On my way back from a friend’s house a few weeks ago, I passed by Pelican Park in Montreal’s Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie district. What a sight! One of the grasses in the lawn was in flower (called spikelets, in the Poaceae family), giving these expanses a golden hue. I was amazed at the beauty and simplicity of this lawn.
It was apparent, however, that it had not been abandoned. The edges of the paths and picnic tables had recently been mowed, giving the park a tidy look, although other portions had been allowed to grow even higher. I began to wonder what the City of Montreal’s intention was, what was their strategy?
Differentiated mowing involves applying different maintenance practices depending on how a lawn is used. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not just a matter of stopping mowing or doing it less regularly. We need to start by thinking about how a lawn is used before we intervene.
Imagine a golf course: there’s the green that’s mowed low, the fairway that’s mowed higher and the tall grass that’s… tall! The height and location depend on how it’s used. The green needs to be cut short for precise putting, while the fairway can afford to have a higher lawn, since the ball is hit harder and farther. But it’s best to stay away from tall grass!
I contacted the Ville de Montréal to find out more about their cutting strategy. Hugo Bourgoin replied: “high-traffic areas (e.g. picnic areas, gathering areas, playgrounds, edges of sports fields) require intensive maintenance involving regular mowing and a low cutting height. On the other hand, in less-frequented areas (e.g. large green spaces, flowerbeds, medians, embankments), certain zones can be maintained with longer mowing cycles ranging from fortnightly to annual mowing, or even successive blocking every two or three years.” In some areas, more regular mowing is carried out on either side of footpaths to prevent tall grass from falling back onto traffic areas.
Of course, differentiated mowing reduces the amount of work required to maintain the lawn, which is great news for lazy gardeners. For our municipalities, this translates into lower labor, machinery maintenance and gasoline costs, but also results in a reduction in greenhouse gases and noise caused by this work.
These less-maintained spaces can be home to a more diverse flora and also create habitats for wildlife, starting with the microscopic and extending to mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. And of course, insects, especially pollinators, will delight in these more flower-filled spaces.
«Les herbes hautes stockent le CO2 et préservent un certain niveau d’humidité dans le sol, par captation de l’humidité de l’air via les parties aériennes, puis redescente jusqu’aux racines; en outre, elles empêchent un assèchement intense du sol puisque les rayons du soleil ne l’atteignent plus directement.», fait valoir Hugo Bourgoin. Dans certains cas, une végétation plus élevée permet d’affaiblir des plantes nuisibles (l’herbe à poux, par exemple).
Sur une note personnelle, je trouve que la variété d’espèces que je découvre dans ces espaces diversifiés et pleins de fleurs plus jolies qu’une pelouse traditionnelle les rend vraiment plus intéressants.
Preparation and Monitoring
Although it may seem that these areas have simply been abandoned, this is far from the case. It’s sometimes necessary to prepare the ground before implementing differentiated mowing, and many sites even benefit from a landscaping plan. The simplest solution is probably to let the plants and seeds present on the site grow, but you can also seed with a mixture of seeds. These will vary according to the desired effect: protection of monarchs or pollinators, aesthetic effect, reduction of erosion on slopes, etc. The effectiveness of these mixtures is tested before they are used, and they can contain annuals and perennials, including several native species. A far cry from our neighbor’s abandoned lawn!
These areas are then observed to check for germination, and maintenance is carried out in the first few years, among other things to check for the presence of undesirable vegetation. Shelter plants can be used to prevent the establishment of harmful “weeds” or invasive plants. These are fast-growing annual grasses (ryegrass or oats, for example) that will cover the space until the other seeded species can establish themselves.
The mowing schedule also takes into account the presence of wildlife. “In fact, you have to watch out for certain birds that can build their nests on the ground if the grass is allowed to grow high enough. You then need to mow at the right time to protect the birds during the nesting period.” Therefore, it’s best to wait until the birds have left the site and the garter snakes have entered their wintering grounds before mowing, which is done from mid-October in Montreal.
Differenciated Mowing at Home
All these concepts can be applied to residential properties. According to Bourgoin, “Citizens can definitely adopt certain practices related to differentiated management by, for example, reducing the frequency of lawn mowing. In particular, this can allow more of the plant species common to lawns to come into bloom (e.g. clovers, violets, cottongrass, dandelion, birdsfoot trefoil, etc.), thereby providing resources for pollinators. To diversify the species in your lawn, you can use a variety of ground cover seed mixes. If you want to go one step further, you can convert parts of your lawn into biodiversity-friendly landscaping. To find out more, visit the Espace pour la vie website.
You could, for example, regularly mow a pathway to your garden shed or compost bin and let the rest grow higher up, or cut your lawn shorter near your driveway and the street, but leave the unmanageable slope uncultivated, making sure to mow it in the fall, of course, to prevent trees or shrubs from growing there. Be careful, too, that noxious plants don’t invade your meadow and spread to your neighbors.
By the way, my mother-in-law, after reading the Laidback Gardener blog, has instinctively taken to differentiated mowing. She avoids cutting flowers that bloom spontaneously or areas with clover. The result is a lawn with a variety of heights, textures and colors, and more time to bury her nose in a book.