The English gardener Monty Don managed to get gardening into the news cycle last northern spring when he suggested that British men should stop obsessing over their lawns. Controversial!
Closely cut grass has been associated with the English garden since at least the 17th century. While the Baroque parterre gardens of aristocratic France and Germany featured patterns of coloured sand and ornate fountains, the English went in for neatly trimmed fantastic swirls of lawn, all achieved through masterly use of scythe, spade and shears.
The Victa lawnmower revolutionised Australian gardens.Credit:
A good lawn was just as important in the landscape gardens that followed, neatly offsetting the features of the park and the house. Consequently, the English developed a reputation as the kings of lawn. I visited a garden in Portugal years ago and with map in hand went searching for the “English garden”, only to finally realise I was standing on it – a long slope of lawn.
Settler gardens in Australia were equally lawn-conscious. Colonial Government Houses featured lawn terraces on which to entertain local dignitaries; and the grandees followed suit. By the early decades of the 20th century, most of the country was in on the game, with lawns spreading across the new suburbs.
Mervyn Victor Richardson inventor of the Victa lawnmower.Credit:
The game-changer was the relatively light, cheap and easy-to-use petrol-powered Victa, invented by Mervyn Victor Richardson in 1952 in his backyard in Croydon.
Richardson was a born tinkerer and inventor, impressively undaunted by failures.
His monoplane crashed; his cars hit the dust of the Depression; but his lawnmower made him a millionaire.
With the greatest respect to Richardson’s persistent ingenuity, the petrol-fuelled lawnmower’s day is done. We can no longer afford the emissions.
There are plenty of electric-powered options, but with lawns having shrunk considerably since Richardson’s day, most of us could manage our grass with a manual mower.
With the greatest respect to Richardson’s ingenuity, the petrol-fuelled lawnmower’s day is done. We can no longer afford the emissions.
Beyond the mower, the question of lawns revolves around how they are grown. They can be deadly: herbicides to control weeds, pesticides to kill various vertebrates and invertebrates, chemical fertilisers that leach into groundwater, overuse of scarce water resources and a monoculture that offers no food or shelter for any other form of life.
But that lethal litany is easy to avoid, as long as you don’t obsess about lawn perfection, which was Don’s point. Don’t worry about weeds. Aerate the lawn at least annually to allow air into the roots.
Use the water collected in the kitchen and bathroom before the hot arrives to water. Mow high and often enough that the clippings don’t need to be caught and instead can nestle into the grass and feed the lawn as they break down.
Do it right and a lawn is all upside: cooling the vicinity by up to 10 degrees compared with paving, improving air quality, providing balance to the garden and offering the best place to lie down and watch spring’s scudding clouds.
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