How much grass do you really need?
When making a new garden, or renovating an old one, most New Zealanders take lawns as a given – you have to have them, and more is better than less. But if we trace this seeming love of lawns back in time, we arrive at the middle of the twentieth century and gardening trends among the suburbanising middle classes of North America, Australia and New Zealand. This was a time when increasing numbers of people could afford gardens for display, rather than use (growing food) and they could also afford the machinery, the water and the time to keep a lot of grass short, and looking good.
Nearly a century later… we all know what good-looking grass looks like, but how many of us think that short green grass in front of a house looks really, really good? Better, say, than a planting of shrubs with diverse flowers and foliage? Or one of low-growing natives such as tussocks, hebes, NZ iris (Libertia spp), wind grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and wharariki (mountain flax). Or even a healthy vegetable patch or home orchard? When appraising the quality of a garden, what interests us more – the grass, or the other plants? I decided in favour of other plants a long time ago, and that I would never need more lawn than could be mowed with a push mower in 30 minutes (as in the lawn in the photo). This is plenty for taking tea in the garden – or even entertaining 40 people to tea in the garden, as I have done on occasion. It also means that when sitting in the garden I can enjoy the parade of birds and butterflies visiting the smorgasbord of plants in the nearby beds and borders, which I planted knowing that they also find them much more to their liking than grass.
There are other big benefits to the natural environment from replacing lawn grass with a diversity of plants. They include reducing non-renewable resource use (petrol-driven mowers and their fuel), reducing noise and air pollution (from those same mowers), and conserving water. Next month: advice on low-growing alternatives to lawns.