GARDENING: The benefits of a 'May Without Mowing' policy

Our ‘May without mowing’ policy extended deep into June this time, not only because there was such a good crop of white clover in the lawns, but also to coincide with National Insect Week Monday 22–29.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 2nd July 2020, 12:00 am

Good news for the bees, and for us an important part of a general commitment to encourage friendly insects, pollinators especially, throughout the year.

As this was the first cut for several weeks, the lawns needed a twice-over to get them back to a respectable summer state. But this activity is approached with caution while individual bees persist. The lady of the house walks slowly ahead of the mower, shooing away the occasional bumbler.

Inspiration for this came from the Red Flag Act of 1865 when early motor cars were preceded by someone walking ahead waving a warning. Now, at first glance, the lawns appear as tidy green swathes that enhance the colourful mixed borders. It matters not that close inspection reveals leaves of clover, daisy and self- heal. And when the latter blooms in the lawn back of house we will with-hold mowing again because several bee species love it.

We recently observed two nesting goldfinches that combed the back lawn daily in search of wildflower seed heads. They favoured dandelion but settled for others in its absence. Knowing they were feeding a brood based in the front-of-house cherry tree, made it all so riveting. It`s a bold step to allow such wildflowers access but the rewards can be great.

What have I got against weed-free lawns? Absolutely nothing. They`re a joy to behold in the right setting. Nothing gives greater pleasure as a judge than visits to country and urban gardens with pristine lawns. Indeed, the management of grass areas was and remains an important part of gardening but allows for different interpretations. This fellow`s approach falls way short of having a permanent hay meadow surrounded by mixed borders but does manage to include an element of the countryside.

National insect week concluded last Monday and coincided nicely with a surge of bees, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates in this garden. We hope they turned up to party not only because it was a warm summer, but also for the preparations undertaken to make them feel welcome.

A few years ago, we made the decision to ease back on the use of pesticides and herbicides. This meant rather than reach for a chemical cure for any plant problem that arose we’d explore other avenues. The beauty of gardening is that both methods serve a purpose, but our commitment has grown toward the natural approach. The presence of several bee and butterfly species supports the choice, and we`re seeing more moths, hoverfly, lacewing, and ladybirds – all gardeners’ friends.

They would not be visiting or taking up residence in such numbers if the garden were bereft of sustenance. An attractive floral menu does make a difference. In this respect lists of suitable plants are easily accessed online or in print, and these offer a reasonable starting point. Then, with careful observation over time, we can discover which are best suited to the aspect and soil type on offer in our respective gardens. Ours is a medium to light sandy soil that requires frequent organic input.

It supports a combination of ornamental trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, annuals, and bulbs, chosen for year-round colour. We have settled on several key plants across the spectrum for their continuity of bloom, and ability to attract insects.

January to the end of March is such an important time. Given a modicum of warmth there is insect life searching for nectar, and winter heathers (Erica carnea) cover that period so well, supported by shrubby winter viburnum, mahonia, and early bulbs. Spring displays of wallflower, polyanthus, primula, in the company of cherry and forsythia, take us through to June, by which time groups of long-lasting nepeta (`Six Hills Giant`) and geranium cultivars are there, carrying us well into summer.

Currently, foxgloves flowering everywhere, please the bees, also pink and white valerian which is a butterfly favourite that lasts for weeks in bloom. The groups of lavender just opening, continue until September, with contributions from the butterfly bush and lavatera, both attractive shrubs. Then border perennials such as rudbeckia, helenium and sedum show what staying power they have by taking ourselves, butterflies, and bees into deepest autumn.