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'Stop mowing ... go natural'

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS "You are not individuals living in a landscape," noted Dr. Jim Finley. "The decisions you make affect all other people that live or are going to live in that area."
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS "You are not individuals living in a landscape," noted Dr. Jim Finley. "The decisions you make affect all other people that live or are going to live in that area."
Published April 07. 2012 09:01AM

Say goodbye to cutting grass.

In today's ecologically challenging world, homeowners are choosing to shuck the expense and drudgery of maintaining a large grassy chemically-treated backyard, and instead are allowing their backyards to naturally reforest.

The benefits of reforesting go beyond the obvious savings of the time, supplies and equipment necessary to seed, fertilize and mow a lawn. It reduces the amount of chemicals that leach into our water supply, reduces erosion, and provides a habitat for wildlife.

These are the views of a team of sustainable landscapers from the Penn State Cooperative Extension led by Dr. James Finley. At a recent The Woods In Your Backyard seminar, Dr. Finley explained that an increasing number of property owners, with holdings of 1 to 10 acres, are moving to recognizing their responsibility for their land.

"A single parcel of less than 10 acres can't meet the habitat needs of many species," Finley said.

Finley explained that there are three types of properties on a typical residential lot: intensive-use, which includes buildings, decks and driveways; intermediate use, which includes fire breaks surrounding intensive-use areas; and natural areas, which are typically forests or fields.

While grass has its value in the intermediate use areas, the notion that the entire natural forest must be cut and replaced with grass is problematic.

"How you care for the land reflects how you relate to your community, and how you relate to each other," Finley said. "You are not individuals living in a landscape. The decisions you make affect all other people that live or are going to live in that area."

Grassed areas are not welcoming to wildlife. The explosion of subdivisions and the paving of driveways and grassing of forests is the major cause of habitat loss in the United States. Pennsylvania has over two million acres of lawns.

America's tendency towards creating parcels of land which lead to fragment of forests has been the major cause of a loss of between 375 and 600 forested acres per day (2003).

In Pennsylvania, 71 percent of the forested land is in private ownership, and 600,000 of its residents own 54 percent of the forested land in parcels of 10 acres or less.

Forested land that becomes deforested: disrupts natural wildlife corridors, removes habitat, increases adverse edge effects, increases human and domesticated animal disturbances, encourages invasive species, and may affect water quality.

When grassed areas are allowed to return to forests, they attract wildlife, improve air and water quality, reduce erosion, restore forest diversity and health, provide shade, reduce fires, and provide recreation-woods being a place where children exercise, explore and learn.

"Stop mowing ... go natural," Finley recommends. "Messy is O.K."

He recommends that property owners stop mowing, and allow their outlying areas to return to nature. By natural succession, the planted grass will be replaced by natural grasses, then shrubs, and eventually trees.

To speed the process, he suggests planting a variety of native trees, and to place them randomly on the site. Young trees need to be protected from deer.

When the forest matures, Finley said that it's best not to cleanup fallen timber, which serves as a source of shelter and food.

"Natural areas change over time," Finley explained. "As trees grow, they compete for sunlight, water and nutrients."

Finley noted that when forests are not healthy, they encourage invasive plants, insects and animals. These exotics have caused native population decline, loss of a food supply for native animal species, and problems with waterways, utility lines and roads. Since many of the invasive plants are resistant to herbicides, and tend to reproduce when they are cut, the best way of controlling them is by prevention.

Forests are larger than most private building lots, but they can be destroyed by subdividing them into parcels, and cutting them down to create lawns-a process that has been going on for over 50 years. Penn State feels that it is time to change.

They believe that the only lawn that is truly GREEN is a lawn that doesn't exist.

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