The virtue of lawns and their clippings

It is easy to decry the lawn as a useless convention of suburban life


Peppers mulched with grass clippings in the author’s garden. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor July 16

It is easy to decry the lawn as a useless convention of suburban life, an unproductive patch of green matter that might otherwise be growing cabbages. It’s high-maintenance, and unless you’re a diehard with a hand-push mower or at least an electric model, fossil fuels are part of that lush green picture, along with their fumes and noise.

But I like our lawn. It is where our six grandchildren play when they come to visit. Wide lawn paths separate our various garden areas, not only framing them visually, but also providing a hunting ground for raptors on the lookout for prey. Meadow voles, which nest in our gardens and devour our vegetables, are picked off by hawks and owls as they scurry across the mown grass from one leafy refuge to another.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

There are other small ways in which the lawn holds its own in our garden’s economy. Whenever it’s mowed, it generates several wheelbarrows full of clippings that can go right into the compost bin. They are the perfect high-nitrogen addition, the spark that ignites the compost pile’s cooking action, drawing heat-loving aerobic bacteria to the scene and putting them to work on decomposing any dry, high-carbon ingredients already present. Sure, planting the lawn area with alfalfa and mowing it might improve our compost more. But, well, that’s just not going to happen.

Lately I’ve been stealing some of the clippings and using them for mulch. It started with the spring-planted peas, which we always mulch this way. Weeding peas can damage their rather fragile root systems, and big handfuls of fluffy lawn grass are just the thing to carefully poke in among the pea vines so that weeds don’t sprout there.

Because rapidly decomposing grass can heat up so much that it might burn delicate plant stems, I wait a day to let the clippings dry a little before raking them into piles, then wait another night before I take the piles away. Even so, they feel warm as I scoop them up and into the wheelbarrow (nice on a cold early morning), but the heat dissipates during the mulching process. I spread a thick-enough layer to keep light from getting to the soil and causing seeds to germinate. Each time the lawn gets mowed, another garden bed receives this blessing.

One good thing about this mulch is that I know exactly what’s in it, or not in it. Soil-enriching clover, yes. Toxic lawn chemicals, no. No weed seeds, either, because the lawn is mowed before seeds from weeds — or from the grass itself — have had time to set. We set the mower high (at least two inches), a practice that favors grasses over broadleaf plants. And before you know it, it’s up again, yielding enough good organic matter that both the crops and the compost pile can share the bounty.

Fans of mulching mowers might ask, “What about the lawn?” And yes, a mower that chops up grass tops and returns them to the lawn is a good thing. But our lawn seems none the worse for our theft, and if a patch ever looks spotty we give it a tonic of sifted mature compost in fall, scattering it about lightly with a shovel, and thereby repay the debt.

Tip of the week:

Chive foliage and flowers are on the wane and make the herb garden look untidy. Harvest stems liberally for use in the kitchen. Splayed clumps can be gathered with a circle of string. Remove the faded blooms with hedge shears. As clumps get shabbier, they can be cut to the ground by midsummer with no effect on regrowth next spring. — Adrian Higgins

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