Monday, July 22, 2013

Selective Mowing: Part Of My Minimalist Gardening Strategy

By Linda McMulkin, CSU Extension-Pueblo County
Posted 7-22-13

I’ve been accused of being a lazy gardener, but I actually do have a strategy.  My goal is to spend as little time fussing as possible.  Plants that live in my yard better be able to fend for themselves, as irrigation is rare and fertilization and deadheading just don’t happen.  My friend who has a similar attitude toward garden maintenance calls us minimalists, a term I like much better than lazy.

This flag helps me remember the location
of a prickly pear nestled in a patch of
shaded red three awn.

My home sits on a flat, skinny urban lot with clayey soil and no irrigation system.    We have trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials (a mix of native and non-native) and a buffalo grass lawn close to the house, but the back 2/3 of our lot is a haven for native prairie plants.  I have several types of native grass, each growing on the section of the property that provides their favorite mix of sun and shade.   About 20 species of native forbs live with the grasses, some more prolific than others.  This spring, even with the drought in southeastern Colorado, I had a carpet of native verbena that took my breath away.

I mowed some of the Kochia but have many to hand pull this week. 
At least I'll have some pretty plants to keep me company.

This patch of hairy golden aster
welcomes me home  every day.  My neighbors
are letting this plant grow in front
of their houses as well.

My prairie restoration project requires that I let desirable plant species go to seed while hand pulling weeds.  Mowing is a challenge, since I’ve let the plants tell me where they want to grow rather than in defined beds.  They are scattered inconveniently for a push mower.  Sphearalcea grows with Oonopis near the pines, prickly pear is mixed with red three awn, winterfat has been left to thrive in every dry spot, and the occasional patch of Indian rice grass is celebrated wherever it wants to grow. I’ve developed a strategy called “selective mowing” with the goal of cutting back desired species that have completed seed production or are looking ratty, plus thwarting annual weeds that I haven’t pulled yet.  The result is a shaggy mix of groomed and ungroomed landscape that makes my neighbor with a riding mower shake his head in puzzlement.

Mowed buffalo grass with a swath of unmowed blue grama. 
Yes, I'm aware of the weedy species mixed in. 
That is next weekend's project.

Yesterday I mowed the buffalo grass, but left patches of blue grama to set seed.  I mowed Kochia in some spots, but left the weeds mixed in with a big patch of Sphearalcea and Oonopis (I promise to pull weeds in the evening this week).  I removed the tops of spent Aristida purpurea in the sun, but didn’t mow the newly blooming section in the shade near the fence.  And I circled around one patch of verbena that looks like it may bloom again after the recent rain.

Selective mowing requires knowledge of the plants in my yard plus the patience to stop and plan where to push the mower next.  I also find that a bit of ruthlessness helps.  I had to remove one lovely Schearalcea yesterday in order to reach a patch of Kochia, but I left 10 plants alone, so there is plenty of seed still to come.

The pay off of letting the prairie plants pick their spots is that I irrigate only monthly with a hose-end sprinkler, mow about 4 times a year, provide food for lots of quail and bunnies, and get to enjoy the native landscape without leaving my deck.  Does that make me lazy?  Minimalist works for me and I’ll continue to encourage those plants that let me sit on the deck and not stress about landscape maintenance. Okay, maybe a little lazy…..


  1. I'm so glad to see this article! I am on the same path with establishing grasses and native plants through wide swaths of our property. My neighbors have expressed attitudes ranging from anger, curiosity, interest and frustration with my endeavor. Fortunately, I see the progress - the slow reduction of weeds, and the expanding swaths of grasses waving in the wind. They think I'm crazy for hand pulling, and lazy for not mowing. (How can we be lazy with all that hand pulling!)

    Thank you so much for writing this!

  2. Linda, what a great yard! Minimalist is a terrific model for landscaping! I love it.


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