We do not love our lawns enough, trading the slog of regular mowing for the ease of hard paving or even fake turf. So says Matthew Wilson, climate change expert, champion of the great British lawn and MD of London's Clifton Nurseries, where the design team is increasingly receiving requests for artificial lawn.
"People think real lawns are too much like hard work, but you just need to make some effort to look after them," says Wilson. "We recently put in a fake lawn for a family in Swiss Cottage with three children under four because they needed a garden the kids can play in all year round, and later on they'll change it for real grass. It's not ideal but at least fake grass is permeable so, unlike paving, it can absorb rainwater." The crucial reason for having a real lawn in your garden is that even a small patch of grass will help the environment, not just on your own turf, but in the larger picture because more water soaks back into the ground and less runs down the drain, contributing to the major problem of land flooding.
"A lawn will absorb vast amounts of water before it reaches saturation point," says Wilson. "After the severe storms last February I couldn't go out into the garden but the lawn was soaking wet for a good reason: it was protecting the rest of the garden." Instead of dredging rivers and installing bigger sea defences to avoid the floods of last winter, Wilson suggests that we might start by laying more lawns.
THE BENEFITS OF GRASS
There are other compelling reasons too, not least that a patch of green grass sets off plants a treat, on a fine summer's day is bliss to lie on and, freshly mown, smells better than any perfume. "Lawns are brilliant at absorbing pollution, acting as a sump," explains Wilson. "When you mow, you're effectively removing that pollution. A lawn also improves the environment: on a hot day, the lawn — and the air space for about two metres above it — will be about five degrees cooler than paving, which reflects heat and can be uncomfortably hot underfoot." Lawns also reduce noise pollution by absorbing sound waves, whereas they bounce off paving.
Wilson would like to see more lawns in front gardens, pointing out that our obsession with parking the car outside our front door has led to about a third of the 21 million homes in the UK with paved parking spaces in front, a loss equivalent to 42 Hyde Parks.
DON'T PAVE OVER
"Many people have back gardens that are north-facing, and therefore front gardens that face south, which others would kill for… and what do they do? Pave them over. We take this valuable space that we could enjoy, sitting on the grass surrounded by plants, and instead we pave it over so we can park our cars. At least make a hardstanding space for parking only as big as it needs to be, and no bigger."
But can you really have a healthy green lawn in a small town garden? Indeed you can, insists Wilson. "My garden in Gipsy Hill is east-facing and gets little light for half of the year. The way I keep the garden in fine fettle is to go out in autumn with a garden fork after an irritating day at work and stab the fork all over the lawn, wiggling it as I stab, thinking of the people who have annoyed me the most. It's great therapy and good for the lawn because it breaks up the hard pan under the surface, allowing water and oxygen to get down into the roots. I then use a spring rake to pull out the "thatch" — dead grass — to further improve the drainage.
Those two things are enough to keep a lawn in good order, as well as regular mowing. And the great thing about small lawns is that those two steps will take an hour-and-a-half, tops."
Small investment, great rewards.