It's a Mow Brainer - why to cut back on cutting the grass

Bluebells and path at Innisbeg in West Cork

A mown path through an orchard at Innisbeg near Baltimore in West Cork.

Everyone is talking about cutbacks these days. Luckily, there is one thing that we can cut back on in the garden which has no nasty side effects, and that's mowing. Many people would agree that there is nothing as nice as a well maintained lawn. On the other hand, do we need quite so much of it?

Many gardens in the countryside comprise of a house, a parking area, some plants around it, a big lawn and perhaps a hedge or some trees. It can mean a lot of mowing and a rather boring garden. The shape of the garden is frequently square or rectangular, and the walls or hedges at the boundary can seem domineering, hard and at odds with the more curvaceous countryside around them.

Long grass and short grass in Ballycullen, Ashford. Co Wicklow

Criss-crossing mown paths through grass near Ashford, Co Wicklow.

The best way to reduce the amount of mowing is to create paths and open areas but to allow the grass to grow tall elsewhere. This has the effect of creating a sense of movement and destination. If the paths and open areas are well-maintained, it doesn’t look at all as if the garden is being neglected. From golf courses, many people are familiar with the different grades of grass maintenance, from putting green to fairway to rough. In our own rural landscape we have this too, where some fields are used for crops, some for grazing and some are left fallow. In our gardens this can introduce a whole new range of textures, with the benefit of attracting wildlife and saving time and money.

Country house in Wicklow through long grass

Our own house sits in about an acre, most of which is unmown. More managed areas of short grass are around the house.

By cutting back on the mown area you are also reducing the amount of time that needs to be spent mowing. Time-consuming areas such under or around trees can be left to their own devices for much of the year.

·       Less time spent mowing

·       Less petrol used

·       Less need for a ride-on or large mower

·       Greater biodiversity of plants will appear

·       Beneficial to wildlife

·       Creates a sense of movement and drama in the garden

The best way to reduce the amount of mowing you do is to walk around the garden with the mower, skirting the edges with gentle, meandering curves. If there are areas which are unfrequented, leave them un-mown. If there are certain places which are destinations, mow paths to them or create open areas. The fun thing is, these paths and open areas can be altered every year. For anyone who wants to seriously cut back on their reliance of fossil fuels in the garden, the new generation of push mowers (ie non-motorised ones) such as the push mower from Jonsered, are a million miles away from the stiff clattery ones of old. I use this in our garden and sometimes it feels like a lot less effort than cranking up a petrol mower.

Long grass with tulips in our garden in Wicklow

A circle of long grass planted with tulips encloses an open area in our own garden in Wicklow. Tulips are an unusual choice for planting into long grass, but they work brilliantly and raise the spirits massively in spring when they bloom.

Late in the summer, the long grass does need to be cut back. The best way to do this is with a strimmer. Or, if you are very dedicated to reducing your carbon footprint, it can be done with a scythe - which is surprisingly easy. This part does take time, and care needs to be taken not to damage trees or shrubs. Once the grass has been cut and has been on the ground for a few days it should be removed. This has the benefit of impoverishing the soil. Poorer soils produce more flowers than grasses, so if this regime is followed the proportion of grasses to flowers will improve over the years.

An easy and economical way to bring colour to the unmown areas is to plant bulbs straight into the grass. Species such as Wind anemone (Anemone blanda), Crocus, Daffodil,and  Bluebell make excellent species for naturalising, and after flowering the foliage needs to be left uncut until it has entirely died back.

The famous Irish gardener William Robinson, who became one of the most influential garden writers, was a pioneer of this way of doing things. In reaction to the Victorian love of order, he advocated the 'wild' approach to garden management. Well over a century later, his style seems more relevant than ever.

Bluebells in a garden near Avoca Co Wicklow

Bluebells in a garden near Avoca in Co Wicklow. Note the mown strip along the edge.