Rethinking the traditional grass lawn.

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?

Recognise these?

Trial lawn swards

Experimental lawns.
University of Reading trial grounds (2011).

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.

 

Peanut lawn (Arachis glabrata)

Peanut lawn (Arachis glabrata)

Selfheal lawn (Prunella vulgaris) Courtesy: Hugh Prichard (2010)

Selfheal lawn (Prunella vulgaris) Courtesy: Hugh Prichard (2010)

 

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 RESEARCH.

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.

Grass-free lawn in its first spring season after planting (2012).

Trial grass-free lawn in its first spring season (2012) after planting in 2011.

 

Foliage

Trial grass-free lawn in Autumn
Notice there are no flowers in this particular photo but with a high species diversity and use of cultivars it remains visually interesting.

 

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

 

70 thoughts on “Rethinking the traditional grass lawn.

  1. Fascinating piece. I set my face against mowing [at 80] three years ago and have been trying to cover former grass/weed areas with acceptable continuous low growth since. Any success would be a geat boon to lots of ancients who find lawn care increasingly distasteful or even impossible. I try to grow “levels” of bulbs in the same areas –starting with the obvious daffodil planted under crocus, and do not destroy the foliage, or even remove much of it. The planted areas lie between one sort and another of flowering shrubs needing minimal attention. What I would like to know, if you can recommend a source, are the names of some accessible plants I could experiment within. Thanks for putting out thr details of your work; I wish you great success.

    • Greetings. You don’t say whereabouts in the world you come from, UK, EU, USA? So it’s a bit tricky to answer. A good start point – the one I started with, is by looking at the non-grasses (forbs) that inhabit lawn areas locally. Here in Southern England that’s daisies, buttercups, white clover, selfheal, lesser stitchwort, yarrow, red clover, speedwell, mouse-ear hawkweed, lesser hawkbit, birdsfoot trefoil, common milkwort, primrose, bugle and the like. Add a few non-natives like Cotula and Pratia’s from New Zealand, throw in some colourful versions of the natives e.g. pink daisies, red leaved clovers, white flowered buttercups and see how it goes. Don’t be too heavy on the clover – there are some huge and fast growing phenotypes out there that are real thugs.
      The flower-lawn is a garden feature, so be prepared to tinker a bit as required, but the resulting sward should be diverse and interesting. Just remember to mow it between 5-10 times a year and be ready to grit your teeth when you take the mower to all the flowers. They wouldn’t be there without the mowing and are usually back in a couple of weeks. It’s the bit I still struggle with.

      • Hi Lionel,
        I just saw the Avondale Park lawn and your BBC interview – thanks for the inspiration! Luckily I live closeby to W11, and will be gathering inspiration and impetus to start propagating.

        Best wishes and much love,
        P

        • Thank you Praveen. Do have a look at Avondale. It’s a nice little park, and the lawn there gives you an idea of what a grass-free lawn can look like. It’s rather different from a grass-lawn, and it takes a bit of unthinking the conventional lawn approach. Once you accept that it can’t possibly look like a grass-lawn its amazing just how creative it is possible to be.

  2. Hi Lionel,
    I think your research sounds really interesting! I am one of the coordinators of an interdisciplinary research project studying urban lawns at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. We will look at biodiversity, environmental impact and different social aspects of different types of lawn and it would be really interesting to discuss with you and perhaps collaborate in some way.

    If you are interested to know more, please contact me!

    Hope to here from you!

    Cheers,
    Karin

    • Thank you Lionel; I’ll get back to you/this when I have thought over your various points. I live in West Sussex, on quite heavy clay that cracks open in long dry spells. Do you have any information on seedsmen who can supply some of the seeds/plants you mention? –Douglas Verity

      • Greetings. As my work has been research I have found it necessary to obtain seed and plants from quite a wide range of sources, particularly since there is as yet no one company that offers grass-free lawn specific material and many of the plants used were for experimental purposes.
        I used wildflower seed companies but have discovered that many of the species that they offer can be of a form that is not really suitable. For example I obtained (wild) white clover (Trifolium repens) seed that turned out to be a very large and tall fodder crop variant that was totally unsuitable. Having said that, it was a useful lesson that variants and individual characteristics are important. Another example was Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). It too has a tall growing form and a prostrate form. It also adapts to mowing, but the tall form can suffer a bit from mowing. I resolved both these species by searching out suitable forms and using them. The selfheal I eventually used I discovered in a carpark making a low mat. I took cuttings and now have seed. I am working with a company to produce suitable forms and formats to make it available in the future.
        Many of the ‘exotic’ species I used can be found in garden centres and nurseries. Some can be purchased as plug plants and others obtained from seed. Jelitto – a seed merchant can be a good starting point.
        My home town and the place I first conceived of a grass-free lawn is also on Oxford clay and cracked in summer, but the resulting richly biodivers lawn we did have was my inspiration.

  3. Hi there,
    I was just reading about your PhD research in last year’s RHS magazine and I see the lawn was to be planted in March this year. I’ve just moved house and we have a big skelp of lawn out the front which looks dreadfully boring. We’re up in Orkney but we actually have milder weather in terms of Winters although right here the wind and sea spray can be more of an issue. The house is a new build of four years and the lawn currently has dandelions, daisies, plantain, moss and grasses growing naturally. I’ll just see what pops up this year and see how your Kensington Chelsea work goes but it is inspiring stuff. Here in Orkney many of the plants you mentioned grow naturally and it is only because this is a new build that we don’t have different clovers, trefoils, self heal and the like. Have you got any plans for trials of your lawn ideas further North?

    • Greetings Yvonne,
      This year’s winter delayed the original planting out date for the lawn in Avondale Park. We will now be laying the lawn in the second week of May.
      The plants that I used were all selected from areas of the world that are climatically similar to the UK. Climate has proved to be one of the most important influences on the success of a grass-free lawn.
      I was in the Outer Hebrides last year looking at the Machair. The closest thing to a natural grass-free lawn plant community that we have here in the UK. I found a type of Scottish Bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia) that is absolutely perfect for grass-free lawns since it grows lower than its mainland cousin. The Machair is a plant community growing on seashell sands with almost no soil. The regular rainfall keeps it watered well and the low nutrition regime and grazing keeps all the plants in minature form. There were both white and red clovers as well as trefoils and selfheal.
      If memory serves me right, there was some wonderful clover breeding done in the Shetlands (forms that I would love to get hold of!) although I cannot remember the name of the gentleman responsible for it.
      I suspect that Shetland may be one of the best locations to source suitable forms of British natives for a grass-free lawn, due to the centuries of grazing and the strong climatic influences. I hope to visit myself. The plants should already be pre-adapted to being kept low. I’m sure if you look about you’ll spot perfect forms to use. It’s worth remembering that it’s illegal to take plants from the wild without a license, but seed collecting and plants from gardens and cultivated areas are certainly an option.
      Alas, at the moment there are no plans to do further trials further north.

  4. Thanks for replying, I’ve seen Campanula rotundifolia growing wild in Hollyrood Park in Edinburgh and it was much smaller than I’d expected. I’ll have to look into the clover in Shetland and see what I can find out. When I had a look for some of the other plants mentioned in replies you’ve made to others I wasn’t able to track them down e.g. the pink dandelions. I’ve got some fancy Bellis perennis to grow on myself though as to make lawn quantities would be rather pricey any other way. I’m just going to have a little shot at making a small area and see how it goes.

    • Pink dandelion (Taraxacum pseudoroseum)
      Ornamental Bellis perennis in the lawn quickly hybridize and all sorts of interesting variants turn up, but be aware that the wild strain is naturally stronger and will likely become dominant in the long term. Just sprinkle a bit of seed now and then or remove the wild ones.

  5. I would love to develop a grass free lawn.Am about to move to Kent,and every place I look at has rather daunting overgrown lawns;being somewhat elderly,the idea of digging up a large area doesn’t excite me a lot-can I plant over an existing rough lawn with some of the plants you have used in your projects?

  6. Thanks to the Today programme report on the Avondale Park floral lawn this morning, I have been inspired to follow this up for our own garden. The various descriptions, photos and video are very interesting and give a real sense of something that could be replicated at virtually any scale. Congratulations on a very useable piece of research.
    I was wondering if there was a list in the public domain of the 30+ plant species that you have used. That would be a very good starting point for spreading the concept further-as well as getting me off to a good start on the two or three bare earth plots in the garden we have recently taken over.

  7. I’ve been looking at the short film on the BBC news website this morning and hope to visit Avondale Park in the course of the next few weeks.

    I have a small to medium front garden that is currently laid to lawn on clay soil in north London near the Lee Valley, and would like to make this a project over the next few years. I would be very interested in purchasing a guide and seeds, plant material etc. to assist me to reproduce the effects you have achieved, and I am sure that I will not be alone.

    Is there a newsletter or publication to which I could subscribe that would keep me up to date with developments?

    Warm regards, Malcolm Sleath

  8. Hi Lionel I just Love this idea. I have a Postage Stamp Garden about 4m x 4m and I would really like to put this into action.
    Can I ask a couple of questions,
    Do I need to remove the existing Grass?
    Where can I get the seeds?
    When should the seeds be planted?

    • Dear Lionel Smith:

      I am also interested in the source for appropriate meadow flower seed mixes.
      We consider replanting a small field (1000 m2) to meadow flowers.
      Currently our field, in Wallonia, is down to couch grass, nettles and thistles etc. periodically restrained by visiting guest sheep.

      I suppose that with the Jubilee plan for 60 meadows, someone somewhere is supplying the seeds . . .

      Regards

      CW

  9. Hi Lionel
    I’ve just seen the BBC News video of your grass-free lawn PhD research project with Kensington and Chelsea Council. It looks really wonderful. Thanks for the inspiration.
    I live in Worcester and the council here constantly mow most of the grass verges around where I live. I really would like the council to take a more bio-diverse approach. One of their first questions will be the cost of grass-free lawns. So I was wondering if you had done any cost comparison analysis of both options? Also, is it expensive (materials and time) to initially establish the type of grass-free lawn you are working with? Does it require a lot of maintenance (weeding etc.)?
    Thanks again.

  10. I have been inspired to create my own floral lawn – I have a partialy shady lawn in Durham UK and want to find a list of the typical plants that I could use – is this available anywhere? Many thanks.

  11. Yesterday I came across this site: http://wildseed.co.uk/mixtures/category/meadow-and-grassland (before hearing about your lawn on the news today). They have a 100% wild flower for lawns mixture. This is intended to use with pre-existing grass but how well do you think it would work as a grass-free lawn?

    The mix is:
    % Latin name Common name
    18 Galium verum Lady’s Bedstraw
    2 Leontodon hispidus Rough Hawkbit
    7.5 Leucanthemum vulgare Oxeye Daisy
    2.5 Lotus corniculatus Birdsfoot Trefoil
    20 Primula veris Cowslip
    15 Prunella vulgaris Selfheal
    15 Ranunculus acris Meadow Buttercup
    10 Rumex acetosa Common Sorrel
    10 Trifolium pratense Wild Red Clover

    I am new to gardening but need to do something to our boring, paving slabbed, courtyard garden. Do you think a floral lawn is achievable, or would I need to be more experienced first?

  12. Hi Lionel

    Having just hear about the opening of the floral lawn at Avondale Park, I’ve spent the last couiple of hours digging around as much as I could about your work. Currently, I am the Curriculum Manager for Land Based Industries at Wiltshire College Lackham and part of my remit is to try to enhance the biodiversity potential of the Lackham Campus and also of the other urban campuses of the colege. The flower lawns that you have been developing seem to me to offer significant potentia in this respect (particuary on our urban campuses) and I very much would like to see at least a trial plot established at one of our centres. Would it be possible to arrange to visit your trial plots at Reading?

  13. Beautiful stuff. I am terrible at gardening (even house plants, everything dies which is a bit depressing) but I am going to give this a go

  14. Hello Lionel,

    I was devastated not to been able to come see your lawn at Chelsea but being an exhibiotor myself and a Lecturer at Reaseheath College in Cheshire, time was aginst me.
    I would be really grateful if i could have a copy of your planting list for the lawn to share with my students.
    Many thanks
    Kind regards

  15. Hi Lionel & congratulations on your partnership with Kensington & Chelsea.
    We have been thinking of a camomile & thyme lawn recently but the idea of added wild flowers is great. In the middle of Wiltshire’s Marlborough Downs on chalk, we have a couple of awkwardly steep banks facing west & north which would be ideal for this as cutting is not easy. Would the highish pH make much difference to what we grow compared to your lawn do you think? I imagine you have thought of marketing the seed mix at Reading Uni yourselves (or even the “recipe”) so, if suitable for our calcareous soil, I would be pleased to hear how we can obtain sufficient seeds for an area of about 25 to 30 m2.
    All the best with this & future projects (not to mention in obtaining your PhD!),
    Nick Whelan

  16. I am trying to achieve wild flower lawns (well I call them our ‘Meadows’) and love your idea of the grass-free lawn. ‘Forb’ is a word I don’t recall despite having read Botany! (A long time ago though.) A list of plants would be greatly appreciated.
    The one little query I have is, what happens in the winter? Are you faced with seas of mud?
    Good luck with it all.

  17. At last! Common sense about “lawns”. I’ve just seen the clip on BBC 1pm news. They showed your project in a “west London park” but gave no links to able us to find out more about this. Could you please tell me which park they were talking about and how I can plant just such a lawn in what is an ideal location for one.
    Edward Davies

  18. I have just watched the BBC news and seen your lawn. Wonderful and an inspiration to me.
    Like another person I will shortly be living in Orkney and I have about 1 hectare of land that I want to transform into a wildlife haven. I will be getting help from the Bumblebee Conservation Society at Stirling University and will hopefully use some of your knowledge in the near future. Congratulations.

  19. Dear Sir
    could you tell me where I can obtain seeds, or seed varieties and how to plant them.
    with many thanks
    Michael (dislecsic)

  20. Just watched BBC 1 News item. Fabulous “lawn” just what I’m after.
    I agree with the last comment….
    I’d love a plant / seed list
    Mike
    Swansea, South Wales

  21. The first plants in a new site stand the best chance of taking off but how do the proportions change over time? News reports say lawn without grass but surely grasses will naturally move in? What of the process of ‘natural succession’ depending on soil chemistry, soil fungi, fertility etc etc??

  22. Dear Lionel, we have recently moved into a house in a coastal town on West Wales, on a sloping plot subject to high fierce salty winds. The soil must be acid as rhododendrons flourish. I have long wanted to try a flowering lawn as I hate seeing all the lovely coloured clover, yellow trefoil and blue birds-eye being either mowed or sprayed out of existence to make way for a stripy ‘town’ lawn. Now is our chance to try at least a few patches of flowering lawn prior to a possible re-design for low-maintenance gardening as we get older. Please could you add me to any mailing list giving advice and URLs to those readers requesting suitable low-growing flowering plants for these conditions, that will stand some mowing. Thanks for promoting the cause of colour, flowers and biodiversity! bw Lynne

  23. Hooray! What a fantastic achievement… Let’s hope it catches on.
    I have been leaving the lawn in my tiny patch of London garden to grow buttercups, and was wondering about converting it to a camomile lawn, but now I see that I can do something much more interesting than this. How often should one mow a floral lawn? (I can see it would be hard to mow it at all). Have you any ideas on converting? Dig out the grass? Put in seeds and plugs? Would be great to know.

  24. As a Brit based in NH, USA my Welsh husband and I have turned a lot of lawn into perennial flower beds. But it’s difficult with minus 40 F in the winter and up to 20 feet of snow. I really hate seeing people constantly wasting water for a green lawn. That being said it is really difficult to find anything here for a ‘ground cover’ rather than lawn. Today I put down a load of wild flower seeds but they grow up to 24 inches. I did put down thyme and chamomile hoping they would develop, but nothing so far. Thyme seedlings do work and spread. I need to see what seeds are available here or else get some from cousins in UK. I hope the ‘grass free lawns’ link answers questions for all of us – sorry didn’t look before e-mailing.

  25. HI Lionel,

    just seen you on the London News! Please tell me how to do this!!!! I have a fresh blank new garden all to myself in a flat I have just moved to in Notting Hill, and I would LOVE to create the colourful pretty lawns you have made!!! Please email me and tell me what to do, what to use!!!

    Best, Fiona

  26. I *love* the idea of this lawn! It looks perfect! Any thought on how hardy it is for foot traffic?
    I live in California’s Bay Area where we have a lot of microclimates. Our ‘summer’ is not usually hot, getting fog or at least cooler weather in the late afternoons, and we have a hot Indian summer where the temps can reach around 100F’s
    Would the plants you have listed work in this environment? BTW, I agree with your comment on clovers – I put some in with my lawn, and it’s totally taking over – may even have to end up using weedkiller on it :(
    Thanks so much and good luck with your research!
    Shirley
    Oakland, CA

  27. What a brilliant man you are Mr Lionel Smith, at long last, an interesting, productive and colourful lawn with genuine credentials! Thankyou. I’ve tried to grow a chamon=mile lawn but it was too delicate to take much usage, this is going to be the answer! Best wishes to you and all of your research and great ideas.

  28. Hi there,

    Myself and my husband are hoping in the next day or two to secure our first home. If we secure it, there will be a garden and thankfully pretty unkept. Clearly it has not had pesticides or herbicides or fertilisers used on it for a very long time. I’m hoping the soil may contain dormant seeds to native plantlife that I can reintroduce to the garden. For years I have wanted to do pretty much what you’ve managed to do with PhD funding although I would prefer to focus primarily – as much as possible – on native species of grasses, wildflowers and most other things.

    One thing I intend to do is to randomly plant edible things such as carrots and onions and herbs around the garden. As much as possible I want it to be smelly, edible place of discovery where I can tell the kids to “Go hunt me a potato and some sage, will you?” – I do know some vegetables of course are *not* native. But I would like with perhaps all but a few exceptions, to have wild species welcomed into my garden. I already reserve the back end for brambles and nettles, doubling as security and the latter being especially valued for my most beloved butterfly (the peacock butterfly) and its caterpillars!

    I would greatly welcome any advice you have to offer, or even to offer up our garden when we have one to guided development by you and your fellow researchers (or any local ones looking to follow on your work). I would dearly love to work with people like yourself to hasten the development of our garden into what I have so long desired.

    Our new home will be in a place called Westbury in Wiltshire if all things go well. At present I live in Limpley Stoke – a village just outside Bath. When we move, I will be retaining links to the Freshford and Limpley Stoke Environment Working group – a group set up to steer our local neighbourhood plan, unusual for its collaboration across a county barrier. I and another (more recent than I) environmental science graduate have been helping the group of environment-enthusiast local residents learn about what biodiversity is.This group of local residents have been learning thus about the local habitats and species we have present in our area, as well as things we can do to promote their protection (we have a SSSI ancient woodland in our midst).

    We have been compiling a website – http://flewg.weebly.com/ – where we are stockpiling useful links for residents on all sorts of things. One section will involve looking at gardening techniques. In any case, as you work onwards I hope to be able to access the knowledge you gain for the benefit of our village. For the meantime I will encourage the main site admin to add a link on the website to your blog here. Following from my thinking for my own garden, I think they would find some of your research if it could be applied here fascinating.

  29. A message from my mum ( a keen gardener)

    We also saw the BBC report on the garden and my mum loved the concept, like everyone else she would also like a list of what could be used to create her own as we have astro turf. Furthermore a question: how does the new ‘grassless’ garden cope with dogs? We have 3 and are all female, they kill the grass with their urine which is why we have astro turf. Would the new lawn be able to cope with the dogs?
    Thanks

  30. I wonder if you have thought of how suitable and sustainable your lawn would be for small plots and verges in a market town setting. Would it be of interest to you to experiment down the road from you in Henley on Thames? We have two fantastic ( gardening ) councillors Kelly Hinton and Liz Hodgkin and very enthusiastic group of volunteers,’The Gardening Buddies’ together with council workers who are going for gold in the National Britain in Bloom Awards this year. Your support would be very welcome. Well done on your silver by the way.

  31. Lionel,
    Like many others I found your floral lawn (as shown on BBC News) inspirational. And like others I’d love to try to have a go myself. Do you plan to work with a seed supplier to produce the combination of species you have used? Or do you have a list of those that have won through the evolutionary process & are what you would recommend?
    Thanks, Michael

  32. Just heard about your flowering lawns.

    Poaceae prohibited? I don’t go so far as that, but I’m trying to get as many flowering species as I can, including some Bird’s Foot Trefoil from seed harvested outside HumSS.

  33. I live in County Antrim, in the Carnmoney Hills, close to the coast. We experience withering winds all year and high rain fall. My small grass lawn cannot compete with moss. What seeds are suitable for a grass-free, wind and wet resistant growth.? We do have sun occasionally!!

  34. Trouble is, it doesn’t look like a lawn; it looks like a flat flower bed.

    I want to walk across my lawn with bare feet in the morning, and lie on it without wanting to put a rug down first. I may be wrong, but this doesn’t look comfortable enough for doing that.

    There may be grass-free lawns that do the job of a grass lawn, but this doesn’t look like one to me. This doesn’t look like a different sort of lawn, it looks like something to have instead of a lawn.

  35. I have a small (6.00m x 15.00m) suburban lawn with two apple trees. My lawn used to be very presentable but since adopting two rescued greyhounds, the lawn has acquired a patchy look with bare areas where the hounds have repeatedly relieved themselves. Could you please recommend some urine tolerant flowers that I can cultivate and merge with the grass areas?

  36. Hi Lionel,
    Good luck with the PhD. In South Africa thirsty lawns are a real waste of water, and mowing is of course bad for your carbon footprint as well as your back, and leisure time. I am a lazy gardener and would rather be surfing! There are quite a few fynbos plants that are flat growing, drought resistant and pretty. Two that come to mind are Dymondium margaretae and Delosperma disphyma, both also clay tolerant, which is unusual in Fynbos that is usually acid sand. Anyway, thanks for the interesting article.
    Regards, Roger Gray

  37. A problem will be getting rid of existing grass. You can hire turf-cutting machines for about £70 a day but if you need the restore the level to suit existing paths and flower beds you need to replace lots of top soil. Would it work if we cut the turf to quite a thick coil and just turned it upside down?

  38. What would really help us, for instance, is if you could make rolls of your lawn. We want to plant a flat roof which has access. It was going to be sedum, but now I think your lawn would be far better. However, I shirk from the idea of planting individual plugs, as it is quite a big area. If we lay down the substrate and then cover with rolls of your lawn that would be wonderful. Why don’t you make a business of this?

    • What an excellent idea, to sell specialty lawn rolls! And I love the idea of have this mix on top of a roof. The sedum rooftops are often very pretty, this type would be both pretty and unique.

      Many thanks for excellent and inspiring post, and thanks for laying down your research in such easy-read format.

      • Greetings Brant,

        I’m delighted you like the idea. At the moment it seems unlikely that rolls will be the way forward in commercialising the concept. Grass is well suited to rolls for a number of reasons, however when using non-grass species the same methods are difficult to use effectively.
        So far the best method of inception is to use single species squares rather like plant tiles. They are laid in the manner of laying carpet tiles and produce a clear first year mosaic. The mosaic then starts to blend as the plants establish, spread, compete or die in response to the environment they find themselves in. After a year or two the tiles are much less distinct and a dense multi-species sward results.
        It is a lawn, but not as we currently know it. As such it needs to be approached and treated a bit differently. Much less mowing and no additional inputs after it has been established being primary. It’s not a hard wearing surface, so regular or intense foot traffic should be avoided.
        Many people use the term ‘flower lawn’ to describe the concept, but I think that this is a misnomer. Its primary function is to give diverse foliage ground cover, the flowers are a secondary but not insignificant contribution, since by using non-grass flowering species both are inextricably connected.
        I hope it is seen as a step forward in improving urban biodiversity both directly and indirectly by offering an immediate increase in plant diversity and providing sustenance for species that rely on plants and flowers for survival.

        If used on a roof, there will inevitably be the need for mower access since without mowing the construct reverts to a meadow type environment.

        I’m quite chuffed to have a turf lawn expert approve of the idea.

        Regards

        Lionel

        • You’re right, mower access to the roof would be an issue, but the tile approach should work well on any surface.

          (i’m all for changing from turf to something that needs less maintenance, if it’s durable enough for the intended use :) )

          /Brant

        • Noted reply regards rolls of wild flowers although squares would also be good for us. Our flat roof is not for walking on apart for maintenance and we have door access so we can get a mower on to it. I have to think of the substrate of course and have an idea of what it should be with regards to sedum (we have also had a calculation of weight from the engineer). So, I think this is a possibility. Where can I get your squares?

          • Always interesting to hear how people might apply the grass-free lawn construct to their particular requirements. The plant tiles are in development, but it will be a while yet before they become commercially available.

  39. Hi I love this idea and I have something heading towards this with an area by my house with a mix of self heal, black medic and clover. Is there a list of plants you would recommend to add to this? Thanks

  40. Hello Lionel. I live in a lovely building in Forest Gate E7 which was built in the 1850s originally as a poor boys’ school. It has undergone transformations but the frontage has partially remained, enough so that I can see an incredible biodiversity in the ‘lawn’ which doesn’t need the mowing it sometimes gets. I was thinking of studying it when I came across your research! I’m still going to analyse what’s growing here, taking pictures, and perhaps find whether other institutions for the poor during Victorian times used such low-upkeep lawns all around London. It’s not as beautiful as your trial lawn but it’s charming and interesting. Here’s to more eco-wise future!

  41. It is great that you are looking at different alternatives to the traditional lawn. A lot of people these days are turning to artificial grass for their gardens because of the lower maintenance needs and so they are able to have a beautifully green lawn all year round. It is interesting the different grass alternatives you have looked at.

    • I’m so very pleased to learn that a purveyor of artificial turf thinks so highly of my low maintenance, low input, biodiverse, pollinator friendly, rainfall absorbing and beautifully green and pleasant, living and flowering plastic-free lawn!

  42. Hi Lionel

    very interested in your work, I am not an academic, but am someone from a farming background who works with natural meadows and bees. I am interested in if there is any statistical research into the decline of wild thyme. My thoughts, although simplistic are that where hives I know have been in areas of high growth of wild thyme (articificially planted) the presence of the varoa mite (which I’m sure aware of) seems to be lower – this isn’t anything scientific, just day to day observations.
    As most of the ‘antidotes’ are based on thymol – an essence of thyme. just wondering if there is any tally between the decline of thyme and the emergence of the varoa mite. Just a thought- but I do have lots of them, so maybe wrong.

    • Hi Damian. I’m not really the person to comment on the beneficial aspects of thyme in relation to bees. I certainly include thyme as a plant species that has a place in some grass-free lawns. I have been told that it cannot be mown or grown in combination with other plant species. However I have found that it can handle mowing and will tolerate other plant species as a mature plant – certainly in the short term that I have run my experiments. It is not a clonal plant and does not do as well as most clonal species in grass-free lawns, particularly since it requires seed and a high light environment to successfully propagate. I find it seems to do best at the edges of grass-free lawns or when the weather has turned sunny and dry and the other plant species are struggling a bit.
      That is however how the grass-free lawn appears to operate. Diverse species in a mix respond to diverse weather conditions. Some plants will be stressed or disadvantaged by the conditions while others thrive, and when the conditions and environment changes the advantage moves to a new set of species. It’s a constant cycling of stress and advantage in response to the constantly changing conditions.
      I do know that for their size thyme flowers produce a lot of nectar and bees certainly visit thyme frequently. Here at Reading there is a lot of research into bees. I think that Stuart Roberts may have a better understanding of your observations. His e-mail is: s.p.m.roberts@reading.ac.uk
      Regards
      Lionel

  43. hi there. great article.

    i was wondering if you can provide suggestions for flowering lawn. i’m in ottawa, canada, and get to deal with severe winters and brutal summers.

    thanks in advance.

    • Red Queen eh. An interesting moniker to choose. Sever winters and brutal summers are outside the design parameters of the grass-free lawn I have developed here in the UK. We tend to have relatively benign seasons, and the plant species that do well here are the main sources in my research. However, the process I followed was as logical and uncomplicated as I could make it. It may work in your location.
      Firstly I found reference to all the species that are known to inhabited British lawns. From that list I identified the most common method of reproduction in likely useful species; clonality in the case of the UK. From the list of clonal forb plants I selected species with clear flower outlines of over 5mm. I checked to ensure they were commonly distributed across the UK. They were further selected on the ease of obtaining them (it is illegal in the UK to remove plants from the wild). I used the resulting species in my trials. The non-native group were chosen from climatically similar regions of the planet in a similar manner. The list has expanded since in light of the research.
      I would be optimistic that if you were to follow such a methodology you might be able to identify suitable species to your area and perhaps if needed use suitable non-native species that are know to survive well in your locality. Since I am unfamiliar with your local climate or flora it is difficult to confidently advise you further, although I believe that Canada and the UK have some shared plant species such as daisies, buttercups and selfheal (heal all), and since they survive in both locations they may be useful.

  44. what a lovely idea. i would buy your tiles. is there a way i can be kept updated re if they come up for sale? i have pinned it and shared it all about. great stuff.

    • Thank you Louise. I am working with a couple of plant producers at the moment on a format that will be useful to gardeners. Inevitably we can only go as fast as the plants will grow, but we hope to have something to offer in the not too distant future.I will update you on any future developments.

  45. Please can you tell me when your grass free tiles come to the market. I am just looking at a third of acre bare soil while waiting!!
    Best wishes
    Caroline

  46. I have been reading some of the posts & the subject is very interesting, we have been considering an alternative to “grass” the criteria is Different, bee friendly & low maintenance.
    What seed mix would you suggest & sowing rate? Other than straight clover. Soil and ground preparation and when is the best time to sow? We are looking at an area of 30/35 square meters.
    Many thanks

    • I have trialled seeds, but currently a seed mix remains elusive due to the wide variety of seed sizes, poor or non-commercial availability, species specific conditions for germination and the fact that cultivars (e.g. Trifolium pratense ‘Susan Smith’) and many useful non-natives are not available via seed.
      In a seed mix the fastest germinators have an advantage as do the largest seedlings from the largest seeds. This is generally fine for annual/biannual seed mixes where seeds are often in a similar size range and everything germinates at roughly the same time, however perennials can be a bit fussier and seeds sometimes need chilling and seed can be as fine as dust or completely unavailable commercially e.g. Potentilla reptans (Cinquefoil). It is an area of future investigation, but for these practical reasons I suspect that any future seed mix is likely to be quite basic and require a bit of subsequent lawn gardening (adding/ taking away plants) to give it useful diversity, character and interest.

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