LAWNS HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR QUITE A WHILE.
Grassy lawns have been with us for arguably a millennium. The gardens of English King Henry II (1113 to 1189) at Clarendon, Wiltshire were said to ‘boast a wealth of lawns’ and during the reign of Henry III in 1259 the gardens of the Palace of Westminster were recorded as being levelled with a roller and turf laid and later mown. The practice of laying a lawn was outlined in the book ‘De Vegetabilibus et Plantis’ by Albertus Magnus around 1260 and the game of lawn bowls has been played continuously at Southampton Lawn Bowls Club since 1299.
The word ‘lawn’ itself may not have been in use during this early period – it didn’t show up in the English language for nearly another 300 years, but what we would recognise to be a lawn certainly was.
BUT, WHAT IS A LAWN?
Just what do we recognise when we see a lawn? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a lawn as: ‘an area of short, regularly mown grass in the garden of a house or park’. This seems familiar and quite non-controversial, it is relatively easy to recognise grass and whether it has been mown short or not.
However, if this is the absolute definition of a lawn what are chamomile lawns, thyme lawns, peanut lawns, yarrow lawns, selfheal lawns, tideturf lawns and the Leptinella sp bowling lawns of New Zealand? There are no grasses in these lawns and the use of a mower is not always a requisite. Even when grasses are present as the primary constituent, such as in medieval lawns, alpine lawns and ‘natural’ or ‘freedom’ lawns, the dictionary definition seems incomplete since these lawns can contain a surprising variety of non-grass species. So much so that an armoury of chemicals and management procedures have come into being in an attempt to keep them out.
DO ALL LAWNS HAVE TO BE GRASS?
If you skip back to the photo of the experimental lawns shown above and look at the green swards showing the lines of a mower, you may be surprised to learn that there is no grass in any of these trial lawns. They are not monoculture analogues either like a peanut or a selfheal lawn. The trial lawns shown are a mixture of over 30 different plant species that can tolerate the low open lawn environment and the sharp blade of the mower.
My name is Lionel Smith and I am a doctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, where I am in the process of developing a new format for the familiar garden lawn. The type of lawns I am creating are not meant to be replacements for hard wearing turf, but they can withstand light footfall and offer a colourful and biodiverse alternative to the green monochrome of the traditional grass lawn.
Using clonal perennial forbs that can spread vegetatively via rhizomes, stolons and by other clonal methods of propagation in addition to setting seed, it is possible to compose a grass-free highly biodiverse and highly floral lawn. In fact I’d go so far as to say they are more than just highly floral lawns, they are de facto flower lawns since the species used at inception all have the potential to produce flowers.
The concept of a grass-free lawn turns the traditional lawn format on its head. Instead of aiming for a monoculture of grass the monoculture is banished along with the grass.
I’ve been looking at the influence of different lawn compositions, potential flower lawn species of both native and non-native origins, different mowing regimes, the influence of species number and the effect of soil fertility. I’ve been examining how to manage floral productivity and how this influences how visible the flowers appear in a floral lawn. With undergraduate help (thanks Tim) I’ve looked at some of the differences in biodiversity between a lightly managed grass lawn and the grass-free version and plan to take this further in 2013.
Sometimes the science has had to give way to the experimental gardener in me who just can’t wait for the error bars and the results of the repeated measures analysis of variance. Inspiration comes in an instant, data collection and analysis can take quite a while.
Through some wildly experimental plots where I’ve been able to follow my gardeners instincts and a few dopey ideas, I’ve played a little with garden techniques, plant breeding, colours and forms, and in the process I hope that I’ve managed to bring a little of the beauty that can be found in a garden to join with the rigour of the scientific method.
I hope you’ll agree.
The key to a flowering lawn is mowing. It influences the growth of taller growing species to a greater degree than that of low growing species. It also repeatedly influences the immediate environment so that both tall and low growing species can coexist. The need for mowing is much reduced in a grass-free lawn due to the difference in the growth patterns and structure of forb species compared to grasses. Grasses will grow directly upwards while forbs tend toward less vertical growth patterns. There is less for the mowers blade to remove.
A bit of horticultural knowledge on the behaviour of individual plant species is advantageous at the inception of a new flower lawn, but a flowering lawn is a living garden feature and like most living garden features e.g. an herbaceous border, a bit of gardening can usually resolve any issues that arise.
The flower lawn is not a lay it and leave it construct. It seems to do best when it is laid in a manner similar to that of a traditional lawn particularly since a reliable seed mix remains elusive at the moment. Traditional lawns use less than a handful of grass species compared to over thirty forb species in a flower lawn and balancing this diverse mix remains one of the challenges of the research.
Inevitably a flower lawn will respond to the local conditions and plant species can be selected accordingly. Soil, light levels, temperature and moisture availability will all influence the behaviour of a forb lawn and uninvited plants such as grasses will inevitably turn up. This is where that little spot of gardening I mentioned will help to keep it looking good, and I for one believe that a spot of gardening is good for the soul – especially if it comes with a tall gin & tonic.
Lionel Smith February 2013.
With sincere thanks to the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain, the Finnis-Scott Foundation, the Dick Allen Scholarship Fund and Mr Simon Bass.
ADDENDUM APRIL 2013. I am sometimes asked for a brief outline of the grass-free concept, so I have attached the following single page PDF file with the fundamentals. I hope it answers some of the basic questions I am often asked: Grass-Free Lawns
ADDENDUM JUNE 2013. I have published a paper that looks at the evolution of the lawn. It can be obtained here: Towards a lawn without grass the journey of the imperfect lawn and its