By Bill Sloey
So you want a "no mow" lawn, huh?
Since incorporating “No Mow” into my landscape some six years ago, I have been queried by dozens of Wild Ones members on its qualities, and, “Would it be right for me”? Here is a little bit about my experience with “No Mow” in the hope that it will help you to decide if you would like to try it.
What is “No Mow” grass? What I’m talking about here is not artificial turf, but fine fescue grasses from the genus Festuca. The “fine” fescues, as a group, are smaller species of grasses. They are slow growing, narrow leafed (0.3-2mm wide) grasses with blades that are very lax and flexuous so that they tend to lay down nearly flat by mid-summer. They are found throughout cool climes of the Northeast and upper Midwest. They tend to be quite shade tolerant and are, in fact, an important component in “shade grass” seed mixtures.
The ones used in lawns, are not clump formers, so they provide a very uniform cover. They spread by rhizomes and stolons, and re-seed well. Not all are native to North America, but they are highly naturalized. They may be mowed on occasion, or left unmowed.
I used a proprietary blend of these fine fescues sold under the moniker of “No Mow,” lawn mix, by Prairie Nursery of Westfield, Wisconsin. I might add that I have no association with Prairie Nursery other than as a customer. Other nurseries may sell one or more fine fescues as “shade grass.” Check with the vendor to be certain that you have only fine fescues.
Where is it appropriate to plant “No Mow”? “No Mow” has been wonderful for me around my prairies, under my mature trees, and around the trees and shrubs that I have planted on my two acres.
Around my prairies, I use the “No Mow” to separate various stands and to protect my surrounding trees and shrubs when I burn. I mow paths about 8- to 10-feet wide after the flowering heads form in June, and I mow once again in autumn. I set my mower deck as high as it will go – that’s about 4 inches. This makes for pleasant, but informal walkways from which to enjoy my prairies. Be careful not to cut much shorter than 4 inches, because you will destroy the meristem at the bottom of each plant (culm) where new cells are formed. Unlike bent grass and bluegrass, which have their growth points at ground level, fescues have theirs a couple inches above ground level.
I transplanted some 200 or so small trees and shrubs (many from Wild Ones plant rescues) directly into the “No Mow” without mulch, and have seen no effects from competition. The woody plants started to shoot up in the third year as one would expect, even though the dense “No Mow” grass around them had never been cut.
“No Mow” loves moderate to fairly intense shade. Under my mature white pine, spruce, shagbark hickory, and green ash trees, it grows soft and slender, and lies down by mid-summer to form a dark green, shiny carpet some
3 to 5 inches deep. It looks just like it does in the woods here in the Midwest where these fescues grow naturally. It’s beautiful! When you walk on it, you stay right on top with the soles of your shoes barely covered. The only maintenance I engage in is to use my weed whip to knock off the sparse flowering heads around the first of June. Even that is not necessary as the flowering stalks and seed heads are quite small and unobtrusive.
The only place I am less than totally happy with it is on a steep, sunny slope next to my garage where I am afraid to venture with my riding mower. The growth habit coarsens in the afternoon sun, producing flowering stalks that are more stiff than shade-grown ones. These stiffer stems prop up the green blades causing the fescues to stand taller and look a bit shaggier (a little like Brad Pitt’s famous hairdo).
I also planted “No Mow” along the road ditch right-of-way in front of my rural property. I had hoped to let this patch lie down unmowed to make a foreground for my split rail fence and mound/prairie. In spite of its low profile and neat appearance, however, the road crews scarf a swath through it every summer. This has stunted the “No Mow,” and encouraged weeds and wild grasses. So I now mow this area like I do around the prairies in back.
Where is it not good to plant “No Mow”? I would not recommend “No Mow” on small city lots, or where there is going to be a lot of traffic from dogs, vehicles, or kids. The fescues do not tolerate heavy abuse like the turf grasses do. You can still plant fescues under shade trees or in a corner if you set it off and discourage heavy traffic. Also, even in the country, I suggest at least a small area of manicured turf-grass lawn around the house. Visitors just feel more comfortable with it, kids and dogs have a place to play, and it does set off your plantings and natural areas better. I maintain a 50-foot band of perennial rye around my house.
What other maintenance does “No Mow” need? It needs very little TLC. It does not want or need fertilizer (unless you have virtually pure sand). This is another reason that dogs are not really welcome. I have never put any fertilizer on mine, and it stays dark green even during summer droughts when my perennial rye lawn is turning brown. It does need plenty of oxygen, and does not like to be buried under leaves for long periods. Be sure to rake or blow sooner rather than later – blowing is louder but more gentle, and works better. The “No Mow” stays green until freeze-up here in east-central Wisconsin, and greens up a couple of weeks later than my lawn in spring, because of its slower growth rate and thicker thatch.
What about weeds? I have had some broad-leaved weeds like sweet clover, black medic, Canada thistle, and ash seedlings trying to invade, but less than in my regular lawn. I apply a liquid broadleaf herbicide (like Weed-Be-Gone), from a dispenser on the end of my hose, about twice a summer. I just use a small squirt for each weed, not a general application.
I’m also having a problem with broad-leaved grasses like brome and reed canary grass invading, especially in the sunniest areas. I am just learning how to deal with these. A judicious use of RoundUp‚ may be called for. My lot has heavy, clay-based soil and is surrounded by reed canary grass. If your soil is lighter, you may have no problem at all. Strangely, I planted “No Mow” right through a dense stand of reed canary grass down almost to a small stream in the back of my lot. After six years, the reed canary grass, with its notorious rhizomes, has failed to penetrate the ”No Mow” even a little bit!
When and how do you plant “No Mow”? Without a doubt, the best time to plant these fescues is early autumn, around Labor Day. This gives you the summer to kill off everything currently on the site.
If you are replacing lawn, or even an old field, cut and dispose of the large residue, but leave the remaining short stalks as a thatch to hold the seeds and prevent runoff. Do not disturb the soil. Doing so will only bring up a fresh set of weed seeds. On small sites, you can simply broadcast the seeds on top. On larger sites, you may want to have them drilled in with a Brillion planter. I have done both with equal success.
Final analysis: “No Mow” grass is not a substitute for turf grass in busy lawns, but it is a low maintenance compliment to natural landscapes, and is delightful under trees and shrubs. It is a versatile, user-friendly ground cover that can take the sun, and loves moderate to fairly dense shade.
There is one final bonus. Inasmuch as the “No Mow” is never cut before mid-June, I have planted spring bulbs like jonquils, tulips, and even dwarf iris in little clusters all about my landscape to serve as little spring surprise packages for my neighbors. I love to watch their heads swivel as they go by on their morning walks. Later this year, I plan to start embedding some of my larger wildflowers like mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum), bellwort (Uvularia sp.), and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Bill Sloey is a retired botany professor from UW-Oshkosh, and a member of the Fox Valley (WI) Chapter. He's a staunch defender of old-growth northern Wisconsin forests.
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Updated: Oct 19, 2006.