice in the region, Mahaney said.

change habits

Others hope No Mow May is a step towards completely rethinking the way people tend lawns.

“For us, No Mow May is just the first step,” said Matthew Shepherd, director of outreach and education at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which sponsors No Mow May through its Bee City USA initiative. “We’d love to see people go beyond that and think about what else they can do. Can you leave part of your lawn all year round? Can you have a meadow?”

Getting municipalities and government agencies to change their mowing practices will go a long way in creating more habitat for pollinators, proponents say.

In fact, mowing practices have already changed on public lands throughout New York State. For example, the state Department of Transportation’s mowing guidelines encourage maintenance groups to look for ways to reduce mowing and change where possible. Altered mowing has occurred in Rochester, Buffalo, Utica and Poughkeepsie and is increasing, according to New York State’s Pollinator Conservation Plan.

In addition, the New York State Thruway Authority is looking for places to create meadows, with a goal of creating 20 acres of meadows in one year, per the pollinator plan.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation supports No Mow May and other limited mowing initiatives.

“Less mowing the lawn allows some flowering plants to flourish and benefits pollinators. In larger landscapes, field-nesting birds are typically in nests in May and June, so postponing mowing for as long as possible can allow for successful breeding and avoid nest failure,” a DEC spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “Reduced mowing can also help create or maintain plants and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, save energy, reduce emissions, and perhaps conserve water.”

Saratoga City Councilor Maxine Lautenberg begins the conversation on the spot. She’s meeting with another council member and the city’s Highway Superintendent this week to discuss mowing practices and No Mow May.

“It’s a really easy lift for me. This is a super light lift for something that can actually do some good,” Lautenberg said. “It really seems like a pretty benevolent, benign way to have some sort of environmental impact on the city.”

Saratoga City Highway Superintendent Don Ormsby said he was willing to work with Lautenberg and the city government on possible changes to mowing practices on the 60 miles of roadside that he and a crew of six workers with two mowers are maintaining.

Still, Ormsby said he had some reservations. One concern is that not mowing for a full month could leave his crew behind in June when the extra long grass would require more mowing time.

Additionally, Ormsby said that mowing along roadsides — where it’s common practice to mow back typically about 15 to 20 feet depending on the area — is really about safety.

“It’s a line of sight issue. If the grass is too long, you may not see people or cars coming down the road,” Ormsby said. “It’s just a security issue.”

Still, Ormsby said he’s open to the idea of ​​No Mow May in some ways and in some places, and he said residents are welcome to tend their weed – or not – as they see fit.

Getting residents to support the limited mowing might actually be easier than the rows of manicured lawns across the county suggest. Lawrence Yaw makes his money in landscaping as the owner of Lawn Monsterz. However, Yaw said he was trying to get his clients in Clifton Park and Halfmoon to redefine the way they view their lawn.

Rather than spending thousands of dollars a year tending 3 inches of grass, Yaw often talks to clients about planting orchards and vegetable gardens on a portion of their land. He said clients could still use his services, but he would specialize in tending gardens rather than spraying pesticides and cutting grass.

But Yaw says many customers simply laugh when he brings up the garden idea.

“Instead, people prefer a green carpet,” Yaw said. “People are stuck in their ways. We are programmed to have a green lawn.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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