If you’re not going to cut your grass, it helps if your neighbor isn’t a landscaper.
Not that he’s a bad guy, mind you. We wave at each other when passing by, exchange nods, and talk every few weeks—a few times, he let me borrow his industrial strength leaf blower, which, once strapped to your back, makes you feel a lot like you’re in The Rocketeer.
The problem is, cutting the grass is definitely not one of the joys of homeownership, and it also doesn’t help that I’m lazy and perpetually busy with work and family life. I’ve mostly adhered to the unspoken rules of the suburbs wherein you must mow your grass every two weeks. Or there will be an unspoken or else, which is a variation of the old stink eye. I can see why my landscaper neighbor wouldn’t be enamored (no business at the start of spring) with something like No Mow May, a month where you go without cutting your grass to provide food for pollinators that started in the UK back in 2019. The annual tradition’s popularity has now spread to the US—you’ve likely seen yard signs reading, “Pardon our weeds, we’re feeding the bees.” They’re cute and inoffensive, but they also gave me license to let the yard run wild.
Critics say that you’re opening yourself to fungal diseases or invasive plant species, not to mention rodents and snakes. But there’s also a bigger reason No Mow May and rewilding—restoring land to its natural state—is taking hold.
So what do some folks have against perfectly manicured lawns anyway?
“I have everything against them,” Katie Levy, co-founder of Brooklyn-based design studio Gander, laughs.
For Katie, it all starts with a pretty stunning fact—the largest irrigated crop in the US isn’t corn or soybeans or wheat—it’s your lawn. Plus, with all that grass we’re mowing comes a few other things—like the excessive amount of water and gasoline needed to care for your lawn. And let’s not forget about all the fertilizer and chemicals you need to maintain them.
The lawn itself is also a relatively new phenomenon and is a status symbol associated with wealth and success, or at the very least, being a “good neighbor” who enjoys taking care of his property. When landscape design started to rear its perfectly-coifed head at the Palace of Versailles, folks like Thomas Jefferson, who witnessed it firsthand, coveted these tamed, green pieces of turf. Writing in Scientific American, Krystal D’Costa wrote, “George Washington hired English landscape gardeners to achieve a similar end. Mount Vernon had a bowling green and a deer park, also common elements in English garden design. The popularity of Washington and Mount Vernon helped the contagion of the idea of a lawn as images of Mount Vernon were produced and distributed throughout the United States into the 18th- and 19th-centuries. This gave wealthy Americans something to copy and aspire to. Coming from a leader such as Washington lent credence to the perception that this was a break was the norm and unique to America.”
The real kicker is that when you plant the same crop in the ground every year—in this case, grass—and toss pesticides on it, the soil can’t do any of the things we really need it to do, i.e., biological carbon sequestration, the ability of plants to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. It’s critical for several reasons—it filters our water, delivers nutrients to crops, and is a habitat for countless organisms. Soil also serves as a carbon sink and helps mitigate the impact of global warming.
And that’s where Make Meadows comes in.
It all started as a passion project mid-pandemic for Levy and Mike McVicar (Katie’s husband and fellow Gander founder). They had watched Kiss the Ground, a documentary on how regenerative agriculture can fix climate change, and they both felt a sense of despair and inspiration. “We have always been really intentional about the studio and what kinds of projects we take on, but it just really didn’t feel like enough,” says Levy. “And we just want to make sure that we’re having some sort of positive impact on the world around us that went beyond branding.”
Likely, you’ve seen many of the CPG products Gander has worked on your most recent trip to Target or scrolling through Instagram—whether it’s olive oil brand Graza or the better-for-you-cereal Magic Spoon. Make Meadows, however, is the studio’s first self-initiated project, and it’s a free online resource for anyone interested in native plants and rewilding.
“The goal of Meadows is to dismantle the notion that our traditional lawn is worthwhile and something we shouldn’t be aspiring to,” Levy says. “It’s pretty detrimental to the environment, and if we replaced lawns with plants, preferably native plants that thrive in whatever region you’re in, that would contribute greatly to soil health and therefore carbon drawdown and not killing the planet.”
Of course, Levy and McVicar aren’t the first to do this. There are plenty of guides on where to buy native plants or challenge our ideas about lawncare (and, no, it’s not the “we ride at dawn” boosters over at Middle Class Fancy). The problem was there was no centralized hub for a lot of this valuable information, and many of the sites lacked creativity and good design (and if you’re trying to convince folks to let their lawn run wild, it helps to make it look a little pretty).
Currently, Make Meadows only exists as an Instagram account with plenty of great visuals and timely facts. But the ultimate goal is to create a centralized database for all your meadow needs.
One pain point for many folks happens early in the process when they’re just getting started. Maybe they go to the Audubon site and find the species of native plants they want to grow, but when they go to the nearest nursery, they don’t have any of them—that’s because most people aren’t looking to purchase native plants. Once at this hypothetical Make Meadows platform, you could find native plants in your neck of the woods and buy them via a local nursery that actually stocks that specific plant. You could also connect with experts on the resources needed to transform your lawn, whether you want to play in the dirt yourself or hire someone else to do it for you. And you’re likely going to need that community or those resources because if you don’t pray at the altar of Monty Don, there’s a good chance you might not know if the plants you want even work with the kind of soil you have in your backyard.
But it also helps if you can win people over with good design. A glance at the local Barnes & Noble gardening section will tell you as much, with plenty of seemingly dated books with uninspiring landscapes. Gander’s goal was to make it fun and funky and definitely not caught in the conservancy trap of lackluster browns and greens. After all, you want to actually inspire people to start making their own meadows, right? “Featuring interesting photography was a very intentional thing,” Levy mentions. “So much of garden photography can be cheesy. We wanted to showcase it in a very artful light, so we’re intentionally choosing photographers and artists to feature. We want this to be an educational hub but also somewhat cultural. We sometimes repost a cool photographer or an illustrator or painter. It’s just more rich content around the gardening world that doesn’t feel like a typical garden book.”
Designer Matthew Miller’s fingerprints are all over the Instagram account, and his design work brings a joyous feeling to the account with vibrant, luminescent colors and electric typography. You’ll also find stunning photos and collages by Regan Golden or images from Alana Patterson that capture the singular beauty of indigenous food and medicine plants. Viewed as a whole, it makes gardening and rewilding take on a deeply sensorial, rich character that’s both inspiring and enlightening.
“We like it to feel kind of experimental and weird and artistic and creative,” Levy adds. “Right now, we’re letting our design team lead the way. It’s also a platform for them to express themselves and have some fun on non-client-related projects.”
All lack of mowing aside, there is something restorative about tending a garden and playing in the yard, even for folks in the city. While Katie and Mike live in a small apartment complex in Brooklyn, the environment felt barren, so they took it upon themselves to become the gardening committee. They’re now in the process of converting the limited space they have into a native landscape.
“As far as tending to a garden, it feels like an opportunity to connect with your natural surroundings and be fully present—it’s hard to do much else when you’ve got your hands in the dirt,” says Levy. “As New Yorkers, it’s quite literally grounding. It allows us to escape some of the chaos of daily life and remind us that, even in a dense urban environment, there’s natural beauty to be observed.”
“As far as the ecological practice, it’s honestly just rewarding to learn about native plants, identify them, and see them thrive in the ground you placed them in,” she adds.
My mowing abstinence came to an end on May 19th. With under two weeks to go and some parts of my yard reaching a little over a foot in length, my wife came home to find the landscaper neighbor mowing part of the front yard.
That’s on me, of course. I didn’t get the yard sign or tell him I wasn’t mowing for the month, or even make an awkward apology about it. I ran outside, asked him to stop, and explained what we were doing. He thought our lawnmower was broken and wanted to lend a hand. When I told him we were doing No Mow May, he rolled his eyes and laughed, which I laughed off. I wasn’t angry about it, as I genuinely thought he was doing the neighborly thing—also, he can make pretty quick work of your lawn with an industrial-strength standing mower.
Still, the damage was done. Thankfully, my youngest’s fairy garden remained untouched, but he’d only cut the lawn on one side of the driveway, and I figured I might as well cut the other half.
But our backyard is a little bigger than the front, and we have almost an acre of land. Instead of cutting the grass there, I decided to carve out little paths with the mower, which now lead to a circle where the yard has also been cut down. My wife instructed me to meander with the mower, and while I’m not sure I’m much of a meanderer—or a landscape architect, for that matter—it has more purpose now. The rest is patches of mini-meadows full of wildflowers and weeds, and I’m hoping by summer’s end, I’ll have some waist-high grass for some Terrence Malick-styled magic hour action. As for the rest of the grass, I’m going bi-weekly to tri-weekly as it suits my general stance on minimal bother.
And hopefully, my neighbor won’t be so neighborly.