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‘No Mow May’: Upper Valley groups want your lawn to go wild

  • Doug Tifft, of Fairlee, Vt., helps with other participants to make a pollinator garden on the Thetford Center green on Saturday, April 30, 2022. The group was learning about planting native seeds to attract pollinators around the Thetford Community Garden. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Thetford Conservation Commission member Alicia Houk, left, shows participants the types of native seeds she has to offer during a hands-on wildlife and pollinator gardening workshop on Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Thetford, Vt. Looking at the seeds are Barbara DeFelice, second from left, of Thetford, Vt., Sharon Harkey, of Thetford, Vt., Doug Tifft, of Fairlee, Vt., Jane Conner, of Corinth, Vt., and Liz Davis, of East Corinth, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/4/2022 6:04:39 AM
Modified: 5/5/2022 10:28:17 AM

THETFORD — The classic American lawn may be green and lush, but it is a wasteland for pollinators, and Upper Valley towns are challenging residents to swap their grass for flowers.

“We’re at the point where ecosystems are not supplying life like they have been,” said Alicia Houk, an expert on pollinator gardens and a member of the Thetford Conservation Commission. “When will it end? When we decide, that ecosystems that support life — our own, too — are more important than maintaining a grass lawn.”

Woodstock, Norwich and Thetford are just a few towns that have taken up the national movement to make room for native plants in backyards across the country. Several are promoting ‘No Mow May,’ a campaign that sparked in England before it leaped across the Atlantic and caught on in the upper Midwest.

Lawns are the most abundant irrigated crop in the United States. Americans grow more grass than corn and wheat combined, and lawns cover 2% of the country’s landmass. In the spring, pollinators often go hungry before summer brings more abundant wildflowers.

The populations of pollinators are falling fast.

“Things that used to be really common now have not been seen for 20 years,” said Spencer Hardy, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies where he coordinates the Vermont Wild Bee Atlas. The rusty-patched bumble bee was among the most common bumblebees on farms, fields and gardens across Vermont, but it virtually disappeared in less than a decade. Now, in a glimmer of hope, it has been found in small pockets in the state.

The environmental pressures on pollinators range from pesticide use to diseases passed on from commercial bees. Habitat degradation — the shift from forests to lawns or shrublands to parking lots — has ravaged the bright flowering plants that make up their diet, Hardy said. That’s where not mowing and planting native plants can help.

“The only way we’re going to change it is by individuals changing their own homes and gardens,” Hardy said.

Native plants in yards can feed a host of species, from the caterpillar that birds rely on to the pollinators that fertilize vegetable gardens and orchards, said Houk, an ecological gardener. She led a pollinator garden workshop on the Thetford Green last Saturday, showing residents how to prepare their beds. Last week, in an interview at Kilton Public Library, she showed the pollinator gardens she had planted.

She, her husband and their two sons moved to the Upper Valley after he got a job at the library. Sheltered from the wind by the building, a bed of native plants was already beginning to turn a rich green despite the cold days. The garden will keep blooming from the first weeks of spring to October, or even November, providing a constant food source for pollinators.

She had planted the bed with a blanket of diverse perennials — Ohio spiderwort and nodding onion; asters and running foam flower, coral bells and columbine. Many bees specialize on particular flowers that they evolved to use. Without that flower, the bees will die, and the best way to keep bee populations healthy is to keep diverse flower populations healthy.

She turned toward the lawn that still covers most of the space between the library and the parking lot.

“It’s so boring,” she said. “How did this happen to us?”

Instead, we could mow paths through wildflowers and meadows, weaving our way through spaces abundant with life. The benefits outweigh the need for additional tick checks, she said.

Houk is from Iowa — itself an “ecological disaster,” she said. There, only 1 in 1,000 acres of the original prairie remain. The Upper Valley may feel more natural, she said. But even among the rolling hills, thick forests and small organic farms, species are dying.

“We don’t have the food — the pollen, the nectar,” she said. Houk, an expert on pollinator gardening, urges people to plant native plants. Non-natives are little better than lifeless ornaments; they feed nothing, and so they stand unconnected to the surrounding ecosystem.

When you stop mowing, ever-resilient yellow bursts of dandelions will soon break into view along with the spindly white clover blossoms. Other flowers may soon follow, such as the purple towers of self-heal and the yellow triads of trefoil.

As Houk sees it, not mowing is just the start. She hopes that the movement will inspire more people to plant native flora. She suggests starting with just one native plant that draws your eye.

“I’m excited. There’s so much interest,” she said. “People are starting to feel the loss — almost 30% of the birds, and 40% of insect abundance — gone.”

A well-tended lawn is a long-standing American tradition and even considered a civic duty by some.

The Norwich Conservation Commission is offering signs to residents who want to explain they have stopped mowing for the bees’ sake, said Suzanne Leiter, who works with the commission. She also suggests mowing paths, or along garden beds, to give a more manicured look.

Serendipitously, the Thetford Energy Committee turned its attention to lawns the same year as the Conservation Commission. Alice Stewart wanted to convince more people to shrink their lawns, Energy Committee member Tom Ward wanted to convince more people to swap their gas lawn equipment for battery-powered alternatives. So, they arrived at the “de-lawnification” and “e-lawnification” campaign.

Americans spent nearly $30 billion (never mind the thousands of hours) on manicuring their lawns in 2015, according to a market research firm. And they emitted about 26.7 millions tons of pollutants in 2011, which accounted for between 24% and 45% of all nonroad gasoline emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Energy. The emissions from maintaining a lawn take a sizable bite out of grass’s carbon-absorbing capacity.

When Ward first bought an electric mower about 10 years ago, it was a flop. It wasn’t powerful, and it didn’t cut the grass cleanly. But he is enthusiastic about the younger generation of electric lawn equipment. He owns Ego lawn equipment, and the same two batteries swap into a mower, a pole saw, a leaf blower backpack and a weed trimmer. One battery recharges in the time it takes to use up the second.

“You’re really buying the battery technology — not just the tool,” he said. Up front, they tend to be more expensive. But over the equipment’s lifetime, Ward pointed out, he saves money because the maintenance is relatively scarce and he doesn’t have to buy fuel.

On May 21, energy committees from towns including Thetford, Norwich, Hartford and Sharon will host an exposition of electric lawn equipment on the Thetford Center green from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

CORRECTION 

The exposition of electric lawn equipment on the Thetford Center green will run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 21. An article in Wednesday’s Valley News misstated the time it begins. 




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