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Gardening: alternatives to lawns

Most gardens have them by default, but lawns can take up most of your plot and need much care and attention.

The high maintenance required to keep a traditional lawn looking good can be a chore for some gardeners. Photograph: Shutterstock
The high maintenance required to keep a traditional lawn looking good can be a chore for some gardeners. Photograph: Shutterstock

The questions that need to be asked are: why do we have a green patch? What do we use it for? Is it the best use of that ground? Could we use some or all of it differently? And, as needs change, perhaps you should modify how you use the space.

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A young family might find a football pitch is essential, but when children grow up you won't need such a large lawn. Keen gardeners will revel in the extra ground.

If you're not a gardener, you might reckon a lawn surrounded by a strip of flowers or shrubs is fine, but the weekly mowing and mountains of clippings could be a headache. As you get older, the task becomes more daunting and you might even be tempted to rip out the lawn and smother the soil with concrete instead.

There is plenty of evidence that when householders cover large swathes of garden with slabs and decking, they cause untold damage to the environment. With less soil to soak up heavy rain, it runs off into streams and rivers which all too readily burst their banks. And dull, concrete gardens provide little or no food and shelter for wildlife.

The environmentally friendly alternative is to plan an attractive garden that needs less maintenance, but keep a portion of lawn. As I said in January, nothing is more restorative than green space. Leave room for a few deck chairs, a table and maybe a barbecue.

Plant a different kind of lawn in parts of spare ground where you rarely walk: a wildflower meadow, a chamomile lawn or a grass-free lawn. The cutting regimes are less onerous. Grass produces growing points called meristems at the base of each leaf, so by cutting grass regularly you encourage each plant to produce a mass of shoots, thereby growing vigorously. Other plants have meristems at the tips of the shoots, so regular mowing removes the meristems and prevents strong growth.

Although the bulk of a wildflower meadow is grass, you treat the grasses as flowers, encouraging them to set attractive seed heads. As well as being pretty, a wildflower meadow ticks the right environmental boxes, encouraging birds, insects and hedgehogs, but you'll need to weed regularly to prevent a dock and nettle takeover and you'll have to plant plugs of the less vigorous wildflower species. But a wildflower meadow only needs one cut in the autumn to remove vegetation and reduce soil fertility, thus encouraging less vigorous and more attractive species.

Chamomile lawns need very little cutting. Some, such as the dwarf non-flowering Treneague, need no cutting at all. Flowering species should be mown at the end of summer to remove flower heads and avoid getting bare patches in the lawn. Mature chamomile lawns are handsome and release a wonderful scent when you walk on them, but they're difficult to establish and may become patchy if conditions aren't perfect. They also need fairly frequent weeding.

Grass-free lawns take more cutting, but much less than traditional ones. Over the last three years, Lionel Smith held a series of trials at Reading University and found that trial beds needed between three and nine cuts, a third of grass lawns. The frequency depends on the species. Smith suggests plants should be allowed to reach 9cm before cutting. The taller-growing species will grow slowly, and the lower or slower-growing ones won't be mown.

You can use a mix of species. Some will do better than others, depending on the garden, so the more the better. Your choice could include red flowered daisies, white flowered buttercups, bronze leaved bugle, golden silverweed or red leaved white clover. There's still some weeding, but with no watering, no feeding, very little mowing and a blaze of colour, this seems like a lawn worth having.

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