By Laurie McGrath, first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican
Wildflower meadow in a Santa Fe front yard. Photo: Isabelle Jenniches
Trends in landscaping come and go. But one in particular that seems to be gaining national momentum for several years is the “No Mow” movement. If that sounds a bit like “slo-mo,” it is. It means less work. But more than that, it entails several benefits for habitat and soil health. So what exactly does a “no mow” approach mean, and why should we consider it?
The Santa Fe New Mexican recently featured a supplement titled “Soil Health.” It was contributed by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA). Thinking it was about agriculture, I set it aside. But words in the subtitle— “Why It Matters” — captured my attention, and I ended up reading every word.
Some of the information wasn’t relevant to a homeowner. As home gardeners rather than land managers, we are not typically overseeing fields, acequias, crop acreage or grazing. However, we all should consider how the ground under our feet is cared for to yield the healthiest possible environment around our homes. It seems that whatever is growing there can benefit from a lot less interference from us.
Don’t trim down to the dirt. Leave some growth and coverage. Photo: Pascal Kuffer/Pexels
The principles of soil health that strike me as the most approachable for home gardeners are limiting soil disturbance, making sure soil is covered and supporting root systems. Clearly, mowing can run counter to these goals if the mowing is done too low. And the handy line trimmer, aka, weed whacker? It’s even easier to cut too low using one of those. Because they can tear down to the roots, they can damage the soil system rapidly. Simply line trimming higher or raising mower blades can help regenerate the soil and allow roots to hold it in place.
Exposed soil, with no stems, leaves or blades to shade it, heats up quickly, and root systems dry out and will likely die. What is left is a welcome mat for the most pernicious weeds that we are trying to manage: kochia, tumbleweeds, puncture vine and more. With the ability to germinate in full light with scant water, they are literally first out of the gate when the weather warms. They then begin crowding out the native wildflowers and grasses that support our native ecosystem.
The temptation is to water more in hopes of seeing something more desirable take hold. Eventually we add more water and more fertilizer, and even weed-killing chemicals, in hopes of creating the desired appearance in that area of the ground. The “no mow” approach presents a less costly, less water- or chemical-intensive alternative. Mow less. Mow higher. Or don’t mow at all.
You may still want to remove the worst weeds by hand or mechanically. Then, by letting the desired grasses or flowers grow to a natural height, you will gradually fend off the proliferation of invasive weeds, use less water or chemicals, work less and begin to see native butterflies and flowers. Our streetscapes and walkways can also become more attractive and less costly to maintain using this method. Let Mother Nature slowly take over, and enjoy a return to natural beauty.
Laurie McGrath is an Emeritus Master Gardener and has volunteered with the NMSU Extension in Santa Fe County for over 20 years. She is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP) and writes a monthly column on gardening for the Santa Fe New Mexican.