(Beyond Pesticides, January 2, 2008) The Cleveland Botanical Garden and several city departments are testing several low-growth grass mixes — some already available, while others are new mixes being developed at the garden. The grasses would be planted initially only in city-owned vacant lots. Low-mow — and its even more ecologically minded brother, no-mow — refer to limited-growth grass seed mixes. The seeds grow into lawns that need less water, need no fertilizers or chemical herbicide and stay reasonably short, 6 to 8 inches, even if mowed at most on a monthly basis. Low-grow grasses are already sprouting up in Cleveland. Five mixes sprouted with mixed results when planted in pilot strips last summer in front of the Botanical Garden’s East Boulevard building. The most promising blend topped off between 6 and 8 inches high when being cut only once a month. Other Northeast Ohio lawns probably grew that much in a single week this past summer when the rains came.
Supporters say that’s what will make these low-mow grasses an increasingly popular option, even though some disdain their small flowers, and most varieties look shaggier than well-manicured yards. “The perfect American lawn is going through a volatile period in its history,” said Case Western Reserve University environmental history professor Ted Steinberg of Shaker Heights. “Of course, I’m the guy who thinks any lawn maintenance is a waste of time.” Steinberg, author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, said there is “an anti-perfect lawn revolution under way in Canada.” He said more than 120 cities there have enacted limits on the use of pesticides on yards, for example. A number of cities in the US require parks to be pesticide-free.
Steinberg said low-mow lawns are part of that larger movement away from chemically supported and perfect-looking lawns. The test lawn outside the garden certainly drew plenty of attention around University Circle this past summer, said Christin DeJong, the Garden’s urban botanist, who is running the experiment. “The Cleveland Botanical Garden’s mission is – in every sense of the word – conservation,” said Garden Executive Director Natalie Ronayne. “This project can play a role in urban greening, which improves sustainability and helps in economic development. It’s more aesthetically pleasing and easier to market a green city.”
The low-mow lawn test will continue through next spring on four parcels in the city’s Fairfax neighborhood. Contractors for the city planted the new seed mix on half of each of the bare-dirt lots. The other half got a traditional, faster-growing lawn mix. City workers will mow it monthly next summer and measure the height difference each time between the two sides. Ultimately, the grass could be used to reseed many of the city’s 8,000 parcels of available land. “That’s the bottom line with us – if it saves money on maintenance,” said Nate Hoelzel, the city’s brownfields program manager. “Green lots help a neighborhood more than plain dirt.”
Ronayne and Hoelzel said they could envision the low-grow also being marketed to park systems and maybe the Ohio Department of Transportation for median strips. Because none of the mixes include taller – and hardier – grasses like rye, they won’t hold up under heavy traffic, DeJong said. Landscapers who make part of their living mowing others’ lawns aren’t too worried – yet. “Quite honestly, it’s really not on our radar at this time,” said Sandy Munley, executive director of the Ohio Landscape Association in Broadview Heights. “It sounds pretty cool for some uses, but I think it would depend on what it looks like and feels underfoot.” Brad Copley, vice president of marketing for MTD Products, Ohio’s largest lawn care equipment manufacturer, said his company would welcome the idea. “I don’t think this is the end of lawnmowers as we know it,” he said. “Anything that would contribute to the greening of the landscape and the generation of more oxygen – as opposed to concrete or asphalt – is a good thing.”
The National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns maintains a website with scientific documentation on the hazards of chemical lawn care, the benefits of organic care, and activist tools for community change, http://www.pesticidefreelawns.org. For more information on being a part of the growing organic lawn care movement, please visit http://www.beyondpesticides.org/lawn/index.htm. To find a service provider that practices least- or non-toxic methods, visit http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pcos/findapco.htm.
Source: The Plain Dealer