Meadow Mowing Time

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Upper corner of meadow not mowed Jan 8 08

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.

DR Field and Brush Mower Jan 8 08With 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.

Lower meadow Sept 21 07

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).

Lower meadow before mowing Jan 7 08 Lower meadow after mowing Jan 8 08

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.

Upper meadow partly mowed Jan 8 08

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.

Nan’s scythe Jan 8 08For 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.

Panicum clump after mowing Jan 8 08

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.

Arc border Sept 21 07  Arc border after mowing Jan 8 08

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!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Frances January 11, 2008, 6:25 am

Your description of the meadow clean up was fascinating to one who has never had that much land to tend. Any task that helps contain the moles and voles is okay with me, gas powered or Nan powered.

I do make every effort to not actually run over the little buggers – even they don’t deserve that – but it’s very satisfying to remove some of their hiding places, especially around the barn.

Lisa at Greenbow January 11, 2008, 7:29 am

Nan your meadow is wonderful. I can just see the Hawks pouncing on the little vermin.
The picture of your perrennial border is dreamy. I would love to have an area that looked like that. So inviting. Is the grass with purple plumes the “Cloud Nine Switch Grass”?

Thanks, Lisa. The ‘Cloud Nine’ is the pale pinkish haze in the middle toward the back. The grass that’s closer to the foreground on the left is frost grass (Spodiopogon sibiricus).

Kathy January 11, 2008, 9:20 am

Count our family as another DR Brush Mower user. It sure beats buying a tractor just to use a tow-behind brush cutter. Around here, only the man-sized teens actually run the thing–fine by me! We live on a slope, on poorly drained soil, and if we do get a thaw (like we are experiencing) the soil is too saturated to attempt mowing. You might enjoy reading my son’s early experience operating the thing.

That’s a fantastic post, Kathy. It should be required reading for anyone considering buying this equipment, so they have a realistic idea of both the good points and challenges. Your son’s experiences with trying to turn the thing, especially at high speed, exactly mirrored my own, and I ended up using the same strategy of lifting the mower. When I’m cutting the meadow, I stay in first and second gear, so the turning isn’t so bad. But when traveling in the highest gear, as I can when mowing the pastures, going straight is a good workout and turning is downright exciting.

Elly Phillips January 11, 2008, 12:52 pm

Thanks, Nan, Kathy, and all on your experiences with a DR mower. I’ve been tempted to get one for years to handle the brush, weeds, and compostables on my one-acre Eden. But I always wondered if it would be like buying a 747 when a tiny crop plane would do…

I do think it would be worthwhile for you, Elly. It’s relatively easy to remove the brush mower part and add other attachments, such as a snow thrower or a generator, both of which could be very handy for you. The maintenance is also quite manageable.

Dave January 11, 2008, 9:34 pm

That summer shot is amazing Nan! The difference between the two seasons is stunning. I can see why you need the heavy machinery. The result definitely looks worth the effort!

Thanks, Dave! Brush mowing isn’t exactly a warm-and-fuzzy sort of approach to garden maintenance, but it gets the job done.

jodi January 11, 2008, 9:38 pm

Oh…..I have meadow envy! This is fascinating, Nan. I have Christopher Lloyd’s book on meadows, but I don’t anticipate creating a meadow as such–the large spaces here are pasture or paddock, and the other spaces we just let be native plants as they wish. That photo of the border in Sept puts me in complete raptures!

Thanks for the comment, Jodi. Maybe you’d like to help me explain to my neighbors that it’s not, in fact, simply a bunch of weeds that I’ve neglected.

fsorin January 13, 2008, 8:38 am

Dear Nan,

How truly inspiring….may be your best post yet!!! And you make it all seem so simple…Fran

Thanks, Fran! Maintaining the meadow really is simple: Once-a-year mowing for the whole thing, path-mowing a few times during the summer, adding divisions of perennials and grasses left over from the garden, hand-cutting the woody exotics, and…um, ok, maybe it’s actually *not* simple. But it’s worth it.

Benjamin January 13, 2008, 6:42 pm

Very jealous of your meadow. I’ve never heard of a sand mound, and I have ALWAYS wanted to try a scythe, particularly a well balanced and proportioned one. I bet it feels perfect when swinging it, like an extension of your body or even your thoughts? Am I too romantic or something here about a tool? I have yet to find the perfect shovel.

Not overly romantic at all. Using a well-made scythe is as amazing as you imagine. Even with a heavy blade, the balance is just about perfect, so it doesn’t take much effort at all. Using it around the junipers isn’t one of my favorite chores, because it’s not possible to get up much of a rhythm; it’s a much more of a chopping motion, with the occasional cringe when I whack a tree by accident. But in open areas, where I can get a full swing and there’s only grasses and forbs and very light brush, it really is almost like a form of meditation. Seems to me there’s room for a meadow area in your yard, Benjamin; maybe outside your office window? A scythe would then be a perfect acquisition for its care. Just a thought.

Layanee January 16, 2008, 11:45 am

Nan: Glad you escaped the latest snow and were able to mow the meadow. I love a meadow and will have to show our mowing techniques which involve the politically incorrect tractor. The EM is into big tools and with an acre plus to mow plus the long drive which needs to be plowed in winter, it is a back and life saver! Nice scythe! I prefer hand tools!

Oh, yes, I’d love to hear your meadow-management approach, politically correct or otherwise!

kate January 18, 2008, 10:12 am

This was a fascinating read. I like what you are doing with the meadow. It is a beautiful area – winter and summer.

I wish I had a meadow, but that’s not in the cards considering I live on a small city lot.

Thanks, Kate, and welcome! I used to have a small garden too, and while I love my current place, I do miss the ability to keep up with little details.

Pandora November 4, 2008, 12:05 pm


I live in a co-housing project where we are fortunate to own around 25 acres of land…as part of this, we have a 6 or 8 acre meadow. We usually cut it once in the late Summer, but didnt this year because two wedding parties wanted long flowing grass! Then the weather was too wet so it has missed it’s annual cut. Now it’s November and I dont know whther we should try to get it cut before Winter sets in or too leave it til Spring. Any suggestions? I dont know what would happen if we left it.
Different people say different things…ranging from – “it needs a haircut,” “The dead grass will prevent wild flowers from growing,” to “leave it and let nature do it’s thing.”

Any comments welcome.

Welcome, Pandora. I’m not an expert on meadows, so I can only share my experience with my own. And that is: Over the years, I’ve cut various parts down any time from late October to mid-March, and the timing doesn’t seem to make much difference. The only advantage of the early mowing is that it gives less cover to the destructive critters (for me, that includes groundhogs, moles, and mice). There are many advantages to later mowing, on the other hand, because it provides shelter for “good” critters and seeds for birds. So, my conclusion is that it’s ok to cut either now or in late winter, whenever it’s convenient for you, but that it could be better for wildlife purposes if you waited a few months. I hope that helps.

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