Look out the window of any suburban or rural school or home, and your gaze is likely to fall on an expanse of mowed lawn. Grassland habitats have steadily declined as we choose acres of neatly mowed lawns instead - bad news for wildlife that depends on grasslands for food, cover and breeding. The benefits of reducing or eliminating mowing are numerous. It provides shelter, food and breeding ground for a variety of wildlife and critical habitat for pollinators. In addition, native grasses and plants with longer roots than typical turf grass stabilize soil, reducing erosion and slowing stormwater runoff. You will also decreases the amount of time, labor, fertilizer, water and gas used during mowing. Did you know that one gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as driving 100 miles?
Take action! Establish an area, or areas, that have restricted mowing. Low Mow Zones are mowed only a few times a year, allowing native plants and grasses to grow. A No-Mow Zone is a designated area that is allowed (or designed) to grow out into a grassland or meadow, and even progress through succession, eventually developing into a forest. A third method is to simply reduce the amount of mowed area by adding gardens for wildlife. Learn how to create restricted mowing areas below, and be sure to check out our More Habitat Project How-To’s page for excellent state-specific resources featuring instructions on this type of project and many more!
Before you start, work with administrators and facilities staff to determine locations that will not cause problems and, if it’s a Low-Mow Zone, talk with them about the feasibility of cyclical mowing. Warning! No-Mow and Low-Mow Zones at schools are frequently mowed down – it may be one of the most common schoolyard habitat issues we hear. However, working with your administrators and facilities staff before starting a project and ensuring the project is well marked (e.g., signs) will improve its chances of survival.
- Determine your goals: Are you interested in attracting a particular species, or do you want to attract a diversity of wildlife? If you are interested in attracting a certain species, examine habitat requirements for that species (preferred plants, nesting times, etc.) as well as the feasibility that species is in your area. See: Projects to Attract & Support Wildlife
- Decide where you want to mow: Mowing cycles (Low-Mow Zones) are best employed in larger areas of an acre or more. Mowing cycles are generally not feasible for small areas, but No-Mow Zones can be any size.
- Select an open, sunny area that you will designate for restricted mowing: There should be approximately six hours of sun a day.
- Low-Mow Zone: If you are using mowing cycles to promote wildlife usage on your property, then it is important to only mow outside of nesting and brooding seasons which are typically between April and mid-August, so it is best to mow during late winter or early fall. For some species, like rabbits, winter cutting should be done in January to early February.
- For larger areas, the best way to maximize wildlife usage is to mow in blocks using a three -year rotation schedule: divide the area into three sections of blocks or strips. Be sure that the blocks or strips are at least 100-feet wide (areas narrower than 100-feet do not provide adequate cover from predators). Mow one section the first year, another section the second year and the final section the third year. In the fourth year, repeat the rotation schedule. This method of mowing allows for year-round cover for wildlife.
- If you notice woody species, particularly invasive plants like multiflora rose or autumn olive, encroaching in your mowed habitat, then you may want to mow the area more frequently or mechanically remove the invasive plants. Be sure to keep at least one section available for wildlife.
- If you are working with native grasses, particularly tall, warm season grasses, only mow to a height of ten-inches. By cutting warm season grasses to a height less than ten-inches, you can damage or kill the plants.
- Mowing along roadsides, ditches and edges should only occur once every two to three years, mowed to a height of ten-inches. The best time to mow these areas is in the late summer.
- No-Mow Zone: If you have selected an area to become a No-Mow Zone, follow the instructions on our Plant a Meadow page.
Tips for Success:
- Reminder: Always work with your facilities and administrative staff before starting a project!
- Learn about Chesapeake Region Native Plants, particularly warm and cool season grasses and plants that thrive in meadows and open habitat areas. Our Plant a Meadow page has information on appropriate meadow seed mixes and plants.
- Learn to identify invasive plant species: Invasive plants are non-native plants which crowd out or outcompete native species. Keep a sharp eye on your grassland and remove any invasive species as soon as you detect them. If left unmanaged, these species can quickly take over, making the area unsuitable for wildlife and they can be quite costly to control.
- Add nesting boxes! Restricted mowing areas, especially meadows, are a wonderful location for nesting boxes to provide extra habitat options!
- Post a sign so observers understand the natural appearance of the area. Signs and borders also indicate this as a designated project area and help make the area more visible so accidental mowing is less likely to occur. Add benches, paths and other Outdoor Discovery and Learning Features to increase usage of your project.