Tag Archives: lawns

What does your lawn say about you?

The front lawn - a support player, not the star

The front lawn - a support player, not the star

A gardening newsletter arrived this morning and it contained a quote: “Lawns, hedges and edges… these are what make a good garden.” No. I do not agree. Lawns, hedges and edges are what make a tidy garden and that is something entirely different.

The person being quoted was Sue Macfarlane of Winterhome Garden near Kaikoura. I have been to Winterhome and I really liked it. This was surprising because it is a garden which makes heavy use of low buxus hedges and I am not the world’s greatest fan of the use of this device to define spaces. But what I remember of Winterhome is the use of long vistas and enticing avenues which draw you down to explore with a sense of anticipation, which was well rewarded in this garden. There was a confident use of space and distinct changes of mood and style. It was carried off with panache.

But I don’t remember anything about the lawns at Winterhome and as far as I am concerned, that is entirely as it should be.

I do not understand the obsession with lawns in New Zealand. To me, it smacks of a suburban obsession which has nothing to do with gardening. When you visit a garden, if you remember the lawn it is for one of two reasons.

Either it is a rank and unkempt assemblage of ill cared for low growing green plants, probably infested with flat weeds and onehunga weed, desperately in need of some mowing, edging and a little weeding.

Alternatively, it is a pristine velvet sward of such immaculate perfection that it is a feature in itself. And to Mark and me, that is as bad as the unloved lawn. Perfection shouts: unsustainable garden practices! Heavy use of selective sprays! Unacceptable use of synthetic fertilisers! Summer watering which washes the chemicals even further afield! Removal of all clippings! Dethatching every year!

I remember interviewing for a commissioned piece, profiling a garden for a national publication. The owners were terribly proud of their lawn and claimed that garden visitors often said they wanted to take their shoes off and luxuriate in bare feet on the grass. I caught Mark’s sideways glance to me and later he expostulated: “You want to take your shoes off and expose your bare skin to the chemical cocktail on those lawns????”

In a good garden, as far as I am concerned, you should not notice the lawn. Grass is a bit player, the chorus line playing a support role. It is there to fill in spaces and to make the surroundings shine. Tiny town gardens may do away with lawns. My mother always dispensed with all grass but that was because she would rather garden than mow lawns and she never, ever, ever managed to get a rotary lawnmower started (not even a brand new one) so the only choices were a handmower or no lawns. She chose the latter. But in bigger gardens, grass gives a breathing space, a sense of open-ness and simplicity which is a sharp contrast to intensively planted areas. In a family garden, it is the place for the trampoline and the cricket or badminton set, or for the dogs to run.

According to “The Curious Gardener’s Almanac”, over three-quarters of the garden chemicals sold in Britain are for the improvement of lawns. That was in a 2006 publication. And the British are nowhere near as obsessed with lawn perfection as we are in NZ and also in USA so our percentage may even be higher. How can that be justified?

We have lawns here. In fact we have quite extensive lawns. The one in front of the house is substantially larger than a tennis court. We mow them religiously every week on the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers which cost more than our car (it is a Walker Mower from the US). But we use a mulcher deck on the mower. We do not remove the clippings so we do not need to pour fertilisers on to replace the goodness from the clippings stripped off. Mark will spray occasionally (very occasionally) and we try and keep the flat weeds and onehunga weed out, often by handweeding. Beyond that, as long as it stays green and cuts well, we can live with a bio-diverse green sward. And should we chose to gather our clippings, we could spread them in the vegetable garden without causing problems to tomatoes and capsicums (there is a good test for the toxicity of your lawn clippings).

We also have grass, as in our park. It has a major colonisation of daisies which look particularly pretty in flower in spring. And we have moss in shady areas. But all these grassy areas gives the framework and breathing space in the garden, obligingly filling their support role without wanting to be the main act.

The final words on lawns and grass belong to vintage Alan Titchmarsh – a doyen of English gardening. He published a seriously funny book in 1984, called “Avant –Gardening, A Guide to One-Upmanship in the Garden”. I inherited a copy from my late mother. I found a second copy for a friend, believe it or not, in a second hand bookshop on the Greek island of Patmos so clearly there are other copies kicking around in odd places. I am not sure aforementioned friend appreciated what a gem this book is but never mind. Of lawns, Titchmarsh wrote: “ Avant-gardeners do not have lawns; they have grass…. Gardeners with large plots should devote a good sized area to unmown grass where wild flowers and bulbs can be allowed to flourish. The more this site is criticised by tidy gardeners the better. A bit of name-dropping will get you out of tight corners. Try: “Christopher Lloyd does it at Dixter, you know.”

The trouble is that in this county, it is just as likely that your critic will never heard of Christopher Lloyd, let alone Alan Titchmarsh. But maybe we will come of age and review the elevated status we place on the unsustainable ideal of the perfect lawn.

Renovating a lawn: step-by-step guide

Sometimes a make-do patch and feed is not sufficient for a lawn and more drastic remedial action is required.

1) Rake out the dead grass and accumulated debris from the existing lawn – referred to as scarifying or dethatching. We have a manually operated tool for this purpose which is easy to use. You can also use a garden rake or there are powered machines which you can hire. Remove the piles to the compost heap.

2) Level out bumps and hollows, bringing in clean topsoil if required. Ideally you want the top soil to be free of weeds. Where possible, rake to a fine tilth but if you are working over an existing lawn, you can only do this in the bare patches. Too much raking and scarifying can remove the existing grasses that you want to keep. Preparation is the key to a good lawn – there are no shortcuts.

3) Grass seed is best bought and sown fresh. The packet will give the recommended application rate. Measure out a sample square metre and weigh out the recommended quantity so you can see the correct quantity. Don’t rely on guesswork. Broadcast the seed by scattering to get a feel for how thickly to spread it. We applied it about half rate because we were over-sowing existing lawn which still had some grass growing.

4) Compress the soil. Traditionally, lawn rollers are used for this process although we used our lawnmower which has wide tyres. Any rolling weight is fine. You are compressing the top layer, not trying to compact the entire lawn.

5) We chose to spread a fine layer of compost about one centimetre thick to hold the grass seed and give it a good start. We raked out all twigs and larger pieces from the compost. This was spread after rolling.

6) The greatest peril is birds – every seed eating bird in the district will be trying to get the grass seed. The worst offenders are sparrows and finches. It is worth the effort to cover the sown areas until it is clear that the grass is germinating and starting to look green. We used a combination of bird netting and old shade cloth and left it on for about three weeks.

The green breathing space

A restful green on a summer's day - a garden border in dry shade

It is a reflection of our benign climate that I can write a mid-summer column about the soothing role of green in the garden. Overseas visitors are often amazed when they are told that we never irrigate our garden here. Three weeks without rain is nearing a drought in our area of North Taranaki but I hasten to add that we also enjoy high sunshine hours. Much of the world is brown in summer and areas with winter drought or very low temperatures can be brown (or white) in winter, too. We are green fifty two weeks of the year.

As I brought in the washing yesterday, I contemplated the view from the line which includes the modest back border of the house. I say modest because it is the typical New Zealand house border which runs between the path and the house and so it measures about 50cm wide and several meters long. It is not always easy to know what to grow in a narrow border which is cool dry shade in summer and downright cold dry shade in winter but I did think it was looking rather lush, green and attractive yesterday. There are no flowers out at the moment so it was toned green on green and all about leaf texture and shape. The lapagerias clamber up to to reach the guttering and give height. These are commonly known as Chilean bell flowers and we have a towering pale pink one, a teetering huge white one and a red one all in a row with a daphne bush marking one end. There is good textural variation in the fine foliage of a maiden hair fern, the strappy leaves of a cymbidium orchid, a rather understated green hosta and the large, lush leaves of scadoxus, all underplanted with the mouse plant (arisarum). This last plant can be somewhat invasive but it has nowhere to invade in such a confined border and children are enchanted by the curious flowers. At other times of the year, the lapagerias flower and we have seasonal bulbs that come through but for the heat of summer, it made rather a nice restful picture of green.

Restful, simple green gives a breathing space in a busy garden. Most of us achieve this with lawns where the expanse of green is a little like letting out a sigh of relief. Paved patios and decking just do not give this sense of spacious rest even if they don’t need mowing. Mind you, I was raised by a keen gardener who decided that lawns had no merit. She would rather weed and maintain additional garden than mow a lawn. Widowed early, she never got to grips with mowing. I can remember when I was about nine we moved in to a house where the lawns were rather too extensive to manage with the old push mower. She bought a motor mower. After three days and a couple of site visits from the salesman, the shop took the mower back and refunded her money. They were probably deeply relieved to be shot of her. My mother’s aura did not mix with a motor mower. It would not start for her and she decided it was jinxed. She never tried to make the acquaintance of a mower again. She simply dispensed with grass. Now I think she was wrong and it did not suit her to see the role played in garden design by the restful green space.

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

No doubt many readers have been to Sissinghurst in England. Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson employed a radical device in that garden to create a space – a simple circle of grass surrounded by a high clipped green hedge (probably yew). In the wrong hands, this could look overly contrived, or even naff in a suburban New Zealand quarter acre garden. But in all the busy-ness that characterises the arts and crafts garden rooms of Sissinghurst, filled with colour and texture, this simple green circle gave a place to pause. There was nothing to assault the senses. The circular lawn, viewed from above, as one can because of the splendid tower (not to be confused with a viewing platform – the tower is a relic of the former castle) is neatly and obediently striped. They may not wish to unleash a creative or careless lawn mowing person on that lawn – a spiral, bulls-eye or even an untidy mishmash would not look as perfect as the wide and precise stripes.

At Hidcote Manor, Major Lawrence Johnston from a similar era and also with a busy arts and crafts garden full of small garden rooms, achieved a similar purpose with his Long Walk and his circular area – simply referred to as The Circle. The Long Walk is appropriately long, running on an axis spanning over half the garden and it is simply a generously wide mown strip of grass (no manicured lawn here – this was indubitably grass) bounded on both sides by tall hornbeam hedges. The Circle was tidy lawn bounded by clipped hedges and some rather large and splendid topiary birds.

Think of it all as the gardening equivalent of the sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses at an elaborate dinner party. A sorbet would be OTT at an informal barbecue but it is entirely appropriate at a banquet.

A good garden designer (the operative word is good) will understand the juxtaposition of uncluttered space and detail – that is one of their techniques. The reality is that most home gardeners in this country either can’t afford a good garden designer or they prefer not to. The DIY green space is the lawn. While technically green is a colour, in gardening practice it is perceived as colour neutral like the off white walls of the interiors of many houses. Defining the boundaries of that green space, maybe with clipped hedging, gives it more oomph as long as it is immaculately maintained. However, the imposed formality of the perfect circle needs to be managed carefully – you really need your proportions and context right. There is a fine line between circles with panache and being contrived, or worse – pretentious. The sweep of lawn is safer.

It was a revelation to us to see how effective the deliberate green breathing space was in both Sissinghurst and Hidcote. But most gardens will benefit from the framing that a green lawn provides and in the heat of summer, it makes even more sense.

In the garden, February 12, 2010

  • It is pretty much the last call for heavy pruning on flowering cherries. These need their pruning done in summer to reduce disease. While you are about it, you can prune plums and other deciduous fruit trees straight after harvest. This encourages them to set more fruiting spurs for next year, rather than too much leafy growth.
  • While you are watering container plants (should be done every day), don’t forget to top up the fish pond. Even robust goldfish get stressed if their water heats up too much.
  • While planting in the ornamental garden is largely on hold until temperatures cool or we get some serious rain, mid summer can be a time to give lawns some attention. You can spray for flat weeds now or sprinkle sulphate of ammonia. If you are not keen on spraying, get out with an old carving knife and crawl around the lawn. This last activity is guaranteed to engender a rosy glow of virtue. Never feed a dry lawn – the fertiliser is more likely to burn the surviving grass. If you are planning on sowing new lawns, autumn is the optimum time for this but preparation can start now. The quality of a new lawn can be directly linked to the amount of effort put into preparation. Level the area, cultivate it, remove all green cover and keep hoeing off successive waves of germinating weeds.
  • Vegetable gardens are all about forward planning so while some of us are enjoying full summer (and quite possibly worrying about how to stem the deluge of courgettes), organised home growers are already on the ball for winter. As summer crops are harvested, winter veg are sown and that takes in root crops of the carrots, beetroot, turnips variety and brassicas and leafy greens. Some people start sowing onions this early. You just have time to get a final sowing of green beans but do it asap.
  • Because we maintain active websites (abbiejury.co.nz for published writings and jury.co.nz for garden and plant information), I track google search terms. This week saw somebody looking for advice on how to propagate swan plants (the food for monarch caterpillars) aka asclepias. Seed, preferably fresh seed is the answer. If you sow it at this time of the year and prevent the butterflies from laying eggs on the germinated seedlings and then the baby plants, you will have well established plants next summer which in turn will produce seed. If you have room in your veg garden, it is worth putting a row in. If you are buying swan plants from garden shops at this time of the year, you will end up raising some very expensive monarchs. The idea is to have large, well established plants (bushy and chest or head height) coming ready from now through autumn to enable the monarchs to linger longer into winter.
  • I fear the naïf who googled asking if snails are good for kentia plants (presumably kentia palms) may not have a great future as a gardener. I can not think that snails are good for any plants at all unless squashed and feeding the soil.

In the garden 02/05/2008

Further rains mean that autumn has well and truly arrived but while temperatures remain mild, there is good and bad. The good is that it is now ideal for planting anything woody and it remains pleasant to work outside. The bad is that wet and warm weather not only brings on mushrooms and facial eczema, but also every fungal disease possible in the garden. They may well have taken out your cucurbits and tomatoes already. If you still have the upper hand, keep up the copper sprays but if the fungi have won, then give up and pick all the remaining produce before it rots.

  • Plant trees, shrubs and hedges of all descriptions.
  • Lawns can be fed now while it is still warm and if you have not yet sown your planned new lawns, get on to it immediately.
  • Repot root bound container plants. You can either move them to a larger size of container or you can root prune and return them to the same pot. If you are doing the latter, hose off as much of the old potting mix and dead root as possible and if you are savagely attacking the root ball, make sure you prune the top of the plant by a corresponding proportion to reduce the stress. After repotting, place the container in a shaded position for a few weeks.
  • Not all potting mixes are equal in quality by any manner of means. While cheap mixes are fine for temporary pots of annuals or for starting off seedlings, where you have semi permanent plants in containers it is false economy to use inferior mixes.
  • Look out for an explosion in slugs, snails and freshly germinating weeds brought on by the rains.

Really keen gardeners will be sowing their onion seeds now, in preparation for planting out in a couple of months’ time. Less keen gardeners will pay more and buy plants closer to the time. The Curious Gardener’s Almanac points out that onions have been used since the sixteenth century to treat gunshot wounds and that General Grant refused to move his Union troops without supplies of onions, so gun-totin’ onion growers may like to plant a few extra in reserve. However, Cervantes pointed out in Don Quixote that one should not eat garlic or onions for their smell will reveal that you are a peasant.