Designers should consider a more natural approach than artificial turf, says Cheryl Cummings MSGD
In an article in The Guardian on 4 July 2016, Artificial Grass Direct reported a 220% rise in sales over the previous year, and from the proliferation of advertising by suppliers it would seem that the domestic market looks set to expand.
Offering an ultra low-maintenance permeable surface suitable for most domestic garden situations, artificial grass needs no watering, feeding or mowing, and is consistent in appearance throughout the year. Come rain or shine, in sun or shade, for mess-free play, recreation and relaxation for the whole family, even as a place for the pet dog to relieve itself, artificial turf seems to offer the perfect alternative to a traditional lawn.
If by traditional lawn we mean the emerald-striped, bowling-green sward, which over the years we have come to believe is the height of desirability, then it is high time for a rethink. The ritual of weed, feed and weekly mow is unsustainable, wasteful of the fossil fuels used to power the mower and to create the artificial fertiliser advertised as necessary for its upkeep. According to High-Tech Turf, it is estimated that in warm weather the irrigation of lawns wastes a whopping 75% of residential water usage.
So why is it that the suggestion of artificial turf as an alternative to lawn makes my heart sink? My whole professional life has been about creating life-affirming spaces, where people can connect and interact with the natural world, where other living things assume an importance, where seasons and the processes of life on our planet are recognised and made sense of. If the next generation is to save the species that are so rapidly declining in this country right now, then they have to experience them in order to learn to care.
Connecting with nature
Our gardens are where our very first experiences of nature take place, as our nappy-padded bottoms are put down upon the lawn and we first learn to crawl. It’s where we first make mud pies and daisy chains, scuff our knees, are fascinated by a blackbird tugging on a spaghetti worm, and where now, as adults with some understanding, we are pleased to see a glossy-backed beetle, knowing that his next meal might be a lettuce-munching slug.
If it is the time-consuming and unsustainable management regime of the manicured lawn that is the problem, then it makes sense to change that, rather than replace the natural material with one which has been manufactured from by-products of petrol and gas refinement. Made from nylon, polypropylene or polyethylene, artificial grass is plastic – a useful and durable substance, but one which will stay with us and our descendants for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
My own mixed species lawn is never fed or watered, and the little light exercise of a pass with a push mower along pathways and open spaces, begun as growth starts in spring, is quick and easy. The matrix is strong and resilient, fed from within by clovers and other legumes, which provide forage for my honey bees and countless other insects. It provides a species-rich habitat that offers a suitable surface for play as well as – depending on frequency and height of cut – flower and foliage interest as the lawn changes throughout the year.
Over time and left to her own devices, nature will select those species most suited to the conditions, but despite our ability to speed things up and use the most suitable of the many species mixes available as seed, we usually treat our client’s requirement for a lawn as if one size fit all, with a standard turf with a standard deep-green plush finish, as if it were a sitting-room carpet.
A topsy-turvy attitude
We and our clients admire the mosses used in Japanese gardens and Japanese-themed show gardens, but in a damp, shady lawn, where they provide a textured springy surface, we treat them with derision and a dose of ferrous sulphate. Woe betide any dandelions that might dare to get their roots down, despite the fact that their early flowers are full of nectar and pollen for beetles, bees and butterflies and their seeds are food for goldfinches.
Clovers and the rest of our common pollinator food plants which venture to seed into our turf are treated with equal contempt and eradicated, possibly with the Weed & Feed that was bought on the same trip to buy some Perfect for Pollinators plants from the garden centre.
Our clients look to us for advice and guidance, to provide creative design solutions and maintenance guidelines based on our knowledge and experience. Is plastic grass the best we can come up with, and if so, how far are we prepared to go? Artificial green walls are already here, so what’s next? Plastic perennials, shrubs and trees?
Cheryl Cummings MSGD has been designing gardens professionally for more than 25 years. She likes to create gardens in harmony with the natural world, to help her clients reconnect with nature and find a passion for plants and wildlife in their own gardens. www.gardendesignerwales.co.uk