By Adrian Thomas
HAVE YOU EVER VISITED the mountains of Europe? As Maria Von Trapp knew so well, the hills are alive with fresh air, grand scenery and swathes of wildflowers abounding with wildlife. One of the things that delights me most is the fact that people living in those mountain villages rarely seem to mow their lawns. Instead, the wooden mountain chalets rise out of a bed of swaying grasses dotted with orchids and scabious, globeflowers (trollius) and gentians. There, too, butterflies, grasshoppers and other meadow creatures thrive.
You might put this (apparently) laissez faire attitude down to most of the gardens being on a steep slope and hence a nightmare to negotiate with a mower.
Actually, the grass is often saved for hay for the local shepherd and his flock. But I’m sure there’s something cultural, too – the mountain communities don’t view a gently waving meadow as ugly or untidy; they appreciate its pastoral beauty.
Compare that with back home in Blighty, where we’ve quite a different culture. It’s a mark of domestic pride if your lawn is smooth as a billiard table, whereas it’s a sign of neglect if the grass is at all shaggy. Try Googling ‘beautiful lawn’ and the pages of images that come up show the flattest, greenest crew-cuts, rolled into regimented stripes.
Such precision lawns do look stunning, but, I believe that instinct of seeking perfection can be turned in quite a different direction.
If you see the measure of lawn success as how many beautiful wildflowers poke their heads up through the green, or how many butterflies linger within it, a well-manicured lawn would score zero. Release a lawn from its straightjacket and you unlock a large part of your garden’s potential for wildlife, plus extra time and new pleasures for you.
A close-cropped lawn can offer some benefits for nature: starlings and blackbirds, for example, are likely to probe the surface (as long as the lawn hasn’t been treated with a cocktail of pesticides). But most wildlife will only make a home here if the plants within a lawn have the freedom to ‘express’ themselves.
One of the most visible and desirable groups of grassland wildlife are butterflies. Of the 23 species that are most common in the UK, eight have caterpillars that feed on meadow grasses and a further two use specific wildflowers growing in long grass. Short lawn grass just doesn’t give them the cover and food they need.
Longer grass is like a mini jungle, a maze of a million and more stems and leaves. Deep within that jungle, it remains damper and stiller and safer for a whole micro-community. The wealth of invertebrates, plus the added bounty of seeds, then provides food for larger creatures, from frogs and field voles to hedgehogs, bats and even owls.
But it’s perhaps when flowering plants are given the opportunity to actually bloom that you fulfil the value of a longer lawn. Even if it’s just daisies, speedwells or buttercups, suddenly there’s a wealth of nectar and pollen opening up fast-food enterprises for many pollinators to enjoy.
The good news is that a longer lawn can still look worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show. All it takes is to mow a neat border around a swathe of longer grass and it immediately says that it’s intentional, you know what you’re doing and you do care about appearances! It’s almost like creating an instant green flowerbed, filled to bursting with life.
Some gardeners do this in straight lines, creating geometric and symmetrical blocks of longer grass. Equally effective, but for a softer effect, longer grass can be left in sweeping, organic shapes.
Or for a sense of adventure, why not mow a labyrinth of paths through the long grass where kids (even of the grown-up kind!) can chase each other? The added bonus is that wildlife will also navigate the paths while safely hidden by the walls of long grass.
You may still need areas of short grass for entertaining or for kids to play football, but you don’t have to use your whole lawn as meadow. However, the larger the area of long grass, the greater the wildlife benefit.
And think of the time and energy saved given the reduced amount of mowing needed! In our time-starved world, I don’t see this as lazy gardening: these are lawns for the 21st century. It’s high time we instigated a long-grass revolution in our nation’s gardens!