Professor Stefan Buczacki , a former chairman of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time
What have you been up to for the past year? If you’re lucky enough to have a garden and if you’re anything like me, you’ve been out of doors whenever you can . . . weeding, planting, pruning and, above all, looking after the lawn.
The Great British Lawn is a joy to behold. We do grass better than any country in Europe, because we have the perfect climate — with lots of rain and not too much sunshine.
The French, who have searingly hot summers across much of the country, regard our green swards with unabashed envy.
So I was interested to read this week the undeniably provocative comments reported in the Radio Times, by Daily Mail columnist Monty Don, urging us to forget our hallowed turf.
‘I encourage people not to have lawns,’ he said. ‘Cutting grass burns lots of fossil fuel, makes a filthy noise and is about the most injurious thing you can do to wildlife.’
Lawns represent, he added, ‘an obsession which tends to be male’.
I respect Monty, and I have no doubt he is speaking sincerely. But respectfully I have to contest almost every word of that. Or, putting it more bluntly — Monty, old fellow, on this occasion, you’re talking piffle.
Lawns make gardens beautiful. They are the canvas of gorgeous green, there to be framed by beds bursting with rainbow colours.
Nothing else can set off a flower border quite so well.
And March is the month when we begin anew the sacred task of keeping our green swards in trim.
Men up and down the country — and yes, it is traditionally a male occupation although ever more women are being converted to the joys of the lawn — will make the pilgrimage to their shed (or garage) to break out the mower for the first time.
Lawns make gardens beautiful. They are the canvas of gorgeous green, there to be framed by beds bursting with rainbow colours. Nothing else can set off a flower border quite so well (stock image)
Vintage cylinder numbers will be lovingly oiled, petrol-powered rotary versions topped up with fuel, and the electrics of hover models carefully checked.
Then, on a suitably dry day on the cusp of the first day of spring, they will get their first outing of the year.
Within seconds, the nostrils will be assailed by the blissful scent of freshly cut grass, as sweet to the nose of the lawn enthusiast as freshly chopped rosemary is to the gourmet chef.
I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1625 called the English garden ‘the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man’ and said: ‘Nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn.’
Of course Bacon was writing long before lawnmowers. In his day, a manicured lawn required a team of gardeners with scythes and shears — or, in those pre-industrial times, sheep which often grazed in gardens to keep the grass down.
This encouraged beautiful fungi, such as the waxcap toadstool. Mowing your lawn is about the best possible way to help this exquisite natural phenomenon to thrive. Indeed, our lawns are a greatly under-appreciated habitat for wildlife, which is just as well as — in this country of lawn- lovers — they take up a great deal of space.
‘I encourage people not to have lawns,’ he said. ‘Cutting grass burns lots of fossil fuel, makes a filthy noise and is about the most injurious thing you can do to wildlife’
A man I know called Graham Paskett, who gathers data for the lawnmower industry, has estimated that the total area of lawn in the UK covers 2,000 square kilometres, or about half a million acres. That’s an area about the size of Worcestershire.
Mr P arrived at this back-of-an-envelope figure by reasoning that there are 20 million gardens in Britain, and most have a lawn of some sort.
Some are pocket handkerchiefs, others are enormous, like those laid out in the 1760s at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the famous Salisbury Lawns. (Some say they are so-called because they’re roughly the size of Salisbury Plain.)
Average out all these lawns, said my informant, and they’ll each be roughly 100 square metres. Put them together and the total area is just shy of the 2,300 sq km of the Lake District, and considerably larger than the 1,700 sq km of the Yorkshire Dales.
I wish that we could designate our massed gardens as the National Lawn Park and give them protected status, as a collective area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
For there could be no greater ecological tragedy for Britain than the wholesale loss of our lawns. It breaks my heart to say this, but it is already happening.
Walk down any suburban street and you’ll see many front gardens have been paved over, to provide hard standing for cars.
It’s one of the reasons that flooding has become an increasingly serious problem in many areas. Heavy rain cannot soak into land that was once grassed over but is now a concrete apron.
The water washes through towns, rushing into rivers and causing them to burst their banks, with terrible consequences.
The effect of all this paving where lawns once stood is equally disastrous for animals, insects and birds.
Hedgehogs, for example, have been in catastrophic decline over the past half century, with their numbers reduced by 95 per cent — and one prime reason is the loss of urban front lawns.
As parking spaces spread, hedgehogs lose places to hide and nest, and their food sources are obliterated. There are other reasons contributing to their near extinction, but this is a major one.
I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1625 called the English garden ‘the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man’ and said: ‘Nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn’ (stock image)
That remark Monty made about lawnmowers burning fossil fuel puzzles me too. Decades ago, people did tend to use petrol-driven mowers, it’s true.
I’ve got one of the old beasts in a shed myself. But they’re heavy, and not half as easy to handle as a good electric mower. More of us are reverting to a battery-powered rotary or a hover-blade that runs off the mains, which means your lawnmower could well be said to be powered by renewable energy.
That’s because so much of the National Grid is now being fed by wind turbines and solar panels. And the electric machines are hardly noisy. It’s an odd complaint to make.
So is the idea that lawns are solely a male preserve (although it is true that many wives relish a reprieve from their husbands for an hour or two).
Half the country’s gardeners, at least, are women.
Surely no man today is such a dinosaur as to suggest that ladies can’t work mechanical devices such as mowers?
Keeping the grass short prevents pests from breeding and making the sideways leap into your flower beds. Long lank grass is a haven for slugs, which will make straight for your vegetables and flowers (stock image)
Where I do agree with Monty is on the issue of fertilisers and pesticides for lawns. They are unnecessary, and destructive to wildlife.
Some contracting lawn-care firms will tell you that your grass needs six or eight doses of chemicals every year for the best results, and this just isn’t true. In fact it’s frightening.
Grass is tough, and even after a dry summer will recover at the first splash of autumn rains.
You don’t need to use a sprinkler and waste the country’s scarce water resources.
Save your watering can for the vegetable beds and the flowers — they do need it. It’s lovely to have a patch of long grass, if you have the space, to let wild flowers grow and insects multiply.
But you need to keep this little bit of wilderness apart from your more cultivated beds.
Otherwise, if you’re going to let your lawn turn wild, you might as well give up on the rest of the garden too, and let the whole thing go over to weeds.
(That would be a terrible pity: millions of people earn endless pleasure and solace from tending their little Edens.)
Keeping the grass short prevents pests from breeding and making the sideways leap into your flower beds.
Long lank grass is a haven for slugs, which will make straight for your vegetables and flowers.
Gardeners with young children and grandchildren will be swift to point out that lawns serve yet another essential purpose, as play areas. A game of football or cricket is no fun when the grass is knee-high.
So as soon as the spring sun starts shining, I urge you to ignore Monty and get the lawnmower out, quickly!
And if anyone dares to challenge my right to carry on mowing it in my own way, I feel myself turning into one of those choleric characters from the comics of my youth . . . shaking my trowel and shouting: ‘Get orf my lawn!’
Professor Stefan Buczacki is a former chairman of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time