35 seconds of your time could win you a trip on Lake Champlain

Image of a lawnmower in front of a house with a waterbody in the background and a buffer planted with native vegetation between the yard and the water. The image serves as a link to a 35-second video about grass growth and best practices to help grass health and protect water quality.

Today, with just two more Mo Monday posts in 2020, I am excited to introduce a newly-released 35-second video that shares the key messages of — and reasons for — the #RaiseTheBlade campaign. Click on the image above to watch the video or access it through the Lawn to Lake website. (If you access it through the Lawn to Lake website, choose the “short version” of the two Benefits of Long Grass Growth videos available there.)

We purposefully left one small glitch in the video to see if viewers can spot it. If you find it, email us by October 30, 2020 at seagrant@uvm.edu with the subject line “Mo Monday.” We will randomly select one lucky winner from all email entries received to join a future public trip on Lake Champlain led by Lake Champlain Sea Grant and UVM Extension.

Photo of someone lowering a Secchi disc to assess water clarity off the stern of the R/V Melosira, the University of Vermont's research vessel.

The winner (age 18+) and one guest (minimum age 7) will be invited to come aboard the University of Vermont’s research vessel the Melosira in summer 2021 (pending a COVID-19 vaccine is available and our public trips are able to safely operate). Our public trips give participants an opportunity to learn about the history of the lake and its watershed (the area of land that drains to the lake), and to try their hand as limnologists by studying water quality in the lake.

Addressing barriers

Snake, not hiding in the grass that is cut to 3".

You might recall from when Mo’s blog began that as the Lawn to Lake team was planning its outreach focused on promoting healthy soils (that ultimately became the #RaiseTheBlade outreach campaign), we surveyed landowners in the Lake Champlain basin about their lawn mowing practices. One of the questions we asked allowed respondents to share barriers they faced to cutting grass to 3″. In the next few weeks, as the mowing season winds down, Mo’s blog will address some of those barriers.

Today, we’ll tackle what turned out to be an easy barrier to address. Someone responded to the survey and indicated they cut their grass shorter than 3″ because their spouse believes that long grass hides snakes.

While very long grass can hide snakes, luckily, grass that is cut to 3″ isn’t so long that snakes are easily hidden. Recall that another part of the #RaiseTheBlade guidance is that only 1/3 of the length of the grass blades should be cut during any one mowing. That means that the longest your grass should grow is to about 4″ and then you should cut it back to 3″. This promotes rapid decomposition of the cut blades by soil microbes and swift nutrient cycling back to the grass. If you are able to follow this best practice (like Mo does), your grass won’t grow to such lengths as you might see in an un-grazed pasture, and as a result, snakes should be fairly easily observed if present.

Giving further credence to this concept, just last week, while sitting on our patio, I observed something lying in the grass about 10 feet (3 meters) from where I was sitting. I asked my husband, “Is that a snake?” Expecting him to say no, and to share with me what it was he had placed on the lawn, I was surprised when he answered, “Yes.” Upon hearing his positive response, I grabbed my phone to try to capture a photo of the snake. This proved challenging as my movement alerted the snake that it had been spotted, and it was moving away from the area as quickly as possible to find shelter. The snake we saw (shown above) was the most common snake in this area – the common garter snake.

For those who may be more familiar with poisonous snakes from other regions of the nation or world, another important thing to know about snakes in the Lake Champlain basin (that includes parts of western Vermont, northeastern New York, and southern Quebec) is that there are only 11 kinds of snakes that live here, and most are beneficial and not harmful to us. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department website has some valuable information about the various species of snakes that call the Lake Champlain basin home.

Saving time, creating healthy lawns, and bringing peace

Map of the Lake Champlain basin.

There are several great things about robotic mowers like Mo. First, they save you time, which we know is important to landowners in the Lake Champlain basin when it comes to lawn mowing.

As we started the Raise the Blade project, we surveyed people around the Lake Champlain basin to understand their lawn care practices and motivations to potentially mow their grass no shorter than 3″ in length if they were not doing so already. (Check out this Lake Champlain Basin Program map that you can zoom in on to see if your town lies within this drainage basin).

Infographic of Lake Champlain basin survey results. PDF available at: https://lawntolake.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/HealthySoilsSurveyInfographic_RevisedApril2018.pdf

More than 1000 people from 56 towns across the Lake Champlain basin answered our survey. (Thank you all!)

We learned that almost 90% of homeowners mow their lawns (rather than having someone else do it), and on average, 75% cut their lawns shorter than 3″. We also learned that homeowners in the basin would be motivated to cut their grass to the recommended 3″ length for three main reasons:

  • If the lawn was healthier as a result
  • If mowing it to that length was good for the environment
  • If they had to mow less often

The first two are absolutely true, and therefore make our job of marketing these best practices to the majority of people who cut their lawns to 2-3″ pretty easy. Unfortunately, cutting your lawn following the three recommended practices (i.e., cutting the grass no shorter than 3″ in height; cutting only 1/3 of the length of the grass blades in any one cutting, and leaving the clippings in place to decompose) doesn’t result in less time mowing, unless you either get someone else to mow it for you or get something else to mow it for you. There’s where Mo comes in. We have him programmed to mow every week day for several hours. That frees up time for us to do other things besides mowing the lawn on our weekends or weeknights.

Having said that, it occurs to me that I should mention that robotic mowers like Mo don’t have blades like your traditional gas-powered mower. Instead they have just three 1″ razor blades.

Rather than cut every blade of grass they go over, Mo and his fellow robots rely upon lots of time spent out doing their job, and many passes over the same spot to ensure every blade of grass is cut.

Close up image of Mo's blade with a dime for size comparison.
Here’s a close up of one of Mo’s blades with the dime for size comparison.

Additional benefits of using a robotic mower are that it can be programmed to — or it automatically follows — all three recommended grass-cutting practices. This helps to boost your lawn’s health, soil health, and ultimately benefits water quality by minimizing the amount of stormwater that will run off from the yard. Specifically:

  • We set Mo to cut the grass to 3″ in length.
  • Each time Mo heads out in our yard to mow, he cuts only a small amount of the length of the grass blades.
  • Mo always leaves the clippings to decompose in place.
Photo of the inside of a robotic mower where the length of grass height to cut to is set by a dial.

Of the three practices, only setting the length to which Mo cuts the grass needs to be done manually, and this is easily done by turning a dial under the main cover on the body of the mower.

Photo of a bird through a window screen.

One further benefit of robotic mowers is that they are beautifully quiet. Being electric, most of the sound we hear from Mo’s direction is a slight hum and a kind of scissor-like sound of the grass blades being cut. For all intents and purposes though, Mo is silent in comparison to a traditional gas-powered mower. So, we feel good about not contributing to noise pollution in our neighborhood. All the more time to listen to the birds.