The 4-Step Solar Mowing Special

Crocuses are disappearing, forsythia is in full sunny bloom, and grasses are waking up. We’re preparing for the 2015 growing season by cleaning our equipment, sharpening/replacing mower blades, and by rejuvenating customers’ lawns with the Solar Mowing Special, a four-step process. Here’s how it works:

By thinning the dead material lying on top of the soil, we improve the success of new grass seeds and open up the soil enhance nutrient penetration into the soil.

By removing dead material lying on top of the soil, we improve the success of new grass seeds and enhance the soil’s ability to take in water, air, and nutrients.

  1. “Comb” the lawn with special rakes (both bamboo and metal) to thin out the thatch, or layer of dead plant material, which builds up over time and prevents water, air, and nutrients from permeating the soil.
  2. Apply grass seed mixed with an organic fertilizer. Our fertilizer contains nitrogen, potassium, and all other essential elements; more than 70 trace elements, including manganese and zinc; and beneficial microbes (critical for soil health).
  3. Topdress with a thin (eighth-inch) layer of compost.
  4. Water well; this activates the microbes and helps work the nutrients into the soil.

Afterward, it’s critical that the soil stays moist. This usually means twice daily light waterings. After the grass seeds germinate, watering can be done once daily; less often if it rains, of course.

Reseeding this time of year can reduce the spread of weeds by filling in those bare and thin spots where weeds find refuge.

Let us know if you’d like the four-step SolMow Special this spring — or in the fall.

And if you’re waiting to hear the roar and see the smoke of our engines as we begin mowing, fuggedaboutit. Our mowers purr and emit nothing. smilingsunSMALL

The Wind Down

Grass does most of its growing during the mild, wet days of spring. Then, if you’re a blade of grass, you tend to go into a summer slump in late July and August when temps rise and little rain falls. This summer, however, our lawns entered no such slump. Lower temps and moderate rainfall throughout most of late summer kept grass growing like spring.

Finally now in mid-October, grass is starting to slow down. Though not until average daily temps sink to 50 degrees or below will growth stop. And roots will continue to grow and take up nutrients until the ground freezes. (We mowed our last lawn in 2013 on November 5.)

This is the best time of year to reseed bare spots in your lawn, overseed thin patches, and apply fertilizer. An organic fertilizer applied now will feed grass roots unlike in the spring when fertilizer tends to increase topgrowth and the number of required mows.

Judy'sLeavesSolar Mowing provides these services as well as fall leaf cleanup.

Our mulching mowers will turn some of your leaves into food for your grass and soil. We use rakes and emission-free blowers to pile the rest along curbs for pickup and/or to put in your compost area. Contact us for price info and to get on the schedule.

Emission-free mowing remains our bread and butter, but largely guided by our customers, we continue to expand into other safe and effective lawn and garden care services.

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.

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!


Compost Tea … If it’s Good Enough for Harvard

Dylan Reilly works for Solar Mowing. He’s applied to the Landscape Architecture Graduate Program at the University of Maryland for the fall. 

The idea to make compost tea has been on a back burner, so to speak, since I read about Harvard University’s transition to organic care of the Harvard Yard. This time-honored landscape includes brick pathways, stately old trees, and a good deal of grass.

It began in 2008 when Harvard compared two plots of lawn: one treated organically and the other treated conventionally as a control. Both plots were tested for percolation, pH, and other metrics to assure a fair comparison. The conventional control plot received synthetic nitrogen/phosphorus liquid fertilizers, some pesticides, and annual aeration/reseeding. The organic plot received aeration, reseeding, topdressing of compost, pelletized organic fertilizer, and a special amendment called compost tea.

Compost tea is a mix of organic nutrients (nitrogen, potassium), actively aerated water (by oxygen pump), and compost (such as chicken manure, grass clippings, decomposing leaves) that steep together in a fine mesh bag that allow microbes, but not soil, to pass through. Harvard’s recipe mixed seven pounds of compost, eight ounces of molasses, eight ounces of liquid kelp, eight ounces of fish hydrolysate, and a half cup of vegetable oil into a 30-gallon container of water that was then steeped for 24 hours.

The heart of compost tea is not the nutrients from the various ingredients, but rather the biology that is harbored by the steeping process. This is where the aeration comes in. To create beneficial microbes for a healthy lawn you need food to help beneficial bacteria from the compost grow and air to help them breath and that is exactly what brewing/steeping compost tea does. Once brewed, it should be applied as quickly as possible to take advantage of that biology.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the hydroponic oxygen pump. He'll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the oxygen pump. He’ll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

In my experiment, I applied about three gallons of compost tea to our one-eighth-acre of grass, which is actually more than recommended. About a month later, I have not noticed any particular uptick or decline in our lawn’s growth or health, which is not surprising for one application. But the brewing was definitely an education. I used a 30-gallon trash bin to brew my tea, along with a store-bought 400-micron teabag, oxygen pump, and homemade aeration grate for the bottom of the bin. I dispensed the tea with a one-gallon hand sprayer.

In February 2009, Harvard put out a report on the project, detailing successes from the organic lawn care system, such as increased root depth and less required watering. A few months later, 25 acres of Harvard’s campus was converted to organic practices. With a 45K investment in composting facilities, compost tea brewers, and associated equipment the cost of the new maintenance plan is about the same as their conventional system.

The take-away for folks with lawns is this: It has never been a better time to start an organic lawn care regimen. Compost tea has become a bit of a waving flag in the past few years, but it really appears to be the synergy of compost topdressing, aeration, reseeding, organic pelletized fertilizer, compost tea, and careful management that allowed Harvard Yard to go green.

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