The good, the bad and the ugly
We all love a lawn on a sunny day – it's a place to socialise, relax and play. But not all lawns are equal. We look at the best options for wildlife – and for people
Some gardeners (and grounds keepers) in the UK tend their lawns with passion, producing a perfect bowling green of short mown grass – often with a precise pattern of stripes – that is totally untainted by any other sort of flower or plant.
The desire to be neat and tidy in our gardens is sometimes obsessive, with home-owners proud of their perfectly manicured lawns. But when grass has been fed with fertiliser, treated with weedkillers, and watered with sprinklers as soon as the sun shines, it's bad for wildlife and bad for the environment.
Even worse, though, is plastic grass. This seems to be springing up all over the place at the moment – and although it may offer a short-term, maintenance-free solution, environmentally it's one of the worst things you can put in your garden.
Artificial grass: a green desert
Unlike real grass, which captures carbon, artificial grass has a high carbon footprint – producing it uses fossil fuels and emits carbon.
Its appearance worsens as time goes on – and eventually it will wear out and probably end up in landfill. As it deteriorates it can shed microplastics, which wash into rivers and the sea. And, as there's no soil for water to sink into, it can worsen flooding.
But perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to avoid artificial grass is that it's a missed opportunity to help wildlife. Real grass offers food and shelter to all sorts of creatures – the wildlife value of fake grass is zero.
So how do we make our lawns and grassy community spaces more wildlife- and eco-friendly, while still looking attractive and being usable for us humans? Should we stop mowing the grass altogether?
In fact, the ideal lawn should have areas of both short grass and long grass. Having a combination of the two increases biodiversity, as the different habitats will appeal to different types of wildlife.
Short grass is important as a feeding area for birds. Insects are easy for birds to find, and blackbirds, thrushes and robins can get to earthworms just below the surface of the soil. Short grass is also an important habitat for mining bees.
It makes sense to have shorter, mown grass near the house – for ease of access to facilities like washing lines and outdoor seating, and as a space for children to play.
Short grass paths can also be mown through swathes of longer grass – this can create a very attractive effect in larger spaces.
Look after your mown grass by avoiding chemical fertilisers and weedkillers, and don't cut it too short during summer – very short grass tends to dry out more quickly in hot weather. Once a fortnight should be enough to keep it looking tidy.
Try to avoid watering the lawn too – water is a precious resource, especially during droughts. Grass is extremely hardy, and even during prolonged dry spells it should survive and bounce back.
While short grass is an important habitat, allowing some areas of grass to grow long – either a small patch or, if you have space, larger swathes – will really boost biodiversity. And the easiest way to do this is to simply stop mowing.
It shouldn't be long before you see all sorts of wildflowers appearing. Red and white clover, buttercups, dandelions, ox-eye daisies, teasels and forget-me-nots are some of the most common wildflowers found in long grass. You may also see cowslips, harebells or even orchids.
The different species of grasses themselves also produce flower heads that can look very attractive.
All these flowers are an excellent source of nectar for all kinds of insects. Bees and bumblebees love clover and dandelions, and hoverflies, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers and ladybirds will all be attracted to your mini-meadow.
In turn, birds, bats and hedgehogs will be tempted by the increased insect population. Birds also feed on the seeds of long grasses, as well as on the seeds of dandelions and teasels.
Long grass provides shelter for all sorts of creatures too. Bumblebees nest in long grass, and frogs, toads and newts use it as a cool, moist place to rest in summer.
There are two ways to care for your long grass. For a spring meadow, only mow between July and late autumn. Or, for a summer meadow – which is fantastic for attracting butterflies – stop mowing in April, then leave it alone completely until late September.
Either method will create a haven for insects and other wildlife. And leaving patches of long grass means you spend less time mowing, and more time enjoying your garden!
It's time we all stopped being obsessed with neat and tidy. It's time to embrace the beauty that emerges when we stop fighting nature and let things go a little wild. A garden full of wildflowers, bees and butterflies should be something to be proud of – and hopefully might encourage your neighbours to follow your lead, to create a community network of wildlife-friendly, green spaces.
Little Green Space is a non-profit project sharing solutions to the nature and climate crises, and offering inspiration for a greener lifestyle. If you like our content, please help keep us going with a small donation!
Little Green Space April 2021