It’s always nice to be able to bring you a story from a garden other than my own, and today I have an inspiring tale of a home experiment to see what happens when you vary how often you cut your lawn.
The gardener is Jane Taylor, an RSPB volunteer now living in the wilds of Dartmoor, but her trial took place over nine years in her previous garden in coastal Hampshire. The starting point was just her bog-standard, average-sized garden lawn that was composed of well-fertilised grass on rather sandy soil that had been frequently mown over the preceding 40 years.
Jane decided to try different mowing regimes on different parts of the lawn and then stick to it.
The only ‘intervention’ Jane made was to always remove the trimmings whenever it was cut; she didn’t scarify or aerate or fertilise.
She kept this up for nine years and monitored how the flora of the various areas developed. Which would prosper? And how would wildlife benefit?
The best floral diversity by far was in the area of lawn cut just twice a year. Here you can see flowers such as White Clover, Bird-s-foot Trefoil, Ribwort Plantain and Self-heal.
This twice-mown area retained moisture longer and was often damp even at midday – it was the only plot where Jane saw butterflies visit in peak summer.
However, even mowing four times a year gave a good nectar show in July (below). It was almost solely covered in Cat’s-ear, which is like a dainty dandelion on a long, bare flowering stem; even grass struggled in this plot, probably because of the sandy soil and long, dry, sunny summers on the south coast.
Once the flowers are allowed space to bloom, in come the pollinators, such as this Red-tailed Bumblebee.
The 3x mown area seemed to give a big advantage to the Bird’s-foot Trefoil which prevailed with a healthy grass and clover understory; Jane thought that this might have happened partly because other species were not able to set seed before the cut in August.
The leaves of Bird’s-foot Trefoil are food for Common Blue butterfly caterpillars (and several attractive moths), plus the flowers are great forage for various bee species. Here is one of Jane's adult Common Blues:
Jane was particularly interested in this 3x regime as she felt it performed best as a 'compromise' – families might be willing to let grass grow during spring/early summer, but then mow it for the kids to play on in the August school holidays.
Of course, many if not most of the flowers were probably already present in the lawn before Jane started her experiment, but had been kept in check, unable to flower or set seed, by the former endless mowing. But now they had been released from the constant ‘grazing’ that so many people feel compelled to do, with wildlife able to move in as a result.
The beauty of Jane’s experiment is of course that it didn’t require any extra work – in fact it required less than had previously been the case. The results would not be the same with every lawn, but would probably be just as fascinating.
It is stories like this that make me increasingly hopeful that the era of liberated lawns is now dawning.
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