In the Garden column: All hail the legend of the lawn

The tapestry lawn is also climate proof, according to columnist Lynda Pasacreta

“What is this fascination of having a lawn?” was the question posed at a recent Richmond Garden Club meeting by a member whose yard consists of perennials only ­— and not a patch of lawn.

It appears lawns originated in early medieval settlements and were used for communal grazing of livestock. In northern Europe during the middle ages, only the rich folks favoured wide expanses of green grass. Lawn maintenance consisted of scything the grass or letting sheep, rabbits or horses graze to keep the grass manageable. Mowing machines came about in 1830.

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But while it has historical roots, maintaining a lawn today has some serious environmental consequences. In fact, we need to rethink our desire to have this kind of monocultured landscape ­— or green desert as some call it.

Certainly that’s the view of Egan Davis, a horticulturist at the UBC Botanical Gardens, who spoke to the Richmond Garden Club recently.

 He explained that, in the U.S., 50 to 70 per cent of residential water is used primarily to water lawns. And then there is spillage of gasoline while refuelling lawn maintenance equipment, not to mention the pollution the machines spew into the air. Inorganic fertilizers such as herbicides, pesticides and fungicides can also be very harmful (City of Richmond has banned use of these products).

Green grass is composed most times of a monoculture or single species of plants, sometimes not even native to our area.

Monocultures are rare in nature and take a lot of effort to maintain. To combat climate change, we need biodiversity, many different species of plants, to support our ecosystem. And think about all the time spent watering, weeding, seeding, mulching and thatching your monoculture.

Still, many of us like to have a pretty yard, so what’s the alternative? Tapestry lawns.

Davis spoke to the research underway at the UBC Botanical Gardens creating tapestry lawns in our climate to battle drought, chafer beetle damage and other environmental issues. Tapestry lawns are researched turf lawns that add depth and texture to landscape with native and mixed origin species, already underway in the British Isles. 

Plants can be selected for flowers, scent and colourful foliage. Tapestry lawns can produce over 20 times more flowers than single species grass, an excellent source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. It can be mowed but way fewer times than for traditional lawns — 5 to 9 times per year, reducing C02 emissions. There is no requirement for de-thatching, no need for moss killer, no need for fertilizer. Tapestry lawns do much better without fertilizer. During times of drought, these lawns stay greener longer and can absorb any rainfall much quicker than common grass.

While we wait for tapestry lawns to become more mainstream, there are some ways you can say goodbye to common monoculture grass and welcome some diversity into your garden space. Plant a mixture of some fescues, creeping perennials such as thyme, creeping Jenny, ajuga to add changing colour throughout the season.

Put food on your dinner table by creating an edible forest garden filled with edible trees, shrubs, plants and vines.  A rock garden with rocks streamed to look like a dry river bed filled with drought-resistant perennials offers plenty of colour and visual interest. Choose a no-mow grass seed mix, consisting of sheep fescue, tall fescue and red fescue. This hardy ground cover is still soft to the touch, but requires less mowing and less water. 

If you are still reluctant to take the leap into a front yard without a traditional lawn, why not change to more environmentally friendly maintenance practises?  Watering restrictions are starting earlier this year in Richmond. 

Ensure that automatic sprinkler systems are working properly. Healthy grass only needs about an hour of watering per week. Leave grass clippings on the lawn after you mow. Change your gas powered mower to a push mower.

Remember, brown grass in the summer does not mean that it is dead. Let it go brown. It will come back with a vengeance once the West Coast rains start again.

Now excuse me while I curl up with some more research material on my fascination with tapestry lawns!

Lynda Pasacreta is the president of the Richmond Gardening Club.

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