rethinking how i mow, and late-fall lawn tips

I MENTIONED IT IN MY resolutions (the ones I made extra-early, when I started fall cleanup weeks ago): It’s time to rethink some of the ways I mow.  For me, part of the revised plans are aesthetic (that’s the evolving view out the upstairs window, above), but wildlife appeal and less work also figure in, since longer “lawn” may flower and set seed and of course requires less frequent attention. Fall is a good time for some tips for the last mowings of the season—and an overall approach to season-long organic lawncare, including some do-it-now reminders about your mower blade, a soil test and more.

recap: why i’m leaving one area longer

‘MOW MORE CREATIVELY,’ I wrote in my recent resolutions.  A dry summer reminded me of this, when rather than risk the steep hilly part above the house burning off, I just let it grow from high summer on. Insects and birds were happy I did–more pollen, more seeds, more habitat–and I enjoyed the change in texture and color, too, as I will all winter. (That’s the area in the top photo, seen through the window screen. You can see the immediate back yard is traditional short lawn grass, and uphill is coarser, including the start of an island of uncut grass below the tall ornamental grasses up the hill, encircling it, and also in the photo below.)

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) was part of the jumble up there when I got here, and I used to let it flourish, mowing just once in late April or early May. Eventually woody things started to take over, so I started mowing it short, like lawn, to eradicate them, until this dry summer. Up popped the bluestem again, and I’m going to mow around the densest stands of this bunchgrass to cultivate it again.

You might add some grasses or flowering plants and make a mini-meadow somewhere. I’m just letting my existing plants express themselves–and helping the bluestem, in particular, by timing my one mowing just as it emerges, but after unwanted neighboring plants are already up. Those mostly non-native grasses around the bluestem start growing in the cool season of early spring, getting a headstart. Basically I am beheading those and setting them back a bit, letting the about-to-burst bluestem get the edge instead. It’s a warm-season grower, which can be to its disadvantage competitively; I’m trying to adjust that.

An update pictured below, in late August: how the plan is playing out after another year or two.

“Some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve visited have deliberate mown paths through taller grass,” I said in the resolution article, “or other loose areas where the garden transitions from kempt to a little wilder.  Yin-yang, you know?”

good mowing 101

SEVERAL OF THESE organic lawncare tips are on the “urgent” list–timed for right now. But rather than just give you those, I thought a little review of my overall approach to managing lawn was in order:

  • Always use a sharp blade; tearing grass invites trouble. I bet most of us rarely check, sharpen or replace our blades. Do so now, while we’re talking about it.
  • Lower the deck to about 3 inches for the final mowing of the season; normal height I use is 3.5 inches.
  • Never let grass get so long that you have to cut off more than one-third of the height in one cutting. If weather forces you to skip mowings, plan to rake up excess clippings rather than let them mat down. Compost them.
  • Otherwise, though, always let clippings lie to add nutrients back to the lawn.
  • With fall leaves, a reasonable amount can be ground up right in place, too, especially if your mower’s a mulcher or at least a rotary type, but not so it leaves leaf mulch in mats on the grass.  Rake and compost heavy accumulations.
  • Don’t feed if the “grass” (or whatever combination of grass and weeds your lawn contains) is thick and green. A green, vigorous lawn doesn’t need fertilizer, and all you’re doing is causing yourself more mowing.
  • Never feed in winter or early spring. In my state (New York), it’s actually against the law since 2010 to feed a phosphorus-containing product between December 1 and April 1. The ban starts even earlier in some counties, to protect fish and avoid conditions that favor algae bloom. The danger of runoff when the ground is frozen is just too great. Research guidelines for your area through your cooperative extension.
  • If you think you need to feed next year, first do a soil test—like how about right now? Some high-traffic or weak areas may need to be fed—but perhaps not an entire lawn. Plan to eliminate fertilizing as a reflex—just because it’s spring, or early fall in the North, doesn’t mean your lawn needs feeding, and again, just because one spot needs help doesn’t mean an acre does. (SafeLawns.org has a list of organic products, if you do need something, and other resources for more information.)
  • While you’re doing the final mowing(s), “read” your lawn weeds—then research what they are trying to tell you. For instance, certain weeds spell “compaction”—and what’s needed isn’t an herbicide application, but rather soil aeration. Moss suggests too-acid conditions; liming is in order. (Note: some, such as dandelions and crabgrass, may not be showing off right now; be sure to add those to your list of clues if you had them this spring and summer.) How to read your weeds (a pdf).
  • Make a commitment to stop using weed-and-feed products or if you still are. I have hosted garden tours here for more than 15 years, and people always say how nice the “lawn” is, not even realizing that I am really mowing a mix of turfgrass and weeds, to which I have added loads of white clover. No herbicides involved, ever. Experiment, and support the greater environment.
  1. ellen says:

    I have been designing around the higher grass areas in order to sculpt the landscape. In the last year I have been adding more areas to this concept and tying it into areas of wildflower meadows. I think it adds a lot to the visual texture, but the deer love to sleep in those areas! Glad to read your post for encouragement!

  2. Handy Andy says:

    Relating to your comment about the view from inside your house, I used wallpaper in an upstairs bedroom with colors that look fabulous with the tri-colored beech tree just outside the windows.

  3. Norma says:

    We have a large area near the house that we allow to go natural, with mown paths throughout. In the spring the lovely native phlox cover it, and by fall whatever wildflowers/weeds that do well that year can get over 4 feet high. (My grandkids call it “The Maze” and love to scare themselves running through it at night.) Ever since we started this, I’ve noticed the majority of the grasshoppers on our property like to spend their time in the tall growth therefore staying out of my cultivated beds. I’ve had very little bug damage for years!

  4. Candylei says:

    I agree that people should stop using weed and feed. Did you know those products contain ingredients that cause lymphoma? I feel so sorry for employees in garden centers where they have these bags indoors and they have to inhale those fumes. Most in the country like you don’t use them, we don’t and our grass is still kelly green in November. We don’t rake and the mulching adds natural ingredients.
    How did you make out after Hurricane Sandy. I hope you are well and have power, food and heat! We didn’t lose power here but so many did.

  5. Angela says:

    I live in an area where Weed N Feed is banned, I make no secret to how I would kill for a bag of it even to apply once a year. I really admire a manicured green grass lawn and it’s something I have always wanted for myself. The chemical ban has made this impossible and keeping up with the weeds in the front lawn would be a full time job so I accept there will be weeds but there are way more weeds than grass and the drought did not help. Since Sept. when the temperatures dropped and we got rain all that came up was weeds, not a blade of grass. I have hand weeded as much as possible and seeded but don’t expect much until next spring. I’m very overwhelmed at this point and not sure what else I can do. I guess I could get the front resodded but it will be full of weeds by the end of the season. I left the end of the lawn next to the street go wild for the past couple of years and it was pleasant with the wildflowers that popped up although I think I would be asking for trouble with the by-laws if I let my entire front lawn be like that.
    I DO like the idea of mixing clover in with the grass, I love clover, but I have a patch in the back that gets very dense and clogs up the mower. I hate mowing so I let it get too long I guess. Any thoughts on how I can achieve a green looking lawn with minimal upkeep? Must be drought resistant because I never irrigate, maybe that is the issue with the grass because it does require regular waterings. The plus side to this doom and gloom tale is my shrub and perennial beds are AWESOME and I had very little loss due to the drought. I don’t want to garden my entire front yard though.

  6. Jason says:

    You’re definitely right about the sharp blade, I had mine sharpened this summer and I was amazed at the difference. I think it’s especially true for a push mower like mine.

    I also like clover in the lawn, I think before modern weedkillers came out they were considered an acceptable part of the lawn and not a weed.

  7. Beth says:

    Hi Margaret. My lawn has tons of weeds, so your link to reading weeds is appreciated. Here in Ontario, the first half of our summer we had drought conditions. Most people’s lawns turned brown. If it weren’t for all the weeds in our lawn, there would not have been any green at all! The dead grass and lack of mowing allowed many of those weeds to grow and flower, and I saw for the first time all the different types of beautiful flowers they had. I even dug one pretty weed out of the lawn and stuck it in my flower garden, until I realized it was a type of dandelion (small orange flower) and pulled it back out (after it was done flowering.)

  8. Linzy says:

    Hi there, Margaret-
    I just found your blog for the first time (I think winter is coming and I am having a hard time letting go… keep reminding myself that my plants need sleep too!) and I found this post very informative. I live in Vermont, near Lake Champlain. We don’t use any fertilizer or weed spray on our lawn, nor will we, but it is a little sparse, and not as green as I would like. I love the “read your weed” pdf, but I had a question about your quick statement: “I have added loads of white clover”… I really don’t mind a few weeds here or there, and I LOVE the clovers that pop up, I sometimes have wished our lawn could consist mostly of them. Did you seed for them? And where did you purchase the seed? Do you find it to be invasive in your beds, or no more so than without having added them? Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linzy. Thanks for saying hello. Yes, I sort of scratched my lawn up (raked stiffly) and overseeded with Dutch white clover, Trifolium repens. It is available in bags in the lawncare department of all the local garden centers and farm supply stores, and various catalogs also mail-order it. It is only 6 inches high, and doesn’t invade anything.

  9. Lorie says:

    Yeah for your color thoughts on mums. I won’t allow yellow or rust, etc. in my space. The pink hued ones may startle the eye at first, but pair them with kale, etc. and it’s a delight.

  10. joan, beacon ny, zone 6 says:

    If you do let grasses grow, I would be vigilant about invasive species popping up. I’ve allowed some pretty weeds to grow and lived to regret it; they can start to pop up everywhere and they crowd out natives. Perhaps start with a native wildflower mix in swathes among your grasses.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joan. Yes, good advice, thank you. What’s up there are remnants of various things grown for fodder (“hay” so to speak) and also some goldenrod if you don’t mow at all, some hawkweed (Heiraceum) and the little bluestem.There are some others, but nothing very major. But one must look at the population and see who grows how and when (cool-season growers vs. warm-season and such) and time the mowing accordingly to favor the desired and knock back the unwanted! :)

  11. Delores says:

    When we first moved to our little ranch three years ago, there was a very large amount of mowing that the previous residents did. The first year I followed their lead. Then I realized that not only did I want to mow less but that it would look more appealing and be better for wildlife if I redefined the mowed area. Now we have large areas of wild grasses that are beautiful, our bird population has multiplied (I also provide water year round and am now a part of Cornell University’s Project Feederwatch), and I mow less. I decided to use a people powered mower that I walk behind rather than a rider mower. Since I am a senior citizen who needs a reason to be active, I love pushing my mower around the yard grooming it into its beauty. Our ‘lawn’ is also made up of turf and weeds. Thank you for the article about weeds helping identify turf problems. I definitely need to aerate! I always learn something new. Thank you for your blog Margaret. I think autumn is one of my favorite seasons, well along with spring, summer and winter!

  12. BlueSwimmer says:

    For Angela and others looking for a green lawn without tall clover, google “microclover”. It is bred to be a third of the height of regular white clover and doesn’t flower as much, but stays green and lush even in dry conditions, just like white clover. I just fall seeded it in my yard and hoping it will spread next year.

  13. Angela says:

    Blueswimmer, TY, I think this micro clover sounds perfect but I only found 1 seed supplier in Canada who have a mix of it with grass but only 5% is the clover :(.
    I will keep looking though, hopefully it’s hardy for zone 4. I read that the white clover is a short lived perennial so you would have to be seeding yearly which is no biggy, I did not know that though.
    I would personally go the wildflower route but our municipal government isn’t there yet.

  14. Mari says:

    Now is a good time to put in raised beds and prepare them for spring. I find they are particularly nice for herbs and greens. I found some great ones online at Natural Yards. They come in all shapes and sizes and are really easy to put together. Even an old lady like me can do it (with a little help with ground leveling). A cinch on a patio though..I think I’m going to research and see what I could plant right now that would go through the winter. Maybe arugula or kale?

  15. Elle says:

    This is a wonderful idea for so many obvious reasons, both aesthetically for us and practically, for the wildlife. Also, wonder if you couldn’t just dig the woody plants out one enterprising day, leaving the rest to flourish in it’s place? Generally I’m against managed wilderness because we have no idea how all components of nature work together, but in small spaces like these, might be win-win.

  16. Eileen Simon says:

    My husband and I recently bought an older home (Zone 6-B) with an adjacent field. I suspect this consists of pretty much the same sort of stuff as yours, Margaret. Over the years, it was probably cropped and also used for pasture. And, more recently, for haying. My question is WHEN and HOW OFTEN does one mow “to favor the desired and knock back the unwanted.” Last year, we had someone come in to cut and he came twice–once, in mid-June and then again, in early Oct. Timing was at his convenience. This year, I’d like to schedule things a little more thoughtfully. Any advice on timing and frequency? Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Eileen. You have to determine what plants in the mix you wish to favor…so for example I like little bluestem (grass) and bunchgrasses like it, and it is a warm-season grass — it comes up later than cool-season things, including many “weeds” in my field. So I wait till the cools-season things are maybe 6 or 10 inches high, like start of May, but BEFORE the bluestem is up (just before it gets going) and knock down everything else and give the bluestem a clear advantage that way. Like this.

      There is also all the buildup to deal with, so this year (because I didn’t mow last year) I will probably scalp the old vegetation as soon as the ground dries but before anything really gets growing, since it may take more than one mowing to get all of it. Then I’ll mow again in the beginning of May as I say.

      The other thing you want to do is figure out what creatures you are trying to assist (or avoid) and plan for that, too. I have a lot of birds who enjoy the seed up there on the hill well in the winter, when it’s covered in snow, so although it would be easier to mow in fall and again in early May — before winter beat it down and made it all wet – I’d hate depriving the birds etc. the feast.

      So you make a schedule according to what crops and creatures you wish to favor.

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