A honey bee tangled in strand of spider web on a milk weed. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine —  With spring now firmly upon us, it’s tempting to get out and mow. But the city of Rockland is encouraging residents to keep their mower stowed away — at least for the month of May.

The Rockland City Council recently endorsed an initiative called “No Mow May,” an effort to pause mowing during the month of May so pollinators ― like bees ― will have an opportunity to feast on the dandelions and other wildflowers that grow in our yards.

It’s a small effort to help the local ecosystem and the environment more broadly.

“It’s something positive we can do that is pretty easy, to refrain from mowing. By doing less work we’re actually doing something good,” said Susan Beebe, a Rockland artist and self taught naturalist who cares for a public garden and park near the city’s waterfront.

The “Now Mow May” initiative was started by an organization in the U.K. in 2019 and communities in the U.S. have since adopted the initiative as well, according to a recent New York Times story.  Rockland might be the first municipality in Maine to have formally adopted the “No Mow May” concept.

While the awareness-raising initiative was only launched within the last few years, limiting when and how frequently lawns are mowed has been touted as a conservation-based landscaping practice going back at least 20 years, according to Rebecca Jacobs, program manager with the Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District.

The basic premise behind “No Mow May” is that by letting lawns ― and the flowering plants within them ― go uncut for a month, it gives pollinators access to pollen and nectar sources early in the growing season.  

“By allowing that four-week period for all the rest of the plants that are growing to sort of catch up and grow and start to bloom, you’re just giving the ground nesting bees, the native [and] non-native bees a huge head start for the rest of the season for success in breeding and pollinating and cross pollinating all of these plants that we reap the benefits of in a myriad of ways,” Jacobs said.

In addition to refraining from mowing for the month of May, Jacobs said it’s also ideal if folks can wait until it’s consistently 50 degrees outside before doing other spring clean-up activities, like raking or cleaning out garden beds.

Pollinating insects and animals ― such as birds ― play a critical role in ecosystems. About three-fourths of flowering plants depend on pollinating species, as well as 35 percent of the world’s food crops, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But populations of pollinators have been on the decline due to habitat loss, disease and environmental contaminants.

“We’re essentially exacerbating the problem and so this is one simple way in your own yard in your own property to help improve this global decline,” Jacobs said.

Beebe has seen the benefits that incorporating native plants and cutting back on mowing can have on pollinator populations within Gilbert and Adams Central Park, the city park she has volunteered to take care of for the last 12 years.

In the six years since she convinced the city to stop mowing a portion of the park where milkweed ― the only source of food for monarch butterflies  ―  grows, a meadow-like area has taken shape. This has resulted in an increase in the different species of bees, butterflies as well as birds, that Beebe has seen within the park.

“There’s definitely a lot more life in the park since I’ve been allowing that bank to grow up and since I’ve been planting more native plants,” Beebe said.

As a result of the “No Mow May” initiative being passed unanimously by the Rockland City Council Monday night, the city itself will also cut back on the mowing it typically does during the month of May. Small portions of two city parks will be left unmowed, as well as the majority of a vacant city-owned lot on Rockland Street. The uncut portions of the parks will be away from where the public typically gathers, so as not to cause issues with less desirable insects, like ticks.

The city will also be tilling up a portion of grass at city hall to plant wild and native flowers to create a pollinator garden.

Participating in “No Mow May” is not mandatory for Rockland residents. But Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis ― who sponsored the resolve ―  is working with a local resident to get yard signs made for those who choose to participate.

Davis said he’s also interested in the other environmental benefits that come along with refraining from mowing our lawns ― such as using less gasoline to power mowers.

“It’s been known for a long time that what used to be an American ideal of an expansive short cropped green lawn is not necessarily the most environmentally sustainable way to manage one’s properties,” Davis said.