There is no doubt about it but lawns occupy a special place in the hearts of most UK gardeners - especially male ones. That stretch of closely cropped grass sets off herbaceous borders, is the site of vicious games of croquet and more considerate games of bowls.
Apparently they have been playing lawn bowls in Southampton since 1299. In the meantime there are references to King Henry II's garden full of levelled, rolled and turfed lawns - and he died in 1189. But lawns are hard work to maintain and to achieve full formality require chemicals, scarifying and much mowing. And with the change in climate many people are finding that mowing starts in early Spring and continues almost into winter, an expensive and time-consuming chore. Now when fewer of us have help in the garden but more of us are aware of the perils of monoculture it is worth exploring alternatives to using grass as your lawn - and we are certainly NOT advocating astroturf.
Chamomile (sometimes Camomile) was used as ground cover for knot gardens in Elizabethan times and as infill for all the intricate parterres to which they were so partial. It was the perfect solution to providing a uniform green garden foil before we had lawnmowers. The most famous camomile lawn was planted for George V at Buckingham Palace and it is reputed to still be a delight today. The named cultivar Chamamaelum nobile 'Treneague' is the variety to go for. It is a chamomile sport discovered in a Cornish cottage garden in the 1930s (hence our mental connection between chamomile lawns and sepia pictures, beautifully dressed pre-war Edwardian women etc). It is a low growing perennial plant that does not flower - such an exhausting occupation for a plant - leaving you with the soft, frondy, leaves which waft their grassy scent around all year. Each plant forms a mat that soon meshes with its neighbour. Mowing is positively discouraged because you shear off the growing tip of the plant. The occasional tidy-up with some shears is all that is required once the plants are established. What is essential however is to provide a sunny site, with a neutral to acid, light loam soil and good drainage. Without all of these three components, your lawn will disappoint you. However, you will still get away with planting chamomile in small patches between stepping stones or where full coverage is not so essential. Another tip is to add plenty of grit to the planting site and surround the plants with gravel to suppress weeds and to encourage the drainage.
If the plants do begin to thin it may also be because they have been allowed to dry out; dry summers will need some sprinkler usage for the first few years. Plant each chamomile plant about 10-20 cm apart, depending on their size. This works out at between 82-100 per square metre. The denser planting costs more but will provide results more quickly and will forestall the requirement to weed quite so vigorously. Once planted, avoid treading on the plants for about three months; after that, they can tolerate some footfall but they are nothing like as hard wearing as grass. So not for busy thoroughfares. Thyme lawns were advocated by Vita Sackville West and are utterly stunning when in flower. The plants just need a yearly removal of the flower heads once they have faded (and a fair amount of inter-plant weeding until they have melded with the next). Each plant will spread into a pool of purple or white flowers in the summer creating an oriental carpet effect. Again just like chamomile, thyme likes sunny, well-drained conditions. However, using thyme there is scope to include several varieties with different coloured leaves and flowers and textures in your planting. There is a rather wonderful woolly thyme which adds that felted, crafty look to proceedings! The best-suited thymes for a lawn are the Thymus serpyllum - creeping thymes - which grow so low that you can walk on them uninterrupted, but growing other taller growing thymes amongst them or towards the edge of the lawn or by a wall or path adds depth, colour and even culinary heft. Russetings is one of the hardiest creeping thymes; Pink Chintz is also pretty. Then grow some common thyme and some of the variegated, rime-rimmed Silver Queen or shining Golden Queen thyme plants where a little height is not going to matter and so that you can harvest a some for your kitchen. Edible lawns - whatever next? The base of steps or close to the margins of the lawn area would suit. Planting thyme amongst a fine gravel as described with the chamomile is practical and knits the scheme together until the plants have done so for themselves.
Gardeners on heavy clay and with less sunny sites may now be in despair but there are other plants to clothe bare ground which do not require mowing, although we do not advise walking on them. The RHS AGM award has been given to Cotoneaster horizontalis , a plant that is fantastically easy to grow. It fans out over the ground or down banks and up walls. It is fine in alkaline or chalky conditions and in the shade of trees or buildings. The branches splay in a symmetrical, herringbone fashion which fascinates in winter and is then covered with little, glossy leaves that look like Box in spring. Its pinky flowers are replete with nectar and these then form striking scarlet berries in autumn which cut a dash through to New Year. Planted at two to three plants per metre you will quickly convert a patchy area of grass to an all year area of interest.
And, let's not forget common ivy , a Knight Templar of a plant that rejoices in deep shade and poor soil. Plant one per 45 cm or so and you will soon have heart shaped leaves draped over the whole area providing wonderful flowers that rank as one of the best and only sources of pollen and nectar so late in the year. These are followed by slightly sinister black berries loved by birds.
Another candidate for dry shade where grass fails to flourish is the Chinese Creeping Bramble. It grows up to 45 cm tall and so is for the wilder margins of the garden. Its raspberry like fruit are edible and can be up to an inch in size. The leaves are shallowly lobed and evergreen. This plant grows rapidly and provides a charming, woodland look in places where little else will grow successfully (even under beech trees - Ed)
In the meantime, there has been lots of work done on producing grass-free lawns that you do need to mow, but not so frequently. Here the secret is to grow thirty or more species of plants that will flower and thrive together but will also benefit from different environmental niches so that if it is very dry, one species will excel but it will then be curbed when the rains arrive to be replaced by another species that will dominate. The larger, competitive plants are checked by the mowing which does not interfere with the more timid species. This bio-diverse form of lawn is stunning to view and requires plants that have runners that run over the soil - stolons - or under it - rhizomes. Plants that put out adventitious roots where they touch the soil are also suitable. Examples of plants used include the evergreen English daisies (Bellis perennis), silver weed (Argentina anserina, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and self heal (Prunella vulgaris), birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), primrose Primula polyantha, white clover (Trifolium repens) bugle (Ajuga reptans) and buttercups (Ranunculus varieties). Dorchester has just planted its first grass-free lawn courtesy of the Dorset Wildlife Trust. We would love to see any pictures from any of our customers who are tempted to try out any of these alternative lawns. Now there is a project!