Berkshire Garden Style • Nonbinary Lawn Care: an official introduction to the Berkshire lawn
How did your No Mow May go? And what is the purpose of a lawn, anyway?
This month, I want to think about nonbinary lawn care. Think of this as an official introduction to the Berkshire lawn. “Nonbinary” is commonly associated with gender neutrality or fluidity, a way for individuals to identify as something other society’s restrictive options of either “male” or “female.” I want to take the term at face value and think about nonbinary as a philosophy. I’m going to use it in the context of lawn care but I’m thinking about it in the big picture, in my horticulture and design practice as well as in my life.
What does nonbinary mean? It suggests that there are more options to consider than two polar opposites: this or that, yes or no, black or white, good/bad, never/always, pro/con. Humans tend to think in binary because they want answers. People often ask me: Do I mow my lawn or not? Do I mulch my garden or not? How often do I water? Every day? Every week? How often do I mow? When teaching classes in horticulture and design, I am often faced with questions that I can’t answer with an easy yes or no, always or never. So at the beginning of No Mow May, when faced with the question of whether people should mow their lawn or not, my answer was: it depends.
Let’s take a look at when, where, and why No Mow May was born. In 2019 Plantlife, an organization working throughout the United Kingdom to save wild flowers, plants, and fungi, created No Mow May as a campaign for homeowners. Keep mowers off throughout the month in order to let wildflowers bloom and to provide a “feast of nectar for our hungry pollinators,” Plantlife urged, because plants need pollinators and pollinators need plants and May was an opportunity to give them a boost. And so, No Mow May took off as an easy way for citizens to take an active role – or maybe inactive role is more appropriate – in helping restore meadow plants that pollinators rely on and that have been diminishing in recent years. A simple action, when done collectively, can have a great impact.
A survey completed after the 2020 No Mo May in the U.K. revealed that over 200 species were flowering in lawns, and that 80% of the lawns of the participants supported the equivalent of about 400 bees a day from nectar sugar produced by flowers in the lawn. Some lawns, dubbed “super lawns,” were found to support ten times that – up to 4,000 bees a day. A 2020 study of participating No Mow May lawns in Wisconsin showed that by leaving the lawns untouched for May, “not only were the abundance and richness of bees higher in the yards of properties participating in No Mow May, but they were way higher. Participating yards had three-times higher bee species richness and five-times higher bee abundance than nearby parks that had been mowed.”
It’s no wonder the trend has spread, especially to regions like the Berkshires, where people care deeply about the fate of the planet but often feel powerless to do much about it. What was once viewed as negligence now belongs in the realm of activism – tall, rangy lawns aren’t the mark of lazy homeowners, but of conscientious ones. There are really many good reasons to not mow. Plus, nobody’s complaining about missing the drone of neighborhood mowers.
Letting the lawn grow tall and wild challenges our idea of what a lawn is “supposed to be.” Is it supposed to be a neat and tidy carpet of grass? People often ask about how to “control” Creeping Charlie, also known as ground ivy – the low-growing, scallop-leaved, vine-like plant with delicate purple flowers that thrives in an unmowed lawn. Word has gotten out that Creeping Charlie is a weed, that it “takes over,” and some people have been conditioned to remove anything that isn’t native in our lawns and gardens (even though the grass in our lawns is non-native!). Sometimes, it’s the same very well-meaning people who both want to support pollinators through actions like No Mow May and who also want to remove plants like Creeping Charlie, because they have been conditioned that 1) No Mo May is a must and 2) non-native plants are bad. But you know who really gave Creeping Charlie its bad rap? People who like perfectly manicured lawns! Otherwise, is it a problem? Not really. In fact, letting those little purple flowers do their thing is one way to support pollinators. Creeping Charlie is actually an indicator of a lawn that hasn’t been heavily messed with.
Which brings me back to our theme. What is a lawn “supposed to be?” A Berkshire lawn consists of a complex community of plants, which reflects the biology and the geology of that place. A Berkshire lawn can be soft; it can be floriferous. A Berkshire lawn can be a place to picnic or contemplate. A place to find a four-leaf clover. A Berkshire lawn may be the foreground or the backdrop to a garden. It may even be the centerpiece. It is a stage for flowers and furry friends. A source of snacks like wild strawberries. A place for medicine like Broadleaf Plantain (immediately after receiving a bee sting, pluck a leaf, chew it up and put that poultice on the sting with a Band-Aid; it will help with the itchiness and swelling). A place, rich with the scent of thyme, for nostalgia. A Berkshire lawn is not beholden to the lawnmower. What it is and what it should be depends. Really, it depends on you. And if you’ve been reading past blog posts, you know that I’m a proponent of people being a part of the landscape, and so I say, yes, pay attention to the science telling us about the benefits of not mowing, but also trust your instinct, your needs, and your desires.
Be observant about what those plants are doing on your land. It’s okay to mow a swath through your late-May jungle of a lawn so that you can walk to your compost pile without getting soaked up to the knees. And if your tall, pollinator-friendly lawn is keeping your kid from wanting to play outside, well, that’s a little counter-productive, isn’t it? If you feel like by May 20th your flowers have been flowering long enough, that trees and plants in the garden are starting to flower and can carry the burden of supplying nectar – well, that’s reasonable! What I’m saying is, there are many many good reasons to not mow, but there are also many good reasons to reject polarized thinking, that it has to be all or nothing. Each garden or lawn is its own creature, and everything depends on everything else (including you), so in order to answer questions like this we need to look closely at each situation. What is the soil like? What kind of spring has it been? What are this particular plant’s needs? What’s even growing in your lawn and what do they provide? Are there a lot? Too few? Do all the plants benefit from being unmowed for weeks on end? And if left to grow, who do they benefit? What is their role? When someone asks me whether or not they should mow their lawn, these are the counter questions that run through my head.
Nonbinary gardening – resisting binary thinking when it comes to plant care – has been instilled in me by the plantspeople I’ve learned from. First to come to mind is Dave Burdick, my friend and one of my Horticultural Heroes, a longtime Berkshire gardener with whom I’ve studied at Berkshire Botanical Garden (BBG). He loves to quote Roy Boutard (the director of BBG from 1955-1985), who used to always say, “T’ain’t necessarily so.” This phrase has stuck with me, and I reiterate it to my hard-working staff when they ask me questions like, “These clients mowed their lawn last May, shouldn’t they do it this year?” Or, “Do I always need to water deeply when I plant something?” Barbara Bockbrader, my longtime mentor and first and foremost Horticultural Hero, always said that you haven’t really grown a plant until you’ve killed it a couple of times. I’ve interpreted this to mean is, we learn a lot when we do something wrong, and oftentimes we do something wrong because we’re following a set of rules we’ve come to accept as the way: using this potting mix, or watering a certain amount, or always filling a container to a certain level with soil. When a plant doesn’t survive, that’s when we learn that we’ve been overwatering, or that a certain plant’s crown really needs to be set more or less deeply. But I thought a plant’s crown should always be flush with soil level, says a burgeoning gardener eager to get it right. Well, t’ain’t necessarily so. Thanks to my Heroes, I’ve never considered gardening and plant care as mechanical or even systematic – plants are alive and all are different and what works for one on one day won’t work for it next month and never works for most others. This philosophy, and the kind of attentive care it requires, bleeds out into my life in so many other ways. Resisting binarism and attempting to be perceptive at every moment is a philosophy for life, not just for gardening.
Consider the results of the lawns surveyed in England after the first official No Mow May. Plantlife found that having two lengths of grass was actually most beneficial to diversity and pollinators. This is because flowering habits depend on each plant. Some plants, when mowed regularly, will adapt to being shorter and will still flower. And they will actually produce more flowers. And then, some plants need to be left untouched because they will only flower once they’ve gotten tall enough. Having two lengths of lawn allows for maximum flowers and most diversity. And the study done in the U.S. found that “bee abundance increased when lawns were mown every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns (mainly dandelions and clover), and increased bee diversity—yet lowered overall bee abundance versus the every-other-week strategy.” The researchers hypothesized that not mowing for longer periods of time ultimately resulted in more flowers, but the grasses competed with them, growing tall around the flowers and obscuring them. So, it’s complicated!
The Cast of the Berkshire Lawn
These are some plants I encounter in a Berkshire lawn and sometimes celebrate. They are natives; they are invasives; they are plants. They mostly do well in a Berkshire lawn because their foliage is relatively low growing and they bloom early. Are they good? Are they bad? Or are they just simply some of our plant friends?
Orange and Yellow Hawkweed
The grasses! Someday I’ll learn those.
Finally, it’s June. I write this in June as the air is scented by the blossoms of black locust, dames rocket, the late lilacs, and the mystery umbel (cow parsley?) lining the roads of the Berkshires. It’s such a rich, lush time of year. I’d love to leave off with this poem by James Russell Lowell. Barbara shared this poem with me years ago as a birthday gift and she would always quote the first line when we were working together on a fine June day - "And what is so rare as a day in June?". I think it encapsulates the fleeting perfection and the “flush of life” we experience at this time of year.
What is So Rare As A Day In June
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
'Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!
Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
'Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
'Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season's youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep 'neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.