September is the time to think about a new lawn, renovating an existing one or doing spot repairs on worn out goalmouths. But could you go without? A lawn might be child friendly, somewhere soft to bathe in the sun and design-wise necessary ‘neutral space’ but you can’t use it all year round and lawns do need a fair bit of maintenance, especially at this time when traditionally there’s spiking and scarifying to do. Spiking and scarifying you say, no need; I don’t want a bowling green! Okay, but even if you’re relaxed about lawn maintenance there’s still regular mowing, edging and weed control to consider.
There are a number of possible alternatives. Some which could be a direct wildlife-friendly replacement, others could cut maintenance time in half. All offer exciting design opportunities.
Meadows have never been more popular. You can simply make a meadow by letting existing lawn grass grow longer than usual, cutting it only once or twice in summer. On a large scale this is the most sensible option as replacing a lawn with anything else will be prohibitively expensive or backbreaking work. This way you also retain some flexibility and can revert back to a close-cropped sward relatively easily, once the grass has been strimmed back low enough to take the lawnmower. Of course not all the lawn needs to be left long. Areas near the house can be cut as normal, with paths made with a mower through longer grass in areas that aren’t used regularly.
Letting lawn grass grow long won’t suddenly mean masses of wildflowers; grasses will dominate. This can be attractive by itself but if you’d like something more akin to an idyllic country meadow, there are two options. The easiest is to plant small wildflower plug-plants throughout, having chosen them with your soil type in mind.For example, poppies don’t like thick clay, but knapweed does. The alternative is to sow a special meadow mix instead. It’s extra work but certainly results in a more colourful display. Typically this meant stripping off the rich topsoil beforehand (wildflowers love poorer soils), but nowadays there are lots of different blends available for all soil types and situations. Some mixes come pre-germinated and supplied on mats you simply lay like normal turf – use these if you want an instant effect, but expect to pay more.
Most meadow mixes fall into two categories. Annual meadow mixes are quicker to flower but need re-sowing each spring for best results. Perennial meadows last a lot longer but need TLC and time to establish; don’t expect an attractive display until year two.
Do prepare the ground thoroughly before sowing. You can’t simply sprinkle meadow seed over the top of an existing lawn – you need to start from scratch.
To keep perennial meadows looking good they need cutting once or twice a year, depending on the mix. The timing of the cut is important. Spring meadows are left uncut until mid-summer, whereas summer meadows are mown to 4” (10cm) in spring then left to flower and seed before cutting again in the autumn.
Gravel is an ideal lawn alternative being easy to use, and suitable for both contemporary and traditional garden designs alike. However replacing a large lawn in the garden of a suburban semi with a sea of gravel is b-o-r-i-n-g, and impractical for families with children. Where gravel is really useful is out front where a token lawn is only a pain to mow. It’s permeable and the crunch factor makes for a useful security measure too. However, plants are essential for interest and always aim for a healthy ratio of plants to gravel; two-thirds plants to one-third gravel is best.
There are numerous different gravels available. I’d suggest choosing something subtle and natural looking that won’t detract from the planting. Water worn weathered flint and crushed granite are favourites but your choice should be guided by the local stone, other hardscape materials in the garden, and the house.
Bark is ideal for shady corners under trees where grass – even shade-tolerant types – struggles to grow well. Simple water-worn gravels work too, but I find that bark feels more at home in the shade. Don’t choose a coloured one – this will stick out like a sore thumb. Instead choose natural stripped pine bark or similar. For colour and texture add plants where you’re not going to sit. Easy-care woodlanders like Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera) white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) and lungwort (Pulmonaria) are tough and need no maintenance once established.
You can simply spread a 8-10cm layer of bark over the soil, but this way it will need topping up every other year. Alternatively use landscape fabric to keep weeds down, planting through slits made with a Stanley knife.
For areas where daily usage isn’t important fragrant chamomile lawns are popular. But a sunny spot and free draining soil is essential. I find they go a little patchy in wet summers too. For this reason I prefer scented thyme lawns. Admittedly thyme needs similar conditions and also doesn’t tolerate heavy foot traffic. But generally it’s a lot tougher and more reliable. If the soil is prepared properly thyme grows fast too. A spring planting of small coffee cup sized plants spaced 15-25cm apart will see a pleasing effect the following year and in 18 months the carpet should be at its full glory. If you choose low-growing varieties like Thymus serpyllum ‘Snowdrift’ and T. serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’ you shouldn’t need to trim them either. But it you want to keep the plants bushy, trim after flowering with shears or if you’ve got a lawn mower with a height setting use this, carefully!
For a delightful tapestry effect plant each variety in large teardrop shaped drifts and mix them up throughout the design.
If you don’t need to walk on parts of the lawn at all seas of weed smothering ground cover plants like bugle (Ajuga), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) self-heal (Prunella), even ivy works well. White clover is a possible option too, and useful to feed both the bees and your soil. Of course at the extreme end is to go all out, ripping up the lawn in favour of one giant ‘open’ border instead where there’s room for multilayered mixed plantings. However, this isn’t an easy care option and some knowledge in planting design is important, unless you engage an experienced garden designer to plan the planting for you. You could simply lay sedum mats commonly used on green or living roofs (buy from enviromat.co.uk), but whatever option you choose, paths made from paving, gravel or timber sleepers are essential so you don’t crush the planting.
If you love the look of a lawn but hate the hard work, consider artificial turf. It’s possible to use it all year round, whatever the weather, and maintenance wise needs nothing more than the occasional hose down.
For a natural look expect to pay to pay a premium, between £25-40 a square metre. And remember that blades of real grass aren’t all the same size or colour so consider this when you choose. There are also the foundations to consider. Large areas in particular need specialist fitters as preparing the ground is more like laying paving and a level surface is vital.
Natural turf might seem like the ideal solution and it does save on labour time and storage space – with no need to mow, there’s no need to store a lawnmower. But, to many plastic grass isn’t, well, cricket, being less comfortable underfoot and monotonous to look at. On a large scale I have to agree even though technological advances mean the ‘Astroturf-look’ synonymous with footie stadiums of the 80’s is long gone. In many cases simplifying the shape of a real lawn to minimise maintenance time, sowing a mini-meadow or making a gravel garden instead is a more natural, wildlife friendly – not to mention – cheaper alternative.