Do I Have to Mow all That?

Whenever I get to the first mowing of the season, I am always reminded of poor Timothy in Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien, 1972).  The various fields around the main yard are composed of foot high grass clumped and smashed by winter’s snow and ice.  I try to go slow, hoping that vibrations and noise will allow small creatures the chance to escape, unless of course they are ill like Timothy and cannot.  I did see a large rodent – a vole perhaps – run hither and thither while mowing our pond field the first time this season, and I had to “brake for black snakes” several times while mowing last week.  Truth be told though, the species that I most worry about when mowing are not mobile at all.  I care mostly about tree seedlings.

We loved Halcyon from the start, but it was a little too groomed for our aesthetic.  Most of the fields around the house were mowed.  The area around the pond and stream were mowed to the bank, leaving no riparian border, which is so important for filtering water run-off and for macroinvertebrate life.  Some areas were even barren of grass, and by the heat of July would practically scream ‘ugly’ because they were composed of hard, cracked clay.  These spaces were not only unsightly; they were impossible for roots to take hold.  To counter this overly groomed style of management, we quickly enacted our own management style: benign neglect mixed with a frenzy of mowing, trimming, and brush clearing during our teacher vacation time.  Of course, our two month summer vacation was also comprised of family visits and often a camping trip anywhere less hot and humid than Virginia in July, relegating this frenzy of yard work to a mere few weeks.  Needless to say, in our 12 years at Halcyon, the aesthetic pendulum has flipped 180 degrees.  It’s a jungle out there.

I have seen pamphlets whose purpose is to encourage landowners to conserve energy and help wildlife by reducing mowing.  These pamphlets are usually titled Do I have to mow all that?  I ponder this advice almost every time I climb up onto our riding mower.  Not because I dislike mowing, I like mowing.  It is one of those rare tasks where the outcome looks good and even lasts for a bit of time, unlike most housework chores.  No, I ponder this advice because I really do have to mow all that.  I just don’t, usually.

If I didn’t mow the hill behind the garden, “fondly” named Ailanthus Alley, we would have a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) forest in as little as 10 years, maybe earlier.  This would be an ugly forest, in my opinion, and would squeeze out many native plants because of an alleopathic chemical exuded from the roots that helps it get a competitive edge.

View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002
View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002

If I didn’t mow Mulberry Row – named after Thomas Jefferson’s Mulberry Row and because the core of our house was the quarters for slaves of the original property owners sometime between the 1830s and 1860s – we’d have an even denser forest of non-native mulberry (Morus alba).  This species was brought over in colonial times to spur a silk industry.  The industry never took off, but the tree sure has.  I only wish the native mulberry (Morus rubra) had the same competitive edge.  Alas, I’ve only one native mulberry and easily hundreds of invasive ones, no doubt tens of thousands waiting in the seed bank.

Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.
Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.

If I didn’t mow the pond field, we’d be taken over by autumn olive, wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora – an aggressive native wildflower), honeysuckle, and yes, ailanthus.  This flood plain is the best soil on the property and we are undecided as to whether to keep it tree-free or not.  For now though, I selectively mow around about a dozen black walnuts, two tulip poplars, a black locust, and several redbuds.  I imagine a skyward observer thinking I am drunk as I weave, curve, brake, and back up often during that critical time of discerning native seedlings from invasives.  I mow all the fields once or twice a year, and then I mow paths for the rest of the mowing season.

Mowed pond field, April 2013
Mowed pond field, April 2013

There are two more spaces – Windmill Hill and the upper field – that are more diverse in their succession.  This diversity includes hardwood trees and cedars along with autumn olive and ailanthus.  In these spaces the cedars are rapidly taking over and in the last four years have narrowed some of my paths so much so that I cannot get the mower through.  And there is yet one more area on the property I’d love to clear of invasives, but I am getting tired just thinking about all this toil; I best close this essay and get to some brush work.

Same pond field view, May 19, 2013.  You can see a path I've started.
Same pond field view, May 19, 2013. You can see a path I’ve started.

So, I don’t mow all that in that I don’t mow it all every time I mow.  The last owners did so and, well, Halcyon just wasn’t as attractive or as diverse.  We’ve seen an increase in rabbits and other small mammals, birds, and possibly even fox, bear, and coyote evidenced only by scat so far, and nearby sightings.  I had a flock of turkeys pass through last fall and I know they live nearby.  They are all welcome, even the hawk (see to see why I might not want the hawk).  However, I do have to mow more than paths a few times every summer.  It is kind of scary to think of living in the middle of an ailanthus-mulberry monoculture if I didn’t.








2 thoughts on “Do I Have to Mow all That?”

  1. Lisa,
    I think this might be my personal favorite. I remember you telling me about your purpose for mowing on previous visits down to halcyon but you explain it so well and the photos are very helpful. It has been amazing to see how you have put so much care, thought and research into the management of that acreage and how much pleasure you derive from studying it and being a part of it.
    Denis took a photo of me once gardening without me knowing it and later when I saw the photo, I thought “wow I look so content”. That is how I picture you ghosted into all of those wonderful photos on your site. Halcyon is Lisa!


    1. Thanks Pam; that’s a very sweet comment. I do feel content except when my back is not hurting! Have you seen the Orion article by Paul Kingsnorth? It is called Dark Ecology and is in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue. It really resonated with me because of my recent need to withdraw from teaching, and because of worries about environmental decline. The article is very thought provocative, and helped settle doubts that withdrawing was bad, that I was wasting time, or not doing something important.


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