Climate Matters: Cutting back on mowing
23rd in a series
As many Vermonters become more aware of the climate impacts of traditional grass mowing, at Cornwall Orchards Bed and Breakfast we’re exploring alternate approaches. We bought our property in 2017, and since then we have experimented with changes in mowing to lessen our environmental impact, improve the grounds and provide better pollinator habitat. Enhancing the poetic views from the back deck throughout the year has been a favorite project — we are a bed and breakfast after all. We have tried different things and observed the results. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve discovered.
We regularly mow close to the house, paths in the meadow and around fruit trees and gardens. Our first big change was to try mowing our four-acre meadow annually instead of twice a year, as previous owners had. Then, thinking it would attract more wildlife, we shifted to mowing the meadow every two years. This included areas that had been lawn, areas that had been annually mown and some that had been semi-annually mown before we moved here. With one exception. Based on research from the University of Guelph, we mowed an easy-to-observe section of common milkweed in late July to provide fresh late summer leaves for monarch caterpillars to munch on.
Well, the two-year “no-mow” experiment did not meet our goals. Areas that had been mowed lawn became thick-thatched and lumpy terrain where the vole population exploded. Invasive honeysuckle (hiding but well rooted) spread in areas that were previously mowed annually and grew big and woody, creating shelter for… voles (and others) resulting in more work cutting and pulling the stumps.
On the other hand, we welcomed old-field succession tree species — sumac, choke and black cherry, gray dog wood, red oak and ash — in a few areas, and now avoid mowing these two-to-three shrubby “islands.” A subterranean apple tree came up close to the house, too (a seedling or old orchard stump that I since successfully grafted with a family heirloom apple from Connecticut, but that’s another story). As for diversity, we have at least four species of goldenrod, three clumps of wild asparagus, thin-leaved cone flower and at least three different asters.
All this experimentation added to the texture of our meadow view and provided more forage for wildlife. Guests can meander the paths and watch butterflies and bluebirds. It saved us money and time as well. Although I have to confess it does add some hassle for the guy on the big tractor who comes to mow the meadow in straight lines in the fall: “Can you avoid this area and not mow over there…?”
If we had a smaller property, annual mowing — after asters bloom in the fall — would work nicely to encourage a diverse meadow. One would still need to hand-pull a few burdock, parsnip, garlic mustard and baby buckthorn. Not too big an effort.
At our scale of about four acres of meadow, though, it’s tougher, although because it’s so beautiful, we continue to mow once a year in the late fall. When we spot the invaders we wade in and hand-pull them. It’s a bunch of work. And while annual mowing thwarts the honeysuckle, we still have to wrestle a few big ones out every year. Thankfully our mowing contractor cleans his equipment between jobs (be sure to ask). This has helped us almost eliminate poison parsnip.
Beware! The worst invasives can gain a foothold after two seasons. While we have learned to tolerate the pretty purple spotted knapweed, I suffer watching the marauding smooth bed straw prepare to flower twice a year. Some plants with value to pollinators and foragers out compete others, but this can be managed.
The result of our efforts? A late summer walk through our hilly field is now a colorful wonder, invasives and all! We have also reduced our gasoline consumption, improved soils and… sheltered enough voles and rabbits to keep their predators coming back for more.
Lise Anderson co-owns Cornwall Orchards B&B, sustainably-focused lodging. She edits grants and articles remotely for the University of Michigan, where she worked for 20 years. She is an author, avid gardener and ecologist.
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