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Buffalo grass and purple coneflowers grow in Leslie Shad’s front yard. Credit: Leslie Shad

Leslie Shad did not expect “No-Mow May” to gain much traction in Evanston. 

The environmental initiative asks residents to set aside their lawnmowers and let grass and flowers grow naturally, creating a habitat in which birds, bees and butterflies thrive. 

It wasn’t until a recent New York Times article detailed the initiative’s success in Appleton, Wis., that Shad noticed a growing interest in “No-Mow May” among Evanstonians.

“There were a lot of people who said, ‘Why don’t we do that here?’” said Shad. “So then I got kind of excited.” 

Shad is the co-founder of Natural Habitat Evanston, a program dedicated to protecting wildlife and promoting sustainability. In mid-April, she teamed up with other members involved with the program to encourage the local community to take part in “No-Mow May.”

Community members who don’t mow their lawn this month may see violets and dandelions bloom, Shad said. Flowers will provide nectar for bees and insects, and the grass may go to seed, which will attract native sparrows. 

“There are real benefits to having a little bit of diversity in your lawn,” Shad said. 

She added that although dandelions are not native, they still provide nectar for bees and insects, and residents can reduce their spread by pulling the plant’s seed head.

Natural Habitat Evanston worked with a local graphic designer to create postcards and lawn signs to help promote the initiative. 

Shad contacted faith leaders, activists, park volunteers and community groups, including the League of Women Voters and District 65 Climate Action Teams, asking them to participate and spread the word via newsletters, she said.

No city involvement this year

Shad also emailed city staff and council members, asking them to join the movement and consider suspending mowing in public parks, she said. She asked them if, throughout the month of May, the city would forgive any violations to Evanston ordinance 8-5-1, which prohibits weeds from growing higher than eight inches, she added.

A similar weed ordinance exists in Appleton, where the city agreed not to enforce the restriction during May. Glenview is also participating in the initiative until Mother’s Day, and any residents with a “No-Mow May” yard sign are exempt from a lawn mowing code enforcement.

The city will not be taking any formal action on “No-Mow May” this year, Council Member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, told the RoundTable. 

But Revelle said she did submit a referral asking the city’s Environment Board to look into the benefits of “No-Mow May” and provide the city council with some guidance for May of 2023.

City staff members have reservations about the initiative, which could lead to more mosquitos and provide coverage for rats, Revelle said. There is also some debate about whether letting grass grow freely really provides that much more coverage, she said, referencing a critique of the initiative published by Greenwise.

The Environment Board will evaluate these concerns and hear feedback from residents who participated in the initiative last year to determine what actions the city should take next year, said Revelle. Glenview residents and city staff may also provide some helpful insight, she added. 

“What we really want to do is get people away from having turfgrass and going more towards native plants that do provide food and habitat for pollinators,” said Revelle. 

Shad also emphasized the need to transition from manicured lawns to gardens with more trees and native plants. “No-Mow May” is a step in that direction, she said. 

Addressing the weed ordinance, Revelle said the city will not make any exceptions for “No-Mow May,” but inspectors also won’t be “roaming the streets to look for people who aren’t mowing their lawns.”

Shad replaced her turfgrass with native prairie grass. Credit: Leslie Shad

If there is a complaint, an inspector will go to the property, and if the weeds exceed eight inches in height, a homeowner would have seven to 10 days to mow their lawn, Revelle said. At that point, May probably would be drawing to a close anyway, she added. 

“I doubt that anybody who’s engaging in the ‘No-Mow May’ initiative is going to end up having to pay a fine,” she said.

Another council member, Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward, reiterated that the city needs more time to work through specificities before adopting “No-Mow May” in a formal capacity. Soccer fields and playgrounds would need to be mowed, for instance, and these details need to be thought through, he said.

Geracaris said he learned about the initiative from an email by Natural Habitat Evanston, and has decided to participate in and promote “No-Mow May.”

“I try to grow native plants in my yard,” Geracaris said. “Anything to help our pollinator friends. That’s why I’m doing it.” 

Evanstonians commit to the cause

Evanstonian Skip Montanaro is also ditching his lawnmower this month. He said after learning about the initiative in Appleton, he began considering taking part himself. 

Montanaro said when he learned about Natural Habitat Evanston’s efforts to promote “No-Mow May,” locally, he decided to commit, and picked up a lawn sign to help get other neighbors on board. 

Turfgrass and daffodils in Montanaro’s yard. Credit: Skip Montanaro

“We generally tend to our lawn, so it would be unusual for me not to mow before June 1,” he said. 

But this year, Montanaro said he is letting the dandelions grow, providing more flowers for bees in the early season. 

He said this will also demonstrate to his neighbors, many of whom have prim, manicured lawns, that growing out a lawn for one month is not so bad. 

Another resident, Jo Ann Budde, is the head of the garden committee at 1500 Hinman Ave. She said she learned about the initiative from a New York Times article and brought it to the attention of the board and the other residents in the building. 

No one had any objection to participating in the initiative and the apartment just put up its “No-Mow May” signs, Budde said. 

“The bees are such an important resource,” Budde said. “If we lose the bees … it’s a scary thing.” 

Shad said several years ago she replaced the turfgrass in her garden with native prairie grass. She has not mowed since, and buffalo grass and violets now flourish, she said.

“The bigger picture here is to get people to be a tiny bit adjusted to delaying mowing, but also just to relax on the lawns,” said Shad. 

Shad said she doesn’t want “No-Mow May” to cause any stress or conflict among neighbors. The purpose of the campaign is to promote wildlife, including bumblebees, violet fritillary butterflies and native sparrows.

“That’s what it’s about,” said Shad. “I want it to be a joyful thing.”

Buffalo grass grows in Shad’s backyard. Credit: Leslie Shad

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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  1. Hi, I wrote the blog for Greenwise on No Mow May, and I wouldn’t characterize it as a critique, but rather a discussion of pros and cons. As I said in the article, we love that people care about our pollinators, but we are suggesting there are more long-term and sustainable ways to help pollinators, as in reserving part of your lawn for a native garden. We are also concerned that if weeds take over an unmowed lawn that people might resort to chemicals and pesticides to treat those weeds, undoing whatever good was done in helping pollinators.
    Thanks!
    Robyn

  2. Plant more all season flowering plants not dandelions and weeds. Replace grass don’t just let it grow. I don’t get it.