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Sometimes, You Just Have to Mow . . .

If they gave out prizes for the biggest dandelions, my daughter, Aimee, might have won yesterday.

If they gave out prizes for the biggest dandelions, my daughter, Aimee, might have won yesterday.

From the tip of the root to the top of the flowers, Aimee's dandelion plant measured more than 3 feet.

From the tip of the root to the top of the flowers, Aimee’s dandelion plant measured more than 3 feet.

It was my goal this year to set a personal record for lawn apathy. Last year, I mowed my lawn six times from May to November. In an effort to keep my carbon footprint at an absolute minimum, I was hoping for five this season.

After plenty of rain and a ridiculously early and warm spring, even I had to admit that it was time to cut the lawn on Mother’s Day. When the grass and some of the garden dandelions — no exaggeration — were taller than my daughters, I figured we risked losing children if I didn’t take action.

My mowing, mind you, isn’t like my neighbor’s technique. He has a crew come with three of those ride-on yellow Walker mowers. They move around his property in formation like fighter pilots and, when they’re done, the lawn looks as if it just received a military haircut. Not a single blade is left taller than an inch and a half and all the dismembered grass is vacuumed and discarded. Out of sight out of mind.

My neighbor will also water his lawn all summer, have three or four applications of weed ‘n feed applied, an wine like hell when the crabgrass seems to appear out of nowhere in late summer. “What did I do wrong?” he’ll ask, year after year.

Acknowledging that mowing is an essential part of keeping a decent lawn, it’s time to dust off the Do’s and Don’ts for proper grass cutting. Here are a few points to consider.

Blade Height — Lawns should be cut no lower than 3 inches in height until the onset of autumn. The only exceptions to this would be lawns containing a predominance of one of three species of grass: bentgrass, Bermudagrass or seashore paspalum. These three species can be mowed as low as one inch high. Allowing the grass to stay tall now will keep many weed seeds from germinating — especially those crabgrass seeds; keeping the lawn tall throughout the summer will keep the surface of the soil from drying out and reduce the need for watering.

Following the Rule of Thirds — No more than one-third of the grass plant should be cut at any one time. In other words, if the grass grows to an average height of 6 inches, it should be cut to no lower than 4 inches on its next mowing. After a 48-hour recovery period, the lawn can then be mowed again down to 3 inches.

If Your Lawn Gets Away From You — The top mowing height on most mowers is no higher than 4 inches, so what do you do if the lawn grows taller than 6 inches? I make sure no children are around and push down on the handlebar of the mower so the front tires lift into the air. This will generally allow the grass to remain at about 6 to 8 inches tall after the first pass of the mower. I also use a scythe on the areas of my lawn that I only mow once or twice a year. That’s one of the oldest — and most satisfying — grass-cutting tools on the planet.

Avoid Mowing When Wet — All precautions should be made to avoid mowing lawns during or just after rain, or when heavy dew is present.

Don’t Mow When No Rain is Predicted — If the long-range forecast calls for no appreciable rain and you do not have an irrigation system installed and in regular use, the lawn should not be mowed again until the day before substantial rain is predicted.

Blade Sharpening — Blades must be kept sharp at all times prior to mowing lawns. Sharpening every 8-12 hours of use is recommended.

Recycle Clippings (Three Bagging Exceptions) — In general, grass clippings should be “mulched” or recycled back onto the lawn to restore nutrients to the lawn. As such, mowers should be equipped with mulching blades. Any areas of heavy clumping of grass clippings should be spread out with a rake and, in some extreme cases, the grass clippings should be removed to a compost pile. Bagging attachments are recommended in three circumstances: 1) in spring, if leaves and other debris remain heavily distributed across the lawn; 2) in late spring when dandelions set seed; 3) in fall, when leaves are heavily distributed across the lawn. In all circumstances, materials gathered in mower bags should be recycled and composted.

Turf Tires — Any large mowing machines should be equipped with turf tires designed to spread the weight of the mower across a wide area.

Striping and Overlapping — For most attractive appearance, lawns are to be mowed in straight line patterns, with overlapping by an average of the tire width in each direction. Mowing one course around the perimeter of a lawn area prior to commencing the striping pattern. The direction of the striping should be changed on subsequent mowing, either in a perpendicular or diagonal direction. Clippings should not be “blown” into surrounding planting beds.

Proper Use of Line Trimmers — Learn the proper use of line trimmers to: 1) avoid harming trees and shrubs; 2) avoid harming fence posts, siding and other stationary items; 3) avoid scalping the lawn to lower than 3 inches.

Observe the Lawn for Changes — If you see noticeable changes occur such as weeds, discoloration, insect infestations or dying patches of grass, do your best to diagnose the problem — or consult an organic lawn care professional. The problem, mind you, may not be not enough fertilizer or water.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • CJStewart

    There are some sad, sad bees and butterflies in your yard today. Bees and butterflies love dandelions. ;-)

    • Paul Tukey

      I know! . . . But part of my justification in waiting so long to mow the lawn each year is to wait until most of the dandelions have passed us by, which they have.

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  • Alexis

    great tips. hope you don’t mind if i share these in my community newsletter.

  • Chris

    Paul, I love you man but you are *way* out of touch with those of us here in the South. We’ve been mowing weekly since late February!

    • Paul Tukey

      I had my Southern photos last week! I try.

      • Chris

        Thanks Paul but nobody wants a peanut lawn. Looks like a bunch of overgrown weeds!

  • Keith

    My daughter cried when her little brother ripped her “tallest” dandelions in half earlier this spring. Your daughter must have been very proud of those whoppers!

  • Hank

    Four weeks ago I spread a 1/2 inch of organic compost over our lawn here in Maine. I had applied some over-seeding with tall fescue and perennial rye seed before adding the compost material.

    This stuff took off like a Harley on steriods!

    Now you know why I simply had to mow for the first time this year about 5 days ago.

    Very happy to recommend this procedure. We are now chemical free!! And of course we feel very comfortable having our four years old great grand-daughter roam anywhere she likes on this lush lawn.


  • Daniel

    wow those are some serious dandelions. IF I saw some that tall in my yard, I would definitely freak out. Weed control is actually one of the things my lawn is focused on. You can see some of my tips here.

  • Nikhil Other

    Frequent mowing during peak growth will eliminate the yellow blossoms and prevent seed formation. Nikhil Other

  • Meg

    This article arrives with perfect timing.I have a young neighbor who’s mowing lawns and he needs to learn proper lawn management.I’ll be sharing this with him for sure. Thanks for your help.

  • nick from australia

    What’s wrong with dandelions?
    they are deep rooted and don’t really compete with the grass for nutrients. Bees love them, they look beautiful and when they eventually die back there a realease of minerals from all the parts to the topsoil and the cavity left is an “elevator shaft” for worms. The greens are full of minerals (the very dark green or high clorophyll content means lots of magnesium) plus they have extra health giving compounds (bitter doesn’t always mean “bad”)- i value my quality greens so i just gently pick the top most greens (and they aren’t lying on the ground) and harvest over a long period. The roots can be roasted, ground and diffused in water (like tea leaves) for a type of tea that is amazingly good (even regularly and in large doses) for the liver and gall bladder.
    Throughout their whole life the bottom most leaves are decaying back to the topsoil, providing previously unaccessible minerals and organic matter and their overall effect on soil structure through a combo of root chemical/soil interaction and physical loosening is overwhelmingly positive. The only negative effect of theeir growth occurs if you want to impress someone that tells you that they are ugly. Pffft!
    I treat myself to the flower stems, when the seed puffball has gone or can be blown away, as a very very slight general tonic but I don’t know if this practice is widespread, as is the age old extensive use of the other parts.
    Thank the dandelions for your healthy lawn!

  • nick from australia

    Another 2c:
    For the new gardners;
    Compost heaps rely on a carbon:nitrogen ratio to strike a balance between not doing anything and becoming an unstructured smelly slimy mess. Too much carbon stops things and too much nitrogen gives the stinky mess.

    Being very particular about what goes into your heap might be an issue if there are space considerations, but once you get used to composting it’s pretty hard to run out of space- once they get cranking they are like a hungry black hole.
    Too many dry dead leaves (high C, low N) will slow down your heap but grass clippings alone are usually reasonably high N so I wouldn’t worry too much. Maybe you might need more vegie scraps or green matter, which doesn’t have to be put in immediately. Good compost making is like stew making; there are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. You use your senses to observe how things are turning out and add bits as you go along.
    Hope I didn’t ramble or rave too much.
    Happy gardening :)

  • Dan Delventhal

    Thanks for this article. True, mowing infrequently is the best, although it makes it difficult to reel mow, which is the driving force of my business, MowGreen.US. Reel mowing needs to be done a bit more often than power mowing, but conforms to the advise above on % of blade to cut for better mulching and root health. Also very little soil compaction as they are only 20-30 lbs!
    As 6 to 10% of our air pollution comes from the lawncare industry like Paul’s neighbors mentioned above, and we spill gas nationally equal to a Valdez filling these things and the noise and traffic is also horrendous, MowGreen gets the Gas off the Grass. Reel Mowing; Quiet, Clean & Green. We are in 3 counties in CT and expanding. We mow over 6 acres weekly. Sometimes we have to use converted gasoline to hydrogen mowers when the grass has gotten too long to reel mow. Low emissions, but the same noise as the “dirty” providers. Thanks for this entry and the comments, I am still learning the business after 3 years as a hobby.

  • Scott Beaulieu

    Are there ways to have very low maintenance lawns in Maine. What is the best grass seed to use in the northeast. I am interested in developing green landscaping on one of my company’s project. To find out more about my green project, contact,or veiw, or call me @ 207-252-8849

  • harold

    HI Paul WHEW what a relief I thought that I was just lazy for not mowing more often now i am just so proud to be doing the right thing and being lazy at the same time. Thanks for the great article

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  • NoMowGrass

    One of the organic ways we recommend to get rid of weeds is to bag when the weeds are seeding. Most weeds are annual and a few are perennial so bagging when you mow is an easy way to stop the cycle.

    We recommend if you mow – mow our bentgrass high – 3″ – 5″ to keep weed seeds from reaching the ground. The grass will eventually thicken up enough so seeds can’t reach the ground to root.

    Fescues are thought of as a low maintenance grass but we don’t sell fescues except for the desert areas of the country since we’ve gotten so many complaints about endophytes making animals that eat grass sick. It is a taller grass than ours which we have customers who never mow it.

    Good article Paul – keep them coming!
    Sherry @

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  • Lulu

    Dear Paul,
    You wrote “Blade Height — Lawns should be cut no lower than 3 inches in height until the onset of autumn.” …Then what do I do? In autumn. Cut it short so it can have more growing time in the spring?

    • Paul Tukey

      In the fall, you can mow to 2-2.5 inches on most species. Leaving the grass too long in the fall can be a haven for field mice and also for snow mould.

  • thelawnblog

    Holy Pollination Batman!

    I’ve seen some big weeds in my day but this takes the cake!

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