Don’t Mow Low!

July 10, 2014 | By | Comments (26)
Don't Mow Low

Ron Ernst’s garden, Thomasville, Georgia. Photo: Steve Bender

I look at lawns as I silently walk through my neighborhood each morning, exercising my hyper-critical eye. Some lawns lush and green. Others are 30 shades of brown. What is the one mistake that turns a soft, cool carpet into a weedy, scraggly plate of pebbles? It isn’t what you might think.

No, it has nothing to do with water. Rather, it’s the result of doing one of the fundamental tasks of lawn care all wrong. Mowing too low.

Mowing the grass near or just above the soil surface is called “scalping the lawn.” Roll that phrase around in your mind for a moment. Does that sound like something that’s beneficial? If it does, I will be happy to store leaky drums of radioactive waste from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactor on your lawn for a nominal fee of $100,000.

Why do people scalp their lawns? For the same reason they butcher their crepe myrtles and carve their bushes into ugly meatballs and squares. Because they see their neighbors doing it and assume they know something we don’t. Only the neighbors know nothing. Such copycat behavior is how our society wound up with leisure suits, Ford Tauruses, white Zinfandel, and every show on TV now being centered on vampire sex.

I, of course, never watch such programs.

How Scalping Ruins Your Lawn
Grass (I’m talking the legal kind here) is a plant. Grass blades are its leaves with which it turns sunlight into food. Lots of food encourages the growth of a vigorous root system. Healthy roots produce more grass blades and you get a thicker, lusher lawn.

When you scalp the lawn, you temporarily halt all food-making. Without food, roots stop growing and grass plants weaken. They spend their remaining reserves on growing new blades. Scalp them again and you’re well on the way to killing your lawn. The only plants that will thrive are weeds that don’t mind scalping, such as dandelions, crabgrass, and cudweed. Soon your lawn looks like this.

Don't Low

If you keep scalping it, watering ain’t gonna help. Trust me. Photo: forums.gardenweb.com

How to Avoid This Terrible Fate
It’s simple. Raise the mowing height of your mower. And mow often enough so that you never remove more than 1/3 of the grass blades in a single mowing. That means if your grass is three inches high, don’t mow it lower than two inches. If you need to mow it shorter than that, do so in two mowings spaced 3-4 days apart.

But why mow low at all? Mow your lawn HIGH — well, not “high” as in under-the-influence, but high as in “tall.” Tall lawns need far less maintenance than scalped ones. They need a lot less water, less fertilizer (especially if you use a mulching mower), and less frequent mowing. And during droughts, they’ll stay green long after your neighbor’s short lawn has turned the color of vanilla wafers. For example, my Bermuda grass lawn is still green today after three weeks of NO water.

What’s the lowest you should cut your lawn during the summer? Two inches. Doesn’t matter what kind of grass you have. Two-and-a-half inches is even better for most kinds. Three inches for tall fescue and St. Augustine.

Stop scalping your lawn! Don’t copy the neighbors. Grumpy has spoken. So it shall be done.

 

COMMENTS

  1. Some Are Not What They Appear | Musings of a Fanatical Soaper

    […] Don’t Mow Low! […]

    August 16, 2014 at 5:49 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    Marty,

    Everything you said about mowing is 100% absolutely wrong. To grow grass like they do on a golf course, you need a maintenance crew like they have on a golf course. You have one?

    July 31, 2014 at 3:02 pm
  3. Jen Howell

    When you say 3″ for St Augustine, you mean the leaf should be left @ 3″ correct?

    July 29, 2014 at 12:40 pm
  4. Sharon

    I happen to have a Ford Taurus and have NEVER had a problem with it. I think “some” intended insults should not be seen on here if you want to continue having “some” readers…

    July 29, 2014 at 10:50 am
  5. CK

    Aaugh! I cannot let me husband see this. I took on the yard maintenance for the exercise. I was chastised for trimming around planters, sidewalks, etc., too low. He said it promotes weed growth……which he has proven correct.

    July 29, 2014 at 9:55 am
  6. Carol P

    Steve is right; my husband has our lawnmower elevated, and our grass looks beautiful – it is St. Augustine. There are lots of lawns in our neighborhood that look really bad due to scalping. Unlike some people, we take much pride in our lawn and flowers, and it’s worth the work for us.

    July 29, 2014 at 8:47 am
  7. HamperTime

    It’s likely because it’s just grass. Some people care about bigger things than grass. Lower and browner = less mowing and more time for stuff that actually matters. I can’t believe people have nothing better to do than survey their neighbors grass…

    July 29, 2014 at 8:14 am
  8. Natalie

    Great tip!…we don’t scalp our yard but we do shape Yaupon Holly into large balls…which I like.

    July 29, 2014 at 7:58 am
  9. Marty

    obviously you don’t know Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass in Texas. Mowing it high is deadly. Keeping it short is the way to go. Mowing taller takes more water to maintain it. and it allows more weeds to grow in it. Now don’t mow 1/2 inch high but look at Golf Courses, they can’t mow high and they look fantastic. Bad over all advice in my opinion.

    July 29, 2014 at 7:55 am
  10. Steve Bender

    Jessica,

    It’s a well cared for, healthy lawn.

    July 17, 2014 at 3:23 pm
  11. Jessica Wylie

    Great tips! The top photo is in my hometown but just wondering how it ties in to this article?!

    July 11, 2014 at 7:11 pm
  12. Steve Bender

    Monica,
    If you’ve killed your lawn, you have to start over by sodding or seeding. Where do you live?

    July 11, 2014 at 9:34 am
  13. Steve Bender

    Dea,
    That’s the way!

    July 11, 2014 at 9:32 am
  14. Monica

    So what to do if you’ve already nearly killed you lawn?

    July 10, 2014 at 11:54 pm
  15. Dea

    I remember when I was a kid my dad used to burn off our yard every spring just before green-up. Very cool to watch, for a kid. He used to say that the potash made the grass greener when if finally sprouted. I wonder how many houses got scorched because of this practice… Here on the Texas Gulf Coast, St. Augustine is usually the lawn cover of choice, and it likes blades at 3″ to 4″ for a really soft carpet-y feel under the bare feet.

    July 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    Ken,
    This kind of scalping is typically done once a year in early spring to warm-season grasses like Bermuda and Zoysia to remove the dead, brown blades from last year and promote quicker green-up. (Some guys in my neighborhood burn off their lawns instead.) It should only be done ONCE a year while the grass is still brown. After that, raise the mowing height.

    July 10, 2014 at 3:09 pm
  17. Steve Bender

    Steve,
    My beef with the Taurus was that Ford introduced it as the pinnacle of reliability. Then its reliability rating went straight into the toilet.

    July 10, 2014 at 3:05 pm
  18. Steve Bender

    Bill,

    It’s easy. Just set your mower at 2 inches and mow. Grass mowed higher grows thicker and lusher than scalped grass, so there will be no problem with it looking neat.

    July 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm
  19. Steve Bender

    Ethel,
    Moss grows where grass doesn’t like to. Grass doesn’t like shade; moss likes it fine. Until you lighten the shade, moss will keep growing there. Liming won’t help.

    July 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm
  20. Rachel

    Very good to know!

    July 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm
  21. Ethel

    How do I get rid of moss growing in grass under trees? Lime.?

    July 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm
  22. Bill

    How does one recovers their lawn from scalping? Just bought a new lawnmower, and now I am trying to grow the grass longer, but how do you keep it neat?

    July 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm
  23. Steve Carpenter

    My next-door neighbor continues to scalp her lawn, even knowing that it’s harmful. It must be a hard addiction to break.

    Why no love for the Ford Taurus, though? I drove one for many years. It wasn’t exactly a chick magnet, but it was a good, reliable car.

    July 10, 2014 at 1:01 pm
  24. Ken Barfield

    I meant scalping.

    July 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm
  25. Ken Barfield

    What about snapping at the beginning of the growing season? My lab service does that every year. Not sure why.

    July 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm
  26. Steve asbell

    I have a neighbor who does this. If only he read your blog.

    July 10, 2014 at 12:06 pm

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