Monday, June 23, 2014

Mutton Mowers

I've long felt that the use of gasoline for the mowing of lawns will one day be widely seen as one of the most shameful ways to squander our limited energy sources, our atmosphere's capacity for carbon, and thus the lives of our children.

For most of my life, my family had a nearly 1 acre lawn which I despised mowing (though my disdain lessened somewhat with the arrival of a riding lawnmower), and for which I developed numerous creative ideas for avoiding.   My father didn't approve any of the ideas though, so mow it we did.

So it was that the purchase of our farm and the accompanying lawn came with a challenge.   Do we mow it like everybody else and thus fall into this same trap?   Do we mow it with our 14" wide antique push reel mower that can't handle any grass over 5 inches, or spend hours to mow it with scythes?   Let it go "natural" and make someone think our house has been abandoned?  Or, should I just let it go a month or two and then brush hog it with the tractor?  (which I'd already tried)

As it turns out, we had a better solution in hand -- mow it with sheep! (which, btw, is how the original lawns were maintained centuries ago, before they became a status symbol)   It just took a little time to implement.   Last summer, we fenced in the front of the yard.  We wanted it to look presentable yet still hold livestock, so went with a split rail fence supplemented with hi-tensile wire between the rails.  It's old growth cedar from British Columbia, stocked by the local Menard's Hardware.   Not the best solution, but the one that worked best with our limited time.  We do have enough sassafras that we could've made a similar fence from our own trees, but I wasn't able to spare the time for it.

This left our driveway as the remaining escape route to be filled, so we needed a gate.   Having admired a "Sussex farm gate" made on the Woodwright's Shop on PBS, and having some white oak on hand from trees we logged a couple years ago, I set to work over the winter.   The entire gate was made exclusively with hand tools, with all joints using mortise & tenon construction (side gate excepted).  Yes, it's slower, and yes, it's much more enjoyable and satisfying than working with power tools.  It's also a good idea to work on such skills before they become the only option, as the energy sources for our electric grid start to wane.  (Ha ha!  Just joking -- that will never actually happen.  Ever)

So with the gate completed, we just needed some appropriate hinges.   I thought this would be a great application for my burgeoning blacksmithing skills, but we found a pair of perfectly sized strap hinges at an antique shop for a good price, and those were put to use.  My smithing was needed only for the pintle hangers.

With the gate up, it also seemed like a good idea to put up the farm sign I'd long planned on, in case anyone looking for our farm expected to see a sign proclaiming its presence.

Everything made it into place before the grass started to get too long this year, so we set the sheep to work before any mower touched the lawn.  What's it like?

Well, just as you might imagine, it's pretty cool not to have to mow your lawn.  It's also neat to add an acre to our "pasture", as our flock of sheep has grown to nineteen or thereabouts with this year's lambs.  I'm still getting used to the mysterious "nom, nom, nom, grunt!" sounds that come in through our open windows in the wee hours of the morning though, along with the occasional "baaaa!".

Do they do a good job?  Yes, for the most part.  The trimming job around the base of trees, fences, and parked farm implements is much better than any human could accomplish.  They're also tackling the brush around our new barn site, which is a big plus.  There are a few things which get left;  a seed stalk here, or a less-than-tasty weed there, but many parts of the lawn look like a putting green when they're finished. 20 minutes of touch-up with a sharp scythe takes care of the small patches of overlooked ground.

The downside is that sheep aren't partial to just grass.   Lots of landscaping (roses, dogwood, mock orange, etc) are also quite tasty, and got unwanted trimming on the first mowing session.  For those we just put together a cage made of woven fence wire held up by old metal "T" posts, which seems to do the trick.  Most of our other landscaping plants, as it turns out, don't taste all that great.

I suppose the presence of turds in the lawn would be offensive to some, but sheep berries seem pretty innocuous to someone for whom cowpies have become an accepted hazard.  The fertilizing effect of animals on grass is also a great benefit, and seems to far exceed the effect of lawn clippings.

So is it the perfect solution?   Nope, but it's a good one, and far better than the gasoline lawn mower solution that most folks still cling to for the time being.   As an added bonus, Clover (our border collie) likes the fact that each window in our house now is now tuned to "sheep TV".


Brad Brookins said...

How do you keep them away from bushes and young trees?

David Veale said...

Hi Brad - We took enough woven wire fencing (probably about 12' of Red Brand 9-wire -- of which we have a lot of spare small sections from our farm's fencing projects) to make a 4' round tube. We then set a couple old steel T-posts (they're all over along our old fence rows), set those in the ground to either side of the plant, and slide tube of fencing down over the posts. That way we can remove it fairly easily if we do need to trim around the bush. The downside is that we have these silly cages around our bushes.