Ending Lawn Sprawl

Grow wild Ordinarily only academics can walk on the grass courts of Cambridge’s colleges. Peter Dench

Tom Banham’s article in 1843, a masterpiece of longform writing on the topic of lawns, is preaching to the converted (me, at least). I live in a location with abundant rain and grass is more of a pest than the mainstay of beautifully manicured sprawling lawns (for which I am a sucker as much as anyone is).

We just planted the first couple dozen of 1,000+ coffee saplings and the grass on the hills where they are being planted plays a role in soil retention but we want the soil’s nutrients focused on the coffee. But there are plenty of more important reasons to be concerned about grass sprawl elsewhere:

The going gets turf: do lawns have a future in the age of drought?

Our gardens are sterile deserts that guzzle water and chemicals. Perhaps it’s time to let them be

The harvesting in August 2021 of the wildflower meadow planted at King’s College, Cambridge. Peter Dench

The lawns at Tusmore House, a neo-Palladian mansion 15 miles north of Oxford, are so perfectly flat and exactingly shorn that they induce a kind of vertigo. Unlike familiar grass, with its divots and erupting daisies, the grass here feels as though it might evaporate underfoot in a cloud of pixels. On a sticky afternoon last summer, David Hedges-Gower, a four-decade veteran of the turf industry and grass whisperer to the wealthy, inspected what looked to the layman like flawless green carpet and found it wanting.

Paul Gough, Tusmore’s head gardener and the man responsible for the lawns’ day-to-day upkeep, agreed. Ordinarily, he’d mow the grass down to 12mm, just long enough to withstand seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall. But Tusmore’s owner, Wafic Saïd, a Syrian businessman and philanthropist who once helped arrange a $50bn-and-counting arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia, had been in residence, so they’d mown golf-green short. Weeks of scorching heat and relentless rain had bruised the turf. There were spots of fungus and clover, as well as encroaching annual meadow-grass, which is subtly different to the bentgrass and fescue that were sown here at great expense. (The difference is too subtle for herbicides – patches of meadow-grass have to be cut out with a pocket knife.)

Tusmore’s lawns, which cost £100,000 ($120,000) to install, are three concrete bowls filled with a layer of gravel topped with a soil mix that is 80% sand, which has been milled to a specific shape and size, and 20% compost, for optimum drainage. The mix is porous, so water and fertilisers can drain out rather than build up in unpredictable ways, and sterile enough to prevent harmful bacteria from surviving. This method of grass cultivation is vastly more demanding than your average lawn requires, but it affords Gough complete control.

At Tusmore, Gough’s six-person team spends at least 12 hours a week nursing these three lawns, which cover less than 0.1% of the 22-hectare gardens. They mow and water, apply organic fertilisers and winkle out weeds by hand. They scarify the turf with rakes to remove moss and loose grass, and break up thatch – unwanted debris that clot the bottom of each blade. The grass roots are aerated with a hollow coring machine, a trick Hedges-Gower learned as superintendent at Oxfordshire Golf Club, a tired course that he turned into one of the world’s best. “When it’s near its premium”, Hedges-Gower said, caressing the turf, “this would be one of the best lawns in Europe.”

Read the whole article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s