This weekend 16 million lawns will be fussed, fed and fretted over

...but is the effort, and are the pesticides, really necessary? Anna Pavord extolls the virtues of the alternative, Freedom Lawn
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Somebody somewhere is probably already writing a thesis on our relationship with lawns. "Man v Nature: rediscovering harmony", "Songs of the Sod: an Assessment of Mowing", "Striped State: Man, Machine and Mindset". I use the word "Man" optimistically, for I depend on having nothing to do with our lawn. My husband, who is gloriously unreconstructed, thinks that mowing is Man's Work. That is fine by me. I do not have great expectations of a lawn. I like it greenish and flattish. Daisies and blue flowered speedwell seem a positive benefit. Sometimes we have had sprinklings of violets in the lawn, too.

An American thesis on the subject has already been published in this country: Redesigning the American Lawn by F Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T Geballe (Yale pounds 7.95). Lawns there are even more of a fetish than they are here. Fences are frowned on, so lawns are rather public places. Whoever lets the side down by not mowing the sward in front of his house gets cross letters from the county authority reminding him of his duty as a citizen to keep the wilderness at bay.

Murray and Ann Blum of Athens, Georgia, refused to toe the line. To save face, the town council designated their unkempt one-acre garden a bird sanctuary and put up a large notice on one of their trees explaining this to the world at large. A picture from the Atlanta Journal shows Murray Blum laughing in his garden under the headline The Yard From Hell.

The authors argue for a less fascist approach to the garden lawn. "Properly" maintained (that is maintained according to the instructions issued by manufacturers of fertilisers, weedkillers, moss killers, lawn sand, lawn aerators, and the like) a lawn is a monoculture. The best kept lawns are those with the least diversity of plants; several million blades of fescue living in a botanical ghetto, untroubled by interlopers such as daisy or celandine.

Bormann and co are proponents of what they call The Freedom Lawn (as distinct from The Industrial Lawn, the one with no weeds). It sounds good to me. The Freedom Lawn, they say "results from an interaction of naturally recurring processes". I think that means you mow, but not too close. You leave the clippings to feed the lawn. You tolerate interlopers, as long as they do not get too bossy. I wage occasional war on lawn weeds with wide skirts, such as dandelion, plantain and thistle, but it is quicker and far more satisfying to whip these out with a penknife than to spend hours like a donkey on a treadmill, walking up and down behind a spreader, scattering weedkiller.

Lawns cover 20 million acres of the US, making lawn grass the biggest single "crop" produced in the country. But the Americans, like us, moan about what farmers are doing to the environment, while, like us, spending millions on various chemicals to tip on to their own patches of ground. The National Academy of Science in the States discovered that homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides an acre than do farmers.

The arguments against The Industrial Lawn are ones we know already, but don't always care to take on board. There is the argument about the fossil fuels needed to power the ever increasing range of machines we are told we need to maintain our lawns: mowers, aerators, leaf blowers, strimmers. More fossil fuel is burnt up transporting herbicides and chemical fertilisers from mines to factories and garden centres.

We shrug and say, "Well our lawn machines don't use much petrol". That's true, but the two-stroke engine is a dirty, wasteful converter of fuel to energy. There is, as yet, no legal requirement to fit catalytic converters to lawnmower engines, although its relative inefficiency means that, for each horse power produced, it creates 50 times more pollution than a long distance lorry. Or, to put it another way, if it takes you one hour to mow your lawn with a petrol-driven lawnmower, you will have produced as much air pollution as if you had driven 350 miles in your car.

Another argument for The Freedom Lawn has to do with a different kind of pollution, as excess fertilisers and pesticides wash off our lawns into springs and streams. Then there is the problem of water shortage. Our obsession with the greenness of a lawn tempts us to water them in a dry summer, such as we had last year. Hose pipe bans are difficult to police. But if you leave it alone, with the first rain a lawn will green up of its own accord.

Part of the problem is that our expectations of our lawns (and much else in the garden) are unrealistically high. We expect them to be perfect and unblemished, whatever the prevailing conditions. That can become a fetish.

The creed of The Freedom Lawn will be an anathema to the fanatical acolytes for whom a single daisy can be cause for hara-kiri. These are more likely to be men than women. Perhaps it is the ritual that attracts: the weekly cut, the edge clipping, the stripes. The need for stripes is particularly intriguing, but deeply ingrained enough for Flymo to have introduced a Hoverstripe mower that stripes as it cuts as it hovers. Before, only cylinder mowers and some types of rotary mower gave the desired effect.

This weekend, our lawn will get its first cut. That is late, but the weather has been so cold, the grass has scarcely been growing. And this weekend another 16 million lawns in the UK will be fussed and fretted over, fed, spiked, raked and rolled. If you do everything that you are told to do to a lawn in a year, it can become the most demanding area of the garden. The most expensive, too.

However much you do on top to a lawn, its appearance, ultimately, is most affected by what is going on underneath: fertility and drainage. If the underpinning is not ideal, as is often the case, then fertilisers, herbicides and moss treatments can only ever be props. Not cures.

Low nutrient levels and poor drainage are the usual causes of moss build- up. Mowing too close also has a bad effect. The cut shouldn't be closer than 15mm (about three quarters of an inch). Compaction, where the lawn is heavily used for games, bike riding, football, will also promote moss at the expense of grass.

Whatever the benefits to the environment, I don't expect great support for The Freedom Lawn. Here, badly kept grass is a moral slur.

Grass: a user's guide

Here is a calendar of jobs to keep a reasonable family lawn in good fettle.

As soon as possible in April, rake out as much as possible of the moss and thatch in the lawn. If you have a large area to cover, you can hire a scarifier to do the job for you.

Then treat the lawn with a moss killer combined with a fertiliser (the Japanese think moss gardens the height of refinement).

Between April and October give the lawn one or possibly two treatments of a fertiliser combined with a weedkiller. Fisons Evergreen Weed and Feed Liquid or B&Q Triple Action Lawn Care are Gardening Which? Best Buys (goodbye to biodiversity).

In October, spike and aerate the lawn to ease compaction. On a smallish lawn you can do this with a garden fork, wiggling it about after you have stuck it in the ground to open up the holes (The Freedom Lawn needs this too).

Follow on with a sieved top dressing of sharp sand - not builder's sand - mixed half and half with garden soil. If your ground is heavy and sticky, increase the proportion of sand. If it is light and dries out quickly, add more soil, garden compost, or fine leaf mould to the mix. Spread a spadeful over each square yard of the lawn (top dressing is exhausting, but it is one of the best things you can do to lawns, Freedom or otherwise).