As lovely as lolling on lawn can be, it is possible to take things too far. Everything in moderation, as the saying goes, including lawn.
How much lawn you keep is an increasingly hot topic of conversation and now is a good time to think about whether you might transition some of yours to something else. “Lawns can be fabulous but plant them judiciously,” write Phillip Withers and AB Bishop in their new book Naturescapes: How to Create a Natural Australian Garden. The “bare minimum size for your family’s needs” is their suggestion.
The downside of lawn is that it needs mowing, weeding, watering and feeding, and doesn’t offer much biological richness in return. Withers, a garden designer, says there are any number of other plants that are less work and much better for the environment.
While Withers says he remembers the joys of playing games on his family’s lawn as a child in the 1980s and ’90s, we need to start thinking about what other plants tie in better with our natural environments and still “get kids out into the garden”.
“It’s still really important that we retain areas of lawn for leisure, but there are question marks about how much,” he says. “I think we follow a bit too much the English or European garden and that we need to develop our gardens, so they have more of a sense of Australia.”
In this age of climate change and species extinction, lawns everywhere – including those in England and Europe – are being viewed through a more critical lens. Growing numbers of gardeners in all sorts of places are participating in no-mow initiatives, letting more weeds be and generally embracing a less fastidious look for their lawns.
While leaving some areas of lawn to get longer and more flower-strewn is one way to create a more ecologically diverse and wildlife-friendly garden, Withers says a better solution is to bite the bullet and actively remove those areas of lawn you can get by without.
His advice is to do it now, while the weather is still cool and the ground is moist enough to get new plants established before the summer heat. Covering lawn with cardboard topped with compost and mulch can be an effective – and low effort – way to kill it, but you will need to keep an eye out for invasive running grasses, such as kikuyu, reappearing.
Another option is to scratch into the lawn surface with a spade, turn the top 10 cm of soil over and then cover it with wet cardboard or paper followed by a layer – at least 7.5 cm deep – of compost and an organic mulch that you can plant into immediately.
As for what to plant, well, there is any number of offerings. Withers says he particularly likes the idea of bringing back Australian meadows filled with local grasses and wildflowers that can cope with the climatic conditions to hand, while also providing habitat and sustenance for pollinators. No garden is maintenance free, but with the right plants this sort of space is relatively easy care.
According to Withers, Microlaena stipoides, Themeda triandra and various Rytidosperma species are grasses that do well in both Melbourne and Sydney, and will endure relatively high levels of foot traffic, with the Microlaena being the most lawn like. For areas that are used less, he suggests ground covers such as Dichondra repens, Viola hederacea, Myoporum parvifolium, Pratia pedunculata and, for a non-native option, creeping thyme.
For more ideas, Withers advises gardeners to visit natural landscapes near their home and see what they like. But always bear in mind the height of the plants you choose. Withers says it’s important that lawn replacements be no taller than 30 or 40 centimetres, if the area is still to read as a void in your garden. He says the proportion of mass (shrubs, trees and built structures) and void (lawn, ground covers, paving and water) “markedly influences” how we perceive a space. It’s these low-lying areas that provide a sense of open airiness.
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