This feature was written for the Guardian
Lionel Smith isn’t anti-grass, nor is he immune to the smell of it when freshly cut. But he believes it’s high time we rethought the lawn. The concept is more than 900 years old, and our modern take on it apparently lacks creativity. As lovingly well kept as it may be, your home turf has the potential to be so much more than a homogenous expanse of green blades. And let’s be honest: grass is often more patchy than perfect.
Standing by the grass-free lawn he has created for Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London, Smith can barely contain his excitement. It’s the first public outing for an idea he’s been nurturing at the University of Reading for four years. “Why do you need grass in the lawn when it can look as pretty as this?” he asks.
If we decide to take a leap with Smith and agree that grass isn’t its defining feature, what is a lawn? “It’s something very low-cut. Anything beyond here,” he says, pointing halfway up his shin, “is going towards meadow. The other thing is using a mower. It must be low and it must be mown. Do you mow your flowerbeds?”
Floral and grass lawns may have height and close cutting in common, but wildlife sets the floral lawn apart. “Other than the occasional blackbird pulling a worm, there’s not a lot that goes on. [A grass lawn’s] biodiversity value is highly limited,” Smith says. “However, when you have something like this, which is made up of over 65 cultivars and species, each with a different form and shape, there is so much opportunity. It’s a magnet for insect life. And it’s gorgeous! I wanted to create something beautiful.”
The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea invited Smith to create the floral lawn in a spot that previously hosted a pictorial meadow with varying success. The 200 sq m space is a textural patchwork of ground-hugging burgundy, pink and green foliage and flowers, with flashes of blue, yellow and white. Taller plants form clumps throughout – a sign that the first mow is due.
The mowing is crucial, but slicing away hundreds of flowers feels brutal. “The mower will shock everybody – it always does,” Smith says. “But the taller plants will dominate the smaller ones unless they’re attacked by the mower. If it’s not mown, this will not last – it will turn into a meadow.” This tough love does make sense. Smaller plants get the light and space they need to thrive, and the taller ones will start growing again within a few weeks. And a floral lawn requires far less cutting over a year than a grass one.
The perennial plants are a mixture of UK natives and their cultivars, plus more exotic species that extend the flowering period. Rather than being sown directly into the soil, they are cultivated from seed, plugs or cuttings in seed trays. When the plants have developed decent roots, Smith lays them in a mosaic over ground where the grass has been removed.
The key is that they can multiply with runners or roots, and that they’re allowed time to knit and blend before the first cut. Species include bronze-leaved bugle (Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’), unusual pink dandelions (Taraxacum pseudoroseum) and big, blowsy, red daisies. There’s also a smattering of Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), which releases its scent when crushed underfoot.
Walking on the lawn is encouraged, but not in excess. Light footfall is helpful, but the Avondale Park lawn is fenced off because it’s in a busy public space. I’m allowed a quick wander. It feels decidedly odd to walk over the flowers, and my stride is more cautious than confident. Apparently children have a much more animated response. And park users of all ages have welcomed its appearance.
“We’ve had lots of enquiries,” says Leanne Brisland, the borough’s ecology service manager. “Residents want to know if they can buy it, saying they’d like to put one in their own garden.” And that, of course, is the killer question: where can you get one? It’s a question Smith has been fending off with increasing regularity. He’s unwilling to commit to anything definitive until he finishes his PhD research, but he hopes to collaborate with garden centres to create an off‑the‑shelf version.
If you fancy trying your hand at a floral lawn, Smith proposes growing your chosen plants in seed trays on the space where you want the floral lawn to be. The trays will starve the grass of light and you’ll see what the floral version is going to look like in situ. Once your plants have good roots and the grass is dead, turn out the trays and establish your lawn (Smith has suggestions on his website). Then sit back, put that order for a new mower on hold and wait for the wildlife to arrive.