Autumn is here – many of us have done our final Autumn lawn trim. This morning I looked next door and watched chemicals being sprayed over the brick weave drive paving to prevent the 'weeds' from coming up. Is our quest for pristine garden perfection good for the environment?
We spend a lot of time thinking about emissions and carbon footprints. Indeed my previous articles have been focussed very much on greenhouse gases produced through transport, energy production and agriculture. What about closer to home?
So, let's talk garden equipment. I was surprised to find that emissions from garden equipment makes up between a quarter and half of all petrol (gas) emissions (figures from America) although this is a subject which many admit hasn't been researched in great detail at any point and so figures for emissions vary considerably but are still in the millions of tonnes per year. I suppose that most emissions research tends to focus more on commercial issues. The figures also very much depend on the size of gardens and the amount of times a garden is mowed (the figures also include other petrol equipment such as strimmers and leaf blowers but for this article I'm concentrating on mowers.) The amount of times a lawn is mown can directly relate to the weather of course but the average is around 22 times a year per person.
We know that environmentally both petrol and electric lawnmowers aren't great so what's the alternative? One alternative is to simply reduce the use overall or of the much more harmful petrol types – but this doesn't necessarily suit everyone for a multitude of reasons.
Other alternatives? Push mower. I myself am newly converted to this wonder tool after reading up on it as part of my horticultural qualification – I also find it much more fun to use than the normal mower and I've already given my gigantic electric mower to a neighbour. See, already that's a plus – I have a lot more room in my shed.
Here's the thing – a push mower slices the grass as it cuts like a pair of scissors while a powered mower tends to whip the grass at speed to cut it. However, the whipping action can actually damage the grass by shredding the tops especially if the machine isn't in tip top condition. The scissor cutting action of the push mower completely eliminates grass damage meaning your lawn will look much better and be more healthy. There's also considerably less 'faff' in the setting up, cleaning and putting away of the push mower. It's far quieter and as the user I'm not next to any dangerous fumes. You do need a bit of elbow grease to get it to go especially if the lawn isn't completely flat. I find it easy to use but for some, especially older and more frail people, may find a push mower more difficult to use. Additionally the push mower does leave some of the cuttings on the lawn as even the ones with the grass collectors don't collect much of the grass that is busy spraying out everywhere- but this is GOOD ; contrary to belief having a little grass cuttings and leaves on the lawn is great as it breaks down and moves down the soil layers giving much needed nutrients which in turn will also give you a better looking lawn. The only time this becomes an issue is if this becomes a thick layer that isn't breaking down and is cutting out light and water to the grass.
But, there's another thing to consider – yes, we're back to the bees again. You see we've all become very fixated with that crisp contemporary garden look which means short lawns and no weeds. They do look divine of course but I believe the wildlife cost is outweighed especially when we need bees – without them the human race would be unlikely to survive, so it makes sense to make sure we're doing everything we can to try to increase the bee numbers again and indeed a lot of other declining wildlife. In large expanses of grass or paths and drives bees can find it difficult to locate food, resting places and water and could become weak very quickly. There are some wonderful and pretty ways of alleviating some of these issues while still having a wonderful garden.
One is to just cut the grass less often and allow the 'weeds' to remain in flower. Okay, so not everyone wants a lawn full of dandelion and clover which could become quite invasive given half the chance – but these are excellent plants for bees and will allow them to rest and feed in between flowering beds, fruiting trees and vegetables.
Another alternative is to have a section or multiple sections of long grass and wild flower plantations. These are best put in areas with very little or no traffic so that it doesn't just get trampled down and just look like an unkempt garden. An alternative is to mow a path or space within the lawn leaving the rest to grow up and flower – perhaps making a secret walkway that leads on to an area that can't be seen from the house – the possibilities are endless.
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When is a lawn not even a lawn? When it is a dwarf aromatic herb. Chamomile lawns for instance smell and look delightful and require little care once established. There are a few types of chamomile but they are not all suited to lawns. One such lawn plant is the popularly used cultivar Treneague, which is a non flowering version growing to 10cm. It can not be planted from seed because it is a cultivar. The original species, nobile, is the same height and does flower with little daisy like flowers but is less suitable as a lawn however it can be grown from seed In this instance if you want the flowers you could use stepping stones and plant the nobile around the stones. The flowers would grow and flop over on to the stones pleasantly and the ground covering wouldn't have the issues of being walked on. Having it flop over stepping stones would allow it to be stepped on occasionally or brushed releasing the sweet apple scent. The latter version may need to be trimmed to keep the height down after flowering. Chamomiles like a well drained soil so if you have a heavy or clay like soil you would be more successful by mixing in a large amount of organic medium and even sand to allow the soil to drain better. The plants won't survive if it becomes waterlogged.
If you are looking for something different how about the creeping Thyme. It's another popular option for an alternative lawn and also gives off a lovely aroma and has little purple flowers. It has many of the same requirements in terms of soil and usage as the chamomile. There are many other alternatives to lawn including a slow growing eco lawn which is still grass and takes a lot more traffic than the herb lawns. So decide on what you like and how the lawn will be used before looking up what's available. You can buy individual grasses and make your own grass seed mix for example and include some wild flower or herb seeds in it. There's so much you can do – the only thing you have to make sure of if you are picking individual grasses ; some are seasonal and die back when out of season. You don't notice but many seed mixes have grasses which grow and die off in different seasons thus giving a consistent blanket of green.
All of these options either eliminate mowing all together or significantly reduce the amount of mowing needed and this is a great start on lowering carbon footprints and emissions. You'll also be increasing diversity for wild life with places to shade, hide and feed for frogs, toads and hedgehogs to name a few. (Also remember that the hedgehog population is also in decline). Bees will love these extra opportunities.
Bees also adore lavender – I know my lavender plants are always 'buzzing' with literally hundreds of bees throughout the flowering seasons ; you can often count several different species at the same time. Lavender can be cut when the first set of flowers start dying off as this will encourage a second flush giving a slightly longer flowering season. You can't really go wrong with lavender, it's fairly easy and only has to be maintained once a year (twice if you're trying to get a second flush of flowers). It will give a fragrance when brushed which can complement any herbal lawns you may have planted.
A surprising source of late season food for bees is ivy – if it is left throughout the winter it will flower and produce tiny fruits. The flowers are nothing special like you'd expect which is why you might not have noticed them before – but for insects including bees this can be an essential source of food during a time when it is scarce. Other popular plants include hawthorn, apple including crab, foxglove and honeysuckle. Choose a wide variety of plants with different shaped flowers to give bees and other insects lots to attract and feed them – plants can be added to fences and walls or in containers if you have large lawns or expanses of hardscapes for example which will give essential resting places.
It's also really important not to use pesticides on your lawns or plants as these can be highly toxic to the wildlife that you're trying to attract. Also what's the point in having an eco friendly lawn and cutting down on emissions if we're then going to add toxins to the soil and potentially poison the insects that we want to attract. As a side note – it has been shown that many homeowners use much more pesticide than is recommended possibly because many of the packages come across as being healthy and wonderful for the plants. Many of the chemicals can last hundreds of years in the soil and I feel this is going to start becoming a huge worldwide problem in years to come.
So let's grow a bit wild, cut less and use a more eco friendly method like hand mowing – even an electric mower gives off far less in terms of emissions than a petrol mower. Your lawn will thank you for using the hand mower though.
The 'weeds' are appreciated – the flowers are appreciated. Perhaps next summer experiment even with a tiny part of your garden and see how all kinds of wildlife are attracted to the area and how that part of the garden begins in a very short space of time to almost look after itself.