How to Manage Grass Without a Lawnmower

Yes, it can be done in small-scale domestic gardens.

cutting grass with a scythe

Marjan_Apostolovic/Getty Images

As a permaculture designer, I work with landowners keen to boost biodiversity and manage their land in more sustainable ways. One question that I am often asked is how to manage grass in order to establish more ecologically friendly food-producing or garden schemes.

In sustainable land management, we frequently talk about the many benefits of getting rid of a monocrop, such as a neatly mown lawn—but grasses are not always unwanted. Sometimes managing grass does not involve getting rid of it altogether, but rather finding ways to reduce its dominance to allow other plant life to thrive, or in establishing, for example, prairie or meadow schemes which nurture a wider range of life.

Strategies for grass lawn and grassland management very much depend on the location, and all strategies must take local conditions into account. The goals for a particular project are also a key consideration. In this article, I'd like to explore some of the strategies that can be useful in small-scale domestic gardens and on homesteads.

Managing Grass Without a Lawnmower in a Domestic Garden

Those who do have large areas of grass lawn will know that upkeep can be a challenge. A monocrop grass lawn is an unnatural environment, which usually needs human input to survive. Keeping a grass lawn neatly mowed and free from weeds causes ecological harm—with severe impacts on the wildlife in an area. 

A more natural lawn, however, where plenty of wild flowers are allowed to thrive, can be a good addition to a garden. Grass may still be the dominant species, but other plants will cater to the wildlife in the area and work with the grasses to create a more natural and self-sustaining ecosystem. 

Many sustainable gardeners wonder how to manage a "wild" lawn without having to resort to the use of a lawnmower. There are several ways to keep grass low without having to use machinery.

The first option, and perfectly acceptable for many smaller gardens with wild lawns, is to use an old-fashioned scythe or sickle. Manually cutting areas of grass and other tall vegetation might sound labor-intensive, but when you get the hang of it, in smaller gardens it may not take much more time than mowing. 

In larger areas, cutting by hand will likely be impractical. If you have a larger garden in a rural or even suburban setting, you might be able to enlist the help of others—but not just humans. Livestock have been used for hundreds of years, not just for other purposes but to manage human environments. 

Even in domestic gardens, keeping smaller livestock might be an option. Geese are a possibility, for example, or small-scale rabbit husbandry. On larger properties, there is a range of ruminants to consider. Integrating animals into productive and biodiverse gardens can often be a good way to go. 

chickens in a natural chicken tractor

Ksenia Shestakova/Getty Images

Reducing Grass Dominance in Meadow Creation

Going one stage further from creating a "wild" lawn involves slowly turning a grass-dominant neat lawn into an abundant perennial meadow. This usually involves simply allowing weeds to pop up as they will. Often, it can also involve sowing specific wildflower species which suppress grass growth (such as yellow rattle, for example). The species chosen for a meadow in a garden should always to chosen specific to place, and the species which dominate will often change considerably throughout each year and over time. 

Grasses in Annual Production

You may already be familiar with the idea of creating new growing areas on an area of existing lawn using no-dig methods. But what about the pathways between new growing areas or raised beds? There are a number of options. I have spoken before about options for living pathways—pathways made from living plants as opposed to inert materials. 

"Tractoring" chickens or other small livestock in movable coops or pens down living pathways or grass/meadow rows between beds is one interesting option to consider for their ongoing management without the need for frequent mowing (though hand-cutting grass and other vegetation with a sickle or scythe is also an opinion where keeping livestock is not possible). 

Suppressing Grass Growth in Forest Gardens

In orchards and forest gardens, creating good ground cover can often be key. With or without the integration of livestock, there are several solutions which can help you manage grass growth for the establishment of a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. 

One problem with grasses in forest gardens or agroforestry systems is that the grasses can be overly competitive with shallow tree roots. Excessive grass growth beneath trees can also encourage a bacterial dominant, rather than fungal dominant, soil. Laying cardboard or wood chip mulch and other organic material over the planting areas can help in the establishment of such systems. 

Grass growth into growing areas can be managed or controlled through hand-cutting or by introducing grazing animals, as well as through other steps like introducing spring bulbs around the edges of beds, and the establishment of other strong ground covers. These will help reduce grass dominance as the system matures.