Get Rid of Your Lawn Mower

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, June 12, 1998

It was a classic scene, perfect for a lawn chemical or mowing machine ad. On a postage-stamp-sized, suburban lawn, manicured into a monotonous grass monoculture, two young boys push small plastic lawn mowers behind the proud homeowner with his fancy new gasoline-powered version.

The demise of our power lawn mower six years ago was one of the best things that has happened to our farm's landscape. Its beauty, diversity and sustainability, as well as our pleasure have increased. I bought the mower about a decade ago when I thought I needed it to help define the spaces on our homestead, which was then emerging from the vigorous second growth of an abandoned farm.

We never mowed a lot. Much of our slightly less than six acres is woods, wetlands, meadow or hand-tended food and flower plantings. I used the mower for some areas around the house and kitchen garden, and for a path through the meadow to the lower fields.

Like most mowers, it needed oil and gasoline, made a lot of noise, and smelled awful when it was running and even for a while afterward. At least once a year it needed more serious maintenance. It was a bagging mower made during that relatively brief period when it was thought that grass clippings should be collected and taken to the dump - sometime between the early riding tractor fad and the current one for large mulching mowers.

It took me several years to really appreciate the changes that not using a power mower had wrought. The most striking realization was that in the soil of nearly every place, the potential exists for a stunning landscape. Even the compacted soil of Bridgeport's trash-strewn roadsides puts forth a glorious show of delicate white Queen Anne's Lace and beautiful, wild blue chicory flowers for much of the summer - until some public works employee comes along with a mower, that is. Then it becomes just another trash-strewn roadside.

If you don't mow for a decade, almost anywhere around here, a beautiful mixed hardwood forest will begin to emerge. As the landscape evolves, diversity increases. There are hundreds of wild flowers, fresh ones with each season. You'll probably also be able to pick blackcap raspberries and perhaps some wild strawberries, elderberries or blueberries. The variety of butterflies and birds will increase, too.

I still do some mowing, once or twice a season, to make paths or to get mulch for the garden. Now, however, my mowing is a lot quieter and smells better, too. I use old-fashioned, yet still elegant and effective, cutting machines- a sickle and a long-handled scythe of the type frequently pictured with the grim reaper. With a sharpening stone in my pocket, and my increasing skill, these tools are a pleasure to use, and provide great exercise, too. I can listen to the birds and smell the flowers while I mow the paths or the hay field.

Working by hand, I don't cut the violets, Black-eyed Susans or Monarch-butterfly-attracting milkweeds which provide such beauty. The smaller sickle is used for detail work at the edges. It is amazing how few years it takes for a landscape that's not mowed everywhere to become beautiful. It's important, however, to identify the invasive species like multiflora roses, Asiatic bittersweet, quack grass, poison ivy and Norway maples, for example, and remove them by the roots. This selectivity leaves the more welcome and well-behaved native flowers, shrubs and trees to thrive: blooming, fruiting, and attracting birds, butterflies and toads, before they die and decay into fertile soil. Admittedly, creating this landscape takes a little more knowledge and imagination then it does to maintain a perfectly boring lawn of two-to-three-inch high grass. However, it is less work, and learning about local plants is a great reward.

I had never tried to create a lawn here on our farm, so I haven't had to battle the negative effects of fertilizers, herbicides or a well-established sod during this transition. If you have these problems, use compost and a thick covering of leaves as your allies on the way to a more interesting and appropriate landscape.

Imagine how much quieter our neighborhoods will be as more and more of our neighbors take an ecological approach to landscaping and retire their lawn mowers forever.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.