Keep off the grass

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The Independent Online
If you were to compile a list entitled "the 10 Most Unpopular Pieces of Advice to Give to English People", number four or five (after "always give up your seat for a foreigner" and "the boys are playing soccer in the street again, I suggest you move your car") might be "save water - pave over your lawn".

Yet this is exactly what Severn Trent Water - concerned about its ability to service its customers this summer - has done in a leaflet circulated this week. The company believes the British climate is changing, which will mean that summer droughts become a regular occurrence. Thoughtfully, they are keen to recommend ways in which gardeners can adapt to these altered circumstances.

Cue condemnations by Labour MPs (who scent more middle-class outrage over the depradations of privatised utilities) and statements of defiance from lawn-loving retired bank managers throughout the Midlands. Their fathers and grandfathers fought against somebody-or-other precisely to prevent the lawns of England being paved over.

And there is indeed something worrying about all this. What suggestions might other public services and utilities come up with for ways in which we can use their product more efficiently? How about the local health trust's "Accident? Ever thought about self-suturing?", South West Rail's "Save space. Sit on my lap". Or, best of all, and most universal: "Children? Why bother?"

Odd, too, that confirmation of the impact of global warming should come in a flyer from Severn Trent, and not from John Gummer's lot over at Environment. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that one of Government's few remaining functions is to tell citizens when they are about to be hit by meteorites, catapulted into global war or plunged into a new Ice Age.

But this does not make Severn Trent wrong. For, however impertinent their advice may be, life in this country would be much better if gardeners did indeed get rid of their lawns. Lawns are wasteful of both water and time, are environmentally damaging, represent a threat to wildlife and look horrible.

Certainly, the amount of water that it takes to maintain a small piece of clipped sward is disproportionately great - no one contests that. But the time and effort expended on keeping it aerated, fertilised, moss- free, sanded, seeded and rolled is also preposterous. Tap into the Internet and you will discover that lawncare has more entries than blow-jobs. One advice page lists a vast number of queries and responses under headings like "Moles", "Quackgrass", "straw over re-seeded patch" and the sinister "seeding over dead sod in a shady yard". Give him a Christian burial, say I.

Lawn obsessives are not just sad in themselves, but dangerous. They pour pesticides on their grass, maim hedgehogs with their strimmers and regularly clutter up casualty departments after their rotary mowers have shot up their legs and inflicted damage.

And for what? For yet another regular patch of dull, short grass, in a country that is not exactly short on grass (if you look down from a plane its practically all you can see).

But the most beautiful gardens in the world, like the Generalife at the Alhambra in Granada, have no grass at all. Every inch is used for flowers, stone-flagged nooks, fountains and benches. There is a surprise - a delight - at every turn. The great British lawn is open, regular and unintriguing, a flattening of nature, rather than a harnessing of it.

So why do we do it, this lawning? Like so much else it is a product of Victorian stiffness and displayed civic virtue. A big, short lawn bespeaks tidiness, hard work and a concern for the good opinion of others. In America "lawn-care operators" have been showing businesses a report from the Centre For Communication Dynamics, illustrating the benefits of keeping a neat lawn: "It indicates that you are safety and environmentally conscious, a good neighbour and well-managed."

Humbug! Pave it over right now.