Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2011
Regional Report

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A no-mow lawn, such as this combination of monkey and mondo grasses, offers easy care as well as environmental benefits.

Make Peace with Mother Nature

Over the years I've heard some crazy notions about gardening, but one outlandish idea that tops the list was uttered by a self-described yard warrior who told me "real men don't mulch their lawn clippings because it's sloppy and can choke the grass." Really. That's what he said.

Putting aside the central issue for a minute, I have to say even the concept of "yard warrior" is ludicrous to me. Despite the appeal of turning my tired, middle-aged body into Zena Warrior Princess, the thought of war with Mother Nature is contrary to everything I believe and nearly all I strive to do in my landscape.

For example, dressing in protective clothing and donning a filter mask to apply chemical sprays is a last resort for me, not business as usual. Instead, I like to think of myself as a nurturer. My aim is to embrace the garden with interest and wonder and to cultivate it with patience and care.

I guess I'm what you might call a softer, gentler gardener, one who treads lightly on the landscape. But then, perfection has never been my object. I would find little pleasure in a garden without wiggly worms in the soil and butterfly larvae devouring the parsley.

So, do I use a mulching mower? Of course! And despite the yard warrior's misguided idea that grass clippings are bad for the lawn, he should too. Here's why.

Grass clippings are 85 percent water. When cut into small pieces by a mulching mower, they dry up and break down quickly. Plus, at 4 percent nitrogen, decomposing grass gives a boost to the lawn, reducing the required fertilizer by nearly half. Furthermore, grass contains very little lignin, the slowest part of a plant to decompose, so mulching doesn't contribute to thatch buildup as the lawn warrior claimed.

A mulching mower has a higher-than-normal deck that keeps cut grass blades suspended under the mower so they can be cut multiple times before dropping to the turf. When grass is mowed at the correct height (before it becomes too long), the result is a clean lawn with no visible waste.

The mower that my husband and I use is a combination mower, rather than a pure mulcher. It gives us the option of picking up the clippings with an easy-to-attach bag when the grass is too long to mulch or when we want to pick up leaves in autumn. On a week-to-week basis, though, we find mulching keeps yard waste at a minimum and significantly reduces the time required to mow.

Unfortunately, little of what we groom at our new house is lawn. The small front yard is comprised of planting beds and the narrow backyard, neglected for years, is chock-a-block full of clover and weeds. Since we plan to build a covered porch in the next year or two, establishing grass in this area is on hold for now.

In fact, we may decide to eliminate lawn from our landscape all together. Like a couple of forward-thinking neighbors, we're considering a no-mow substitute for its easy care and environmental benefits.

Instead of lawn grass, one neighbor cultivates two plants from the family in his front yard. The first, monkey grass (Liriope muscari), outlines the perimeter of the yard and fills large beds under the towering hardwood trees, while the second, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), carpets the heart of the garden with undulating waves of grass-like leaves.

Both plants are extremely easy to grow, requiring little more than good drainage. They are drought-tolerant once established, need little to no fertilizer, and adapt to a wide range of soils and conditions.

Other neighbors have followed this lead, using these grass-like plants and a variety of other groundcovers in place of traditional lawn grass. It's an idea worth considering, especially in shady gardens and areas where the terrain is steeply sloped.

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