Story: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott, Pixabay & National Trust
A manicured lawn – the pride and joy of enthusiastic gardeners everywhere and a millstone round their necks. What do you mean, I hear you ask? A rolling green lawn is the default feature of a garden around which all other planting is planned. It’s also the essence of an award-winning garden. That may be, but it’s also foreign to Nature: a manmade construct founded originally on distrust, then on vanity, and ultimately on social conditioning.
According to my well-thumbed Collins English Dictionary, the word lawn is the 16th century changed form of the 14th century Middle English launde – meaning glade or opening in the woods, which itself derives from the Old French lande, which is of earlier Celtic origin. A Google search reveals that the term came to mean land that resembled such glades, in particular natural grasslands around mediaeval castles in France and Britain that were kept clear of trees so that visitors, enemies especially, could be spotted easily.
Battalions of scythe-wielding servants and herds of grazing livestock ensured those grasslands were cropped to the quick, which meant only the rich could afford such luxuries.
From laundes to high status
Who else had the means to hold and maintain land that wasn’t used to build on or to grow food? In due course, laundes became a lawn unto themselves, a nice-to-have decorative feature of country estates and a status symbol too, one which the scything serfs could never hope to boast, unless they won the Lotto, which was yet to be invented. As a display of wealth and prestige, little could beat a stately home seated amidst carefully tended acres of tree-studded lawns, or parks as they came to be known.
Capable of improvement
Designing and maintaining these parks became more complicated – simple scythes, shears, and grazing just didn’t cut it anymore – so landscaping became big business. Stiffly formal, structured gardens became the epitome of good taste. Then, early in the 18th century, along came Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, arguably the most celebrated of Britain’s landscape architects, whose nickname stems from his description of estates as having capabilities for improvement.
Capability wasn’t your average follower of fashion but a highly capable, broad-minded chap, who ditched the hitherto formal style of garden. Taking the lawn into his own hands, he embraced a more natural approach and developed about 200 parks in what came to be called the “English Style” – smooth undulating lawns (no doubt kept shipshape back then by shearers and sheep,) with clumps and scatterings of trees and serpentine lakes. Four hundred years later, a number of these, such as Petwork Park in Sussex still survive.
Making the cut
Meanwhile, ordinary folk remained mostly lawnless. But in 1830, something happened that changed the face of lawns for ever, and that would ultimately make them accessible to the common man. Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud in Gloucestershire patented the world’s first lawnmower. Initially purposed to mow sports grounds and large gardens, it had a wrought-iron frame and cast-iron gear wheels so must have weighed a ton. Not only was it pushed, this beast of a machine had to be pulled too. It wasn’t the last word in mowers by any stretch of the imagination but it had set the ball rolling and in 1850, Thomas Green of Leeds became, in a way, the Henry Ford of lawnmowers when his lighter, more user friendly mower came onto the scene. Other less cumbersome machines soon followed. At last, every man could have his mower and push it. Lawns have never looked back.
High fashion and morality
The lawn fashion spread to the USA where, initially, as had been the case in Britain, they were a status symbol. Astute property developers saw a big opportunity and built homogenous suburban estates in which every house had its own prized patch of green. Rolled out like the proverbial red carpet, they brought in buyers in their droves. Before you could say ‘salesman’s dream’, lawn was all the rage and became a symbol of honest-to-goodness, decent America. Keeping up with the Joneses entered new territory as homeowners spent hours toiling to achieve a greener than green, shorter than short, weed-free lawn that would be the envy of all. Non-lawn abiding homeowners who failed to live up to the neat and tidy ideal were stigmatised as by-lawn breakers of dubious character.
Spawn of the lawn
The lawn and order culture that began in Britain, whose damp climate is suited to evergreen grass, became the gold standard of good gardening elsewhere on Earth, even drought-prone countries like our own. Seizing the day, more entrepreneurs punted gardening as the ultimate, virtuous hobby and developed an ever-growing range of lawn-care products touted as essential for every garden. Pesticides, herbicides, grass seeds, fertilisers and spreaders, rotary mowers, rollers, aerators, hosepipes, edge trimmers, leaf blowers, ride-on mowers; garden sheds: almost all are the spawn of the lawn.
A place for lawns
To be fair, lawns do have a place. Cricket, lawn tennis, bowls, putting greens, croquet, and the Queen of England’s garden parties all require a well-kept lawn. Hah-de-dahs poke their beaks in to find a grub or two. Dogs like them as a place to poo.
The price of lawn
But increasingly, lawns are again becoming unaffordable, not so much in terms of finances even though their upkeep isn’t cheap, but because of their cost to our ailing planet. They might be green, but not all green is good and lawns are not environmental assets. Like other forms of monoculture, they contribute almost nothing to biodiversity but take up space that nature needs. For example, it’s estimated that there are 50 million acres of lawn in the USA. (It would be interesting to know the figure for our own country.) Those millions of acres amount to an incalculable deficit for Nature because every expanse of lawn means fewer indigenous plants, less ecological integrity, and increased habitat loss.
Another downside is that lawns require fossil fuel-powered machinery to keep them trim. Many of those machines are two-stroke engines whose emissions, I’m told, are far more polluting than those of small cars. If only lawnmowers were still of the push variety! To that air pollution add the noise pollution those roaring, whining machines generate day in and day out and it’s enough to drive sensible, sentient people crazy.
The harm doesn’t stop there. To beat the weeds (which are probably benign little plants just trying to survive like most of nature), lawn devotees often resort to herbicides, and in case any tiny critters that survived the onslaught of the killer machines might try to nibble the grass, pesticides are thrown into the overall toxic mix. As we’ve belatedly come to know, and as Rachel Carson warned long ago in her book The Silent Spring, such toxins can have far-reaching, deadly impacts on Nature and, by extension, on us. The clue lies in cide which puts pesticides and herbicides in the company of words like homicide, fratricide, suicide, patricide and, the most relevant, ecocide.
Artificial fertilizers are potentially dangerous too in that they can affect the micro-organisms in the soil and thus be detrimental to soil health. Containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, synthetic fertilizers can also be harmful to aquatic life when washed into water courses.
Talking of water, lawns are thirsty, especially in water-challenged regions. Indeed, irrigating a lawn in arid places like the western Kalahari and Dubai, as I’ve witnessed, is craziness driven perhaps by the desire for status or by social and commercial conditioning that decrees lawn to be the norm.
Rolling out a lawn
The folly of a lawn is perhaps best illustrated by outlining the process of establishing it.
- Dig up the natural vegetation.
- Prepare the now bare soil.
- Sow lawn seed, or lay down instant lawn.
- Irrigate regularly until the grass grows.
- Fertilise it so that it grows abundantly.
- Once the grass reaches an inch or two in height, mow it down, trim the edges.
- Fertilise, irrigate.
- Mow and trim, even in winter.
- Repeat 7 & 8 forever while carrying your millstone round your neck.
From lawn to the law of nature
Good news though is that change is afoot. The growing awareness of the need to protect biodiversity means that lawns are being given the boot. They’re rapidly becoming passé. While it’s yet to happen on a wide front in South Africa, elsewhere in the world like here and here and here, lawnbreakers are eliminating lawns and replacing them with self-sustaining wild meadows, indigenous groundcovers that can be walked on, and proper grasslands or other habitats suited to a region. On verges, in suburban gardens and city parks, and even at some of those stately homes of England, where flattened, monotonous stretches of lifeless green once held sway, an abundance of natural grasses and flora sway in the breeze inviting back long absent birds, butterflies, other small beasties, and bees.
That’s law and order as nature intended.