In 2009 Middlebury College embarked on a ‘No Mow’ program, an effort to reduce the amount of lawn maintenance done on our campus grounds. At that time we eliminated over 16 acres of maintained grass, and transistioned to mowing these areas twice per year, once Mid June, and then very late in the fall. No other work was done to these areas, and for many years they were quite successful.
We have learned, however, that in a managed landscape, even minimally so, there is still maintenance required. These areas were simply lawn grasses and weeds that were allowed to grow full height. No effort was put into establishment of these zones, so the native grasses and wildflowers were fending for themselves with non native plant species, many of them invasive.
And this was fine in some areas of campus. Indeed, we still have several acres of ‘no-mow’ left, mostly on the outskirts of campus. These areas are large, and look similar to many pastures and hay fields found in the Champlain Valley. The unifying theme though is one of ‘not campus’-the remaining areas are not what one would consider managed landscape campus grounds.
After 8-10 years, areas of no mow groundcover on campus started to become mown lawn again for several reasons. One of the largest areas north of Battell Beach had steam line construction right through the heart of it. The imported topsoil came with a weed seed load of the worst kind-thistle, stinging nettle, burdock, and poison parsnip. Given the mowing maintenance cycle of these areas, these weeds not only flourished, but spread to other areas as well. Rather than let these noxious weeds spread further we decided to mow more frequently. The only other option would have been on-going herbicide treatments, certainly not in the spirit of the goals of the original No-Mow program.
The remaining no-mow areas were then quite small and fragmented. One of the greatest parts of the original proposal was the effect on the landscape. The no-mow zones broke up the large flat expanses of lawn, lending some variety in a one dimensional landscape. Once these zones shrunk, however, it looked less intentional. Rather than looking like a coherent landscape structure, the no mow areas looked unmaintained, small and uninviting.
The lesson learned is that we are still a managed landscape here on campus. Lawns are clearly unsustainable, the trick is to figure out groundcovers, landscape designs, and maintenance techniques to minimize inputs into the grounds, while still acheiveing our goals of having a beautiful, sustainable, and usable landscape for all. Thanks to the work of two great students, Aria Bowden ’23 and SJ O’Conner ’24, we are reinvigorating the no-mow concept using new landscape techniques, Rewilding Middlebury.