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No mow May - let the grass grow

Updated: May 29

A path mown in long grass
path cut into the long grass at Sissinghurst

The expert grounds people at Wimbledon will tell us that the optiumum height for grass on those hallowed courts is 8mm. That's quite precise. There are those among us who are similarly fastidious about mowing and cultivating a clipped green carpet in their private gardens - not a single weed tolerated or a blade of grass out of place. If that's your approach, no mow May may not be for you...

However, if you knew that letting your lawn (or even a section of it) grow long could contribute to reducing pollution, increase vital pollinators and even reduce your carbon footprint, would you consider giving it a go?

A lawn with mown paths and long grass
My no-mow beginnings

A couple of years ago I decided to let the grass grow in my garden. I can't remember how conscious this decision was, but I do remember mowing the lawn (whether this was the edges of my long grass patch I can't remember) and looking in the hopper to find half a slow worm, dead. I felt incredibly guilty and very sad. This creature had been living quite happily in the longer grass, and I had killed it purely in the name of neatness. So I decided that I would designate a patch that would be long. Since then I have mown around the edges of this long grass patch, purely to make the management of my borders easier and prevent the grass merging with my flower beds.

The path to my studio through the long grass is not mown. The way through the grass has been made by my frequent commute to and fro. The name for a trail made by creatures through grass where there is no path is called a 'desire line', a name which I find quite apt for the walk to my studio.

This is only my second year of no-mowing, and the grass has grown above knee-height in places. The 'lawn' is now made up of a number of different kinds of grasses, Dandelions and creeping buttercup amongst others. In the summer I love walking barefoot to my studio through the long grass, bringing with it memories of wild meadows and the wild garden areas of my childhood. It adds a texture and movement to a space that would ordinarily just be a flat expanse of green. (Thankfully, my son is not keen on football and the long grass deters his football loving friends from playing football in my garden).

With around 87% of households in the UK lucky enough to own a garden, residential green spaces in the UK make up around 433,000 - about the size of Wales. If all garden-owners were mindful of how their garden benefitted the environment it could make an enormous difference.

A butterfly on wildflowers in the lawn
Moths and butterflies love wildflowers

7 ways no-mow May helps gardens (and gardeners)

  1. Long lawns use less water. In recent years water shortages have become more common and a short lawn will dry out and go brown quickly. Sustainable gardening practices include using plants and techniques that naturally require less water; letting the grass grow longer means the lawn will survive better for longer without you having to water it, the long grass acting as a barrier to prevent moisture loss from the ground.

  2. Attract pollinators. There has been a steady decrease in the number of pollinators across the world in the last few decades, largely due to pesticide use, but also due to the decrease in native wildflowers. Solitary bees, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and moths are just some of the important garden pollinators we attract when we let the grass grow.

  3. Use less energy. By that I don't just mean you using less energy by not having to mow the lawn on a regular basis, but also less energy used by the lawnmower, whether it uses electricity or petrol.

  4. Prevent pests - some of the pollinators you attract to the garden will also naturally feed on the pests such as aphids in the garden, reducing the need for pesticides or more work by the gardener.

  5. You won't just attract more insects and pollinators. Creatures like slow worms thrive in areas that are left untouched by humans, like long grass. These reptiles are a protected species, and I have certainly noticed an increase in slow worms in my garden since I let the grass grow. Slow worms feed on slugs and snails, a natural way to reduce the number of pests in the garden.

  6. Growing the grass long reduces your carbon footprint - grassland has the potential to lock away carbon from the atmosphere. As plants grow and evolve carbon is carried down into the plants roots, locking it underground for use by a diverse range of microorganisms.

  7. It makes you feel really good. That lush green grass can give us positive sensory experiences, triggering the release of mood-boosting chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.

There is a lovely TED talk by Rebecca McMackin, an ecological horticulturist based in the US.

She says of our gardening habits 'the more we can stop being tidy, the more wildness we bring into our gardens and landscapes, the better habitat we provide. Wherever possible, we should stop mowing. Why not get rid of your lawn? Lawns should be area rugs, not wall-to-wall carpet.... Part of this work is about changing our idea of beauty'.

Just a quick extra note on 'No Mow May'. If you're going to commit to no-mow May, see if you can stick it out until 'too-soon June', and if you can do that, perhaps you can eke it out into 'knee high July'. All those lovely insects and other creatures that have found a home in your grass in May will suddenly lose their habitat if all the grass is gone in June. If you can, leave even a small area as meadow for as long as possible, and each September cut back by 70% leaving 30% of it to overwinter and into spring the following year. This provides shelter for over-wintering beetles and foraging ground for garden birds.

A floral deckchair in long grass in a garden
Deckchair in the long grass

I live on a residential street in an urban area in Kent, UK, but I was lucky enough to grow up with a garden which had space for some wild and natural areas. Letting my grass grow has the added benefit for me of connecting with memories of that other childhood garden a little bit. Bringing the wildness to my urban garden gives me a great sense of calm and tranquillity, as I sip my tea from my deckchair in the long grass, listening to the bees hum and the birds sing as the flowers grow.

I'm going to end with part of a poem by the brilliant Mary Oliver:

Let the grass spring up tall, let its roots sing

And the seeds begin their scattering.

Let the noise of the mower be banished, hurrah!

Let the path become where I choose to walk, and not otherwise established.

'On not mowing the lawn', Mary Oliver from "Blue Horses"

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