I was thrilled to hear from some readers who didn’t mow all or (usually) part of their lawn last May. The photos you sent were also much appreciated. I know some of you continue this practice. I think it’s good to observe the natural progression of what happens to a mowed area when it’s no longer regularly clipped. I have to admit that I didn’t follow my own advice not to mow part of my lawn. I am much better at offering advice than at doing what I advise.
The reason I didn’t is because I love how my small lawn looks and smells after mowing it. There is a certain kind of “cleanliness” that appeals to my German nature and I indulge in it from time to time. I am literally surrounded by hundreds of acres of mostly forested land with a few large spaced hay fields and fields that are only cleared every few years. I really don’t feel the need to protect the pollinators in my small landscape. Maybe if I lived in an urban or suburban landscape, I would feel differently.
After lawn grasses have grown very tall and bloomed, most of you have reported an almost immediate abundance of flowering plants appearing that are normally considered common lawn “weeds”. If you want to identify them, I suggest you look at the lawn herbicide label, under “controlled plants” and you will see them pictured. Dandelions, Chickweed, Ground Ivy, Violets, White Clover, Plantain, Shepard’s Purse have all appeared in your photos. By the way, “control” is a clever term used to mean “kill”. We don’t “control” pests or weeds so much as we kill them, then we say “control”. It sounds much better that way.
My “so-called” lawn already has an abundance of them, so I really don’t need to see more. All of these plants are indeed food for pollinators, so you did your job well. From this moment, the plant succession becomes really interesting. In an unmown field, broadleaf grasses will eventually replace thinleaf grasses, and within a few seasons, woody brush will appear. Unfortunately, not all of the woody shrubs that appear are desirable native plants.
In our region, abandoned hayfields and unmowed pastures will soon be inhabited by invasive light-loving shrubs, such as autumn olive, Asian barberry, alder and multiflora rose, as well as than some indigenous “pioneer” tree species such as aspen, birch and ash. In about 40 years, there will be little evidence that a hayfield ever existed. It will have been replaced by a young forest, of tree species that are not necessarily native or sought after.
I believe keeping fields open is important, not only for the aesthetic appeal they provide by breaking up the monotony of the forest (think most of rural Vermont), but also for supporting a diversity of wildlife. The best way to maintain this diversity and limit invasion by invasive plants is to mow periodically. The questions are when is the best time to do it, how often and what equipment is needed. For fields of an acre or more, the best implement is a tractor-drawn type of rotary brush. I generally advise people to seek out good quality used equipment whenever possible. In the case of brush hogs, however, you might consider buying new ones. Few farm tools are subject to as much routine abuse as these. Depending on the width of the mower, they can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000.
As for when to brush the pigs, I suggest waiting until late July to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife. Most farmers who mow hay fields between late May and mid-June have inadvertently killed baby fawns. The best time to cut hay is when it is flowering and delaying this task until August results in very poor quality feeding. Ideally, you would mow in winter, conditions permitting. It is not necessary to do this every year, but the fields should be mowed at least every two or three years. After four years, your bush pig will be seriously tested by woody plants with stems two inches or thicker, and their root systems will regrow even faster.
Periodic mowing/brushing likely won’t prevent invasive trees and shrubs from establishing in abandoned hay and crop fields, but it may slow their progress. If timed correctly, it can maintain a diversity of desirable plant and bird species. So, let your lawn grow for a while, but keep your fields, if you have or manage any, cut every two years!