The sun may have (thankfully) set on the British Empire but not on its most successful invention.

It is often said that a lawn makes a good foreground but German garden designer Petra Pelz has got other ideas - hers is hidden from view. Participants in a recent tour of German gardesn I led are off to try and find it.

Tovah’s recent post about planting up her lawn with plants rather than the heavily-shorn green stuff deals with what history may yet record as one of the great shifts in garden culture. Here I would like to take a hard look at this green tyrant and alternatives to it.

Lets start in a small town in what used to communist East Germany (the GDR), it’s a picture I ended up with in my last post. It’s a rectangular plot in a small town, a good size, nothing special about it. Landscape designer Petra Pelz and her family used to grow vegetables there in GDR days. It is now a superb example of the almost-lawnless-but-not-quite garden – low to medium height perennials on either side of a narrow winding path with occasional taller flowering species. There is a little bit of lawn at the back, where a fence allows a rather clever little bit of ‘borrowed landscape’ into the neighbours veg patch – otherwise this garden very effectively shuts out any view of the neighbours in a row of quite closely spaced houses. (By the way for the old Marxists amongst you, Petra lives on Friedrich Engels Straße).

Petra’s little bit of lawn, almost token, strikes me as just about right for most gardens. There is always the danger, in our evangelical and righteous enthusiasm about this overplayed, ecologically-unsound , bio-diversity low and clichéd garden feature to become ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ and get rid of lawns altogether, or even worse, demand that others do too. We have enough dreary political correctness in the garden world as it is, thank you. Let’s leave intolerance in the past with the famous ‘lawn ordinances’ of many US communities (note to non-Americans: this is when you are legally obliged to keep your lawn cut short – i.e. no messy wildflowers or perennials, or even veg).

Of course as a Brit, I have a view about lawns. A rather guilty one. We invented them, along with cricket (a game dependent on a lawn like surface), afternoon tea (usually held on a lawn), the porch (in which you can sit and watch the kids play on the lawn) – except that only Americans call it a ‘porch’, we use ‘verandah’ derived from the Bengali – we nicked the idea from them (ditto the Bungalow). So not content with invading half the world and dragging it into an economic system built for our own needs, our ancestors added insult to injury by inventing the lawn too, and dragooning armies of poorly-paid laborers in the colonies to cut, roll, feed and weed the things, so that sahibs and memsahibs could look out over a nicely pukkah green carpet which made them think of Surrey (I’ve probably lost readers from the American rebel colonies by now, but never mind).

Yes, we have a lawn, but it is only about 50% grass, rest is clover, daisies etc, and this Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris, which is very successful as a wildflower component.

However, in rolling up the British Empire, the lawns stayed behind. Wherever the sun has set on those bits of the map that used to be colored pink, the lawns have stayed. The post-colonials clearly love them. Lahore, Pakistan, has wonderful parks, with superb lawns. I’ve seen them across India and Africa, and in Brazil too (which was economically tied to Britain for much of the 19th century). The lawn, lets face it, is an example of a ‘meme’, a concept which once invented (along with the technology for cutting it) has just run and run. Clearly very successful because it fulfils many basic human needs. The need to have a surface children can play on, the sporty can play games on, the not-so-sporty can lie around on, lovers can canoodle on (or if in India or Pak sit chastely 1.5m away from each other), dogs exercised on, picnic on etc etc.

It sounds like I am defending the things, when in fact I’ve always campaigned against them – but I’m just trying to be realistic. The whole idea of the lawn is ideal for us, particularly here in the west of England, where it rains nearly 2metres a year. The bad news about the British Empire of the Lawn is that in nearly all the colonies they have to be watered to keep them green and doused in pesticide to stop all sorts of things eating or infecting them. Gardeners in other parts of Europe have lawns too, but they clearly don’t feel that they have to. To go back to the eastern part of Germany where we started, snow often leaves a lawn brown, and then low rainfall and hot summers can brown it off too – so traditionally a lot of people fill their gardens with veg, fruit and flowers. The idea of lawns being somehow compulsory is a largely British idea, passed on like a raging infection to certain of the colonies.

As Tovah has pointed out, plant lovers can indulge themselves by digging up and planting out their lawns. The question does have to be asked – are you a gardener or a groundsman? At a time when many of us would rather be growing our veg, or keeping chickens or treating our gardens as mini nature reserves, the lawn gets to look more and more redundant. Increasingly gardeners are exploring alternatives to it, including grassland-based alternatives such as meadows, or sweeps of native bunchgrasses. But at the end of the day, lawns have proved very popular wherever the Union Jack (or ‘The Butcher’s Apron’ if you had to fight a war to get us out) has flown, and a great many places where it never did. I just wish we could keep them in perspective.

About Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

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21 Responses to The sun may have (thankfully) set on the British Empire but not on its most successful invention.

  1. Lisa at Greenbow July 17, 2011 at 6:02 am #

    Yes, if I still had little children romping about the place I would have left my back garden a flat green space. However the children grew up (even the Grands) everyone else got tired of playing croquet so we now have a series of paths in the back garden. Now we like to stroll out to the Casa (screen house) for cocktails and everyone likes to see what it up, literally. :) I just need a more diverse planting, which I am working on.

  2. valentine July 17, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    I am the only” Florida friendly” USA yard in my neighborhood. Most people forget why they moved to an island.

  3. Elephant's Eye July 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Was talking to a South African landscaper yesterday. They had a family gathering, children from 7 to 17, covering the age spectrum. All nailed to their computer widgets. Not a child played, on the lawn.

  4. Tikyd July 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    With your post I realized that my perception of what a garden is was maybe closed. Petra’s garden looks nice. I think that it is remarkable to do things differently than everybody else.

  5. Hoover Boo July 17, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    There is a big push here in Southern California to eliminate all or at least part of the lawn, though the push has lessened somewhat this year because we had a rainy winter.

    People are trying. We’ve found that the knowledge level isn’t quite there yet for the average non-gardening homeowner to make the transition. People generally just don’t quite know what to plant as a replacement.

    With turf, no effort or thought is involved in the selection–all the effort and resources go into the maintenance. With a no-lawn solution, it is almost the reverse–plant selection is critical and significant knowledge and experience is required for success. We’re moving towards more climate appropriate gardens, but until it is really, really easy for the non-gardener to make the transition, the lawn will still be prevalent.

  6. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    That is very very true. The green case for astroturf anyone? PErsonally i suspect the answer is going to be new grass varieties through genetic advances, however much I’d prefer more biodiversity-friendly solutions.

  7. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 3:03 am #

    That’s why its so important to travel. Get new ideas. Peer over other folks’ garden fences.

  8. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    SAD!! No wonder obesity and related health problems increasing.

  9. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 3:05 am #

    I know what you mean. People only move geographically, rarely psychologically. And they usually take their old gardens with them.

  10. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    Glad to hear it, let us know what you do.

  11. Cathy July 18, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (I’ve mentioned this in comments before), when we got married in 2003 and were deciding on how to divvie up household chores, DH commented that he hated to mow lawns and asked if we could hire someone to do the chore.

    I suggested a “better” alternative. Never having had a garden and having no idea how much work is involved, he readily agreed.

    The end result is that all but about 200 sf of our half acre yard is garden. This, of course, is MUCH more “work” than simply mowing a lawn once a week, but lucky for me, he found that he loves to garden. Good thing, since the sheer magnitude means we start each day at the crack of dawn with a couple of hours of weeding and deadheading before work and often end the day with a bit m0re of the same.

    I totally agree that being so militant about grass that one goes totally off the charts in the other direction rises to the level of psychopathology. There is nothing wrong with lawn in moderation, but I do find some homeowners’ preoccupation with it somewhat hard to understand.

    That said, when we are giving tours of our garden, we refer to the strip of lawn that serves as a wide path to the back shed from the side gate as “the grass garden” featuring Kentucky Blue and not the “other” kind of grass for sure.

    And he does mow that little bit when the kids are away at school and unavailable to do that chore for him. ;)

  12. Cathy July 18, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    PS to my previous comment… a fair number of people who know us often comment how amazingly beautiful our gardens are but in the next breath, they also tell us that we must be crazy to have taken on all this work (which is rather comical, since DH is a psychiatrist).

  13. Noel Kingsbury July 18, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    that’s a great story, thanks for sharing, it makes me think that if gardening rather than lawn care was more part of the culture, more people would garden, and learn to enjoy it, maybe the current trend in home veg growing will achieve just this, in fact perhaps this will be what finally breaks the great American lawn tradition

  14. Cathy July 18, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    While Michelle Obama put a garden on the White House lawn and even let Iron Chef America have access to not just her produce but the White House chef as well for an Iron Chef competition, I think it’s going to take a sea change in not just laws but a very parochial mindset that still exists in MANY communities.

    Here in the manicured-to-the-extreme-lawn-capital of the world, some communities actually have laws on the books prohibiting you from putting vegetables in your front yard and requiring that you have a lawn AND keep it “well-maintained”.

    Check out these two news reports about communities who are enforcing laws and threatening to fine and jail people for putting vegetable gardens on the front lawn.

    http://www.growingedge.com/illegal-front-yard-veggie-garden

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/vegetable-garden-brings-criminal-charges-oak-park-michigan/story?id=14047214

    Now, I heard a rumor that the prosecutor in the second case has opted not to move forward with charges for now, but has left the door open to pursue the case in the future. There is no plan to change the law however.

  15. RobinL July 20, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    I’m trying to get on board with the movement to get away from the traditional lawn, but it’s difficult. First of all, I’ll never convince hubby. He’s the classic American male, proud of his expanse of green! And second of all, I still like the idea of my eyes having somewhere to “rest”. Too many plants, flowers, etc, and it just looks too busy. Having the flat green spaces in between is much more restful to me. Now I’m definitely trying to reduce the lawn space, but without a little of it, many suburban gardens come out looking like chaos. Just sayin’!

  16. Noel Kingsbury July 20, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    maybe i should have been clearer but yes i agree with you , a little lawn acts as foreground, rests the eye etc, and shows off perennials etc in borders well, you can substitute with sedges and things but they are always that little bit less tidy and so still draw the eye. I am sure you can achieve a sensible compromise – is that sensible marital guidance?

  17. Sarah July 23, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I have to have a lawn, however I also need a garden, and eventually will move back into the country where I can have woods as well. Yes, I do realize this means acreage. Lots of it.

    The good news is that my husband is willing to mow and I actually prefer the lawn to be a bit longer than the norm.

  18. Bert July 30, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    After catching the gardening bug in a mainly deep shade and hence lawnfree garden, I recently moved and stumbled on my first ever bumpy lawn and on an old RHS guide to lawn care.

    I have diligently (rotary) mowed the ‘reverted’ and patchy lawn, spiked it thoroughly and deeply with a fork (actually two forks since the first one gave up halfway through the job), spread an organic lawn fertilizer and top dressed with a self mixed shitload of rhinesand, loam and sieved compost which I then raked in.

    Today my lower back allows me to tie my own shoes again and the cold I caught while ‘aerating’ (a job sweatier than one would suspect) is nearly over, so I am getting prepared to start pushing the (cylinder) mower around while weeding and looking for bare patches to reseed in autumn.

    It is hard work and I generally do prefer perennial plantings but I like the perspective a lawn offers on other plantings. The contrast between its evergreen continuity and the dynamism of the surroundings enhances both. Dew in low morning light, frostpockets materialized, subtle differences in hue and hight. Someday maybe playing petanque?

  19. Martyna August 8, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Completely agree that balance is everything.
    I hate mowing with a passion and love long grass and wildflowers. So, when I moved to my new house with a small front lawn I immediately set about converting it to a perennial flower meadow.
    Sure enough, the complaints from neighbours rolled in – it just wasn’t ‘tidy’.
    The solution, which seems to be keeping everyone happy so far, was to mow an 18 inch strip around the edges whilst leaving the middle to do it’s own thing.
    It looks tidy and wild, all at the same time. Even the previously grumpy neighbour has admitted that he stops to look at the butterflies sometimes.
    The insects and I enjoy the flowers, the neighbours can admire the tidy edges.

  20. Noel Kingsbury August 8, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    What you have discovered is the importance of making it clear that your ‘untidy’ lawn is intentional and deliberate, and not just because you are a lazy slob. The odd path mown through will make this even more clear, as well as being fun to walk. The more i think about it the more are the possibilities or mowing bits/ not mowing others and changing the mowing regime from time to time. Keep at it!!

  21. Sunita August 13, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    Guilty! I have 3, actually. They serve all kinds of purposes : keeps the dust and heat down in summer and the soil in place during the monsoon (we’re located on a slope). Plus there are huge sheets of rock just inches below the surface so nothing else will grow. But most important of all, I need at least some space where I can walk without worrying whether I’m going to step on a snake (we have cobras and Russell’s Vipers here in my garden). So anything over 2 inches tall is out.
    Oh, and 1 lawn-like surface is for that most poular British invention in India … cricket! Though it does serve as a makeshift tennis court or football field as the fancy takes the more sporting members of the family.