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.


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.

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.

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

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.

Lipstick on a Pig: An Electric Mower Powered by Coal

It’s true that if you trade in your gas-powered mower for an electric one that you’ll reduce polluting emissions — in your yard.

coalcreekdistantLipstickYESYou won’t smell the emissions or breathe the pollutants into your lungs, but you’ll still be creating them. That’s because most of us in the Mid-Atlantic get our power from coal. And coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide emissions and a leading cause of smog and air pollution.

So, if you want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and clean the air, use an electric mower charged with renewables. (Sounds like a business I know.) With little fuss, you can switch to wind for your home or business through Ethical Electric, a local company that provides clean energy options in our area.

My advice: Don’t buy an electric lawn mower if you don’t likewise sign up for renewable energy. Better yet, sign up for renewable energy, but don’t bother buying an electric lawn mower. Save that money and your time by hiring Solar Mowing to do emission-free mowing for you.

Why Solar Mowing?

FACT:  In an hour, ONE typical gasoline-powered mower spews as much pollution as ELEVEN cars.

This shocks people. The truth is that lawn mowers and other small-engine machines were not regulated until 1997.  Any poor soul with a lawn mower that predates 1997 is polluting as much as 40 cars with every hour of use!

So, newer gasoline mowers are cleaner. But how clean?

twomowersThe latest EPA regulations (Phase 3), which mower manufacturers have to meet by 2015, will reduce emissions by 30-35%. This means those new mowers will pollute as much as 7-8 cars every hour. Clearly, not clean enough.

What pollutants are we talking about? Hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen (principle ingredients of smog), particulate matter (damaging to the respiratory system), carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide (contributors to climate change).

And then there’s the spillage. Of the 800 million gallons of gas that Americans pour into their lawn mower engines each year about 2% gets spilled — and seeps into our groundwater and evaporates into our air.


No, don’t mow with that loud, stinky machine!

One more thing about gas-powered mowers: At 85-90 decibels, they are harmful to the person mowing and to others in the yard as well as annoying to neighbors. The EPA recommends that people mowing their lawns with gas-powered mowers should wear ear protection.

Electric mowers cut the sound in half, at least. If I’m mowing in the front yard and someone else is mowing in the backyard, I can’t hear the back mower. Likewise, many customers say that they were home when we mowed, but never heard us.

That’s music to my ears.