For myself, like many other gardeners, Thursday is traditionally the day all the grass will get cut. It means the garden will be looking good for the weekend and, should it rain on Thursday, we still have Friday to get it done before the weekend.
The lawn is a key element to most gardens, and a well-maintained expanse of greensward is like the wall-to-wall carpet, providing a luxurious, thick pile to enjoy the summer picnic on, or a pitch perfect for re-enacting the FA Cup final. Most gardens would seem incomplete without at least a patch of green where we can rest and enjoy it’s coolness on a warm summers day. As a species, we evolved in the Savannah, so an open grassland is naturally one of our most favourite ecosystems.
Grass is an impressive plant – able to withstand being regularly grazed and sprout back without harm it is the ideal candidate for this role. The invention of the lawn mower in the early twentieth century meant that the lawn was now accessible to even more people. Previously grass areas would be very labour intensive, either needing to be maintained by hand-scything or grazing.
On low-lying and flat areas cows can graze. They like lush grass and when it is growing well they leave a fairly neat finish, but just long enough to stay green and hard-wearing, much like the rough of a golf course. Sheep will graze closer to the ground giving a much shorter finish, selecting out the finer grasses, and creating a sward much like our formal lawns. Horses will also graze quite close, but are a little more picky about what they eat, and by midsummer they are overwhelmed by the rate of growth, and will allow the grass to become much more like a hay meadow.
These days we have replaced the role of ruminants with our lawn mowers and, by adjusting our cutting height, we can impersonate the different livestock, giving a different effect for different areas of the garden. The deposition of faeces by our flocks is now replaced by a regular application of fertiliser, to ensure the lawn stays a vibrant green.
As a gardener, I have often found it hard to insist that everyone has exactly the same type of lawn. In some circumstances, the perfect bowling-green, pin-striped finish will not be appropriate. Research conducted by Lionel Smith from the University of Reading, looked at other species of plants which would be suitable for using in lawn situations; plant that would tolerate a regular mowing regime, but could flower, providing nectar for wildlife and interest in the garden. Chamomile lawns have been widely grown in the past but the project looked at many other species which could be suitable to take the place of grass. Daisies (bellis), buttercups (rannunculus) and bugle (ajuga) can all give ground cover, and flowering interest over a long period, but can easily be maintained by mowing on a high setting. The original research ‘lawns’ can still be seen at Avondale park in Notting Hill, and new patches have subsequently been established in the grounds of Reading University.
In the garden I maintain there are areas of lawn which through the Spring are filled with daffodils. During the summer I will mow around them, allowing the grass to grow long, and as if to show my mowing to be a complete waste of time, they are now full of the vibrant colours of flowering plants such as vetches and buttercups.
Like the harvestmen of old, brandishing their scythes, I see these ever-expending patches of flowers as the last hiding place of Ceres, the goddess of fertility, and am loathe to cut them. The final part of a field to be cut was often called ‘cutting the hare’, as while the field was being harvested this would become the final refuge of the hare, and as the farmers approached the hares would dart forth, a physical embodiment of the goddess. This last part of the harvest would be held dearest and woven into a ‘corn dolly’ which, after resting in the kitchen of the farmhouse, would be used next year to start the sowing of the crop, continuing the cycle of life from year to year, to hopefully ensure prosperity and a bountiful harvest.