Grasses are very important. Not the lawn grass which is effectively a variety of wild grasses, bred to be hardy, resistant to wear and tear and the infiltration of “weeds”. I refer to the wild grasses growing on field margins, meadows, wasteland and verges, part of the global importance of unique grassland ecosystems.
As gardens are getting smaller, do we really need a large or small expanse of lawn? Perhaps we do if we have children that need a play space, and admittedly a little bit of grass is nice place to sit in on a Summer’s day. Manicured lawns are a relatively new thing and it’s only in the last 100 years or less that short mown green lawns are seen as the ultimate aesthetic of our own little outside space. Lawns ultimately require a lot of work and are not productive in the sense of being able to grow vegetables or particularly benefit wildlife.
Artificial grass is even worse. Wild grasses however are beautiful in their own right. They aren’t bright, blousy or showy but are very beneficial to all sorts of creatures and ecosystems globally. In part one, I look at the increasing use and popularity of lawns and how we can make them more environmentally friendly. In part two I’ll take a deeper look at native grasses and the benefits they have for our domestic gardens.
lawn grass : green tidy activities, monotone monoculture some wildlife
Artificial grass: very green, very artificial, zero wildlife, large eco impact
long grass : green mixed colourful, more wildlife
mixed native grasses traditional colourful lots of insects, mammals, wild flowers
grasslands vital specific ecologically unique ecosystem ancient
native grass descendant of food crops, oats, barley, wheat etc, vital nectar pollen source and larvae food
Lawns, as we know them, evolved from Britain apparently. They were at first longer and more mixed in with plants like chamomile and thyme and were more useful to the folks that tended them, more like what we would recognise as a meadow today. Sheep grazed to keep the growth down and then later scythes were used to cut it.
Gentry of the day followed others such as landscape designer Capability Brown, in wanting huge expanses of managed land around their country houses. This consisted of short grass and trees strategically planted over very large areas of ground around the big house. This aesthetic then filtered down the classes, albeit on a much smaller scale.
With the invention of lawn mowers, it became relatively easy to achieve the green lawns as now found in most gardens almost globally. It begs the question why?
I’m not against lawns per se as I can see how they can be desirable, and how they are perceived to be easier to maintain than other alternatives. But I think it’s time to re think the lawn and how they fit in with our lifestyles today, bearing in mind the growing movement to make our outdoor spaces more productive and useful for biodiversity. I think we can work towards having a mixture of both, beneficial ecologically and easy to maintain.
Apart from being quite nice to sit on and for the kids to kick a ball around lawns don’t really serve a garden very well, especially If a garden to you is growing beautiful plants, veg and planting for wildlife. Even if you aren’t on the “let it all grow wild stage” a lawn is actually quite time consuming to maintain and not environmentally friendly.
It needs mowing at least every 2 weeks if you like it cut short. Some people feed and weed it, with specialised companies making a living from doing just that. In fact, a huge sector of the gardening economy revolves around implementing and maintaining lawns including the equipment to maintain it and the chemicals used to keep it “weed” free, supplying grass seed and turf.
Now we also have the option of artificial grass or Astro Turf which is a lot worse. Artificial grass is made of plastic which contains worrying amounts of chemicals. It smothers the soil so nothing grows. It doesn’t break down and is not biodegradable or recyclable. Worryingly, the business is booming. So ingrained are we that our outdoor space must be green, that we install strips of “green” to replicate something that isn’t in nature in the first place. It’s just bonkers.
There are growing concerns about its environmental impact of artificial grass, particularly the micro plastics found in it, and the EU have concerns that it could be emitting carcinogenic particles, specifically astroturf used on sports fields.
Some might say that artificial grass doesn’t need mowing, feeding, watering or weeding, all at an environmental cost. The time factor is a huge part in people’s decision to buy it, but it still needs sweeping or vacuuming of debris like leaves and the removal of moss growth. It won’t last as long as real grass and it can get incredibly hot, which emits an unpleasant rubbery smell. Lastly, it just doesn’t look as good as real grass. The list of negatives goes on.
I was saddened when I saw a neighbour employ contractors to remove the grass on their front lawn, and lay down artificial grass. It’s a big area as well, about 12 ft x 12 ft. I think they are an elderly couple who don’t want the bother of maintaining a lawn anymore. They have obviously been sold on the idea by good salespeople. Apart from continually raising concerns about its use, how do we stop the rise in its popularity? Perhaps via influencers such as house builders, designers, magazines, celebrity gardeners and “make over” garden shows. Lastly, and perhaps the most important factor is that gardens are part of our homes and shouldn’t be seen as assets whose primary function is to be modernised in order to serve up to a market for the highest bidder. The phenomenal rise in house prices is a huge contributing factor in the loss of the “messy normal “gardens.
To Trevor Dines, botanical specialist for charity Plantlife, the popularity of artificial grass shows how disconnected we have become from the natural world.
“Whenever I see artificial grass my heart sinks – more nature smothered by more plastic. Where once we were famed for our lawns, we now opt for artificial, low-maintenance solutions.”
This is not just to the detriment of wildlife but to us, too; children can’t make a daisy-chain on a plastic lawn.
The turf industry isn’t good for the environment either. Firstly, acres upon acres are sown with grass seeds, then manicured, watered and possibly treated with weed killers. No insects can use the grass at this stage very effectively, if at all. Then there is the lifting and transporting. Lifting can possibly release carbon as carbon is stored in soils. Tilling and turning the soil in itself is now being found to be a very large component of carbon release as so much is stored in it. Then once it has been laid in a garden it needs copious amounts of water to get it to settle in.
So traditional lawns can be devoid of wildlife, taking up space that could be productive for growing fruit and veg, flowers and plants to encourage wildlife, including wild grasses. With so much new house building going on, instead of putting a green patch of lawn outside it why not try and replace that land loss with what would have been growing on that land. A lawn certainly wouldn’t have been.
This way of thinking is gaining momentum and there is a rather unkind campaign going around social media at the moment:
“Grasshole” noun meaning : a person who shames their neighbour for growing anything other than a monoculture of weed free grass in a home landscape.
I certainly think that my neighbour is outraged that I leave the “weeds” to grow and to counteract any judgements I’ve put up a blue campaign blue heart to “justify” my messy wild garden.
There is a school of thought that if your garden is too much to manage then turf it all over and it will be easier as you would only have to mow it. I know people with very large gardens that have done this, as they were not physically able to tend the garden as it was, for example with flower or vegetable beds. What are the alternatives? How can we change people’s perceptions of wanting a neat and tidy uniform lawn to acceptance of an untidier wilder space?
What is the alternative ?
The easiest options are to work with what we have.
Integrate wild flowers and grasses – Meadow flowers and the meadow “look” is gaining popularity. Some mixes contain non-native plants, that aren’t so beneficial to our native insects or biodiversity, but they are a start in changing the perception of having to have a monoculture lawn and borders garden.
I would suggest using grass and native wildflower seed mix if possible. Sow them either on bare soil in Autumn or Spring. There are many resources on the internet on best way to get it going. Yellow rattle is often suggested as it helps to break the monopoly of dominant grasses . Alternatively just let the grass grow, see what comes up also from the soil and mow it maybe twice a year; you should get wildflowers and grasses, though many will call them “weeds” they are very beneficial and crucial to many invertebrates. If you sow wild flower seed straight on to lawns they take much longer to establish, if at all. Wild flower plugs are another option. These are different regimes but easy to get used to. We need to think differently about how we view and manage our gardens.
Plant shrubs or trees within your lawn. Fruit trees and many shrubs can be v beneficial to pollinating insects and birds. By doing this you can just leave the grass to grow underneath and just cut it down in the Autumn. Eventually more wild flowers should come through.
You can still mow more regularly if you prefer but use the highest setting on your mower as this allows the insects on the ground to survive any cuts like grass hoppers and slow worms. I cut mine once a month only, bashing a stick through the growth first, to warn off any creatures.