Waitressing in restaurants during high school, college years and beyond, I learned very quickly what “in the weeds” meant. Having been in the weeds a few times myself – it’s a rather uncomfortable place to be. You can’t handle the tables you have and more keep piling in the door. Think of standing in tall prairie grass trying to find your way out of an endless sea of it, you can’t see what’s coming, you can’t see where you are going. If you think of it, most of us live our lives in tall weeds; we don’t always know what is coming at us or how to manage and get through it.
The word itself, weeds, has a negative connotation. No one smiles when they hear the word “weeds,” and there are so many options available at swathes of stores to help us rid our properties of weeds. Nothing brings more distain and sympathy into a conversation than an opening line of “I was weeding the garden today.” This announcement is always met with a sympathetic phrase like, “I’m so sorry,” or “Ugh, what a pain.”
However, I believe weeds are subjective. Many people spend money, time, energy and sweat trying to fight the predictable emergence of dandelions every spring, but I let mine grow because they are actually a very beneficial plant. Their tap roots run deep, aerating the soil and bringing up nutrients from the deep ground. They are one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring and a boon for early bees. Their greens are tasty in salads, the flowers can be sautéed in butter and their roots can be roasted and made into a medicinal tea. As you can see, one person’s weed may be another person’s food. Timely it was when I read a quote on a teabag recently by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, “The only difference between a flower and a weed is judgement.” True.
I recently had a first-hand experience with this delightful quote. Circumstances out of my control this past May left my lawn to grow taller than generally accepted by the neighborhood. I was made aware of it by someone asking me, “Are you participating in ‘No Mow May?’” Which I had never heard of – so I Googled it. The idea behind the movement is a noble one – letting everything flower so the bees have food – but I was skeptical. What happens to the bees’ resources when we return to mowing in June and plow over all the food that pollinators in our micro environments have become accustomed to for the last month? What if one day, out of the blue, your favorite grocery store was bulldozed, and there were not many alternatives? I feel like that’s a similar scenario to the No Mow May Movement; it’s creating a feel-good burst of participation, but once the fever has calmed and the yards are mowed, what have we really achieved?
One benefit is that scores of lawns are challenging the norm, and that’s a good thing. Aesthetically speaking, those that participated in No Mow May challenged the widely accepted convention that a well-manicured lawn is preferred in many residential areas versus a natural look. So, in many ways, the visual awakening we experienced in No Mow May most likely achieved a much greater impact in the arena of discussions than one would have imagined. In fact, it helped us reimagine our neighborhoods, as not just patches of lush green carpeting, but instead a variable landscape, with every yard different – a homeowner’s original palette and possible smorgasbord for our pollinators. This I believe was probably the greatest achievement for No Mow May – it led to conversation and contemplation about how we view our lawns. Should they be an extension of our indoor areas – a green carpet, or should our front doors become the delineation between what is ours and what belongs to the beauty that exists outside the confines of our man-made homes?
I believe a better way to help our pollinators would be to slowly convert portions of our lawns into more permanent pollinator scapes. We can chip away at our lawns bit by bit adding a few pollinator-friendly plants each spring and fall. This would provide perennial plants for pollinators to return to year after year and lessen the lawn we mow. We can tailor our transformations in ways that minimize the impact on our wallets while incrementally increasing our commitment to nature.
Unfortunately, some homeowners are restricted from environmentally improving their yards by homeowners’ associations (HOAs). However, in Maryland a new law was recently passed to change this. In the late spring of 2021, Governor Larry Hogan signed into law Maryland House Bill 322, which enables residents living in neighborhoods that are restricted by HOAs from planting and cultivating low-impact landscaping to reimagine their lawns.
From Bill 322: “Low impact landscaping means landscaping techniques that conserve water, lower maintenance costs, provide pollution prevention, and create habitat for wildlife. Low impact landscaping includes: Bio-habitat gardens and other features to attract wildlife; pollinator gardens and other features designed to attract pollinator species; rain gardens and other features that use biological principals to return rainwater to the soil and to filter rainwater of excess nutrients; and xeriscaping and other forms of landscaping or grading that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation. (Link to Bill 322 provided below). In Mesa, Arizona, to promote water conservation, the local government offers cash incentives for residents to transform their thirsty grass into water thrifty xeriscape.
What does this mean? It means many neighborhoods will be able to rethink how they use their outdoor space, and that in turn comes with an inherent responsibility to know what’s growing in our yards because a lawn completely left to the wild may unfortunately become a prime area for invasive plants to thrive. Invasive plants in new environments tend to have the propensity to spread easily as there are no natural predators like insects or animals to control them, they displace native plants and food sources for animals and pollinators and can advance rapidly and become difficult to eliminate from your lawn. The University of Maryland website is a great reference for identifying invasive plants and best removal practices. A prime example of an invasive plant is English ivy. It loves to climb trees and cover the ground restricting growth of other more beneficial native plants. It also carries bacterial leaf scorch, a disease that affects elm, catalpa, hackberry, ginkgo, sycamore, maple mulberry and sweetgum trees, and can eventually kill a tree.
Wilding with thoughtful purpose by putting the right plant in the right place is a more pragmatic approach to inviting native nature to flourish for the benefit of our birds, bees and local fauna. It takes energy, time and money to transform a yard and, let’s face it, most of us are short on at least one of those items. This spring, I had great plans for my garden and was devastated when I was told gardening was off the table this season due to a shoulder injury. After hearing this, I wandered my yard a little lost, watching the weeds get taller, and finding myself literally “in the weeds.” I wasn’t happy. Then, I started pulling weeds with my left hand, just little patches a day. When those little patches opened up, I scratched at the ground with my trowel, scattered a seed or two on the ground with my right hand, stood up and stomped on it. The first time I did it, I smiled. The second time, I giggled. With my “scratch and stomp” method I would have my garden after all, except it wouldn’t be the garden concept I had designed and meticulously sketched out in January. It was going to be all-together different this year. I was trying to embrace the change but longed to haul out the ceremonial tomato cages. So, I did, and with my left hand, in an open spot, I planted a few tomatoes in the quiet of my meadow. They are now thriving.
My large garden area had been replaced with a cover crop of rye, crimson clover and vetch that I scattered in the fall with the intention of turning it over in the spring. We didn’t turn it over, it remains, and it is beautiful. My cucumbers came up in the middle of my perennial herb garden, my parsley is in my meadow of poppies and bachelor buttons, and I randomly planted sunflowers throughout my yard scratching out a little area, dropping the seed, stomping and then looking up and hoping for rain. It did rain, my seeds came up, and my gardens are growing into something that wasn’t even close to my January vision; they are better.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch. She is also a University of Maryland Master Gardener with the Talbot County Extension Office.
Resources and Readings
Butterflies: 1, Bullies: 0, by Nancy Lawson, the Humane Gardener
No Mow May? Good Intentions, bad approach, critics say. AP
More Sustainable Alternatives to a grass lawn.
Learn about invasive plants.
Wormser, Owen. Lawns to Meadows. San Francisco California, Stone Pier Press, 2020.
National Park and Wildlife Services. Plant Invaders of Mid Atlantic Native Areas. 2017.
Gardening Resources from the University of Maryland Extension
Ditch your Spade, forget fertilizer, listen to the weeds: Alys Fowlers guide to laid back gardening (The Guardian)
Mesa Arizona Grass to Xeriscape Incentives