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If you’re taking part in No Mow May this year, then your garden will be well on its way to becoming a beautiful, biodiverse haven for nature. But there is a bonus to helping the wildflowers grow – as you allow lawn to become meadow, your garden becomes your very own carbon store, helping to reduce your carbon footprint.

When carbon sequestration is mentioned, most minds turn to trees. As a society we are more aware than ever before of the role of woodlands in combatting climate change and creating a space for nature. Much less discussed is the remarkable and equally vital role our grasslands and meadows can play in increasing biodiversity and capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere.  

How do grasslands store carbon?

Wildflowers growing in a meadow with cattle behind

When we create healthy grasslands and meadows by mowing or grazing livestock, we are simply replicating the activity of the herds of large wild herbivores that once moved across our hills and valleys. These habitats – if the grazing is gentle, infrequent and low intensity – recreate prehistoric landscapes and provide a home for our wild plants, insects, birds and fungi. Natural and semi-natural grasslands (meaning those that are farmed but in a traditional, less intensive manner) improve the quality of our water, prevent flooding and help increase the resilience of farming to summer droughts. 

This grassland – and the healthy soil beneath it – also has an incredible and little-known potential to lock away atmospheric carbon. Soil carbon is a particularly valuable store; it is far more stable and long lasting than the carbon in trees, which is vulnerable to forest fires, pests and disease.

As plants live and grow, carbon from the atmosphere is drawn down into the plants’ roots, where the myriad creatures in the soil make use of it, locking it away beneath the ground. As the diversity of plants on the surface increases, so does the diversity of microorganisms, fungi and invertebrates beneath it. The more diverse the soil life, the richer the entire ecosystem – and the more carbon the soil can store.

The role of Mycorrhizal fungi

The almost mystical role of mycorrhizal fungi is now well known. They connect roots to the nutrients in the soil, trading sugars that plants and trees create from sunlight with locked away minerals the fungi extract from the soil. We now know that plants and trees can communicate through these fungal networks, alerting them to pests and diseases and passing nutrients to others in need.

Meadow on Dartmoor

Mycorrhizal fungi have another important role – they are critical in the ability of plants to transfer carbon to the soil. In areas of farmland, meadow and garden where the soil is ploughed, fertilised or dominated by a small number of grass species, these mycorrhizal networks are much less effective – with fewer species and a lower carbon storage potential. When we look after our farmland and gardens with care, mowing and grazing infrequently and gently, avoiding ploughing and pesticides, we nurture our mycorrhizal fungi, helping the soil to become a more potent carbon store.

How does No Mow May help?

By taking part in No Mow May, you will not only begin to create a home for wildflowers and insects, you will also create healthier soils that nourish your garden plants – and reduce your carbon footprint in the process.

England alone has around 640,000 hectares of private garden. If just a quarter of this area was transformed into wildflower rich meadow – by mowing just once or twice a year and collecting the cuttings – then these garden soils could potentially capture and store an additional amount of carbon equivalent to more than 3 million average cars’ annual emissions within a spade’s depth, and well over 10 million cars in soils as deep as one meter*.

A blossoming garden lawn full of wildflower

Lawns and gardens are of course just one part of the puzzle – the UK’s farmed grassland landscape offers tremendous potential for us to sequester carbon, while also protecting agriculture and biodiversity.

Farmers and landowners have a fundamental role to play – combining food production with sustainable grasslands that lock away carbon in healthy, ecologically rich soils. Some 40% of the UK’s land area is grassland – but much of this is intensively farmed, limiting its potential for carbon storage.

Globally, studies have suggested that 2.3-7.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalents per year could be sequestered through grassland diversity restoration. Carbon sequestration doesn’t just mean more trees. Healthy grassland, with the more sensitive grazing and less intensive farming that nourishes it, also keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. 

No matter how large or small our garden, we all have a role to play, and we can all make a difference. It’s easy to get started – just put your lawnmower away this May!

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At Plantlife, there is a buzz of activity brewing as the 1st of May approaches. No Mow May is our biggest campaign – calling on all parts of society to join in a national movement to create thriving green spaces. 

We focus the campaign on May because it’s in May that the flowering season really gets going. Leaving areas of grass unmown in May lets the flowers multiply, better supporting wildlife over the summer. We might be the ones driving No Mow May today, but the seasonal relevance of May 1st has roots much deeper than any modern campaign can claim. 

White bell like flowers - Lily of the Valley

Celebrating the Summer 

Calan Mai or Calan Haf (meaning First day of May or First day of Summer) was a special day of celebration for Welsh people. In certain places it still is. This festival has ancient origins, sharing cultural roots with May Day, Beltane and the European Walpurgis Night. Regardless of their differences, these festivals are united in a shared celebration of the returning sunshine. The arrival of the sun encourages plant growth, and therefore carries the promise of plentiful food. 

During Calan Mai, people would traditionally dance, sing, and feast to celebrate the summer after a cold and barren winter. The village green (‘Twmpath chwarae’) would be officially opened, where people would gather to dance, perform and play sports. ‘Twmpath’ refers to a mound that would be prepared on the green. This would be decorated with branches of oak trees, and a fiddler or harpist would sit upon it, playing music in the evening sun. 

The Significance of the Seasons 

Our ancestors were deeply connected to nature’s phases. So much so that important dates in the seasonal calendar were considered sacred and even magic. Many of the festivities and traditions of Calan Mai are based in spirituality and botanical folklore. 

On Ysprydnos (May eve, one of the Welsh ‘spirit nights’, when the veil between this world and the next is said to be thinner) locals would collect branches and flowers to decorate their homes, celebrating and welcoming growth and fertility. Fires would be burned to ward off harmful spirits, and young men would place bunches of rosemary tied with white ribbon on the windowsills of those they admired. 

The festival also marks a special point in the agricultural calendar. This is the time that Welsh farmers would turn their herds out to pasture. These kinds of customs remind us that, until fairly recently, a knowledge of how plants, animals, and landscapes change with the seasons was deeply engrained in cultural norms.  

Hawthorn flowers

Reconnecting with the Seasons 

Nowadays, with central heating, electricity and food readily available all year-round, we’ve become detached from the turn of the planet. We observe and experience the seasons passing, but for many, harsh winters are nothing more than an inconvenience (although this is far from true for everyone). It’s hard for us to imagine the enormous significance the start of summer had, and continues to have, on people who rely directly on the land for their survival.  

Remembering Calan Mai and engaging with movements like No Mow May allow us to reconnect with the seasons. They remind us to tune into the habits of the Earth and become familiar again with the blooms and busts of nature. It also nurtures our own physical and mental wellbeing. Although we might forget it sometimes, we are creatures who have evolved in a world that changes with the seasons. When we appreciate how reliant we are on our planet and everything it provides us it becomes clear that the start of summer really is something worth singing and dancing for. 

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Black cow and white cow in Welsh Upland background trees and hills.

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Brown topped fungus with yellow gills in a green grassy area.

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