Lawns have been around in Europe for some thousand years, although not always a recognisable lawn in the contemporary sense. Early lawns were really the grasslands which surrounded castles, giving a clear view of approaching visitors and enemies. They were also common meadow on which sheep and cattle were grazed. This was true until the eighteenth century when a cheap labour force enabled rich landowners to create and maintain lawns using men with scythes.
Lawns became popular with a wider range of society after the invention of lawnmowers in England in 1830 by Edwin Budding. They were originally manpowered, push mowers; although petrol mowers followed fairly soon after in the1890s. Mowers became universally available after the First World War and so the tradition of an English lawn was born.
The Second World War saw many lawns, large and small, dug up to produce food crops. But the great British lawn bounced back when peace was declared, with new technologies such as the hover mower being introduced in the 1960s and the more recent programmable robot mowers. Traditional mowers are still around; check out the Lawnmower Society and the Lawnmower Museum or try your hand at some lawnmower racing…
However, not all grass is as green as it looks. There are issues with productive farmland being used to produce turf for the domestic and sports markets rather than using the land for food crops. It’s not just the turf that is taken up and transported away; about one inch of topsoil comes away with it; that top soil then needs replacing.
So if your lawn needs repairing or replacing what choices do you have? You could choose a ‘regular’ turf or grass seed lawn. If you need a good sized area for children to play on this is the traditional option, but you may like to consider artificial turf.
Artificial turf, first used on sports pitches, can be useful in at least some parts of a family garden. Think of it as an alternative to bark mulch in a play area or under a trampoline where the real grass would normally die off. With good preparation of the sub surface, it can conform to safety standards, particularly in relation to children falling off play equipment.
Many dog owners also find it a useful alternative to a paved area, and we have laid it for a client for this reason; a mid range rather than a luxury quality turf was used.
Mixed with well planted borders it can make an attractive and easy maintenance garden. You will need to rake leaves off in the autumn, and raise the ‘pile’ a few times over the year, but it is still an option worth considering for many busy families. For example, no lawn to mow and mower to maintain; the children can play on the surface more quickly after the rain as mud is not an issue.
But you may prefer a grassy sward in your garden. Starting a lawn from seed is cheaper and there is more choice in the type of grass available; you can choose a combination of grass varieties that will most suit your needs. For example, you can get mixes that are hard-wearing or do better in shade. You can also make it more wildlife-friendly by adding clover. Clover is a member of the pea family and its roots fix atmospheric nitrogen, or fertilising the soil in a way that helps grass grow. This is best added after the grass has started to germinate and grow. In fact many wild flower seeds can be added in this way, so if you want a lawn full of daisies for making daisy chains you can have one. This is a more practical option for many small gardens than a full wildflower meadow with paths cut through it.
For areas which are not subject to heavy wear, an herb lawn is also a non-mow option that can still be walked over and sat upon. You don’t even have to deadhead the flowers if you don’t want to. Non-flowering species such as lawn chamomile are perfect for a sunny spot, and scented when crushed underfoot. Creeping Thymes and creeping Mint lawns are other possible. There are a surprising number of plants which are suitable for both sunny and shady lawn areas.
There are many factors to consider before deciding which option best suits your needs for a lawn or non-lawn. For example, there are the practical, the economic, the biodiverse or environmental and the aesthetic.
I don’t think a thousand years of lawns are going to disappear just yet, but I do think they are in for a change.
Nathan Waterfield, Partner, Plews Garden Design
Resolving your Gardening issues with inspirational ideas and flexible solutions
This blog was based on a chapter in our latest Gardening Almanac eBook –
“In Your Summer Garden with Plews Garden Design”