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Grass gone wild

Trustees of Reservations is reducing by half the amount of manicured lawns on its properties. That is not a lot of land, but the environmental benefits add up.

By Ami Albernaz
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2010

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If it’s hard to summon the enthusiasm to cut your lawn every week, it turns out you’re in good company.

The Trustees of Reservations, which owns and manages more than 100 properties statewide including farms, parks, woodlands, and historic estates, decided recently to reduce by half the amount of manicured lawns on its holdings. This means, for many of its properties, cutting back on mowing, in keeping with a long-range plan to become carbon neutral by 2017.

Lawns are only about 120 acres of the more than 26,000 acres the Trustees hold. It’s a small fraction, but if you stop mowing half that lawn acreage each week, the environmental benefits add up, says Steve Sloan, the Trustees’ Greater Boston regional director.

One of the places where the consequences of that decision are easy to see is Moose Hill Farm in Sharon. Just in front of the farm’s parking lot is a 10-foot-wide stretch of manicured lawn. But beyond that, the sea of green has been allowed to go to meadow, with tall grasses and flitting butterflies lending movement to the landscape.

“The aesthetic of the lawn, while nice, wasn’t as attractive as the meadow, where you have lots of different species of grasses coming up at different times,’’ says Sloan, who is based at Moose Hill Farm.

A patch of land left alone can also yield nice surprises, he adds.

“There was a wonderful blanket of wildflowers that just came up [recently],’’ he says, likening the meadow to a digital photo frame, in which the image is always changing.

The Trustees have been easing back on mowing for several years now, and at some sites, lawn has been converted to other uses. At Appleton Farms in Ipswich and Hamilton, some lawn was converted to field a few years ago to support the farm’s longstanding community agriculture program. At Long Hill in Beverly, a bit of land that was formerly manicured is being transformed into a flower garden.

The prospect of climate change has lent some urgency to the organization’s decision to reduce its overall emissions, says Lisa Vernegaard, the Trustees’ vice president for sustainability. (The organization is also weatherizing its buildings, using video-conferencing in lieu of travel, and changing some land management practices on its agricultural sites so that more carbon is stored in the soil.)

At the sites most frequently visited, deciding where to keep mowing has been an ongoing discussion. At Moose Hill, walking trails are kept closely cropped so that they’re easily visible. Picnic areas, such as at Bird Park in Walpole, are also mowed.

At the Crane Estate in Ipswich, some of the grass near the Inn at Castle Hill has begun to take on a meadow look, dotted with buttercups, dandelions, and butterflies. Up the hill, areas near the Great House and the storied Grand Allée — a lush corridor of rolling hills flanked by Norway spruce and white pine stretching toward the ocean — will continue to be mowed, because they are used for weddings and by picnickers during summer concerts.

“We’re looking at where it’s critical for the lawn to be manicured, and prioritizing accordingly,’’ says Bob Murray, superintendent of the Crane Estate. “We’re debating which areas are good opportunities to reduce mowing and balancing that with the need to maintain design integrity.’’

The Trustees hope their experiment inspires visitors to think of their own lawns differently.

“As a society, we’ve been convinced that our closely cropped, verdant lawn is what we should strive for. We’re trying to show some alternatives to that,’’ Vernegaard says. “The [conventional] lawn is fairly energy-intensive and somewhat ecologically uninteresting. By reducing the mowing, can we make a bit more interesting habitat that attracts bees, birds, and butterflies.’’

Yet letting the grasses grow unfettered doesn’t mean there’s no work involved. It might not be the best decision for everyone, says Mary Owen, extension educator and turf-program coordinator with the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“It’s not no-maintenance,’’ Owen says. “If you wanted a meadow and to mow it once a year, the mowing becomes more difficult. You may have to hire someone to mow, since a homeowner’s lawn mower might not be strong enough.’’

Though a meadow can provide an important habitat for butterflies and pollinating insects, anyone trying to cultivate one would need to watch out for invasive plants, ticks, and poison ivy. Because the roots of grass allowed to grow long become less dense, the grass will not be able to hold together the soil as well. A more suitable practice for most homeowners (especially those who live close to neighbors who would frown on a lawn-turned-meadow) might be to ask if they need to mow as often as they do.

Of course, some people may never warm up to the meadow look, anyway. Sloan says the uncut grass at Moose Hill “is not something that’s universally appreciated.’’

“Some people have said, Why isn’t it mowed the way it used to be?’’ he said. “But that gives us an opportunity to get into a conversation.’’