The politics of highway mowing in Virginia


"This is simply unacceptable," proclaimed the head of the County Council in Fairfax, VA (a suburb of DC) about unmowed grass along public roads.  "It gives people the impression that their government isn’t doing its job and doesn’t care."   

According to a recent article in the Washington Post that’s not available on line, "Hundreds of complaints were pouring in," and it’s an election year for the county!  Another office-holder said:  "It is so awful.  It is unsafe.  It is unsightly."  And it’s not just aesthetics that are at stake; others are complaining that sight lines are obstructed. 

Actually, mowing along highways isn’t even the county’s job – it’s the responsibility of the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is having a funding crisis and decreased the mowings to 3 per season. But residents THINK the unmown grass is the fault of their elected county officials, so those officials are anxious about it.

Now how does all this square with a recent article in Landscape Architecture Magazine about highway vegetation, which cited a survey finding that people "prefer the view" when highways are mowed less frequently and have "natural vegetation"?  Maybe just not in Virginia?


  1. Even if the majority of people prefer a natural look, its the squeeky wheels that get the grease.

    There are people that just prefer the look of mowed grass, and when they see wild/naturalized landscaping, they think that something is WRONG.

  2. I’m not cool with nonnative lawn grasses gone wild. They don’t look pretty to me and they tend to invade neighboring land.

    I am also against mowing because there are better ways to keep things looking nice. If they really want a nice roadway, they could plant and maintain something else (jobs secured, but I know that’d be expensive). Or if they want lawn grasses (here’s where I sound like a radical) why don’t they invest in some old fashion scythes and mow it by hand? Yes, people still make, sell, and use scythes. This would create even more jobs, be really cool to see from the roadside, eliminate pollution from mower exhaust, and keep grass down. Or if no one’s into that, we could use animal-powered mowers.

  3. I second the motion about the use of scythes. Such a beautiful tool! and so practical and quiet. too bad I don’t own one … although that can change. Scythes bring to mind pleasant images of Russian novels (and maybe the Woody Allen movie ‘Love & Death’?).

  4. I do own a scythe and used to use it quite a bit. Do the math. It’s not a practical solution to managing roadside vegetation. Unless you want a vast peasant class. (I don’t.)

  5. So are these unmown verges good wildflower/wildlife habitat or overgrown monocultural lawns? In the UK it would be the former (and excellent they are at that too) but I don’t understand the non-native grass issues you guys have. A few of our verges ended up with signs up explaining that it wasn’t sloth/messiness but important wildflower habitat that was being preserved hence no mowing – I think a lot of people needed “an explanation” for the mess and were satisfied with having one. There are some good orchid habitats roadside in the UK.

  6. As you know, Susan, Virginia is one of the most “conservative” (read backwards) states in the country. It’s been completely wrecked by developers in the absence of any planning. You’d think Northern Virginia would be leading the way. But you really have to go to neighboring Maryland to find anything resembling thoughtful highway landscaping.

  7. Just having driven the I-26 and I-95 corridor to Florida from NC I can tell you that unmowed grass, hardly of the lawn variety, is the least offensive thing on the road.

    It is in the mowed sections where the horrendous amount of litter that pigs throw from their cars shows up the most. That is really unacceptable. Next on the unacceptable list would be the tons of tire debris from semi truck tires that are scattered every where. Driving 85mph in an SUV is up there on the list too.

  8. It is actually Delaware that is leading the pack on wonderful highway and public plantings maintained and carefully researched by their state govt. MD is copy-catting them and DC is getting into it as well — I’m not complaining, these kinds of good practices are wonderful to share among local govts. – hopefully if will trickle down to VA as well – but I’m not holding my breath.

  9. Tai haku has a good point. Where I live (Humboldt County, CA) we have major invasive plant problems, because it’s so moist and the weather so mild. The grasses that grow along the roadsides are at least 99% nonnative. Some of them are escaped lawn grasses, but the majority of them are species that were introduced for livestock, my mistake. I still don’t like them and I don’t think they are species we should be promoting. I understand that some roadsides may be valuable habitat and I’m all for letting these be “wild.”

    And if we want to be extra thoughtful, we’re going to have find an alternative to gas guzzling lawn mowers.

  10. If people think the unmowed areas look unkempt, compromise–mow just enough to make it look cared for, and manage the rest as meadow, adding some native flowers if possible.

    Also, any areas not needed for sight lines and safety pull-off areas can be allowed to revert to woods. Maybe some intervention will be needed to remove invasives while the trees grow in, but that’s not so bad. Most of the northeastern U.S. was forested before colonization, so forest is most suitable for areas between artifacts of human settlement.

  11. As a Virginian, I take exception to the above “backwards” comment. Perhaps that individual was just having a bad day.

    Anyway, a few years ago I was fortunate to hear Rick Darke and see many of his wonderful slides….including some that focused on the Delaware highway plantings (pros and cons)with which he was involved.

    I suspect this article was just election coverage filler…newspaper does make a good weed block.

  12. In TN where I’m at we used to have a Veteran’s memorial wildflower program. They would seed the medians of the interstate system. Not all of it but many stretches of roadway. Those areas looked great! It wouldn’t be too much trouble to do something similar with less mowing. Mow the grass early in the season to a low point then seed reseeding perennials. It would look good and be ecologically sound if native perennials were used!

  13. Great idea, Dave. I’d amend, though, to suggest sustainable plants be used, no matter where they’re from. Here in the once-forested East, not too many native plants love the sunny, disturbed spots along highways, esp if you exclude the prairie plants like purple coneflower that are so often assumed to be native here but aren’t – Lewis & Clark brought them back East with them.
    And about those backward Virginians, I’m glad someone spoke up in defense and I’ll add this – that Virginia has several communities that have attained certification by the NWF as wildlife habitat communities, while none in Maryland have yet done so. My town is trying its best to be the first.

  14. No, I wasn’t having a bad day. I think the comment has been statistically proved. But we could go back and discuss Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” strategy in response to school integration, endorsed by the governor at the time, or any number of other social measures.

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