WHAT would a garden be without a lawn? Well, for a start it would probably be more wildlife-friendly.
In their wonderful book, ‘Bring Nature Back to your Garden’, Charles and Julia Botha describe a lawn as a green wasteland that attracts little wild life.
Birds may appear to like a lawn but it is just that the doves, hadedas, common mynas and wagtails that forage or look for crickets there are far more visible than the many birds that visit the secret, wilder corners of your garden.
Lawns are also what the Bothas describe as ‘heavy feeders’, reducing nutrients in the soil and using plenty of water and all sorts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep them lush and green.
And of course, when all this pampering encourages the grass to grow, we immediately mow it down, using expensive fuel or electricity to keep it neatly shorn.
So should we have a lawn? A garden needs to be human friendly as well as wildlife friendly and a lawn has its uses so, yes, have your lawn if you want one. However, why not see how best you can incorporate it into an overall wildlife-friendly garden design.
For a start, think carefully about you choice of lawn grass. Many gardeners choose tough Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestum), an alien grass brought to South Africa in 1911 from eastern and north eastern Africa. The Bothas are scathing about this species:
“Although many gardening books and magazines politely refer to this domineering, robust, fast-growing grass as ‘naturalised’ this is simply a euphemism for invasive alien. Popular as a lawn grass, it is nonetheless a clandestine, silent monster.”
Good news is that this species, Pennisetum clandestum, has now made the latest Nemba Invasive Species list and has been classified as a 1b category invasive in South Africa within its protected areas and wetlands. Category 1b invasive species may not be owned, imported into South Africa, grown, moved, sold, given as a gift or dumped in a waterway.
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The Bothas suggest some indigenous lawn grasses that would be a better bet. These include Bradley grass (Cynodonbradleyi), Couch grass (Cynodon dactylon) Transvaal quick grass (Cynodon transvaalensis), Durban grass (Dactyloctenium austral) and Richmond finger grass (Digitaria diversinervis).
Try to reduce the size of your lawn. A friend of mine has a perfectly lovely, large farm garden, complete with a sweeping, manicured lawn, but visitors who look closer at the overall design will notice that all the wonderful plants in this exquisite, fairly formal garden are indigenous.
Yes, it is possible to use indigenous plant material in traditional garden design.
Over the years my friend has gradually increased the size of all her gorgeous, flower-filled mixed beds, thereby creating densely planted wildlife corridors around the perimeter of her lawn.
She has also incorporated thickets of trees, shrubs and pretty ground covers into the design, using them as wildlife friendly islands in her lawn that offer visiting birds and other creatures the ‘feeding, breeding, nesting and resting’ opportunities they need to thrive.
Her feathered visitors appreciate the many bird baths scattered around her garden, too.
While her lush green (rain-water irrigated and organically fed) lawn looks impressive, it actually takes up a very small percentage of the overall property.
I am not a huge fan of lawns but I do think they tend to keep things neat and tidy. I have a rather wild, unstructured indigenous garden and I find my small lawned sections provide just a bit of formality and a pleasing contrast to the less disciplined bits.
Like quite a few lawn-averse, wildlife-friendly gardeners I know, I have created pathways through the large beds of colourful ground covers, bushy thickets and woodland areas that have replaced much of what originally was the lawn.
When they visit us, our grandchildren sometimes like to throw a ball or play the odd game on my handkerchief-sized lawn but they would much rather explore the winding paths through my mini nature reserve, playing follow my leader or ‘Dora the Explorer’.
Finally, on the subject of grasses, your seed-eating avian friends would really appreciate it if you set aside a section of your garden to create a mini grassland of your own, complete with a selection of interesting wild grasses.
Durban’s annual BotSoc indigenous plant fair and sale, which takes place in September, always has some interesting wild grasses. The little indigenous nursery attached to Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens often has an excellent supply of wild grasses, too.
Use your creativity to turn your grassland into an attractive garden feature by adding some of the colourful wild flowers, bulbs and grass aloes that Mother Nature cultivates in her grasslands.
The green-fingered brigade can really learn so much about garden design by following Mother Nature’s example.