ANS Meadow Update

The meadow at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy, Chase, MD, is growing up. When I wrote about it this spring, the meadow land had recently been stripped of its top weedy soil layer and several thousand plants and plugs had been installed. Solar Mowing began tending the designated grassy path through the meadow in late April.

“By far the most successful plant has been Maryland senna,” says Marney Bruce, an ANS member who volunteers on the Meadow Team. This native perennial can grow to six feet and thrives in open sunny areas, such as this meadow that abuts Jones Mill Road.


Grasses and wildflowers that have grown tall this summer will be cut back to about 12 inches in height early next spring.

The pre-existing common milkweed has also been growing strong along with sundrops early in the summer; and partridge pea, mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, blue mist flower, and asters later this summer.

Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed have been munched on by the deer, adds Bruce, who points out that the area inside the deer exclosure has fared better than the larger area beyond the exclosure.

Oh, dear.

“We’ve been spraying the meadow regularly with a natural deer repellent,” says Yoli Del Buono, Jr., leader of the Meadow Team.

Flowering native pasture thistles attract many pollinators.

Flowering native pasture thistles attract many pollinators.

Deer don’t seem to like the pasture thistles that are blooming now, which is great because these native plants are attracting goldfinches, butterflies, and a variety of insects, says Del Buono, Jr.

This fall, the Team is planning a “work day” to control non-native plants, and next spring the meadow itself will be mowed to a 12-inch height. Mowing the grasses and flowers strengthens their roots, and of course, it will be done before nesting season.

To help prevent the spread of invasive weeds, Solar Mowing will continue its job of cleaning the blades, drum, and tire treads of its mower before taking it onto this beautifully maturing natural habitat.

Come, take a look for yourself. The meadow and the entire 40-acre Sanctuary is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk.


Cluck. Cluck. Who’s there?

You want to be a good land steward, so you’ve planted natives that attract pollinators. You’re growing veggies and herbs, organically. You’ve hired Solar Mowing, an emission-free mowing company, to care for your grass. What’s next?

RentACoop owners Diana Samata and Tyler Phillips started renting their coops in 2012.

How about fresh eggs from your own backyard chickens?

Local company RentACoop makes that next step pretty darn easy to take. Owners Tyler Phillips and Diana Samata build and rent chicken coops complete with hens, organic feed, and bedding (pine shavings). Fully vented, easy to clean, and predator proof, the coops fit in the back of most minivans, but the company also delivers.


“One of the sweetest and most docile breeds out there,” says Tyler Phillips of his Golden Comet hens.

And yes, keeping hens (but not roosters) is legal in both Montgomery County, MD, and D.C. Restrictions on where you can place a coop get tossed aside when the chickens are considered pets, and the hybrid Golden Comet used by RentACoop are super family-friendly. And hardy. Golden Comets continue to lay eggs during the freezing temps of winter.

If you decide after four weeks (the average rental time) that you want to buy the coop, hens, etc., part of your rental fee goes toward the purchase price.

This business idea was not a big stretch for Tyler, a native of Potomac, MD. He grew up working on his parents’ traveling petting zoo, so it was only natural. Just like your yard.




If a Milkweed is a Bully, is it still Beneficial?

At first, I thought morning glory (Ipomoea L.) was twisting over and through the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), a Maryland native growing in my rain garden. It had those unmistakable (or in this case, mistakable) heart-shaped leaves, and morning glory has been creeping everywhere since I planted three seeds 18 years ago. In these parts, the annual morning glory is a definite perennial.

Creeping noiselessly over, under, and through a swamp rose is the poorly behaved honey vine and its dangling milky pod.

Creeping over and through a swamp rose is the beneficial bully honeyvine.

But then, I spotted milky pods — and the garden plot thickened. :)

Turns out my swamp rose is in the grip of honeyvine (Cynanchum leave), a member of the milkweed family, that not only attracts bees, birds, and butterflies, including monarchs for which it serves as host to its young, it’s drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Oh, and people hate it.

Because it’s a bully. I’m convinced that plants are every bit as complicated as people.

An 11"-by-11" painting made with pigments from  Rosa multiflora, Mahonia bealei, Lonicera maackii and weed soot on paper from Morus alba. Acer platanus

An 11″-by-11″ painting made, in part, with multiflora rosa (Rosa multiflora), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), and white mulberry (Morus alba).

And while we’re on the subject of invasives … we are, aren’t we? … Washington Post illustrator and volunteer land steward, Patterson Clark pulls invasives in mass quantities from public and private lands in Washington, DC. Then he does something remarkable: He processes all that noxious plant material into pigment and paper and makes art.

You can see Clark’s weed work at the Atrium Gallery in McLean, VA, from September 11-October 25.

And so I have to ask: Mr. Clark, do you walk by honeyvine or turn it into art?

Divine Energy at Shoshoni

I spent two days last week at Shoshoni, a yoga/meditation retreat in Colorado, where life goes on at its simple best — contemplation, exercise, nourishing food — and where solar energy plays a starring role. (Pun intended :))

Much of the organic food served at Shoshoni is grown on site in hoop houses.

Much of the organic food served at Shoshoni is grown on site in hoop houses.

With 300+ days of sunshine a year in the eastern Rockies, there’s plenty of solar power to put to work. Solar panels atop cabins and the main lodge heat water for bathing; south-facing windows on many buildings allow for passive solar heating, which can be blocked on hot days by pulling down thermal shades.

Solar and geothermal energies allow year-round gardening even when winter temperatures dive below zero for weeks at a time. Outside air moves through underground pipes (where temps stay in the mid-5os) and is warmed in winter and cooled in summer before being vented inside one hoop-style greenhouse.

Shakti has helped manage the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for 3.5 years. Behind her is a hoop house and a shed for chickens.

Shakti has helped manage the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for more than three years.

“A second hoop house will be outfitted this winter with solar panels that will heat water, which will run through underground pipes that will, in turn, radiate heat up through the soil,” said Shakti, who has worked on the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for more than three years.

While the beets, carrots, peppers, kale, collards, and other food crops need solar-generated heat in the winter to survive, the chickens do not. “I chose heritage breeds,” said Shakti, “that are fit for Rocky Mountain winters.”

Heritage-breed chickens live perfectly well throughout Rocky Mountain winters.

Heritage-breed chickens, acquired only for their eggs at this vegetarian retreat, thrive even in Rocky Mountain winters.

Shakti’s name means divine energy, which if you ask me, is another way of saying solar power.

NOTE: Check out the outstanding recipes in Shoshoni’s cookbook.

The Scoop on Dog Pee

No, it isn’t your imagination. The grassy spot where your dog and the neighbors’ dogs often pee IS turning brown. You may have heard that only big dogs or females cause such spots, but that’s not quite right. Bigger dogs just expel more urine than small dogs, and while females squat rather than lift a leg on a fencepost or utility pole, young male dogs and some small adult males also squat.


Salts and nitrogen in dog urine can damage, and even kill, grass.

The best way to keep your grass spot-free is to train Fido to use a mulched or graveled section of the yard or my favorite command:  “Go in the ivy,” while pointing to my ivy-covered corner. Also, vary the path you take on walks, so your dog won’t pee in the same ol’ places.

Salts and nitrogen in the urine seem to be the twin culprits here, and watering the spot is the best, and really only, remedy. Don’t waste your money on dog supplements that claim to prevent the spots or sprays or powders that are supposed to make the spots disappear.

Keep your dog watered as well as this will help dilute his/her urine. And if you have brown spots that won’t recover, let Solar Mowing clean and reseed them this fall.

We Like Green (Air Quality Code) Days

Everyday about 3:30 p.m., I get an email with the air quality code for the day and the air quality forecast for the next two days. These free daily air alerts come from Clean Air Partners, and you can sign up here to receive them, too.

I track air quality for obvious personal reasons and also for business purposes. If the air for the next day falls in the unhealthy (orange) range or worse, then we’ll limit our mowing to early hours of the day and/or mow only within a very limited driving range. Or, not mow at all.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) shown here is familiar to all of us by now. What you may not know is that it’s based on five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. It is the first two of these — ground-level ozone and particle pollution — that pose the greatest threat to human health, and monitors throughout our region measure these. (For a map showing monitor locations in our area, click here.)

You can help clear the air in multiple ways: Replace your charcoal grill with a propane gas grill, use water-based instead of oil-based paint, drive less, and of course, if you haven’t already, sign up with Solar Mowing. Free estimates for emission-free mowing, trimming, and blowing!


SolMow Customers Grow Much More than Grass

Growing food at home or in community gardens has increased 17% in the past five years, bringing the total of U.S. households growing edibles to 42 million, according to the National Gardening Association. That means 35% of American households are engaged in food gardening!

It’s no coincidence that many Solar Mowing customers are in this group. Who wants a gasoline mower chugging around the eggplants and tomatoes planned for tonight’s dinner?

Using emission-free mowing keeps the air cleaner, and growing food organically keeps these home gardens free of pesticides and herbicides. Here’s a photo gallery of the organic edible gardens of several Solar Mowing customers — and two photos from my own wee plots.

Grown at Home...had to add netting to keep the bunnies out.    But the squash plants look healthy.    I’ve been pleased with them.

Customer Chris installed a 3’6″ x 6’6″ raised bed in her backyard with the help of Grown at Home. Besides the squash, basil, and tomatoes seen here, she has peppers growing in a box on her deck. “We had beans in the garden, too, but the bunnies ate them,” says Chris. “I’ve since installed netting with smaller holes.”













Potatoes (red, white, and blues), radishes, turnips, carrots, and broccoli are among the many plants in Jen’s backyard garden. Jen surrounded the bed with chicken wire and bird netting. A tarp at the bottom keeps weeds under control.


In her side yard, Jen grows herbs, tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, and eggplant. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, currants, figs, and peaches grow elsewhere on this quarter acre. “The garden/farm provides our family of four with 90% of our vegetables and berries,” says Jen. “What is left over, we freeze or can for the winter.” A sign on the fence says that Jen’s property is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat.



Garlic, basil, peppers, and tomatoes are among the offerings in Elisa’s garden. She built the raised beds from a kit.


Cucumbers are ready to pick in Elisa’s garden.


springtime lettuce

Compared to these plots, my own garden offers scant nourishment. Staples include springtime lettuce followed by …




First springtime lettuce, then blueberries….

… summer blueberries and strawberries. I pick basil and parsley from warm spring to cool fall, and a five-year-old pot of bay leaf grows indoors (except when taken out a few months in summer), providing year-round spice.


If you have a garden you’d like showcased in a later post (even if you’re not a SolMow customer!), please send photos here. And if you’ve thought about starting your own food garden, here’s a good guide to help you break ground. Not all planting needs to happen in the spring. In the DC area, late July and early August is a good time to plant carrots, kale, radishes, turnips, and more for an early autumn harvest. Here’s a local planting timetable for many vegetables in our area.


Grasscycling and Haymaking

Some of our urban and suburban homesteads are getting downright countrified. Here and elsewhere, folks in increasing numbers are raising chickens and growing more of their own food. And so the question has come up: Can grass clippings be used to make hay? That’s hay as in food for chickens, rabbits, horses, and other animals. Not the “hay” that is the thing we must make while the sun shines, whatever that is.


Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

The answer, in short, is no. Hay is dried grass, but the only way to make it from our urb/suburb landscapes is to let our lawns grow realllly long (like a foot high) and cut it with hedge clippers or a scythe as Homer’s veteran does in the artwork, at left, or as Frost does in the poem, below. Not terribly practical — even before you spread it out and let it dry for weeks. (A lawn mower — gas or electric — cuts it in too many small pieces.)

While not good for making hay, grass clippings can serve us well if we just let them lie. Mulching plugs in Solar Mowing’s machines finely chop the clippings and distribute them evenly across the lawn. Made up mostly of water, these clippings quickly break down and return key nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) to the soil.

Grasscycling, as it’s called, helps keep our lawns healthy. Here in the urb/suburb, cut grass serves as a valuable natural fertilizer, but as a source of hay? Nay.


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Robert Frost, 1913

We’re Not Ready for Roundup Ready II

Farmers put the first Roundup Ready seeds in the ground in 1996. Genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, the herbicide in Monsanto’s Roundup, the seeds — soybeans, then corn and now alfalfa, cotton, sugarbeets, and other crops — grew despite applications of Roundup, which killed everything else around them.

Fast forward to today, and the once-doomed weeds are beginning to turn up their collective noses at Roundup — and live! What’s a chemical company to do?

RoundupCreate a superweed killer, that’s what! Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo is a mix of glyphosate and 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used in the Vietnam War and linked to hormone and reproductive disruptions, kidney and liver damage, and cancer.

Genetically modified (GM) crops would need to be further tinkered with, of course, so they can withstand doses of 2,4-D. (The only way to avoid GM foods is to read labels carefully — and choose organic foods, which are usually GM-free.)

The good news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to approve Enlist Duo, and the agency is accepting public comments through Monday, June 30. Weigh in here.

The most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., glyphosate has been showing up in breast milk, urine, and drinking water supplies. Scientific studies have linked exposure to birth defects and cancers.

Its widespread use is also killing milkweed, causing “significant ongoing harm” to monarch butterflies, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group has petitioned the EPA to review glyphosate and limit its use.

Enlist Duo is harmful and unsustainable, and it’s not the way forward. That’s the message I gave EPA. For two more days, you can add your message here


Good Government

GreenBizTransBkgrdThe two men sat across the dining room table from me and asked what time of day I buy gasoline for my truck when air quality is poor. They asked how much water and what kind of soap I use when washing my equipment. My answers — late in the day IF I must buy gasoline on code alert days and little water and biodegradable soap some of which flow into the rain garden adjacent to my driveway — were met with approving nods. These men were not members of Friends of the Earth or a neighborhood association. They were Montgomery County officials, looking over my equipment and my application to be a county certified “green business.”

To those of us running green businesses, the certification is a stamp of approval from local government, which shares our values for environmental stewardship, conservation of energy and water, carbon and waste reduction, recycling, and environmentally responsible purchasing.

Consumers seeking to hire green businesses can go the county website and search its directory. For local business owners wanting to green their operations, the Program offers resources to help them.

“Grass clippings that land in the street need to be blown up onto the grass,” Doug Weisburger, Program Manager reminded me, “Otherwise, they’ll make their way down storm drains and add to nitrogen pollution of the Bay.”

That’s my County talking.

At exactly 9:50 a.m. on June 20, 2013, Solar Mowing was certified as a “Green Landscape Business,” a distinction that is valid for three years.