Shut Up and Dig

One Gardener’s Quest to be Mower-free

All this talk about Delawning and Organic Lawn Care can really turn a girl off the golf course look, ya know.  Not to mention wanting to avoid those loud, polluting mowers and blowers.  Plus, we’re seeing so many fabulous replacements for lawns – like woodland gardens, perennial gardens, shrub gardens and the to-die-for native Texas look in the gardens of Austin.  Compared to all of them, lawns look awfully uninspired.

THOSE PESKY LOGISTICSSteps400_2
Then there’s my own unique impediment to mowing:  this lovely boulder staircase that I have to navigate with a mower to get to the backyard.  When the rotting railroad tie steps were replaced I cited easy mower passage as a requirement for this stonework.  Steps with nice clean edges were what I had in mind but instead I got this really-rustic-totally-impractical kind of stone staircase that I have to CARRY any LAWNMOWER down.  Not fun.

So I decided it was time to find myself a cute little electric mower I could carry – done.  The cord’s a pain but what do you expect for just over 100 bucks?  And I totally loved it – until it died after 5 mowings.

PLAN B – THE MEADOW
Now with my cute mower awaiting repair, I had a gardening brainstorm, or so it seemed – I’ll just let the damn grass grow!  FREE THE GRASS – that’s the spirit! After all, the clover I’d been adding was already creating a nice meadow look.Talllawn1400_2  So the plan was to somehow manage to keep my little front lawn mowed but in the privacy of my backyard to take a giant step from naturalistic to, well, nature.  I was psyched.

So, how do you like the look?  Granted, it’s easy on the eyes but would you really like moving around your garden through 2-foot high grass?  I can tell you it feels more like trudging than walking.  And as the summer wore on, of course, there’s no telling how high it would have gotten but I’ll never know because suddenly my meadow had lost its romantic aura and I felt a urgent urge to CUT THE DAMN GRASS.

BACK TO NORMALSpringfromdeck2400_2
I won’t bore you with the details of making that happen – it took 3 mowers and a sythe – but finally it’s back to normal.  Long, biodiverse normal, but functionally normal enough.  And I learned a lesson.  Not just that grass grows taller than I’d have guessed but a lesson about human nature itself.  We don’t want high grasses around our homes, nosiree.  We don’t feel safe unless we can see those predators approaching, an imperative that really came home to me when the snakes started scurrying away from my mower.  So I asserted my homo sapien dominance, drove the larger wildlife from my grass, and reestablished it as the clearing around my homestead.  I guess I’m a savannah animal after all.

MORE ON MEADOWS
Here’s a good overview from the National Arboretum’s Scott Aker in the Washington Post.  Just scroll to his second Q&A for what  I would title "The Hard Truth About Meadows".   Now maybe if I’d just reread it myself a few weeks ago.

IS CLOVER THE ANSWER?
My recent research on meadows (and yes, gardeners simply must define their mistakes as research) brings up another hypothetis to be tested: that clover – naturally short, self-fertilizing because it fixes nitrogen, excellent provider of nectar for the bees – might just be the answer.  Or maybe a clover path through the tall grass?  Readers, what are your ideas for a no-mow-lawn-open-space-meadow type thingie?

Posted by on May 12, 2007 at 3:13 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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23 responses to “One Gardener’s Quest to be Mower-free”

  1. I no longer have to mow a lawn, but I still have a small lawn. My solution was to track down the source of a BEAUTIFUL Irish-looking lawn I saw at a local cemetery. It’s Pacific Sod’s No-Mow Mix. I’ve had it for about a year now, get compliments on it often, and haven’t mowed it once.

  2. layanee says:

    Clover is a good solution unless you really like to wiggle your toes in the grass! The bees can be a problem. Where lawns grow well without supplemental watering and an organic approach to fertilization, a lawn is a wondrous carpet and a habitat for all kinds of little critters. What is better than the smell of a freshly cut lawn? You can get that smell from dried sweet woodruff but it’s not the same as stepping outside with that scent on the breeze. Look how pretty your blooming trees look in the picture where they are set off by the cut lawn. I think there is a way for lawn and people to co-exist in harmony. Just find a kid who needs a job to mow it for you!

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    Susan, I can give you a brief rundown of what we are being taught in the Organic Landscaping class at USDA.

    Get your soil tested and amend as necessary.

    Fertilize in the spring with compost, spread more seed.

    Cut grass short once, then at highest setting thereafter.

    Typical lawns are bluegrass or fescues, which are cool season grasses. But people try to force them green in summer with huge amounts of fertilizer and water.

    Warm season grasses such as Buffalo grass and zoysia require very little maintenance, go green in the summer but are dormant in winter, meaning they turn brown.

    Try clover (yes, bees can be a problem) or mosses to replace lawns.

    Meadows do work, depending on the look you want. The American Horticulture Association is installing one now at its HQ at River Farm in Alexandria, VA.

    Some fescues can be grown without mowing.

    Don’t use chemical fertilizers or lawn companies that use them. Scott’s Turf Builder is 40 percent nitrogen. Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff are a series problem for our waterways and excessive usage–along with pesticides–adversely affects your soil ecosystem.

    Use compost tea instead.

  4. Doug Green says:

    Ah Susan – like all good guy gardeners, I have a solution for you.

    Simply duct tape old skis to the wheels and slide that sucker-mower to the bottom of your hill. Strap yourself on as well for added control. You could write it off as training for the next grasslympics.

    Cousin Red Green does it all the time. Mind you, he had to duct tape some old mattresses to the trees at the bottom of the hill just in case of high speed launching at the bottom and put up some snow fencing on the sides but he claims that adds to the realism of his grass course.

    Duct tape! That’s your answer.

  5. Doug Green! Please comment more!

    Great post, Susan. My lawn is also a constant source of frustration–it doesn’t want to grow in my sandy soil, and I’m not interested enough in it to actually rip it up and try to improve the soil.

    Ditto my reel mower–a disastrously heavy piece of poor engineering given to me by a friend who works for Environmental Defense but is apparently not SO committed that he would actually use something so stupid.

    I’ve driven all over the countryside, too, trying to find someone who’ll sharpen its blades. No luck.

  6. susan harris says:

    Those are some great comments and I think I agree with everyone. It’s especially nice to see the sensible middle ground between lawn-is-terrible and the ChemLawn approach.
    I wanna see waht’s in that NoMow Mix – gotta do some Googling for their site.
    Ed, I’ve sent this article to Shep at SafeLawns.org, suggesting a PowerPoint from you on organic lawn care would be great for DC gardeners. It’ll be fun to brainstorm with him Monday.
    And update: the cute little mower works! It just needed to cool off. I’m trying to learn to respect it when it gives me messages like pretending to be dead when it’s really just hot.

  7. Marte says:

    Great topic, great post and great comments! I won the battle with Mr. Weed and Feed husband so now am trudging around every morning picking off the yellow dandelion heads. The lawn is grass, clover, dandelions and ever spreading creeping charlie. But I like the view from my kitchen window: it’s all green from there. Didn’t I read that on your site, Doug Green? Step back 15 feet or more?

  8. Amy Stewart says:

    Here in the west we love buffalo grass for a no-mow lawn–and High Country sells several varieties for different climates. (http://www.highcountrygardens.com/catalog/browse/native-turf-grasses/)
    but it’s hard to establish a new kind of grass without first getting rid of the old grass.

    I’d be in favor of letting the damn thing grown and experimenting with different perennial grasses, bulbs, wildflowers, etc. that could liven it up. But to give it a more tame “I meant to do this” look, mow a nice wide path through it a couple times a year ala Great Dixter (I’ll try to find a photo), and maybe even mow a border around the edge so it looks more “hemmed in.” If you’re only re-mowing the path a couple times a year, you could hire a couple of burly boys to wrestle the lawn mower down there, yes?

  9. ” Readers, what are your ideas for a no-mow-lawn-open-space-meadow type thingie? ”
    – Right Plant, Right Place.

    If you desire a meadow and have the right climate and surrounding environmental factors to support its growth then plant site specific meadow plants.

    Different regions of the country will support different plant species.
    Here in my neck of the woods, mediterranean dry N. California one would look to vetch, clover , drought tolerant ground covers like ceanothus and arctostaphylos as well as local low growing sedges like carex.

    If we Californians choose tall growing meadow grasses we also have to assume the responsibility of mowing or weedwacking down our meadows by late spring for the State Code Compliant Fire laws ( and it just plain common sense ) .

    – heathers used as a meadow planting –
    http://picasaweb.google.com/DeviantDeziner/HillsideDevelopment/photo#5050513100060304962

    -drought tolerant grasses –
    http://picasaweb.google.com/DeviantDeziner/DervissdesignProjects/photo#5025970025398987010

    -Meadow mix on The Sea Ranch-
    http://picasaweb.google.com/DeviantDeziner/MendocinoMusings/photo#5030744659398087474

  10. Pam/Digging says:

    I agree that there has to be open space in a garden to appreciate the garden itself. Hence, the lawn’s usefulness as a foil and as a place to walk around and admire the garden.

    Lawns have their purpose. But if you’re tired of the lawn, try creative hardscaping. Yes, I know it’s a dirty word for some folks, but it does the trick too. Take another look at that photo of mine that Susan linked to in her first paragraph (under “gardens of Austin”): http://penick.dnsalias.net:58089/digging/images/Garden%20tour.JPG. Hardscaping, folks, with plants generously mixed in.

  11. Pam,
    That is a beautiful solution !

  12. Doug Green says:

    Marte – “step 15 feet back” absolutely! If you do that you get a much better look at the slope before you launch your mower-sled. And from that far back it never looks like such a dumb idea. Like most of our best ideas, it does help to look at them from a little further away.

    But as cousin Red says, “If a woman can’t find you handsome, she can find you handy” Just glad to pass on some good sensible advice to these city-bound ranters.

  13. eliz says:

    Electric mulching mowers sound cool–I am thinking of getting one to mulch my leaves; I don’t have grass.

    BTW, I am a huge fan of sweet woodruff. I have a ton of it and it smells glorious.

  14. Uncle Pavian says:

    Our front yard is about the size of our living room, and under some big trees so it doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight. After a couple of years of trying the lawn thing, I got tired of mowing and took a Rototiller to the whole plot of ground. I put in ivy, which looks better, likes living in the shade and doesn’t have to be cut back. Plus, there’s the entertainment value of the titanic but slow motion struggle with the bamboo for dominance.

  15. MaryContrary says:

    I like clover. For one thing, the bunnies prefer it to anything I’m actually trying to grow in either the borders or vegetable garden. And, white clover, from what I understand, used to be a regular component of lawn seed mixture until the evil empire behind grass apartheid declared it undesireable. Clover on its own, however, isn’t very, well, sturdy. It just won’t take the beating that a lawn will. I too am going to check out some of these low/no mow seed options. In the meantime, I’ve discovered another virtue to mowing on the highest setting. Lawn that is regularly cut high just doesn’t look as shaggy if you go more than a week or so between cuttings.

  16. Kim says:

    My ultimate “lawn” would be either of creeping thymes (like the one pictured in the High Country Gardens catalog) or of chamomile ‘Treneague,’ which sadly seems only to be available in the UK. Treneague is a non-flowering form, so we’d have to be able to import the roots somehow… *insert wistful sigh here*

  17. GardenLily says:

    I much prefer the look of a carpet of thyme or clover, to lawn, but the bees would be an issue for me, if the area is for walking.

    I’ve been wondering for some while : What about a field of periwinkle? I’ve seen some pretty large areas covered in it, it is fast-spreading and the bees don’t seem too interested in it. It seems pretty durable stuff, could it withstand some walking on?

  18. John says:

    In the eastern U.S., at least, lawn seems to be the most practical and durable green surface if any amount of foot traffic is needed.

    One idea to try is mowed lawn paths for the areas where people need to tread, surrounded by low-growing (no taller than 8″), drought-tolerant ground covers for the surrounding non-traffic areas. If the area is sunny, dry, and well drained, various kinds of sedum might work especially well.

  19. John says:

    GardenLily: Yes, you’re right–periwinkle can probably take some foot traffic.

  20. James Carter says:

    I prefere creeping bent, a sports turf that is highly robust, and a little bit harder for my dog to ruin, also stays a bit greener with little water in the summer. I also love grass, i think it can make or break a garden, especially in the large country estates like Chatworth, and Institutions like RHS Wisley and RBG Kew. i do how ever see the attraction of wild flower meadows, if i had my dream garden i would set aside an area at the end of my garden with wild flowers and a little gazebo & Chair for summer evening reading!

  21. GardenLily says:

    Okay, something wierd is going on in the comments…. I see my name from my May 13 post, but it has been replaced by someone else’s comment, and they are not getting credit for it!

    John responded to my comment about wondering if periwinkle would make a good groundcover, since the bees don’t seem to take interest in it, and would it take a bit of foot traffic. I’d love to know if anyone has used it for this, I’ve been wondering about it for some time.

  22. GardenLily says:

    Oh my! I must have my glasses on upside-down tonight! I now see that the name of the poster is UNDER their comment, not ABOVE. The little green line threw me off. I think I’d better take a break from the computer!!

  23. Matilija says:

    Regarding periwinkle, the only good thing about it in my opinion is that it can’t take any foot traffic. I have Vinca major courtesy an uphill neighbor. Pulling it is a pain, but stomping on it is both satisfying and effective.

    I love buffalo grass because it never gets taller than 4 inches. From afar it makes a beautiful hummocky meadow, and close up it looks like a fairy wheat field. It has two draw backs: it turns brown in winter (quite early) and it has a gray-green color not everyone will love.

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