Are we losing our love of the lawn?

Click to follow
The verdant lawn, so long an integral part of the lazy British summer, is under threat. In the middle of Wimbledon fortnight, that annual ritual of homage to England's green and pleasant turf, comes news that we are abandoning the traditional emblem of country and suburban living under the pressures of drought and hard-sell marketing.

A survey by Scantel, a market research firm, on behalf of the garden products manufacturer pbi, reveals that the decline of the lawn is the most important horticultural trend of the past 10 years, according to a cross- section of opinion in the trade. Some 23 per cent of Britain's 19 million garden owners now admit to having nothing that could properly be called a lawn.

Instead of our little patch of grass we are opting for paving, pebbles, ponds, patios and plant pots. The firms that make those products, and the retailers that sell them, encourage the trend through vigorous promotion.

In the style-setting designer gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show each May, the amount of grass has declined year by year. The story will be the same at the Royal Horticultural Society's big Hampton Court show in two weeks' time. Its 21 gardens will incorporate bathing chalets, rocky outcrops, two medieval cloisters, a mini-Stonehenge, numerous play areas and pergolas; but only one, sponsored by a turf company, will have a lawn as its main feature.

David Stevens, a leading contemporary designer, has produced an innovative garden at Hampton Court for the French car manufacturer Citroen, incorporating a "water carport" - a garage-cum-fountain containing an actual car, but with not a blade of grass in sight.

"The lawn is in decline and I think it's a shame because a good lawn looks super," Mr Stevens says. "Partly it's because of the weather over the last few years - my own lawn [in Buckinghamshire] is on the brown side of green."

But he points to other factors. People's gardens are getting smaller, and tiny patches of grass wear out with disheartening speed. Paradoxically, he also blames the makers of lawn-care products, whose emphasis on perfect, weed-free lawns persuades people that it is not worth the bother.

"People's expectations are driven too high," he says. "I always tell my clients that a lawn looks better and more natural if it has a few weeds and daisies in it, so that children can make daisy chains."

More than half of the average person's gardening time is spent attending to the lawn. Gardeners are getting younger and have less time and patience to pursue perfection. The Scantel survey reveals that target consumers of horticultural products are in their late forties, where a few years ago they were assumed to be approaching 60.

Environmentalists are advising gardeners to abandon lawns in favour of features that rely less on water. Few go as far as Severn Trent Water, which recently suggested that all green areas should be permanently covered over; but this month's Gardening Which?, published by the Consumers' Association, says small lawns could be replaced with paving or stone chippings.

For those irredeemably addicted to the green stuff, the magazine advocates turning part of the lawn into a "mini-meadow", with wild flowers in long grass to retain what moisture there is. The RHS and the Water Services Association, in a joint pamphlet about saving water, offer similar advice. All of which infuriates David Hessayon, author of the best-selling "Expert" gardening books.

"I'm a leader of the get-your-rotten-hands-off-the-lawn campaign," he declares. "It's all designer-led. They say that if you have a small garden you don't want a lawn but a paved or gravel area where you can grow flowers in pots. The truth is that if there's a water shortage the lawn is the one place you don't have to water, because grass is tough and it soon comes back. But you have to keep your pots watered all the time.

"A lawn is part of a garden. Children want to play on grass, not on paving stones."

A spokeswoman for the lawnmower manufacturer Atco-Qualcast confirms that sales this year have been sluggish. But she adds bravely: "I don't think the great British lawn will ever go under. It's part of our heritage."

The roots of the British domestic lawn date from 1243, when Henry III had two lawns laid out on royal land at Kempton in Middlesex, today the site of Kempton Park racecourse. The method then used was to remove weeds, sterilise the ground with boiling water and lay healthy turf from lush meadows. In the later Middle Ages, lawns were made in monasteries and within castle walls. The 17th century saw lawns come out of the cloister and develop into an admired feature of the British garden. In 1625 Sir Francis Bacon declared that "nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass closely shorn".

For the next 200 years our lawns were the envy of Europe and the fashion was exported to America, where the clipped front lawn is still a badge of suburban respectability.

Yet lawns have never been universally admired. Even in the 18th century, when they were the height of good taste, the poet Susanna Blamire wrote:

We hate the fine lawn and the new-fashioned planting.

Each thing called improvement seems blackened with crimes.

Perversely, she might enjoy today's gardens, their parched lawns not blackened but browned, and fast dwindling.

In today's Sunday Review, Michael Leapman describes one of London's most unusual gardens, open to the public today for the last time this summer - and virtually lawn-free.