The Lawn Less Mown
When the grass is dormant during the winter months from November to April, we don't mow our lawn. If too many leaves accumulate, we rake them and use them for mulch in our wooded areas as discussed in my lawn-edging article: Cutting Edges.
We have not used fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide on our lawn since we moved here four years ago. In that time other plants have been growing along with the St. Augustine grass that the previous owner installed. Some are desirable wild flowers, while we consider others to be weeds. They are easier to see and pull during the winter. It's best to pull out these weeds before they go to seed to reduce future populations. Wedelia (Sphagneticola trilobata) was one such weed that was growing in the lawn out back and when we let a large portion go to meadow, it crawled all over everything else. It has been a major job to remove it. I'll watch for it in the future, because I don't want to go through all that work again.
During the winter I usually rescue some of the desirable plants from the lawn and transplant them to areas where they won't get mowed down. In past years I've transplanted, soft rushes, white-topped sedges, asters, evening primroses, ladies tresses, and more. See below for more details on some treasures from the lawn: (I'll cover rushes and sedges in a future article.)
Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
At first glance, blue-eyed grass looks like a grass. Its leaves are the same width as the St. Augustine grass in the lawn, but its leaves emanate from a central growing point-not along runners (stolons) like St. Augustine. In fact this is not a grass at all, but a delicate member of the iris family. The star-shaped flowers range from pale to dark blue. It's the middle of April as I'm writing this article and the blue-eyed grasses are blooming. I've spotted several places where they are growing in the lawn.
The leaves grow vertically in a garden or wooded area, but those growing in a lawn, where the vertical leaves are chopped off by the lawnmower, spread horizontally (as seen in the top photo). I've been expanding one of my rain gardens and blue-eyed grasses are great in that environment where it could be very wet or quite dry.
I dug a dozen blue-eyed grasses from the lawn to use in the rain garden. I dig in from two sides with a sharp-bladed trowel and carefully remove the plant while leaving the grass runners in place. Then I fill the hole with soil and tamp it down. The grass and other plants will quickly fill in.
Home Depot had blue-eyed grass for sale, which is great. It's good to see them carrying native plants. So if you don't have any in your lawn, it should be easy to find some commercially. Plant blue-eyed grass in your butterfly garden in full or partial sun, but don't plant them too close to the edge of a garden where they could be mistaken for grass and pulled out or whacked down by the lawnmower guy(s).
Lawn Orchids (Zeuxine strateumatica)
These little orchids with their fat, yellow tongues grace our winter lawn. Lawn orchids are not predictable and transplanting or otherwise trying to tame them is probably not a good use of time. I do enjoy them wherever they sprout, knowing that my neighbors who mow their lawns all winter long will never see one. It's a treasure that's available only if you take the time to notice.
This is a native of Southeast Asia and people have theorized that it was imported by accident with centipede grass, which is also from that region.
Clover (Trifolium repens)
Several patches of extra green clover stood out in contrast to the dormant grass in the lawn this winter. The flowers attracted bees, butterflies, and other insects during the chilly months when the choice of nectar-bearing flowers is small.
One of the strongest ecological objections to a lawn is its lack of diversity. In addition to the bees and butterflies, clover attracts parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs on pest species such as aphids, scales, and whiteflies-they don't bother humans or their pets. Having a variety of plants in your lawn along with the grasses will increase the diversity of insects and their predators, and this will help keep insect populations under control.
Clover is a legume and is related to beans, peas, etc. One of the traits of legumes is their ability to "fix" nitrogen. While the air contains more than 70% nitrogen gas, most plants have no way to capture it. Legumes form root nodules in a symbiotic relationship with special bacteria that can extract the nitrogen gas and turn it into a useable form for the plant. Clover is widely used as a "green manure" where growers plant it in the winter and then plow it under before planting the main crops. Clover is particularly good for this because it grows well in poor soil during the winter months.
European settlers brought white clover to the New World where it has escaped cultivation. This is an edible plant and you can add its leaves or flowers to your salads, but only if you have not fertilized or poisoned your lawn.
The Lawn Less Mowed
While we don't mow at all during the winter, during the growing season we mow less often than most of our neighbors-normally about every ten days to two weeks or so. Sometimes, if we're out of town, it may be a month between mowings. We set the lawnmower blade to its highest setting for most of the lawn and keep the blade sharpened. Our less mown lawn is still quite presentable. Also we have enjoyed the company of bluebirds, blue jays, brown thrashers, and many other birds that frequent our un-poisoned lawn throughout the year.
<< The yellow line marks the property line between our lawn and our neighbor's. This photo was taken at the end of March and we hadn't mowed our lawn since November, while our neighbor had a service mow, edge, and blow every week or so. At the end of the dormant period there's only a small difference in height-about one to two inches, at most.
Just think of all the time, money, and energy we've saved and we reduced the air and noise pollution too. Plus we have the benefit of our lawn treasures in the winter. So turn your lawn into one that's less mown all year long and next winter, allow your lawn to go dormant.
Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.