New series – ‘rewilding your garden’
Rewilding your lawn!
I was asked recently to comment on the idea of rewilding your lawn i.e. stopping the mower and just letting the grass grow under your feet as it were. This set me thinking about the whole issue of engaging a wider community in ideas of ‘rewilding’; and in particular how people in urban areas and those with gardens could do more to help wildlife under pressure. Of course the other thing about ‘wildlife gardening’ is to have fun too.
So I wondered what some key questions might be, what the options are, and how might things develop.
• First of all, what is a lawn? The origins are from the Anglo-Norman deer parks in which the ‘laund’ was an open area in the park, forest, or chase, where hay was strewn to feed the deer in winter. These sites became more heavily grazed and therefore had a tendency towards short grass and ultimately ‘a lawn’.
• With development of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century landscape parks from medieval deer-parks, short grass became important in helping to create ‘vistas’ maintained either by grazing animals or by men wielding scythes.
• The modern-day lawn evolved from this during the nineteenth-century book in both smaller private gardens of the emerging middle classes, and in the recreational parks and other open spaces of towns and cities, and managed by local corporations.
• So essentially a lawn is an area of short-mown grass (usually) and with varying degrees of intensive / obsessive maintenance to keep wild nature at bay – i.e. the weeds!
• Some lawns are intensively manicured to produce controlled neatness in an aesthetic space, or else for specific sports turf purposes. These may even have been taken from natural turf of fine-leaved grasses such as bent grasses and fescues from seaside areas. Other turves were cut from ‘wild’ hillsides of grazed pastures and removed to create the lawns of the great and the good in the gardens of stately houses and halls.
• So moving on……why have one? This is a good question and often when asked by exasperated gardeners, my response – ‘well don’t’. As a student doing summer jobs many years ago I spent a lot of time cutting grass and can tell you more about a Ransome 8-blade rotary than you really want to know! These days I have dispensed with the lawn and put my garden to much better (in my opinion) use. Every bit of space can benefit both wildlife and the garden aesthetic and garden lawns don’t really do that for me anymore. Obviously lawns are great for children and pets to play on and they can set-off borders and other designed elements of more formal urban or rural gardens. However, I ask (rhetorically), does a lawn have to be grass or grass-dominated? The answer unequivocally is ‘no’ and in many cases I think we mow the lawn and set gardens to grass simply because we cannot think of anything better or more imaginative.
• So, what happens if you step back, put aside the mower, and then just wait and see what happens? The results to be frank may be good and even quite stunning; or else they may be a mess it just depends.
• Much depends on what sort of lawn you have got, and from a wildlife viewpoint, what biodiversity does it already possess? Some mown lawns mimic grazed parkland landscapes and may already be species-rich. The Duke of Devonshire’s lawn at Chatsworth (Derbyshire) for example, triggered by a conversation between the Late Duchess and my former friend the late Dr Oliver Gilbert, is conserved for its unusual flora. That of the Earl of Scarborough at Sandbeck Park in Maltby (South Yorkshire) boasts fritillaries and orchids amongst its splendid wildflowers. Urban lawns in gardens close by ancient woods, if left uncut can produce broad-leaved helleborine orchids and more. Old-fashioned churchyards can have rich and attractive wildflower lawns too – so these are places to seek inspiration and possibly seeds! My brother-in-law’s sandy lawn in Dersingham (Norfolk) is being colonised by violets, trefoils, clovers, speedwells, hawkweeds, daisies, and an impressive array of mosses. Despite the surge in biodiversity, he is determined to bring back order to the grass.
• If your lawn is on nutrient-rich soil, is shady, or damp, and dominated by aggressive seeded grasses, then stand back or anxious moments if you hold back the mower blades. Things may get messy! But then good things come to those who wait and so don’t give up and don’t be too impatient.
• So the first step in moving away from a brutally scalped green desert is to assess what you have got. Are there any interesting flowers or fauna already there? Look at things like shade and aspect; so how sunny or wet or dry is it? All these determine what is possible and what will happen if you step away from the mower. Your plants already there and your baseline conditions will determine what the outcomes will be and also when they will take place
• The next step is to let the grass grow and see what emerges over a few weeks – you may be astounded as to what emerges! The results can be spectacularly good and exciting. I have an elderly neighbour who now has a meadow with 100s of wild orchids, sedges, and other wild flowers, where 5 years ago he just had mown grass – and it all came by itself. This appears to have been aided by an escape of cows from a nearby field which trampled his naturally-wet front lawn (he has a spring-line there) and may have brought orchid seeds with them. The point is that you never know.
• The key question of course is whether you want to abandon your lawn and see what happens, or to intervene and make it richer; the two approaches are different but not exclusive. The starting point is to let it go and see what you have, and then make your decisions on whether to intervene! You can reintroduce wildflowers but of course dovetailed to the conditions you find. Some people use plug-plants and others just scatter seed and see what takes. [I will talk about this in a future article].
• The best approach is to look around you and be inspired by nature – by flower-rich meadows and pastures, and the wonderfully rich floras and faunas of similar habitats – and then try to mimic them! In doing this, don’t have a fixed view of what to expect and then you won’t be disappointed.
• So what happens all really depends on the sort of ‘lawn’ you have and where it is – sunny or shady for example; intensively managed and little there already, or species-diverse with plenty of interest – wet / dry, big / small etc. The ‘ecological succession’ that takes off when you abandon it can go in several different directions and then there is the key question of to simply abandon or to intervene with minimal management. Immediately however, there will be a flush of growth and an elongation of short-mown grasses into flowering stems and the emergence of whatever wildflowers have been hiding in the cut grass. This will quickly progress to the next stages of the ecological succession that you have unleashed. At the same time, unexpected flowers such as orchids may appear. In some cases they arrive by seed and in others have been lying dormant for many years.
• Some lawns can have relict species like field woodrush for example, or if they are sandy soils can be re-colonised by violets and the like. Mosses, the scourge of lawn enthusiasts are fantastically attractive and interesting if you look closely. Lawns can also be rich habitats for fungi and even lichens. Tawny owls and badgers also like to feast on earthworms from lawn habitats. Expect voles, wood mice and shrews to move in too; and in some areas even grass snakes – but these depend on where you are. I once had a lawn in Lincolnshire (actually my Grandparents’) that was left a little unkempt and attracted adders, common lizards, and great crested newts – all from the local nature reserve. On a dry, sandy soil expect to be colonised by ants, solitary bees and maybe solitary wasps too; and plenty of wolf spiders. Also, look out for ground beetles.
• This approach to your lawn can be ‘rewilding’ in miniature and lead to wonderful, micro-habitats – or in can spiral down into a bit of a mess if the site is too nutrient-rich. But the success also depends on context and designing the rest of your garden to fit in and around the rewilded lawn. You can also zone the lawn to mix different management and outcomes to different areas and conditions. If you can find space in your garden then you can have lawns but zones into wildflower meadows and lawn alternatives such as gravel beds and interesting features like thyme lawns.
• The other thing with a rewilded lawn compared with your average bit of bland green desert is that it reflects seasonality – with early spring flowers like cuckoo flower and woodrush, and then the summer grasses, and flowers like meadow buttercup and oxeye daisy. Ordinary daisies and invasive plants like blue slender speedwell can be stunning if allowed to grow up and flower for a few weeks. But then of course the succession moves on. In the autumn, scatter a few windfall apples and wait for the blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares to discover them.
• Finally, once your rewilded lawn is released from the mowers, take special care if you do decide to begin cutting again. The tall, damp, shady conditions of a regrown meadow provide ideal habitat for amphibians such as frogs, toads, and newts; and it is distressing for both you and them if you mow or strimmer your recently-acquired wildlife!