In Defense of Lawns

In the current drive for yards that are both low-maintenance and environmentally responsible, the lawn comes under attack quite often. From the hours most people spend mowing and trimming, to the fertilizers and pesticides that run off into the water table, you might think that a lawn serves no purpose that can justify all that. But a lawn isn't just the ideal place for kids to play, it also serves an important design function.

Consider the following excerpt from the book Hardy Perennials, by Graham Rice (unfortunately, "hardy" here refers to winter survival in Britain, about zone 8):

"In the garden, an atmosphere of quiet repose is created by seclusion, symmetry and green foliage. The one thing provided by neither the traditional herbaceous border nor the modern mixed border is this peace - there is simply too much colour, too many flowers demanding a reaction. Perhaps this explains why woodland glades, after the colourful pattern of the spring mosaic has faded, are especially restful. The dark leafy canopy of deciduous trees, the interlacing leaves of hostas, ferns and iris or sedge, predominantly green, and the absence of sharp colours to jag at our tranquil spirit allow us to drink in the stillness - and relax.

Emerging from the cool of the summer glade the colours of the beds and borders seem sharper, more real. This, of course, is the purpose of the lawn, a pool of unruffled calm against which to view the brilliant borders. Every garden needs tranquillity, and while this whole book is about plants and their diversity it is perhaps wise to conclude with the suggestion that a glade of visual and atmospheric stillness, with no special plants at all, will not only help restore the gardener's spirit but enhance our appreciation of all those plants which crowd the rest of the garden."

Of course, just because a lawn can serve this important purpose, it doesn't make a lawn mandatory. Many groundcovers or foliage plants could be used to create an oasis, as long as they aren't covered in bright flowers all the time. Vinca minor, for example, has purple flowers in the spring, but is plain green throughout the summer. And although the pleasant green foliage of hostas is no good for lawn bowling, it never overwhelms the beholder. So if you are considering replacing your lawn, be sure to leave a space that serves the same function: tranquillity.

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