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
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
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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