How to keep your garden looking great while letting your lawn grow wild to help wildlife

Peer over your garden fence this month and you might spot that your neighbour’s lawn is looking a little scruffy. A few more dandelions than normal, a sprouting of daisies, maybe even a few clumps of thistles dotted about.

Don’t tut at them, they may be leaving it looking unkempt on purpose. This weekend marks the start of No Mow May, a campaign from the charity Plantlife calling for people to stop cutting their lawns for the month of May.

Grass left unmowed allows dormant wildflowers to flourish, providing extra food for struggling pollinators and becoming a haven for insects, birds and hedgehogs.

Since No Mow May launched in 2019, thousands of lawns have been left to sprout. Plantlife says the campaign trebled the number of people leaving their lawns long, and expects a bigger success this year.

In the south London borough of Wandsworth, for example, local officials are planning to double the amount of grass left unmown this year. As well as patches in public parks, they will also leave the sides of sports pitches, road verges and old burial grounds to grow wild.

“Those new sites are slightly experimental; we will be really interested to see what comes up,” says Valerie Selby, biodiversity manager for Enable, a not-for-profit organisation in charge of Wandsworth’s green spaces.

So how can you keep your garden looking good and avoid becoming enemies with fussy neighbours – and what difference can leaving the mower for a few weeks really make?

(Image: i Graphics Team)

Making long grass a feature of your garden

For some people, the idea of not mowing the lawn for a month fills them with horror. “It looks like you can’t be arsed if it’s really long!” worries one of my friends who is a keen gardener. “My mum will criticise me when she comes to visit!” says another.

But it’s possible to take part in No Mow May without leaving a garden looking forgotten. Cut winding paths through a wild lawn, suggests Sarah Shuttleworth, a botanist with Plantlife. “An excellent way to encourage short sward beauties like dove’s-foot crane’s-bill and selfheal, alongside plants like cuckooflower and meadow buttercup that prefer longer grass, is by creating regularly mown ‘desire paths’ through lawns,” she says.

Gardeners can create a ‘desire path’, like this one through a wildflower meadow (Photo: Plantlife/Matt Pitts)

Get creative: how about leaving a circle of grass right in the centre of the lawn to bloom? Keeping some areas tidy and other parts wild also makes the effect look more deliberate, suggests Shuttleworth.

You could also try staggering the cutting of your lawn, so that you have one area that’s mown once a month, one area mown at the end of each summer, and one that you leave wild all year round. This allows the mown area to be more easily usable for family fun while still letting some flowers flourish; the middle area will be good for pollinators; and come the winter the wild area will let animals like hedgehogs hibernate.

You may even get lucky and be able to harvest some food from a wild lawn, with some participants last year finding wild strawberry and wild garlic growing in their gardens as a result.

These wild strawberries grew in a long-grass lawn (Photo: Plantlife/Jonty Sale)

A sign can also help inform nosy neighbours what is going on, she says. “If you explain why you are doing it, people do respond really well to that.” Plantlife offers printable posters to help participants explain why their lawn looks a bit scruffy to passers-by.

In most lawns, dormant seeds will sprout if given the chance and bring a natural crop of flowers. But modern lawn grasses are pretty vigorous and may outcompete more interesting plant varieties, leaving overgrown grass and not much else.

To make a longer lawn look a little prettier, add native plant varieties. But simply scattering wildflower seeds probably won’t work, warns Shuttleworth. She says it is better to grow wildflower plants separately, then insert the seedlings into the lawn when they are strong enough. Or add “yellow rattle” – the herbaceous wildflower is known as the “meadow maker” because it suppresses grass growth, allowing other flowers to thrive.

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Natural wonders

The results of a survey at the end of last year’s No Mow May are proof that a longer lawn is a more interesting one: 2021’s participants reported a total of more than 250 plant species in their lawns, including a quarter of a million daisies. Some lucky gardeners even found rare species like the declining man orchid and bee orchid.

These don’t just look pretty. Flower-rich lawns are perfect for pollinators, with participants recording 100 different species, including 25 types of moth and butterfly and 24 types of bee.

“The flowers that we already have in our lawns, that we are just keeping short because we are mowing it, are actually perfect,” says Shuttleworth. “The daisies, the dandelions, those common things – they are multiple flowers all on one head, so a bee can spend ages visiting it.”

A swollen-thighed flower-beetle on an ox-eye daisy (Photo: Trevor Dines)

Keeping children entertained

Parents may think children need a pristine lawn to have fun on it, but wild grass can create a garden ripe for adventure.

Bruce Davis, who lives in the Cotswolds with his five children, was inspired to take part in No Mow May after his mother heard about it on the BBC’s Gardeners’ World, and left his lawn to sprout wheat and dandelions for two years in a row.

“For the kids, it’s great because they like the fact that it’s not a controlled garden,” he says. “They don’t miss not being able to sit on the grass. They like the wildness.”

Last year Davis left his lawn long throughout the summer and the children enjoyed recording sightings of rare visitors, from miner bees and hummingbird bees to hedgehogs and finches.

“It’s a different way of thinking about your garden,” he says. “Instead of looking at it purely as an extension of the inside of your house, it actually has its own kind of space. And there’s a lot more nature going on. It becomes busy.”

Children enjoying counting flowers in an EFC quadrant (Photo: Plantlife/Archie Thomas)

Rebuilding fragmented habitats

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with 41 per cent of species in decline since the 1970s, and 15 per cent at risk of extinction.

Part of the problem, say conservationists, is that habitats have been fragmented by development – leaving wildlife and plant species in isolated pockets, making them more vulnerable to climate change, pests and disease.

A wilder lawn can help to link separated habitats, offering pollinators a “stepping stone” on which to rest and feed before they reach the next wild spot. It is particularly powerful if entire streets or neighbourhoods get involved, with strings of back gardens suddenly becoming corridors for nature.

A ‘painted lady’ butterfly on common knapweed (Photo: Plantlife/Trevor Dines)

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