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

– Posted in: Garden Design

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.

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Noel Kingsbury

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.

Noel Kingsbury

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