Life Gardens

Thursday 26 April 2018

Behold the low-maintenance, high-impact lawn

In the Garden

More biodiversity: A wildflower lawn is a nature-lover’s alternative to pristine green
More biodiversity: A wildflower lawn is a nature-lover’s alternative to pristine green

Gerry Daly

The traditional green-lawn approach requires frequent mowing, say, once a week, feeding at least twice a year and the control of lawn weeds by spraying with lawn weedkillers every two or three years, as well as mosskiller. Increased interest in wild gardening has raised two alternatives - a wildflower meadow or a wildflower lawn.

A wildflower meadow is treated like a traditional hay meadow, allowed to grow from spring until the end of June or early July before mowing, and removing the cut grass. Then it is mown a few times until October. While this approach is suitable for large areas of lawn, especially those with lots of spring bulbs, allowing them to die back, it requires a mowing machine capable of cutting tall grass, or of strimming small areas. And there is the inconvenience of having to remove the mown grass. But no feeding or spraying is done.

Donegal Garden Trail: Cille Garden
Donegal Garden Trail: Cille Garden

A wildflower lawn offers a good alternative and is the equivalent of constantly grazed pasture - instead of using animals to keep the grass down, the lawnmower does the 'grazing'. The advantage of this approach is that an ordinary lawn mower can be used. It is easy to convert an existing lawn into a lawn managed to encourage wild flowers. Note: this is not a wildflower meadow, it is still a mown lawn, full of wildflowers, but not a meadow.

To manage a wildflower lawn, encourage the broad-leaved plants in the lawn rather than the grasses as you would with the green-lawn approach. Weedkillers are not used on a wildflower lawn. Weedkillers are designed to kill broad-leaved plants while not harming the grasses. The exact opposite is required here and so it requires less effort and expense.

Fertilisers are not used either, except very occasionally if the growth of the lawn becomes very weak. But if fertiliser is used, it should be a balanced general fertiliser such as 10-10-20, which will boost the broad-leaved plants at least as much as it will the grasses. Animals would have returned some nutrients in their droppings.

In fact, broad-leaved plants, once considered weeds, are what you want - daisies, white and red clover, buttercups, dandelions, self-heal, hawkweed and bird's foot trefoil. Some of these will already be present in most lawns that haven't been sprayed over the past two years. If no weedkiller or mosskiller is used, and fertiliser limited, these plants will gain the upper hand on the grasses and progressively increase their numbers. As the proportion of wildflower plants increases each year, the show of flowers in your lawn gets better.

Raise the level of the mowing blades to what looks neat but not too high. Mowing should start with one cut in January, February and March. When growth picks up, mowing will be required more regularly - fortnightly - depending on the rate of growth of the lawn.

If there is good growth, mow more frequently, and mow less in a dry summer and into autumn. This aspect is very important but needs to be assessed by trial and error as soil varies greatly.

As a wildflower lawn matures, and the vigour of grass growth declines, it will be easier to mow and require less frequent mowing. If the wild flowers are mown too often, the flower heads are cut off before they open. After each mowing there is a recovery period, when there are few flowers, but mowing does lengthen the flowering season for wild flowers.

The mown grass should be removed from the wildflower lawn until about the middle of May because the grass will still be vigorous until then. During the period of lesser grass growth, a mulching kit allows the mown material to fall back onto the lawn, returning some of the nutrients in the mown grass, and returning wildflower seeds, encouraging their continued spread.

A wildflower lawn is better for wildlife, offering food, and for the environment because it uses less petrol and no chemicals. It suits rural gardens, wildlife gardens and informal gardens very well.

Visit it

Donegal Garden Trail celebrates its 12th season this year with 22 gardens opening their gates to welcome visitors over the next months. The gardens vary in size from a small, but exquisite, rose garden to large parkland gardens. Most are situated on or near to the Wild Atlantic Way, such as Cille Garden, pictured below, so you can also explore Donegal's coastline. For dates, times and details, check donegalgardentrail.com

Learn all about it

A series of fascinating talks continues at Kilkenny Castle from Tuesday next with garden historian Terence Reeves-Smyth on the use of trees in Irish parklands; and Mary Keenan on how to reinterpret and restore a mature garden. 8pm, Tuesdays from April 10; kilkennycastle.ie or facebook.com/kilkennycastle.ie

Plant it

if you're looking for a small, hardy, deciduous tree that will light up your garden now, seek out the unusual Stachyurus chinensis. Its stunning pendants of pale yellow bell-shaped flowers hang down from bare branches in late winter through to early spring. Available from garden centres.

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