As the long, languid, lounging days of summer envelop us, thoughts often turn to the lawn for relief. The lawn has long epitomised the cool retreat from the heat of the day and rejection of the workaday grind, experienced best through bare-footed or flat-backed engagement.
The word itself, which is derived from the 16th Century Old French laund meaning “glade”, both invokes and invites us into a cool and restful state. In contemporary terms, the lawn is treated as a benign but inseparable complement to the garden.
But, as the sweltering sun continues to bake the ground, we can’t avoid questions of how we should think about, interact with, and treat our lawns. And, as it turns out, these questions are far from trivial.
A short history
Lancelot “Capability” Brown was an 18th century landscape gardener, known as the “improver”. Inspired by idyllic 16th and 17th century European landscape paintings, Brown accommodated the English nobility in transforming vast swathes of English countryside into immense sweeps of lawn, punctuated by clumps of trees and “antique” follies. The lawn provided the stage for the country house and the illusion of a boundless estate.
Such efforts improved the prospect of the landholder by distancing him from the meanness of everyday village life. They were further supported by social and governmental policies of exclusion.
Through the 18th century, the lawned English public park became a stage for the democratic mingling of classes. It also served as a driver of the “improvement” of working class health and manners – a process not ironically referred to as “civilising”.
Across the Atlantic, New York’s Central Park was designed based on these ideals, and the unfenced and undifferentiated front lawn of the suburbs became the symbol of American democracy and egalitarianism.
Lawn: nature under culture’s boot
In his book, Second Nature, Michael Pollan refers to the “egalitarian conceit” of the American lawn as a puritanical expression of the ideal of shared neighbourly spaces and social progress. But for Pollan “however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarian” - the lawn is “nature under culture’s boot.”
The often monocultural (ie one species of grass) nature of lawns, which embodies the lush cool retreat for most of us, represents for Pollan “nature purged of sex and death”. Lawn species are never allowed to set seed. Instead, to maintain the vivid and enticing swathe of turf, they have been mowed by a variety of methods across the ages from grazing beasts and the laborious hand scythe, to animal and human mechanised machines.
This is not to argue for the wholesale abolition of lawn. As Stella Maris points out in her book, Rambunctious Garden, we tend to be blinded by the “pervasive and [often] unquestioned assumption that the wild is always better than the tame” - but why should this necessarily be so?
Instead, we raise the question of how we might approach the lawn differently. It is a call for a quiet rebellion against the orthodoxy of the lawn – the seeking out of other opportunities in the cultivation of lawns that can offer a greater sense of adventure.
Treating our lawns better
Lawns are typically composed of grass species that can grow as high as a metre with the potential to produce exquisite seed heads complementing many garden styles. Yet, under our boots — through mowing, irrigation, and fertilising — these seed heads and the reproductive cycles associated with them are routinely denied. Variations of all three cultivation practices can bring about positive change.
Lawn depends on both water and nutrients to grow. Somewhat counter-intuitively, constant close mowing also stimulates grass to grow faster, creating the need for more watering and hence greater levels of fertilising.
Raising the blade height on the mower slows down the rate of growth of lawn resulting in a need for less mowing, watering, and fertilising. It also allows the potential for some grass species to set seed.
Of course, this also leads to lawn with a slightly more unkempt or shaggy appearance. If this is a step too far down the path of adventure, lawns can be selectively and seductively mown in relation to timing, season, or function.
“Corduroy” mowing involves summer mowing in long strips to create lanes. The mowed lanes offer great running tracks for kids while the un-mown turf flows, flowers, seeds, and dies off to a rustling autumn hue – a wilderness of sex and death with space for adventure.
At the end of each autumn a couple of mows over the lawn starts the process all over again. In similar ways, these lanes can provide navigation around larger gardens by simply mowing pathways through the turf across the spring and summer seasons.
Similarly, we can be strategic about the way we irrigate and fertilise our lawn. Edges and boundaries can be created by the careful distribution of fertilisers and the application of water. We might choose to create and maintain a lush area with high watering, fertiliser application, and constant close mowing, whilst we encourage other adjacent areas to be freer and reflect seasonal changes more closely.
Augmenting and over-planting the lawn with a range of complementary species is also a great opportunity to explore lawn beyond the usual green swathe. Cornflowers, dwarf gladioli, native grasses, and a range of free flowering annuals and perennials are perfect for the challenges of exploring the possibilities in the lawn - creating a curious space between the garden, the meadow, and the lawn.
This is why contemporary Parisian park lawns often appear shaggy and a little unkempt - the democratic meadow par excellence.
The benefits of reduced lawn mowing include cost, time, and energy, while staggered mowing engages with nature’s cycles of sex and death to add a slice of adventure to any existing landscape — a simple act of rebellion. If only life was so easy in a similar manner, what joy!
Authors: The Conversation Contributor