My kingdom for a lawn
Things are hotting up!
For me, lawns are problematic. For decades, we’ve known that the upkeep of the vast expanses of mown grass in the world, makes a major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. And we have a big lawn – lawns really, because we have six distinct lawn areas.
My maintenance schedule involves mowing them at irregular intervals with a petrol engine push rotary mower. To say that I mow them regularly, say once a fortnight during fast growth periods in spring and autumn, would be an overly generous estimate. In winter I don’t even bother to get the mower out. They get water when it rains, and no fertiliser or herbicide treatments whatsoever.
Although I would hardly consider our regimen pampering, we have increased our lawn area considerably over the years. And that has increased our burning of fossil fuels.
Grass and my fantasy life
I confess that I have fantasized about a sweep of lawn worthy of a yeoman farmer of modest means in days gone by. Any degree of gentrification beyond that has never been an aspiration of mine. I think, at the very least, I’d need to be part of a lifestyle block development, and have a ride-on mower and some acreage in lawn to qualify.
Whoever had occupied the place before us could not have been accused of regarding lawns as any sort of priority, in fantasy or reality. Back then, there was a narrow strip of lawn on the west side of the house. Grass and gravelled vehicle tracks greeted you as you went through the chainlink gate into the driveway that took you to the back door of the house and the garage a little beyond. To the east, the side of the house served as the fence.
We set about reorientating the old weatherboard house. The master bedroom, once I’d put in a big window facing west, became our lounge. I sealed off the sunless drawing room’s draughty open fire and we transformed it into our bedroom. A few years later, I put a couple of small wooden windows in on its east side to let in some morning sun.
But what did that big wooden window facing west look out on? Distant mountains and hills, Radiata pine trees and Douglas firs, paddocks. And up close? A narrow strip of lawn bounded by a straight as a die sheep netting fence with tanalised posts and a greenish, tanalised wooden rail on top. That eyesore of a barrier stopped your gaze with a jolt; what’s more, it took a right-angled turn to enclose the front lawn as well.
The front lawn, the only one not an afterthought, was probably established soon after the house was finished: that’s to say, some time during the second decade of the twentieth century. A lawn on the south side facing the road, to be viewed from the sun-deprived drawing room’s gable windows. The proverbial front lawn for the colonizers’ gaze to briefly linger over before giving their attention to the road and anything that might be going along it.
Alien orientations for a new country that was on the other side of the world. But to those settlers, bringing with them the customs of the ‘The Old World’, yet another comforting reminder of a northern hemisphere home in the Mother Country. Cultural change takes time.
I get no enjoyment out of mowing lawns. The one thing our initial lawn had going for it (other than less burning of fossil fuels), was that I could whip round it in half an hour. Contrast that with the three to five hours (time dependent on how long I’ve let it get!) it now takes.
The lawn ’empire building’ all started when I decided to put in a vehicle turning circle. That necessitated, we felt, including it as part of the lawn.
The digger, in the process of creating the stretch of driveway needed to form the circle (in our case, an oval loop), built up a large mound of earth at its centre. We planted this in native trees, hebes, flaxes and tussock grasses.
That singular act of landscaping changed everything. Looking out those west-facing windows, it transformed the pinched, miserly foreground view bounded by that unsightly fence. Instead, your eye was drawn to the mound. Your mind’s eye covered it in native plants, and you imagined a sweep of lawn extending out from the house and gracefully curving round this newest stretch of driveway. All on a scale proportionate with the size of the house, its elevated aspect, and the vast expanse of sky, farmland, trees, hills and mountains that enveloped it.
In due course, the fence went, the plants on the mound flourished, and the lawn expanded until it also included the far side of the turning circle. And to the immediate north of it we established a seven tree orchard amidst the grasses; I have to do various contortions as I weave round the trunks with the mower, trying, not always successfully, to avoid low branches.
Airing the dirty lawndry
We now have the six distinct areas of lawn I mentioned at the start. I say distinct because this is not sown lawn seed, carefully tended, watered and fertilised. Our lawns are light years away from a grass monoculture that’s kept so by the application of herbicides to kill everything else. What we have, more or less, is whatever happened to be growing there when we moved on to the place – that’s what I mow down.
The east lawn (yes, it’s no longer part of the Lake Wobegon paddock!), that we look out on from the kitchen and living room windows has some big patches of cocksfoot, each plant a dense mass of thick, tough stalks. If I let it get away on me, the mower conks out several times before I eventually chew it down. I always use the catcher for this lawn, which is tricky because there are berry bushes and a blackboy peach tree to get round and the ground is up and down, all over the place.
The front lawn, to be honest, probably was sown in a lawn seed – perhaps over a hundred years ago! The grass blades are fine, the soil’s thin and usually dry. Ground hugging Hieracium (hawkweed), thrives in dry, arid soils: along with rabbits and wilding pines, the scourge of the Mackenzie High Country. About a third of the front lawn is Hieracium and the grass is so slow growing I can usually get away with not using a catcher for the clippings even in spring.
The straight section of driveway is grassed as far as the back door. Shingle was put down either side of a grassed median strip long before we moved here. The grass is sparse in the tracks, but it gets long and lush on the metre wide rose border and washing line verge. I use the catcher because, as June would say, “The place looks so much better when the lawns are done,” and damp grass clippings brought in on footwear are not a good look.
Likewise, I catch the clippings from the lawn your gaze sweeps over before it rests, soothingly, on the mound’s native plantings. In your average spring and autumn, the grass here goes crazy, except for a middle patch that never thrives and is as much daisy as grass: the grass roots are probably being chomped on by an excess of grass grubs.
Daffodils line the curved edge of this lawn. We love them there – puts spring in your step. But they present an extra challenge when you’re mowing up to them, and I do that from early spring till the tops have browned off and died back in early summer. That’s a long time to skirt round them with the mower! Especially as they’re planted on the cusp of a channel that drains water run-off from a steep slope farther up the hill.
That channel’s at the edge of the driveway that loops around the house side of the mound, and it gets lush growth. The rest of the area around the mound is sparsely covered, but I have to be wary of shingle getting propelled out the back by the rotary blades – very painful when it hits your shins!
Finally, there’s the orchard lawn to mow. There’s plenty of vigorously growing cocksfoot and couch grass (twitch) under the fruit trees. I’m just grateful I’m not using the catcher on the area, and carting the clippings to the compost heap. The compost’s already got its six inch or so layer – more than that obstructs aeration.
Years ago I had the notion of putting most of the lawn areas in native grasses and ground-hugging native shrubs. And I’d revisit the idea at boringly predictable intervals. June, ever the pragmatist in such matters, would bring me down-to-earth with harrowing tales about the herculean labours needed to establish it and to keep the weeds at bay.
One spring I left the grass untouched until it was up to my knees and then scythed it down for hay. This caused much amusement amongst family, friends and aquaintances. A stock agent came round to look at some cattle. “Has your mower broken down, Graham?” he asked as he waded through the knee-high grass stalks.
Attempting a tone and phrasing suggestive of this being the most normal state of affairs in the world, I said that I’d just bought myself a state-of-the-art, lightweight continental scythe and thought I’d use it to cut the lawns for hay. He’d been a stock agent in the area for a long time and had no doubt seen it all when it came to us ‘lifestylers’. Anyway, I hurriedly changed the topic as we moved off towards Owl Gully paddock.
We got the best hay ever – blue-green, sweet smelling, bone dry. But so much work for a small amount of hay that, because it wasn’t baled, took up so much room! There’s much more to the ‘lawn hay saga’ – it deserves a post to itself. I’ll write a memo to remind myself that I should write about it some day.
It’s all relative, I know, but I reckon we have a biggish area in lawn. Not grass I’d want to scythe ever again! These days, I’m resigned to carrying on with the same old, same old when it comes to the area in lawn and the mowing thereof. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and your lawns and get on with other things. Life is short!
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully until next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.