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.