Do we need lawns? Introducing a recent Christchurch Press feature on lawn care is a quote from Robert Thompson, 'There is no feature connected with a garden which adds more to its picturesqueness, or is more important than a lawn.' The quote is dated 1907.
Should we be following advice from the early twentieth century in the early twentyfirst? Or should our greater knowledge of and concern for environmental sustainability lead us to rethink the way we garden, and evaluate everything by what good or harm it does to the environment? Not sparing even the iconic front lawn.
Many people feel that their garden 'needs' a lawn. If we examine this need, using the good design principle that form should follow function, what is the function of a lawn? Flat, short grass can be useful as a play space for adults (bowls, croquet) or as a site for al fresco drinks and snacks. It is useful for children and pets to play on. Some garden designers feel that a lawn is essential to 'set off' flowerbeds.
However, most of us have no need for sports-quality or quantity turf, and if we have to choose between a front lawn and a patio with a pergola as a place to take tea, the sheltered or shady paved space will win every time. Children and pets are better served by public parks, where balls can be thrown, hit and chased without endangering windows and flowers. Flat, open spaces which 'set off' flowerbeds can be created more easily and sustainably with lawn alternatives.
From an energy, water and resource conservation perspective, a large lawn maintained to sports standard is the biggest drain on a private garden and on the environment as a whole.
Keeping a lawn green through a hot New Zealand summer takes lots of water. Much more water than is required by trees and shrubs, or even a properly mulched, compost-enriched flowerbed. In the USA, where many cities charge for water on a user-pays basis, private gardeners have cut their water bills by up to 60% simply by replacing lawns with shrubberies, native grasses, and/or hard surfaces.
In New Zealand we don't have such price signals to help us switch to conservationist behaviour. But we have other signals, such as the prospect that Auckland and Christchurch may be forced to drink chemically treated water from the polluted Waikato and Waimakariri rivers if we keep pouring clean water on to our ever-expanding lawns.
Managing those lawns without chemicals is also a hard ask. The only organic way to deal with grass grubs is to drown them by soaking the lawn with precious water! Removing weeds by hand is also a backbreaking, time-consuming task that sets one thinking of better alternatives.
Then there is the energy and resource expenditure on lawns. Think of what goes into making and using a petrol-driven mowing machine, and the noxious gases and noises it emits. Then multiply that by a million or more lawns, every week for nine months of the year. It's scary - and what's worse - it's completely unnecessary.
Because there are lots of lovely alternatives to the traditional lawn. There is a lawn-free alternative for every style of gardening, from the very formal (think Italian-style, with paved terraces, designs in parterres, and feature plants in pots) to the very informal (think cottage-style, with paths winding though mixed herb, flower and vegetable beds).
If there is a need to keep the space open to preserve sun or views, and hard paving is not an economical or practical alternative, then native grasses are the answer. Growing no taller than 75 cm, perfectly adapted to the climate, never needing watering or mowing, and very long-lived (some tussock species can live hundreds of years), they also come in a range of subtle colours - blue-grey, bronze, buff, deep gold, dull silver and mid-green. If planted at the correct intervals, after a year or two they won't ever need weeding. Lawrie Metcalf's latest book, The Cultivation of Native Grasses, is full of detail on what there is to grow, and how to grow it.
Every week my neighbours spend at least two hours mowing and tending their lawn - heads down, backs bent, arms strained, breathing in petrol fumes. Me - I just sit back and enjoy watching the silky seed heads of the bronzy native grass Anomanthele lessoniana ripple in the breeze as I admire the view of the harbour above them. It is easy being green.