One of the advantages of having our garden closed to the public for a year or two, or maybe more, is the freedom to experiment. And experimenting we are with lawns – or mown green areas may be a more accurate description. We stopped mowing half our park at the end of last winter, choosing instead to keep to a mown track meandering through, so it is possible to walk without getting wet feet.
We have been talking about lawns and grass for years here. Lawns are arguably the most environmentally unfriendly gardening practice of all. Yet there is considerable value placed on the perfect lawn and some people take great pride in achieving this. Perfection is measured against the bowling green which has no connection whatever to the home garden, let alone to nature.
I have never forgotten taking Mark along when I was doing an interview for a commissioned garden story. The owners were very proud of their lush, green sward and claimed that garden visitors often said they wanted to take their shoes off and walk barefoot or roll on it. I saw Mark throw me a telling glance and later he expostulated: “You want to let your bare skin touch that?’ For we both knew that sort of lawn perfection is only achievable by regular spraying with a fair range of chemicals, as well as fertiliser application and the usual frequent mowing, scarifying and over sowing that is required to keep it in such an artificial state.
The perfect lawn is a triumph of man or woman over nature, a dominance achieved at considerable cost to the environment and no small financial cost. There are all sorts of concerns around the western world about run-off from domestic lawns and frankly, when your lawn clippings are too toxic to put into the compost without risking your tomatoes and other crops for the next six months, there is a problem. Some folk will even kill off the worms with a residual spray in the quest for lawn perfection.
Mark is keen to have grass expanses with at least one flowering a year to feed the bees and other insect life. An added bonus has been unexpected. We made a decision a few years ago not to replace our cat, even though I adore fluffy felines. As a result, the Californian quail population has been steadily increasing and these lovely birds are a delight, foraging across the house lawns for seed. We might feel differently about a flowering lawn if we had small people in our lives running around bare footed, but in their absence, there is no need to worry about the bees.
We use a mulcher mower so the clippings are returned to the grass and this has eliminated any need to feed the lawn. Come early November, we let the grass grow long before cutting because then the dreaded Onehunga weed gets stretched and cut off before it can set its prickles. We do a certain amount of hand weeding to keep the flat weeds and undesirable grasses at bay in the house lawns. Beyond that, as long as it is fine or small leaved and cuts neatly, it is allowed to stay. Our lawns are more mixed colony environments than controlled grass species. We still mow regularly, but we are stretching out the intervals between mowing because we have become very aware of how dependent we now are on the motorised gardening aids and just how much fuel we have to buy to keep the mower, strimmer, chain saw and leaf blower running.
One of the delightful gardening books on my shelf is early Alan Titchmarsh, the Yorkshire gardener who is now a star TV presenter in the UK. Back in 1984, he wrote about The Lawn:
“Avant-gardeners do not have lawns; they have grass….The ‘bowling green’ lawn is a feature that belongs in front of council houses where it is surrounded by borders of lobelia, alyssum, French marigolds and salvias with standard fuchsias used as ‘dot plants’.
The avant-gardener’s grass is intermingled with daisies, plantains, buttercups… and plenty of moss (usually at least of 50% of the total coverage). This is a state of affairs to be encouraged. The grass is mown (avoiding a striped effect at all costs)…” (Avant-Gardening, a guide to one-upmanshop in the garden).
It does not appear that we have moved a long way since 1984 avant-garde thinking. If you are wondering what half our park looks like after six months without cutting the grass, I can report that the buttercup and self heal are thriving. To a critical eye it probably looks better in the shady areas than in the full sun but the mown strip is indeed like a path through a meadow and that is the effect we now want. We have worked out that we want the lawns immediately around the house more tightly maintained but, even in a large garden, we can achieve that without chemical intervention and top-up feeding. We see that as far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the suburban value of an immaculate lawn.
First published in the June issue of the New Zealand Gardener and repinted here with their permission.