Q: What are your thoughts on No Mow May? I have heard people support it and others say it’s not helpful to wildlife.
A: I’m of the opinion that it’s well-intentioned and gets people thinking about their landscaping choices and their impacts on the ecosystem, but not as helpful as gardeners would like to believe. Sure, it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of ecologically unproductive to a sustainably-supportive gardening or landscaping style, but I think we can do better when we have the resources to do more.
While mowing can remove the flower heads of blooming plants in the lawn, depriving pollinators of some resources in the short term, the presence of those non-turf plants can complicate lawn care efforts. While I grant you not everyone feels the urge to maintain a flawless lawn — which is fine — a healthy and vigorous lawn does a better job than a struggling lawn to help store carbon, support soil microbes that help plant roots, minimize erosion, and filter stormwater to reduce pollution.
Additionally, blooming plants that appear in lawns tend to be those that only support generalist pollinators — those that can use the pollen and nectar of a wide variety of plants — and not our native specialists. Many of them are nonnative, even if not invasive, such as dandelion, henbit, veronica, and dead nettle. That diet-restricted group of bees and other insects is the one we have to focus on since the lawn, in whatever form it takes, is using-up space that could otherwise be supporting those needed plant species. By reducing lawn space overall and planting native plants instead, you will provide a much more valued resource for both the pollinators visiting and the many other organisms in our food web reliant on its contributions.
You may have encountered the phrase “cues to care.” This refers to giving a wild-looking planting a tidier outline or other indicators (garden benches, art pieces, bird baths, etc.) that the area is intentionally being maintained in a more natural-like state for the enjoyment of the gardener and for environmental reasons. It can communicate to a passersby that a plant they might think is a weed (say, wild violets) is either actually valuable or allowed to stay because it’s supporting the mission of the planting — an ecosystem benefit. If you do practice No Mow May, at least try to upkeep the most visible portions of a lawn so you’re less likely to draw negative attention for what may be perceived as negligence.
Lastly, not mowing for an entire month during which the lawn will grow too tall to be as forgiving of mowing later, and simultaneously allowing those weedy nonnative lawn flowers to go to seed and potentially spread into neighboring properties, isn’t a great olive branch for convincing other gardeners to follow suit in adjusting their yard plantings to better support wildlife.
Instead, I advocate for no mow ever, that is, no lawn at all, in places where turf grass isn’t the most practical choice — like for its high tolerance for foot traffic. Where it is the best choice, keep it healthy so it does its job well and then focus your energies and interest in helping native bees and other organisms by including a variety of native plants in the other areas of your landscape.
Q: Can I still move young shrubs around now? I planted some last fall and a few last spring and am discovering because they’re doing so well that I need to give them a bit more space. Others I just want to move to a different spot in the yard as I adjust my designs.
A: Yes, you can transplant now. Dig carefully so you can determine where any roots may have expanded from the original root ball size (if they didn’t and are still in the shape of its container, that’s a cautionary sign you may need to disentangle them more when planting again). It will probably be easy to move the plants without too much root loss because they are still establishing, but dig as wide of a root ball as you can manage so you retain the fine feeder roots that can help reduce the risk of transplant shock that can set back growth.
As with any new planting, closely monitor transplants for watering needs by feeling the soil several inches deep in the root zone. If it’s becoming somewhat dry to the touch at that depth, water thoroughly, but otherwise damp soil should not need supplemental water. You can of course adjust this measurement of soil moisture to suit species that prefer to stay drier or more consistently wet than average, but it’s a good way to test for root conditions without relying on the misleading characteristics of how damp or dry the soil surface appears to be.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.