What to do with a Lawn
natural patterns






contact us
our aims

"You can't learn much from a lawn,
but a garden has a whole world of wonders."


Lawns started out as grazing areas around the manors of the landed gentry. Having a nice lawn around the house was a sign of power as you owned sufficient land to raise sheep and cow.
As the industrial revolution took hold and animals were less a sign of wealth, the lawn itself became the status symbol. You could indulge yourself in sparing land and time to recreational grounds.
As people moved to the cities so did the grass, on ever smaller plots. First lawns were cut by hand and later with the mechanical lawnmower, (an automated, resource depleting, pointless cow.)
The 20th Century saw an explosion of lawn making as commercial interests produced endless grass seed, fertiliser, pesticides, mowers, spreaders and irrigation equipment whilst developers discovered they could pass off cheap �gardens� by spreading 3 inches of soil over hard subsoil and laying turf on top.
Nowerdays, many lawns are rarely used and some are so covered with chemicals children have been permanently injured after walking barefoot on them.[1]

the modern lawn - a waste of resources

The modern pure grass lawn is artificial... you need effort and chemicals to maintain a monoculture.

  • Misuse and the inherent toxicity of standard pesticides cause short and long term poisoning, cancer and disease in people and wildlife. [a]
  • Extensive use and overuse of fertilisers (due to lack of restrictions) causes water pollution problems and wastes resources. [b]
  • Endless summer irrigation to keep lawns green wastes massive amounts of water and depletes water tables. [c]
  • Lawnmowers, strimmers and other lawn machinery unregulated for environmental emissions, use vast amounts of petrol and are a significant factor in urban air and noise pollution. [d]
The lawn is the worlds third agriculture. It is probable that westerners spend more person hours, energy and resources on their lawns than any agricultural resource of the third world.[8]

In the early 1990�s in the United States�

$ 25 billion a year was spent on lawn care products.
Of this,
$ 5,250 million was spent on fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and...
$ 700 million was spent on 28 million kgs of poisonous synthetic pesticides.

Meanwhile 20 million acres were planted in residential lawns
and the average city sprayed its lawns with 30 to 60 % of its fresh water supply.[2]

The lawn is a green desert. Adoption of a monoculture for a garden drastically reduces the habitats available for wildlife. Birds, bees, butterflies and other animals all begin to disappear. Often leaving an unstable ecosystem where common �pest� species seem to flourish.


Aside from keeping animals or ripping up the turf to plant trees and bushes, build vegetable beds, a pond or a greenhouse there are many things you can do to keep the same purpose of a lawn whilst adding diversity and removing chemical and mechanical dependence. (Unless the area you have is subject to heavy traffic and abuse, where turf is probably the most suitable thing to use.) If you just want somewhere to sit, try making a bench a focal point of your garden.

Lawns can be made more edible, medicinal, beautiful and nice smelling by adding low growing aromatic herbs and flowers. The plants below have been specially selected because they will tolerate at least infrequent mowings. For best results don�t cut as often or as short as a normal lawn and try to lay off for at least 3 weeks in the summer to let the taller plants flower and set seed. You could try sowing them into small gaps in the grass or better still plant them out. For low maintenance choose plants that will like your local conditions.

White clover flower
lively lawns

Apart from the obvious dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), daisy (Bellis perennis) and plantains (Plantago major, plantago media) which are all excellent in lawns, freely self seed, add variety and can also be eaten once you get past seeing them just as �weeds,� try�

White Clover, Trifolium repens: 10cm H, spreads, adds nitrogen to the soil, attracts bees and butterflies. You can eat the flowers and leaves, (bit fiddly though)

Camomile, Chamaemelum nobile: 15cm H 30cm W, Plants for a future[9] recommend for smell but not for medicine, (no flowers), a cultivar called �Treneague� which is low growing, spreads and will succeed if the grass is cut low and often, however you'll have to find a cutting, there are no seeds.

Wild thyme, Thymus serpyllum: 10cm H 30cm W Forms spreading clumps, pink flowers attract bees in summer, drought tolerant, needs sun. High in antioxidants and an essential kitchen herb.

Lemon thyme, Thymus x citiodorus: 10cm H 30cm W. Likes light well drained soil and full sun, can be planted by division.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara: 25cm H, spreads invasively. Tolerates shade, does well in all soils, flowers edible mar-apr, leaves appear afterwards, used for treatment of respiratory problems.

Rough Hawkbit, Leontodon hispidus: 40cm H 30cm W. Similar to dandelion, prefers chalky soil, flowers all summer, attracts bees & butterflies, edible leaves most of the year.

Self heal
Salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor: 55cm H 30cm W. Prefers chalky soil and slightly longer grass, flowers May-Aug and provides edible young leaves all year round.

Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris: 15cm H spreading to form clumps 30cm W. Prefers moist soil, tolerates low cutting and shade, flowers mid to late summer, attracts bees & butterflies, eaten in salads and an healing herb for cuts and wounds.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium: upto 60cm H spreads, hardy, drought resistant, good in poor soils, and a very useful medicinal herb.

beautiful bulbs

By lengthening the time between mowings you can also grow taller plants such as bulbs. Planted surreptitiously they are a nice surprise. All below are edible and most spread naturally. It is advisable to plant bulbs of similar flowering times together to make any lawn maintenance more straightforward.

Field & Crow garlic, Allium oleraceum & A. vineale: 60cm H, 5cm W. Both almost invasive in grass if left to form bulbils in jul-aug, tolerant of mowing, leaves edible autumn to following summer. If cows eat them, their milk is tainted.

Quamash, Camassia quamash: 50cm H 10cm W. Does well in short grass and under trees, flowers late spring, very edible bulbs when cooked.

Tassel hyacinth
Dog's Tooth Violet, Erythronium den-canis: 15cm H 10cm W. appears in spring for a few months each year. bulbs edible raw or cooked, also try E. revoltum 'pagoda' for a bigger, version.

Tassel Hyacinth, Muscari botryoides: 40cm H clumps 20cm W. Easy to grow, does well in short grass, almost invasive, 3.5cm bulbs edible, but a little bitter.

Or for beauty, there are many other bulbs, such as daffodils, bluebells, crocus etc that can be planted into the lawn.

wonderful wildflowers

Perhaps you could turn some of your lawn into a �wildflower meadow�. This will attract butterflies and insects as well as bringing nature a bit closer to home. Choose a sunny position on poor soil to get the most flowers. Mow only after the seeds have set (around August) and remove the clippings to keep fertility low.
Sow a mix of wild flowers into bare earth, or if grass is already established, grow in pots and plant out in Autumn or Spring, this is more work but gets better results. Most of the above taller lawn plants will do well as these edible ones below...

Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria: 120cm H. Likes moist rich soil non acid soils, a useful medicinal and culinary herb.

Sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella: 30cm H. prefers suny and moist spot, sharp edible salad leaves all year round.

Red clover, Trifolium pratense: 60cm H. attracts butterflies, moths and bees, put round apple trees for better fruit, edible leaves, fixes nitrogen.

Alternatively you could purchase a conservation wildflower mix from a local supplier, you won't be able to eat them though.

For some more lawn fun see the guerrilla gardening pages.


[a] Many pesticides have never been adequately tested for toxicity to humans or wildlife. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, 13 of the most commonly used lawn care pesticides can cause cancer, 14 can cause birth defects, 21 can damage the nervous system, 15 can injure the liver or kidney, and 30 are sensitizers or irritants. [3] The pesticide MCPA, used as an ingredient is some lawn pesticides, has been found to damage the blood brain barrier which protects against neurological illness.[4] Organophosphate pesticides have been shown to cause memory loss and short attention spans.[5] Other studies have linked long term pesticide use with prostate[6], brain and lung cancer.[7] It is estimated that each year in the US, 67 million birds are poisoned by legally used pesticides.[3] Pesticides are often misused especially by homeowners, increasing the risks.
[b] Fertiliser is often over applied, causing runoff problems in nearby watercourses, as well as the obvious waste of fossil fuels in its manufacture and transport.
[c] It is estimated that 44% of domestic water consumption in California is used for lawns[8] In many areas ground water tables are being depleted.
[d] The manufacture of garden machinery uses energy, depletes resources and creates pollution as do the engine fumes or the power plants producing the electricity they run on. In the early 90�s it was estimated that 580,000,000 gallons of petrol were used to run lawnmowers in the US every year.[2]


[1] The Pesticide Scandal, Sayan, Kathyrne, Family Circle 2 April 1991.
[2] Redesigning the American Lawn, F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, Gordon T. Geballe, Yale University Press, 1993
[3] Spring, 1997 edition of The Arlington Environment, Volume Four, Number Four
[4] Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 65:23, 1982
[5] Annual Reviews in Public Health, 7:461, 1986
[6] Occupational Environmental Medicine, 56(1):14-21, 1999
[7] Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 71(1), July 1983
[8] Permaculture a designers manual, Bill Mollison, Tagari publications, 1988.
[9] Plants for a future- edible and useful plants for a healthier world, Ken Fern, Permanent publications, 1997.

home . sitemap . search . contact us . top