Ditches are deep, sloped trenches in the ground designed to carry water away from roads, farm fields or residential yards. Some ditches are dry other than after snow melt or a large storm, while others are more like canals with a consistent, channelled flow of water. Mowing steep ditch sides can be dangerous. Using no-mow ditches can create attractive, safe and more effective water management features.
Grass and Ground Covers
Fine fescue grasses create an attractive, no-mow lawn effect but are most suitable for shaded areas, reports Bill Slooey, a retired botany professor from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, writing for the non-profit environmental organisation Wild Ones. Fine fescues stay green through the summer, but drape over rather than growing tall and weedy looking like other grass types. Fescues are suitable for planting in a shaded roadside ditch area, but only if you can keep government highway crews from mowing them, as fescue need to remain taller than 3 or 4 inches to survive. Ground covers can also create a swath of green without the need for mowing. In warm growing zones, dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) creates a lawn-like look but stays short, landscape architect Walt Ray told Southern Living magazine. Other low-lying ground covers include Heller Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata) in warmer climates, and snow-tolerant blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) or creeping vines like pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) in colder locations.
Wild flower seed mixes can be planted to turn your roadside ditch into a blossoming swath, or simply stop mowing and let the wildflowers grow up by themselves, as recommended by Rich Miller, a political newsletter publisher and resident of rural Illinois. Letting ditches grow wild eliminates the hazards of mowing, including tipping lawnmowers and stepping in hornets' nests, while providing natural corridors for wildlife. Some prominent people, like former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich, have recommended no-mow wild flower plantings for highway drainage ditches to provide attractive wildlife cover and also to save public money otherwise spent on mowing. In many areas of the country, the wild orange daylily is referred to as the ditch lily because it commonly spreads through unmown ditches. Wild daylilies are easily transplanted, successfully compete with weedier looking species, and help prevent slopes from eroding, according to the Purdue University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. Daylily cultivars are equally successful ditch plantings and come in a wide variety of colours to complement your landscape.
Traditional ditch management logic held that water-laden ditches must be kept clear of vegetation to maximise water flow. Field demonstrations indicate that wetlands planting in and along ditches does not interfere with water drainage and can improve water quality and wildlife habitat. Projects undertaken by the North Carolina State University Biological and Agricultural Engineering program demonstrated that wetland communities planted in high-water-flow ditches actually improved stormwater drainage while improving water quality by filtering the water biologically before it was deposited into rivers and lakes. Researchers from North Carolina University planted wetland species like cattails (Typha latifolia), arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.) and rushes (Eleocharis spp.) in water-laden ditches, creating an attractive wetland habitat and eliminating the need to mow steep canal banks. Trees can also play an important role in no-mow ditch landscaping, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Trees shade any water in the ditch, keeping it cooler and more oxygenated for better habitat, and tree roots absorb excess rainfall or snow melt, helping to regulate water flows and minimise flooding.
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