Lawns – lush oases or green deserts?1st Jun 2019
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Walt Whitman. The ubiquitous urban lawn. Where did it come from? Do you really need one? And what do you choose if you do?
In the bad old days they used to say you should never interfere with a South African’s lawn – or their braai. And while that’s probably still true for the braai, is it really still true for the lawn?
Students of history will tell you that many of today’s urban gardens are modelled on the ‘English Landscape’ style – the sweeping vistas, the romanticised lakes, the rolling lawns tumbling down to stylised forest glens, the mixed herbaceous borders – that surrounded the grand country houses of the British Isles in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
They’ll tell you, too, that these gardens were designed to imitate nature (but in a much more organised way, of course), and that they represented a rebellion against the strictly formal and symmetrical arrangements beloved of earlier centuries (or, more likely, beloved of the French with their Versailles-style geometry).
Today’s gardens, though, are tiny compared to those park-like old properties, but we’re still trying to emulate them – usually with a perfectly mowed lawn as our point of departure. But should we?
Poisonous green deserts
It’s never going to be possible to resolve the arguments for and against lawns by sticking to questions of aesthetics, because there’ll always be people who love how they look, as much as there’ll be those (admittedly not yet many) who think they’re a blight.
But when you consider the damage that lawns – and their management – do to the environment, well, that’s a whole ’nother story.
With hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of hectares of lawn under cultivation around the world, grass is probably the most wasteful crop known to humankind. It doesn’t do much, but it generally requires ridiculous amounts of water (which isn’t exactly a plentiful resource in sunny South Africa); it’s often susceptible to fungal and other diseases that require regular poisoning; and most species require regular fertilising since frequent mowing prevents lawns from setting up their own self-generating ecosystems of the kind you’d find in natural pastures.
And yet many of us need our lawns – or at least spaces where the kids can play, or we can relax (and braai!), or the dogs can, you know, do what dogs tend to do. Or we think we need our lawns.
But if we were to consider the design of our few square metres of outdoor space more thoroughly, we’d probably find far more creative ways to cover the ground that don’t rob the environment of its riches: gravel, for example, or decking, paving, or low-growing, water-wise plants that don’t need mowing. Ground covers, in other words.
Or you could even allow your existing lawn to grow to its natural length to create a pasture, and mow only narrow paths in the areas where you’re likely to need to walk. But, if you feel you really need some ‘proper’ lawn, restrict it to a focal point of a few square metres – and think carefully about what kind of grass you plant.
Which grass is greener?
If you do have to plant a lawn, your choice of species is relatively limited in South Africa, depending on where you live, and how much sun or shade the area in question is likely to receive.
LM Berea: Dactyloctenium australe – a soft-bladed, creeping grass that tolerates shade but not frost, and that prefers low foot traffic. Grow it if you live at the coast (from KwaZulu-Natal all the way down to the Garden Route), and keep the mower set on high – both because the species prefers it, and because it’ll give you a softer, more comfortable place to lie. It’s great around pools!
Buffalo lawn: Stenotaphrum secundatum – broad-leaved and dark green in the full sun, finer and lighter in the shade, Buffalo is a slow-growing indigenous grass that’s usually acceptable on estates that demand indigenous planting. Like LM Berea, it is neither frost- nor traffic-tolerant, but its slow rate of growth is a boon when it comes to frequency of mowing. Keep the mower set on high.
Gulf Green (golf green, RD 93, or royal blue): Cynodon transvaalensis – this very soft, very fine, emerald-green, indigenous species is ideal for cricket wickets and putting greens. And high-end residential developments, of course. It grows only in the full sun, and it doesn’t like heavy frost, but it has the advantage of remaining green throughout the winter, so it’s a great choice for the Western Cape (even though it’s a bit of a water hog). If you like your grass short, this one will tolerate cutting to as low as 3mm.
Kweek (Bermuda grass): Cynodon dactylon – this aggressive, fine-leaved, indigenous grass tolerates (loves!) high levels of traffic, and produces a wonderful sward when properly cared for (use a roller-mower, and watch your watering regime). It’s ideal for kids – the grass burns aren’t as burny – and perfect for estates and other public areas. It’s deep-rooted and aggressive, though, so it’ll probably try to invade your flower beds. And it’s difficult to farm, so good-quality roll-on sods are hard to find. But it grows easily from seeds, especially if you add large amounts of compost to the ground before you sow. http://pza.sanbi.org/cynodon-dactylon
Kikuyu: Pennisetum clandestinum – WHY? Why would you even do this to yourself, your property, or your country? Although kikuyu has become urban South Africa’s most common lawn species, it’s not indigenous, it’s highly invasive, and it’s listed in the NEMBA* regulations under category 1b: ‘Invasive species which must be controlled and, wherever possible, removed and destroyed. Any form of trade or planting is strictly prohibited’ (although this doesn’t seem to have stopped the growers or landscapers when it comes to kikuyu). To be fair, kikuyu is legally only prohibited in ‘protected areas and wetlands in which it does not already occur’, but with so many other great choices, the question has to be repeated: why choose the devil? See invasives.org.za for more (damning) information about this monster of a grass.
Keep the grass off
Although most ground covers won’t tolerate much (or any) foot traffic, they’re generally colourful, rewarding, and (we love this part) relatively easy to maintain, which makes them wonderful substitutes for lawns.
Carpet daisy: Dymondia margaretae – loves sun, tolerates frost, takes some foot traffic, grows flat on the ground (flat-flat!), produces lovely, sunny, yellow flowers above neat, compact blue-grey foliage. Perfect in a chequerboard between paving stones or in a sun-filled courtyard. And it’s indigenous, too. If the carpet daisy were competing in a talent show, it’d definitely attract the biggest golden buzzer of the night.
Mondo grass: Ophiopogon japonicus – although the thin-leaved, deep green mondo grass isn’t indigenous to South Africa, it isn’t invasive, and it’s incredibly useful and decorative in courtyards and shaded gardens. Also, it tolerates some frost, and it’s relatively hardy to drought. So it’s a fine choice for courtyard gardens, for lightly shaded spots in larger gardens, and even for the pots on your patio.
Moss – not as difficult to establish as you might think, moss is a good choice in shaded, moister areas of the garden. One way to get it going is to collect a patch of the stuff from a similar area, and crumble it between your fingers over the ground where you want it to grow. Remember, though, that it wants to be kept moist – not wet. And although it likes the light, it doesn’t like the sun.
Succulents – we’d need more than half a page to list all the succulents you can use as water-wise ground covers in South Africa, but look for things like the bright green, creeping baby sun rose (Aptenia cordifolia) with its tiny, but startlingy bright red flowers; the various suurvye or sour figs (Carpobrotus sp) – the yellow-flowered C. edulis or the cerise-flowered C. deliciosus – both of which bear finger-sized, fleshy, triangular leaves, and produce edible fruit; or, for the really unusual, the highly decorative but easy-to-grow dassievygie (Oscularia deltoids), with its toothed, sickle-shaped, blue-grey leaves that usually take on a tinge of red in the dry season. If you want vibrant colour, the iridescent, multicoloured bokbaaivygies (Cleretum bellidiforme) will enhance any sunny space in your garden along the Cape coast.