The unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing

Mowing (noun) – that droning sound that disturbs what little peace and quiet is left in this fragmented world.

Without a doubt, mowing, next to indiscriminate pesticide use, is one of the most over-used land management practices.  And much of it is done without any thought at all as to the changes it instantly imparts on plant communities.  Just the other day, I saw a crew push-mowing a 1 acre field of 3ft tall native grass down to the nub.  I bet whoever owns that lot, was complaining a year ago that there was no grass.

People are strange.  They complain there’s no grass in a drought (a no-brainer), then they cut it down as short as possible as soon as it starts to grow.  Where’s the logic in that?

Grass is supposed to be taller than carpet.  Let it grow, see what it does; there is much to learn from observing the genesis of a prairie throughout the growing season.

This one acre vacant lot (not the one mentioned previously) was bare, gravelly soil at the end of May. By the middle of July it had become an interesting little “pocket prairie” with over 30 species inside its boundary. Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Sideoats Grama (B. curtipendula), Green Sprangletop (Leptochloa dubia), and Cowpen Daisy (Verbesina encelioides), among others, happily populated this lot until it was mowed short like a boring lawn.

If you find yourself having to mow, consider mowing only a portion of your land each year or even each season.  Mow at different heights, too.  You don’t have to mow grass down to the soil, that doesn’t do any good at all for the plant communities in the long run.  That increases solar radiation into the soil (short-cut grass provides less shade to the soil surface than does tall grass), which increases evaporation of soil moisture and negatively affects plant communities, which in turn negatively affects wildlife species.  Mowing your grass higher than average (4-8″) at the end of the growing season during dry years, will increase the viability of those grasses as they can capture more moisture through the cold season than short grasses, and it will make those taller grasses healthier in advance of spring green-up.

Frequently changing your mowing patterns, timing of mowing, area mowed, and cut heights will give you more plant diversity.  Mowing the same pattern, at the same height, and at the same time will only give you the same (and eventually boring) results every time with much less plant diversity.  Constant mowing also depletes nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium levels in the soil; those three nutrients are the most limiting factors for plant growth.

Ninety-nine percent of our prairies in North America are gone forever.  They were gone before we ever had a chance to really buckle down and study them, to learn their possible uses in medical fields, to try and replicate their beauty through art, or to simply use them as places of recreation and relaxation.  Constant short mowing only contributes further to the decline of what little remains of our prairies; and as the native vegetation becomes extirpated from an area, so too does the wildlife, for they depend on those grasses and wildflowers and trees and shrubs for food and for habitat.

Even homeowners can add diversity to the landscape.  The key is not to use Bermudagrass or St. Augustine grass.  Those grasses are not native to the U.S. and are invasive species, forming dense monocultures where nothing else will grow.  Wildlife do not like either of those grasses very much at all.  If you do see wildlife feeding on them, it is more out of desperation than anything; a sobering sign of our increasingly fragmented natural landscapes.

“Grow it, don’t mow it!”

U.S. lawn maintenance annually consumes about 800 million gallons of gasoline, $5.2 billion of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers, and $700 million in pesticides. Up to two thirds of the drinking water consumed in municipalities goes to watering lawns. The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.

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