Why we should rethink our grass lawns

It’s the true start of spring: you’re minding your own business on a Saturday morning when your neighbor starts up their lawnmower, disturbing the peace. His (in my experience it is usually a his) appetite for a well-manicured, green-striped lawn is voracious, and nothing will stop him achieving it.

Our lawn obsession goes back a couple of centuries; in the UK – and many other countries – we find it hard to imagine a garden without one. It was during the 1730s that grass appeared as a landscaping feature on a large scale at places like Rousham and Painshill. They were slow to take off due to the cost of maintaining them.

As Roderick Floud explains in An Economic History of the English Garden, “Building a lawn involved a major effort in flattening the earth, by digging and rolling, and then in seeding, but the real, continuing problem is the constant effort required, in the English climate, to keep it mown.”

We still go to great lengths to control our little green patches, no matter the weather. But with rising fertilizer costs, growing awareness of the cost of water consumption, the biodiversity crisis and the sheer pain of keeping them looking a certain way, isn’t it time we all reassessed our attachment to them?

A 'lawn' of thyme

Tom Massey’s thyme lawn at the Yard House

Every new McMansion built in the English home counties seems to have a vast lawn and developers cram them into the stamp-sized gardens of small new-builds, whether they are suited to the space or not. Most of these gardens barely have space to keep a lawnmower, let alone a thriving lawn.

If you can not have a real one, there is of course the hideous option of smothering your garden in plastic. While artificial lawns may solve some time-management issues, offer a place for your toddler to crawl around and your dog to pee, they create a completely sterile environment with no wildlife value – and rather than cooling the ground like natural grass, they heat it up.

After a short lifespan these plastic carpets become unhygienic, fray, curl up and often end up in landfill with the rest of the world’s unrecyclable plastic. And the argument that they’s maintenance-free – well, just ask the council worker seen strimming an artificial grass roundabout in Somerset last month to remove weeds. Artificial or not, there are rising environmental and financial costs to our lawn obsession.

“The only way to get a lawn green is by feeding it – and people want their lawns green,” says Bob Wood, the general manager of Town and Country Turf, which supplies landscaping products across south-east England. They suggest a nitrogen-based fertilizer “to encourage root growth”. The company grows its turf on a Suffolk farm, using a regulated amount of water from local reservoirs.

And that leads us to the next issue: watering. “Heavier heatwaves, more intense rainfall – in the garden this is a threat and it poses challenges in terms of – how can gardeners make their gardens more resilient?” says Mark Gush, head of environmental horticulture at the Royal Horticultural Society. “One of the ways we’ve been looking at this as scientists is in terms of water management. It’s an important aspect and it has a direct bearing on lawns as people use enormous amounts of water to irrigate their lawns. ”

Charles Rutherford's garden with flowers and trees - but no lawn in sight

Charles Rutherfoord’s garden in Clapham celebrates everything other than the lawn

This does not mean sacrificing these useful open spaces completely; there is middle ground. “A healthy, resilient lawn will not need any irrigation or watering at all,” says Gush. A new lawn will need watering in but, after a few weeks, if the soil it’s laid on is healthy, it should be strong enough to survive a dry patch. The key is to mow less.

“If you leave your lawn to grow higher it will compensate by putting its roots deeper, allowing it to reach more soil and more reserves of water. This makes them more resilient to periods of drought, ”he says.

Even if a lawn does turn brown, it will come back again. It’s just the surface leaves that die; the roots stay healthy. “If people do need to then the emphasis would be on not using mains-supplied water at all but maximizing the use of rain water,” says Gush, a South African who was living in Cape Town during the water crisis of the late 2010s. No grass irrigation was permitted, and residents’ lawns did appear to suffer as a result.

But a sense of shared responsibility emerged, he says. “There were social media posts around having pride in your brown lawn, as if you were supporting the reaction to the crisis by demonstrating that you were not irrigating your lawn. Of course the lawns bounced back when the rains returned, but it really highlighted the importance of considering how people use water. ”

A garden with thriving, low-growing plants and gravel paths

A gravel garden can thrive with very little watering © Olivier Filippi

When it comes to resilience, we are becoming used to the idea that the more diversity in a garden the better, and this applies to lawns too. Increasingly, designers are suggesting lawns that incorporate multiple species to their clients – at Hampton Court Garden Festival in 2019, Jo Thompson created a clover and daisy-filled lawn.

“If you have a species-rich lawn, it needs less watering, less seeding, less mowing – and it’s more resilient because it has a mix of species so if one species does not like the conditions, another one starts to take over, ”Says Tom Massey, founder of Tom Massey Studio. “I try to propose alternatives [and] plant an area up. ”

Architectural designer Charles Rutherfoord has taken this to the extreme in his beautiful tulip garden in Clapham, south London, where everything but lawn is celebrated to wonderful effect.

“A garden is all about growing and it’s all about change, and I think that’s what’s really exciting,” says Rutherfoord. “By not having a lawn [in an urban garden] it expands the feeling of space, it allows the garden to be much more complex. In a bigger country garden you really do need a lawn because you need that openness, whereas in an urban garden there’s something rather wonderful about exploring. ”

A path of gravel and reclaimed wood

Get radical: take the lawnless approach © Olivier Filippi

If you’re not going to be deterred, however, there are more exciting options than a patch of grass with only five species in it. “If someone really wants a lawn, what I generally propose is a species-rich lawn that has a number of different species of grass and flowering plants within it,” says Massey. “You mow this every four to six weeks and it has things like clover and wild flowers – instead of being flat and green and stripy it has more character.” It’s the antithesis of the unchanging, sterile, artificial lawn, he says: “Gardens should shift and change, and we should embrace that.”

The No Mow May movement gives gardeners the opportunity to observe these changes; even more so in a species-rich lawn, whether the mixed planting has been planned or has occurred naturally. “You can keep them relatively short but if you cut them too short the flowers do not come through,” says Massey. “You could also plant bulbs through it to have seasonal changes. It’s quite exciting to see what comes up and things will colonize and populate quickly. ”

The biodiversity gains of not mowing are significant, says Gush. “From the research that’s been done, allowing the grass to grow taller also gives it an opportunity for a host of other species to establish flowers and seeds during that time, which then supports much higher levels of biodiversity in the garden.”

To assure your neighbors that you’re not neglecting your lawn entirely, “try mowing around the edge of an area that is allowed to grow taller”, Gush suggests, “or perhaps have one path through the center that people can walk through easily and look at what’s growing. That reassures anyone that the garden is not being neglected. ”

If you want something different, there are a multitude of herbs – from thyme to chamomile – and other creeping perennials that can be used in both sunny and shady spots, in gardens big and small, to create a lawn effect. Horticulturist Olivier Filippi’s Planting Design for Dry Gardens is full of inspiration for lawn alternatives.

“The high diversity of ground covers which can be used as lawn alternatives [ . . . ] opens to delighting new design options, ”says Filippi. “In the US and Canada there is now a strong pesticide-free movement promoting ‘freedom lawns’ – more or less just the natural local weeds occasionally mowed. Of course, some people are still hanging on to traditional perfect lawns, but maybe they will be less fond of it in the coming years, with climate change knocking at the door. ”

So: mowing. That’s one less thing to do this weekend.

How to diversify a lawn

Some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Always start by considering your soil. Is it healthy, does it get waterlogged, does it dry out, are you on heavy clay or chalk? Knowing this will help you find the right plants to add to your lawn.

  • In a sunnier area with free draining soil, consider Mediterranean plants such as thyme – they do not need much watering once established
    and release a lovely scent when trodden on.

  • If your garden is shaded by trees, choose something suited to these conditions. Try planting bulbs that can take advantage of the light in early spring (when the trees aren’t in full leaf) or introduce Chamaemelum nobile (camomile), which does not mind a bit of shade and makes a great lawn alternative.

  • Before jumping in, leave a patch unmown and see what comes through naturally – you might be surprised to find what’s in your existing seed bank and which plants like your conditions.

  • Rather than buying ready-made wild flower turf, which can be hard to establish, look to develop your own wild flower area from seed. James Hitchmough’s Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed will give you lots of ideas and advice on this.

  • If you’re really committed, leave entire areas unmown and wild for more than a month (for example, if you take part in No Mow May). This will allow pollinator-supporting plants to establish, improve the habitat for egg-laying and support wildlife for longer.

  • In areas with heavier foot traffic, use loose paving slabs to create a pathway through your planting to avoid damaging it.

  • Be patient and observe; starting slowly is always better in gardening. Plus, it gives you time to learn from your mistakes.

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