Creating a Wild Backyard - Mowing Cycles for Wildlife
Mowing is often a boring chore, and people generally try to
incorporate more gardens in their landscape to decrease the time
required to mow their yard. While mowing can be burdensome, mowing
in cycles can actually create diverse habitat for wildlife while
also consuming less time.
To Mow or Not to Mow
In Maryland and many other surrounding states, grassland habitat
has steadily declined. With this loss of habitat, many species which
depend on grasslands for food, cover and breeding areas have also
declined. This loss of grassland habitat is caused by both natural
and anthropogenic (human-related) means. In nature, grasslands
eventually are colonized by woody plants such as trees and shrubs.
This gradual change in plant communities is known as succession.
Succession is a dynamic process, and disturbance of any kind can
reset succession. So, one of the easiest ways to maintain grassland
habitat and to hold off succession is to mow.
Other benefits to mowing include suppressing noxious weeds like
the invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and
stimulating the growth of warm season grasses and wildflowers.
Before You Begin
First and foremost, before you begin mowing cycles for wildlife,
check with your community association and/or local ordinances
concerning grassland habitat. You should adhere to all such
ordinances and request exemptions in the manner recommended by the
governing jurisdiction. As always, it is best to talk to your
neighbors about your backyard wildlife habitat to educate them on
Wild Acres before you start projects like mowing cycles.
Once you have checked into laws and/or gained permission, the
next step is to determine your goals for your mowing cycle. Are you
interested in attracting a particular species, or do you want to
attract a diversity of critters? If you are looking into attracting
a certain species, then you should examine habitat requirements for
that species (preferred plants, nesting times, etc) as well as the
feasibility that species is in your area.
The next step in the mowing process is to decide where you want
to mow. Mowing cycles are best employed in larger areas of an acre
or more. These areas can be along roadsides, in fallow fields,
around ponds or in areas bordering cropland. If you have the time,
then consider planting a
wildflower meadow or warm season grasses in the area you are setting aside for cycled mowing. A mixture of warm
season grasses with a few cool season grasses can also benefit
wildlife. Keep in mind that mowing cycles generally are not feasible
for small areas such as urban and suburban yards.
When to Mow
If you are using mowing cycles to promote wildlife usage on your
property, then it is important to only mow outside of nesting and
brooding seasons. Most wildlife species in Maryland nest and rear
broods between April and mid-August, so it is best to mow during
late winter or early fall. For some species, like rabbits, winter
cutting should be done in January to early February.
Best Management Practices
The best mowing cycles for your property depend on the type of
area you are working with and what wildlife you are interested in
attracting. The following list goes over a few common areas and best
management practices for them.
Fallow Fields & Grasslands
For larger areas, the best way to maximize wildlife usage is to
mow in blocks using a three year rotation schedule. To begin, divide
the area into three sections of blocks or strips. Be sure that the
blocks or strips are at least 100 feet wide. Areas narrower than 100
feet do not provide adequate cover from predators. Mow one section
the first year, another section the second year and the final
section the third year. In the fourth year, repeat the rotation
This method of mowing allows for year-round cover for
wildlife. If you notice woody species, particularly invasive ones
like multiflora rose or autumn olive, encroaching in your mowed
habitat, then you may want to mow the area more frequently or
mechanically remove the invasive plants. Be sure to keep at least
one section available for wildlife, though. If you are working with
native grasses, particularly tall, warm season grasses, then only
mow to a height of ten inches. By cutting warm season grasses to a
height less than ten inches, you can damage or kill the plants.
Roadsides, Ditches & Edges
Mowing along roadsides, ditches and edges should only occur once
every two to three years. Similar to fallow fields, edges should
only be mowed to a height of ten inches. The best time to mow these
areas is in the late summer, after August 15th.
Keeping Noxious Plants in Check
Any type of disturbance, even mowing, can allow certain invasive
plants to establish in your grassland. Invasive plants are
non-native plants which crowd out or outcompete native species. Keep
a sharp eye on your grassland and remove any invasive species as
soon as you detect them. If left unmanaged, then these species can
quickly take over, make the area unsuitable for wildlife and can be
quite costly to control. If you see a particular plant becoming
dominant in your grassland, then it might be good to take a sample
to a local Cooperative Extension service or to someone who may be
able to identify it. Some species that you may want to become
familiar with are:
- Autumn olive and Russian olive (Elaeagnus umbellata, E.
- Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)- shrubs
- Canada thistles (Cirsium arvense)- herb
- Chinese lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata)- herb
- Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)- grass
- Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)- shrub
- Wild teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris)- herb
- Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)- shrub
In some cases, shorter mowing cycles may discourage the growth of
these species. However, in other cases, you may have to resort to
spot controlling invasives with selective herbicides. Be sure to
select herbicides fit for the job and be sure to strictly adhere to
herbicide application instructions and laws regarding usage
Invite Wildlife into Your Backyard!
For Additional Information, Contact:
MD DNR - Wildlife and Heritage Service
12512 Pleasant Valley Rd
Flintstone MD 21530
- Wildflowers provide color as well as additional food for wildlife in grasslands. Photo by: R.H. Wiegand
- Multiflora rose is a common invader of grasslands by: Kerry Wixted