Our recent few days of mild weather have made being outdoors irresistible. So…what to get into? Well, as much as I’d have liked to start tidying the garden, I had a bigger task to tackle: starting to mow the meadow. Since several of you expressed interest in hearing how I manage my meadow area when I first posted about it back in late summer, I figured I’d explain in detail how I approach this project. So, if you’re interested in large-scale meadows, read on; otherwise, you’ll probably want to head elsewhere at this point.
With about two acres of meadow to maintain, my main tool of choice is a DR Field and Brush Mower. Generally, I’m not a big fan of power tools, and I realize it’s not politically correct to be enthusiastic about pollution-emitting machinery. But, well…burning the meadow simply isn’t an option, and if I don’t mow every year, the multiflora roses, barberries, Russian olives, blackberries, and other woody weeds grow faster than I can hand-cut them (herbicides being out too). I figure a total of about 8 hours of mowing per year is a fair trade-off for leaving the space mostly untouched for the rest of the year. Plus, it’s oh so satisfying to run over those invasives and turn them into instant mulch. The roses usually get some revenge on me during the process, but eventually, the scratches fade, and I have the satisfaction of knowing the roses are reduced for another season.
I mow only part of the meadow in mid-winter, cutting the part of the upper meadow that I can’t see from my office window as well as most of the lower meadow. Part of the lower meadow is basically a solid patch of smooth brome grass (Bromus inermis), a cool-season forage grass that forms a thick, dense mat in the winter, making it a haven for mice and voles. Mowing it makes the area look much smoother at this time of year, allows the new growth to emerge much more easily in spring, and provides prime hunting territory for local hawks. The photo above shows the area in September; below, the same area on January 7 (before mowing), and January 8 (after mowing).
The lowest part of the lower meadow includes my sand mound. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a sand mound, it’s a septic system leach field that’s elevated above grade to provide sufficient soil depth for proper filtration of the effluent. I’m not sure if they’re used in other parts of the country, but they’re a common option for on-site sewage disposal in our area. Usually, they’re covered with turf, but I ended up planting mine with a customized meadow mix to reduce the mowing needs. I’ve been pleased with the results overall, but the voles really like the perennial roots, so I decided to mow most of it now and rake off the debris to hopefully chase them elsewhere. The side facing the house was still so pretty, though, mostly with russet little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), that I decided to leave that part until spring.
In the upper meadow, I left a swath about 30 feet wide along the road to keep some shelter for the local critters, then mowed most of the part I keep open for perennials and grasses (shown above). In the upper corner and in the back, I’ve kept many of the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) seedlings, and I know the deer and some other creatures hang out there a lot in the winter, so I leave that until spring. At that point, I’ll mow some of the larger open patches with the brush mower, then do the detail work around the cedar trees, and around the flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), crabapples (Malus), and other deciduous seedlings that have sprouted on their own.
For trimming around these trees, I use my other favorite tool: a scythe. I acquired this treasure several years ago from a place called Scythe Supply in Maine. You send them certain measurements and they custom-make the snath (handle) to create a tool that’s a true joy to use. I keep mine fitted with a heavy bush blade for working in the meadow, but I also have a lightweight, super-sharp blade for trimming grass during the growing season. If you enjoy using manual tools and have a moderate meadow area to maintain, a scythe is definitely worth considering.
One other plug for the DR Field and Brush Mower: Outside of my fenced area, I’ve been creating more all-perennial plantings instead of mixed borders, and these plantings are incredibly easy to maintain with the brush mower. Below are a late-summer shot and an after-mowing shot of one such garden area. Last year, it took me several hours to clear this space by hand; with the mower, even the tough ‘Cloud Nine’ switch grasses (Panicum virgatum), shown above, cleaned up in less than 10 minutes. Even better, the stalks were chopped up into a rough but decent mulch, eliminating the need to rake and haul the debris away. Now, I’m not saying that machinery is a better option than hand-work, but for those of you who have large plantings to maintain, it’s something to think about.
Now, my mower’s been winterized, and my meadow’s on its own until spring. If the weather stays mild, I can get out my clippers and start some detailed garden cleanup—at least until the snow returns!