For many people in the United States, a well-manicured lawn is a point of pride and mowing is a weekly summer chore. It’s a place where families and friends gather for picnics and games of catch. But for some, this recreational space — or at least part of it — can serve a higher purpose for nature.
How? Simply, let it grow.
“I call it releasing a lawn,” said Heather McCargo, executive director of the Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit organization based in Maine that works to increase the use of native plants in the landscape.
An educator with 30 years of experience in plant propagation, landscape design and conservation, McCargo is an advocate for decreasing mowed lawn space in favor of flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees and wild, free-growing areas that are essentially miniature meadows. Her reasoning is purely environmental.
“Wildlife makes very little use of a lawn,” McCargo said. “So if you want to do a lot for nature, just reducing your lawn is a biggy.”
A typical lawn is made up of tough grasses, the majority of which were introduced to the U.S. from Europe long ago for grazing animals. Shorn on a regular basis, these grasses provide zero blossoms for pollinators to feed on and very little habitat. However, seeds are continually mixed into this turf by the wind, ants and birds, introducing other plant species. And when allowed to grow, this diversity becomes more evident. Native plants such as violets, pussytoes and wild strawberries often thrive in unmowed lawn spaces, mixing with common non-native species such as hawkweed and buttercups, all creating blooms that attract a variety of pollinators, from bees to butterflies, which in turn attract songbirds and a whole host of other animals.
“What’s amazing is the first couple of months you stop mowing, you’ll have stuff blooming and have more pollinators and birds right away popping in,” McCargo said.
Nathaniel Wheelwright, professor of biology at Bowdoin College, adopted this practice several years ago at his home in Brunswick. Co-author of “The Naturalist’s Notebook,” Wheelwright has observed and recorded nature all his life. Letting a part of his yard grow into a meadow is just one way he has increased the biodiversity on his property.
“If you have one species of plant growing in all of that space that makes up your yard, it’s going to be a little bit of a biological desert for insects,” Wheelwright explained, “which means it’s going to be an empty pantry for animals that feed on insects and plants. It’s Ecology 101.”
Wheelwright is so enthusiastic about the practice of letting part your lawn grow in that he created a short video on the topic called “Bouquets and Biodiversity From Your Lawn” for his YouTube series “Nature Moments” in partnership with Bowdoin College and the Maine Audubon.
Three dozen different types of flowers grew up and blossomed when Wheelwright stopped mowing a portion of his lawn. Goldenrod, ox-eye daisy, flat topped aster and yellow king-devil — the list goes on and on.
In addition to creating more biodiversity, maintaining a meadow is less time consuming than a manicured yard, and it’s more eco-friendly, Wheelwright pointed out.
Instead of mowing each week, you only need to mow (bush hog or weed wack) a meadow once or twice a season to prevent woody plants from taking over and quickly transforming the space into a young forest. Less mowing means less use of gas. In fact, if you truly minimize the lawn space you mow, you may be able to ditch the power mower altogether and simply trim the space with an old-fashioned push reel mower. Another option is to invest in an electric mower.
But what will the neighbors will think? An overgrown yard often signifies an abandoned property or a lazy landowner. To dispel this perception, Wheelwright suggests mowing around the edges of your meadow, tidying it up, and consistently mowing walking path through it, which communicates that your tall grasses and wildflowers are purposeful, not simply neglected.
Mowed pathways also allow easy access for wildlife viewing and wildflower picking. They also allow you to keep an eye out for invasive plant species, McCargo said, which can quickly squash the biodiversity you’re trying to foster if not kept in check.
Pathways also lessen the chance of you picking up disease-carrying ticks, which tend to wait in tall grass and underbrush to attach to animals (including humans) passing by. In fact, that’s the major pitfall of “releasing your lawn” — the potential of attracting more ticks to your property.
“That type of habitat with tall grasses, tall perennial plants, bushes, things like that, are areas where we tend to find ticks, so an increase in that habitat could lead to an increase in tick numbers,” Griffin Dill, tick expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Identification Lab, said. “The potential is certainly there, but if it’s really out in the open in a bright, sunny location, the increase is probably going to be fairly minimal.”
While ticks are fairly rugged pests, they are at risk of drying out in the sun. They need shady, damp places to rest and rejuvenate, Dill said. Meadows can provide some of that shelter, as well as the tall plants that make it easier for ticks to quest for their next blood meal.
“It’s really tough trying to navigate and balance the desire and need for creating pollinator habitat and habitat for wildlife in general,” Dill said. “It unfortunately is kind of antithetical for the tick problem. The two don’t mesh well.”
For McCargo and Wheelwright, their mini meadows and the other wildlife habitats on their properties are worth the risk of coming into contact with more ticks.
“Everybody needs to learn to check their body regularly every time they’re outside,” McCargo said. “I personally won’t mow something because I’m afraid of ticks.”
After letting your lawn — or part of it — grow, the next step for encouraging biodiversity is to add in certain native plants, McCargo said.
“Everybody wants to toss some seeds out there, but it’s more complicated than that,” McCargo said.
McCargo usually grows native plants from seed in pots and beds, then adds to the earth, typically in September.
To learn more about growing native plants on your property, check out the Wild Seed Project website, wildseedproject.net, where McCargo has written numerous articles on the topic, including “Managing meadows and lawns for beauty and biodiversity” and “Native groundcovers for beauty and biodiversity at the ground level.” The Wild Seed Project also sells a variety of native plant seeds online, with the stock varying throughout the year.
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