No Mow

It’s an unfortunate name for a great concept, but we can’t seem to come up with something better. As was talked about in this article, our landscape department has chosen about 20 acres we are actively ignoring. Well, that’s not quite true, there is nothing that is no maintenance in landscape, no matter what the gardening books or magazines say. I thought I would take this opportunity to expand more on the Middlebury College no mow program, what we’re doing, why, and some of the management concepts.

While the no mow program is being touted as saving money, our department actually started it last year. Two test locations were chosen: one along Porter Field Road, and another where the old A-Frame dorms were by FIC. Both of these were large expanses of mown grass (weekly mowing), that were not in use by students. Allowed to do their own thing, they naturally came up in what appeared to be wildflowers, although are actually attractive lawn weeds (it’s all in your viewpoint I guess). The feedback on these areas was great, with next to no complaints.

With the budget shortfall, Middlebury College was looking for reductions in expenditures. Many different people suggested mowing less, which was ironic, because based on the success of the previous year we were looking to do it anyway. (Really, how often in life does one get to do the right thing by not doing something? It’s almost too good to be true)  Naturally, by mowing less, we are saving money, fuel, and time, and with this, of course, comes the reduction of emissions, carbon, noise, and all the other fossil fuel evils.

I would, however, beg not to lose sight of one the actual reasons why the program got started in the first place, which was for its ecological soundness. While at Middlebury we pride ourselves in having beautiful grounds, ecologically it’s a desert. Large shade trees and lawn give next to no habitat for pollinators, migrating songbirds, insects, amphibians, even what I call the “rotters”, the worms, fungi, and other organisms responsible for breaking down dead plant matter. Having areas of campus grow up in meadow, albeit non-native plants, increases diversity, and provides refuge and habitat above and beyond a green expanse of lawn.

There is another benefit, a bit more esoteric than the others. One of my roles at the college is an in-house landscape designer, and even in that role I am enjoying the no-mow program. I’d always found what we in the department call North campus (north of route 125) to be somewhat, well, not unattractive, but something was definitely not quite right, and I could never quite figure it out. After all, we have great views, nice buildings, good trees, but north seemed to lack the ‘wow’ factor of the other half of campus.

And what it was missing was the diversity. Only large trees and lawn was giving the north side a boring, repetitive sameness, a prairie of grass punctuated by trees, but not visually arresting enough to be stimulating. Now, the large areas of tall grass and wildflowers break up swaths of lawn, and take away from the conformity of campus. Picture stepping out of Bicentennial Hall, turning south and heading towards Pearsons Hall. Immediately in front of Bi-Hall is lawn, with some Adirondack Chairs, Emily May’s Pollinator Garden around a large Pear tree, and Smog. As you walk south, though, the lawn stops, and on either side of the sidewalk is large grass and wildflowers, with a break on your right, a mown area around a pair of Yellowwood trees, creating a little park, and another break at the top of the ridge, creating an overlook park with a magnificent view over Battell Beach looking east towards the Green Mountains. So now, we are highlighting one of the most spectacular trees on campus, and emphasizing a view that may have been so ubiquitous in the past that it was ignored. (Side thought here- I can remember a discussion in one of my landscape design classes at UVM talking about views. The talk was of placing a house on a property with a good view from a certain location. We came to the conclusion that the best place to site the house was a little ways away from the view, so that it was a short walk. It makes the view more special, and not taken for granted.)

I had a great chat with my friend Scott Barnicle, the Dean of Atwater, about the landscape giving a feeling of conformity to the students, and that effect on student psyche. We do pick up clues about ourselves from our surroundings, and also like to surround ourselves with reflections of how we fell, or what we would like to be. Middlebury is a great, diverse college, and we should strive to have our landscape reflect this as well.

By breaking up North campus into more distinct areas, and shrinking the amount of what seems like usable area, we are increasing the value of what is left. Ironically, there is only a perceived loss of space-none of the areas now in no-mow were really used anyway, except by some intrepid Frisbee golf players. What’s left just feels more precious, more distinct, more useful.

So how are we maintaining the no-mow areas? Let’s not say no-mow, but very, very little mow. One of our concerns was Lyme disease, spread by deer ticks. We are mowing a 5 foot swath next to any sidewalk, creating a ‘breakdown lane’, so stepping off the path to get out of the way of a vehicle, bicycle, or student with their nose in a book means you don’t have to walk in the tall grass. In a couple of locations we have mown a path right through the center of an area, because some areas need a sidewalk and don’t have one. Also, in order to break the lifecycle of deer ticks, we will be mowing twice. Once will be right around commencement time, and again last thing in the fall. The late spring mowing coincides with a key breeding time for the deer tick, giving it no long grass for egg laying. It also cuts the fast growing grass down, to give the wildflowers a chance to grow and thrive. Look for this effect in hay fields in the summer. First cut is always real grassy, and the second cut all the clover and alfalfa seem to be the primary plants. The legumes were always there-it was just the grass growing faster in the spring choking out the others. The late fall mowing tidies up the grounds, exposing any late ticks, and spreads any wildflower seeds that may have formed.

Emily May has been spending her summer compiling a plant census of what is coming up, and I’ll be working with Professor Helen Young’s Plant Biology class in the fall to continue. So far, like I mentioned before, it’s primarily lawn weeds, non-native species that were existing in the lawn. The master plan of Middlebury College calls for many of these no-mow areas to be planted in native meadow species, by removing what is there, and planting plugs of native meadow plants. While this would be wonderful, it would also be expensive and laborious. I am hoping that the research shows that with the maintenance plan we are emphasizing native plants, and can convert these areas to somewhat native meadows naturally.