Thomas Christopher | Be-a-Better-Gardner: Is a no-mow lawn for you?

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"It's not a panacea," says Roger Brown of the "no-mow" grass that he has planted in his lawn.

Nor is it, for him at least, truly no-mow; he mows this special mixture of fine fescue grasses once or twice a year, just to keep it from becoming unkempt. Still Roger is positive about this grass.     

After all, it does free him from the weekly mowings those areas of the lawn would otherwise require. What's more, its tousled look makes a wonderful contrast to the more carefully ordered stone walls and perennial and shrub borders that adorn his Northeastern retreat.

I am particularly glad that Roger appreciates his new no-mow grass because I encouraged his interest. I've been experimenting with this blend of different kinds of fine fescue grasses for several years now. I've had some failures (it has been a learning curve) as well as successes, but enough of the latter to be persuaded of its potential benefits. Naturally short-growing, this kind of turf can break the cycle of constant mowing that absorbs so much of most homeowners' time. I choose to mow my fine fescue lawn more often than Roger does; I cut my grass three or four times a year and so achieve a more conventional looking lawn. That's far less, however, than my neighbors cut their lawns. Fine fescue lawns, once well rooted in, are also drought resistant, needing no watering except in exceptional droughts, and they flourish with less feeding than a bluegrass or turf-type tall fescue lawn.

There's an aesthetic benefit, as well. I've found that because a fine fescue lawn doesn't require mowing until late spring, it makes a perfect host for crocuses, snowdrops, and other early spring bulbs. They have time to bloom and then go dormant before the first mowing, which means that in my lawn, the early bulbs not only return year after year, they multiply.

I mix my own blend of hard, chewings, and creeping red fescue seeds, usually including two cultivars of each to increase genetic diversity. Roger ordered his seed pre-mixed from Prairie Nursery (www.prairienursery.com) in Westfield, Wis., which also offers on its website a good tutorial in how to prepare for and plant this grass. My only argument with Prairie Nursery is that it does market its grass as "No-Mow Lawn" which I find to be an exaggeration, though a much catchier name than "greatly reduced mowing grass." Another good, pre-mixed blend of fine fescue seeds is the "Eco-Lawn" offered by Wildflower Farm (wildflowerfarm.com), a nursery in Coldwater, Ontario, Canada. Wildflower Farm also offers a tutorial on its website about establishing and maintaining a fine fescue lawn.

One point I cannot emphasize enough is that before sowing the fine fescue seed it is essential to eliminate all weeds and existing turf on the site. This can be accomplished with a couple of applications of a systemic herbicide, repeated tillings, or smothering the area with black plastic for a full growing season.

Like any grass seed, fine fescue mixes are best sown in late summer or early fall. It's also essential to control weed growth during the first spring after sowing - fine fescue lawns are weed-resistant when mature, but because these grasses are primarily clump-formers rather than creepers, they are vulnerable to weed invasion until the individual clumps have expanded and knit together.

Fine fescues flourish in full sun or partial shade, but they do not thrive on poorly drained soils, or on heavy clays with little or no topsoil. Like any turf grass, fine fescues do not flourish in deep shade. Finally, they don't tolerate heavy traffic — my neighbor Roger has chosen to stick with conventional turf around his flower and shrub borders, where he and his visitors stroll most often, and where he must get in and out with a garden cart. He can spend more time enjoying these areas, however, because he is spending less time elsewhere with his mower!



Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation's oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through 25 display gardens and a diverse range of classes informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors on horticultural topics every year. Thomas Christopher is the co-author of Garden Revolution (Timber press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden. berkshirebotanical.org.

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