Year One of the LoMow Lawn Project

Gardening simply does not allow one to be mentally old, because too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realized.(Allan M. Armitage – professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia)

After five decades or more of mowing the lawns around each of the houses in which we have lived, something happened this year. It may have been age and it may have been experience – who knows? Our current garden is in its 21st year of transformation from basic square of turf with small beds and bushes and a large lawn to one where quite a lot of wildlife finds a home amongst trees and bushes and native annuals and perennials. This year all the climatic variables came together in a perfect gardening summer. The trees and bushes have never had so many berries on them, the gaps between the big trees have closed up with shrubs and their branches, all giving excellent refuge to small birds and mammals and insects be they benign, attractive or otherwise. At last we are achieving what we had hoped for … but it is inescapable that we are not as young as we were and, frankly, mowing grass is becoming a chore, especially in the 40degC humid July of a Montreal summer.

So this year we simply stopped mowing for the most part.

We have “done” the trees and bushes and flower beds for wildlife thing and now it is the turn of the lawn – or what passes for a lawn. At the front of the house what was once a traditional lawn with “kerb appeal” has been turned by the ever growing shadow from a huge, mature Paper Birch tree plus now fully mature Magnolia and Rowan trees that we planted, into a deeply shaded patch of assorted green stuff that supports very little grass. This front garden is planted with daffodils and other spring bulbs, not all native, but all causing the passers-by in spring to complement us on its colour and all needing a couple of months of not being mown after flowering while the bulbs gain strength for the next year’s blooms. Not native plants at all, but this is a nostalgia garden in a way to remind us of England – admittedly fantasy England. Either way, this year we mostly just left the grassy bits to their own devices to see what might be there given half a chance to grow – and things have never looked better. At least to our eyes. I am sure there are neighbours who feel we have been slacking somewhat.

So, what to do with the big gas-powered (that’s gas as in petrol, if you are reading this in Europe) lawn mower we have used for years. Its carburetor became gungy and needed cleaning out and, to be honest, I am not the world’s most skilled engineer so we just gave it away and replaced it with one of the new-fangled electric mowers. Quiet, light-weight, 45 minutes mowing from a single battery charge. What’s more, it automatically increases its power output to match the load put on it, meaning it can mow down thick clumps of long greenery if asked to – something that used to cause the gas mower to cough and die.

More grows in the garden than the gardener sows. ~Spanish Proverb

Meanwhile the rear garden is really where most of the wildlife stuff happens. This is going to be a multi-year project and year one has been the let’s see what comes naturally year. What is out there already that we don’t know about?

Well, one thing we learned is that Creeping Charley is not a plant to be feared. Indeed, it is to be positively encouraged as it started the year off if left unmown by putting up a carpet of delightful purple flowers that every bee and other pollinator in the land seemed to descend on with cries of “yippee”. Also known as ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea. It is a non-native but one that insects have seemingly been able to exploit satisfactorily … which is a good thing as it is almost impossible to eradicate once established.

Then we had Clover. In fact four species of clover – white, red, a seeming cross between red and white that turned out to be a species in its own right and finally sweet white clover that grows almost as tall as me and puts out tall, thin white florescences that attract bees and other insects like nothing else. the problem with this latter form is that it has huge roots and is trying for world domination so we have had to keep it under some sort of control. Clovers are nice – and the insects think so too. Supporting native bees etc was part of what we wanted to do and this certainly gets us well on the way. Again, this is a non-native plant brought to this continent as a cattle fodder plant but the insects like it – a lot.

Carrots. Not the edible sort, but Wild Carrot. This leaped forth as soon as we stopped mowing and has been an unexpected delight. Wild carrot is another of the umbelliferae and an alien invader brought here by early settlers on the continent (they were apparently willing to eat the roots, lord knows why). Anyway, it is most attractive and alien or not seemingly much favoured by the native insects who seemed to struggle deciding whether it was going to be carrot or clover for supper each day. Again, though, it’s a deep-rooted plant with invasive intentions so most of it was removed after flowering before too much seed was set and dispersed as summer ended.

An unintended, but pleasant, benefit of this new régime on non-mowing, has been that as far as we can tell the dandelions have been largely suppressed. Writing this at the end of summer/early autumn it seems that they are much less in evidence than is usually the case. Of course, the truth of this will be evident next spring when the yellow flowers usually appear but at the moment I remain cautiously optimistic.

Other flowers of various species have appeared during the year.

So now we know what the basic ‘canvas’ contains we can start to paint it with selected native plants – primarily insect attracting and seed bearing flowers such as Rudbeckias, Echinaceas and other so-called Coneflowers. These are all very attractive and so we have started tracking starter plants down and placing them around the area. We have considered getting a suitable mix of native plant seeds and sowing an instant meadow but decided against it. Apart from there being a lot of work involved in taking off turf and creating a seed bed we prefer a bit more control of what comes to live here. It will take longer, of course, but the end result should be more to our liking.

It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. – Aldo Leopold

May – Forget-me Nots

Early June – native bees on flowers of Creeping Charley

Late June – Wild Sweet Clover

Pearly Crescent butterfly on Rudbeckia

As the lawn gets longer, up come the flowers that have been waiting for a chance to grow. Wild Carrot.

We mowed narrow paths through the grass to let us come and go without trampling anything important

The edge of what was lawn, now a mini=meadow (a mead) merges into the shrubs and perennial borders

Mid-summer, in the moister areas near the pond, cardinal flowers started to establish themselves

Grasshoppers arrived

Milkweed, of course

Hummingbirds came to the Cardinal flowers during August

White Admiral butterflies loved the flowers of Boneset

Clearwing Moth on Rudbeckia flowers

Wild carrot seed heads in mid October morning light

In the latter part of October we did a rough-cut of the grass with blades set very high – this mimics the traditional meadow management of letting cattle into the field once or twice a year. We cut around standing plants and especially the various species of wild Asters that came into late and glorious flower

… AND FINALLY, the “Cropped Mead” in late August

2019 has been a very interesting year. Next summer we will introduce more native flowers and grasses and start to build on this year’s discoveries.