There is an old gardener’s saying: “Good hedges, good lawns and good edges”. To this day I don’t know where it came from, but it is something I repeat to students annually. If you look after the hedges, keeping a tidy cuboid presence, and then edge your lawns to a clean and crisp line, the rest of the garden can be far more relaxed, not least your approach to maintenance. However, whose lawns look a bit rough around the edges at this time of the year? Never mind the edges, mine looks pretty rough all through, what with a wet autumn, a never ending fall of Beech mast (the tree is mature and beautiful; obviously, it stays) and a pack of wild dogs using it however they see fit (my fault again, Kerry Blue Terriers are strong willed). What to do? This isn’t just a personal question, because most clients I encounter as a garden designer have similarly unkempt lawns at this time of the year. In my last garden I removed all lawn.
I didn’t want to put in the time required to maintain a lawn. That was a wet, riverside garden where the turf always struggled under foot, squelching with every step in bad weather. Furthermore, we opened the garden annually for the National Gardens Scheme and grass couldn’t stand up to 400-plus people stomping through in one afternoon. Gravel was best – free draining, relatively easy to rake the leaves from, but not as low maintenance as might be assumed… gravel is after all the perfect horticultural germinating medium. Since I wanted neither to use chemicals, plus I welcomed a self-sown softening at the edges, the hand weeding was, at times, fairly full on.
Now to my current lawn. I still don’t want to pour chemicals into this garden just to get rid of moss and a few weeds. Should I lift the turf and replace with a gravel, stacking the sods for future use as a perfect loam? It may suit the aesthetic of a future design, but, at nearly 1000 feet up (I know, I still do altitude imperially) we have extensive views of green hills and dramatic moorland of the Mid Pennines. Alpine enthusiasts may know this road for a highly regarded Nursery, Slack Top Alpines, at the high end of Slack, as opposed to Slack Bottom (yes!), at the other end. With links to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, on the edge of the historic village of Heptonstall where Plath is indeed buried, for this necessarily outward looking garden, gravel seems neither to link to the area, the views nor an evolving concept for the garden.
So, let’s break this down into a few benefits and limitations of lawns. The limitations I’ve mainly discussed – my lawn looks tatty close up in the winter. But from the house it looks kind of okay. It takes time to mow, which I sometimes resent (lazy gardener that I am these days). If I want the perfect lawn, then chemicals would be needed to rid it effectively of moss and weeds.
I want to move to a more ecologically sustainable approach to my practice, so chemicals are out. I’m also more concerned about the impact on the climate of everything I do (I went vegan a year ago to minimize my own footprint). There are many design principles which lawns encompass: they are the perfect flat ‘void’ against which form, colour and texture of plants can resonate; a lawn would link this garden to the green of fields and moorland in the extensive views etc. Beyond these design principles, lawns are actually a pretty good carbon sink, they also create a superb soil immediately beneath them. I won’t have to consider any issues relating to SuDS and drainage, because the lawn can hold excess water, and allow for the slow drainage back into the ground. The most interesting reason for me to retain the lawn is perhaps biodiversity.
As garden designers we really need to acknowledge and design for biodiversity. Lawns are host to a myriad of microscopic life forms, supporting a huge food web of animals and birds. Gravel, although free draining, will have minimal benefits for wildlife or the surrounding soil. Admittedly, I have to mow (I keep to once a week) but the benefits are looking good.
Are there any living alternatives to grass? Well, there are Chamomile and Thyme lawns, but you can’t really walk on them, and conditions here wouldn’t support them. The fake/plastic lawn has been doing the rounds for many years now and initially looked very convincing. Made of several lengths of plastic blades of ‘grass’, including both a realistic thatch and mowed angle at the top, they can sometimes look okay, although the sight of people vacuuming them is somewhat bizarre. However, my challenge is to garden ecologically, not to introduce more plastic into the world. These products, as realistic as they may seem, are not made of recycled plastic and nor can they be easily recycled (I think there is one recycling centre in France which will do it, not one in Britain). Couple this with the pathos of seeing a blackbird trying to pull a worm from astro-turf and the whole case for biodiversity comes falling down.
So, for my garden, and my recommendations for clients, I’m now firmly in favour of the lawn. I’m not going to mow it excessively, I certainly don’t want stripes and I’m going to put up with some less than perfect turf, just focus on the edges, which really make a garden work.