It’s a common complaint that ‘plant-blindness’ means people overlook botany, but even botanists could miss how peculiar lawns are. Lionel Smith hasn’t. He’s working on Grass-free lawns, and I only found out about his blog at the weekend.
You know what a lawn is, it’s a patch of grass mowed to be short. But it doesn’t have to be. For example a chamomile lawn doesn’t have grass. Lionel Smith is experimenting to see exactly what you can do with grass-free lawns.
Aesthetically the lawn at Avondale is very interesting. My first reaction was that it looked more like a patchwork flowerbed. However, the photo Smith took after the second mowing is that it is definitely a lawn. But what is it that makes it a lawn?
Lionel Smith and Mark Fellowes tackle what a lawn is in their paper ‘Towards a lawn without grass: the journey of the imperfect lawn and its analogues‘. It’s easy to forget that lawns are as much socially constructed as they are biological. For example they list other species used instead of grasses to make lawns, such as clover, chamomile and thyme. The pure grass lawn, they argue, is a Victorian construct and one that’s increasingly ignored in real, daisy and buttercup filled, gardens.
The Victorian lawn is, I think, a largely visual experience. As far as the grass lawn goes there’s a choice between plain or stripes and one scent, freshly cut grass. Smith’s grass-free lawn in contrast is a riot of colour and a bouquet of scents. I also wonder how varied the feel of the lawn is underfoot. I suspect that a poly-species grass-free lawn would be a much richer and varied experience than a monoculture, and that’s not just a human experience.
Smith states his lawns have more invertebrate life and more species than typical grass lawns. This appeals to me because that’s more food for birds and small mammals – which in turn leads to more food the Red Kites and Buzzards in the area. However it’s good news for farmers too, due to the collapse of an ecological niche in the UK. Over 97% of lowland meadow has been lost in the UK since the 1930s, leaving an estimated 15,000ha. However, there is over 25 times more of the UK covered in domestic garden. Smith’s grass-free lawn is effectively a trimmed meadow. The many flowers make it much more welcoming environment for bees.
The biggest problem I see for this kind of lawn is the very thing that makes it unique, its biodiversity. Other experiments with grass-free lawns that Smith and Fellowes record are all single-species lawns, like Yarrow lawns or Selfheal lawns. While they’re not grass, they should be comparatively uniform compared to a poly-species lawn. A patch of red here or a patch of gold there is will make these lawns distinctive, even from each other. Not every municipal authority will welcome that. A uniform grass lawn is an imposition of order on Nature. Management of grass-free lawns in contrast will need some flexibility, beyond a rigid mowing regimen.
You can read more about grass-free lawns, at Lionel Smith’s weblog.
Smith L.S. & Fellowes M.D.E. (2013). Towards a lawn without grass: the journey of the imperfect lawn and its analogues, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 1-13. DOI: 10.1080/14601176.2013.799314