I want a lawn in my garden
Everyone wants a lawn. Or are they doing it? Monty Don says they’re old fashioned, destroyer of nature and singularly masculine; Alan titchmarsh said this week that a clean, ridged lawn is good for your mental health. I’ve always wanted one, the scruffy kind; it was hard to imagine a dream garden without one.
In my opinion, every garden needs a lawn. Even in the first seasons of my innocence, I knew a lot. What else is there to do in childhood than lie, terribly bored, on unglamorous English terrain? Childhood, especially before the invention of the Internet, is incredibly boring; if one is lucky, despair leads to the garden.
On the extremely rare occasions when I wasn’t reading, I could usually be found doing something special outdoors: peeling sticky yew bark to make unsuccessful bows and arrows; fossil hunting in flower beds; grinding paint bricks; look for earthworms, inspect insects, listen to the melancholy cooing of wood pigeons, contemplate the void.
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I tasted the grass stalks. I once attempted to cut the lawn with blunt-tipped scissors.
So naturally, I wanted my kids to spend as much time being bored on a lawn as I did. The area in question was the size of a bedroom, perhaps four square meters; all we needed was a few rolls of sod, turves. I had already bought a Swingball. How difficult could that be?
The first 14 or 15 visitors we saw said we weren’t surfaceable, that no grass could survive under all that overhanging foliage. And where would we keep the lawn mower? People can be so negative.
I wouldn’t give up: what about running through sprinklers? Watch the clouds? We had promised the guinea pigs; I had whispered grazing offerings into their petal ears. They couldn’t settle for carrot peels and stolen grass indefinitely.
The books insisted on digging, adding 10 cm of topsoil, scarifying, sowing. In a panic, I invested further: a hose reel, like a neon turtle; a cheap shed, which molded almost overnight; a set of inflatable goal posts.
Slowly, I came to accept the inevitable: it would be a garden without grass. There was so much more to do – branches to prune, fertilizer to throw away – that sometimes I could almost forget my grief on the lawn. Almost, but not entirely; even now, when I spot a particularly delicious patch of new spring grass, it’s hard to resist the urge to roll over it.
So I started to think about my other options. Why did no one explain all the rules? I learned that I had to map the hours of sunshine in my garden, but the sun never stayed long enough to be sure.
Each child’s gardening guide asks everyone to test a) the soil’s pH and b) its structure. I obeyed, as if I could confuse expectations and discover a bog of sour heather beneath the topsoil of London. I tried to measure the consistency of my soil; Did a collapsing sausage suggest it was sticky or gritty?
I wondered where to put the pond. But it wasn’t until I realized that a pond of this scale was essentially a puddle that I recognized that my plans for a wildlife sanctuary would come to naught. There would be no newts or tadpoles. No grass, no chickens. I consoled myself by thinking of the inevitable slow worms and grass snakes. . . oh, no, wait. Not grass snakes. But surely rare spiders? Interesting bees?
We have, however, been abundantly blessed with two varieties of animals: cats and slugs.
The gardens of this terrace intersect, forming a pedestrian zone in which dozens of felines, variously noisy, violent, exciting and digestively vigorous, can perform their passeggiata. There’s the creature with the irritating howl, the weird pale stalker, the fat, fluffy tyrant who harasses and maims everything within a 10-yard radius. Their cats are almost as bad.
If your flower beds are a popular local toilet, no hoses or cayenne sprinklers or unpleasantly scented rose thorns or coleus plants will deter them; no loans of ferocious dogs, no ultrasound frequencies – nothing is working.
Planting and transplanting bulbs will be horrifying; nasty surprises lurk under every innocent snowdrop.
No true warrior surrenders. I had read that slugs and snails were the main enemies of gardeners, but I was convinced that this would not apply to me. I bought some lager, buried jars, sprinkled with orange halves and waited. It was a major triumph. The inflated beer bodies, like exhausted darts players, were disgusting but bearable, for the garden was saved.
My thirst for blood was satiated, like a sort of victory lap, I trotted back to admire the young parsley plants that I had planted the day before. What foresight! What a plantwomanship! Soon we would be eating clusters of –
There was nothing. Every leaf and stalk had been devoured by raging hordes of slugs, galloping across the plains while, like a fool, I slept. Slowly I understood the reason. The disintegrated walls of which I was so proud were a breeding ground, a kind of nursery, for the molluscs of the nation.
Chastised, uninterrupted, I vowed not to rest until the garden was a fertile paradise, ingeniously protected from parasites, dripping with ripe fruit, fragrant, inviting. How long could it take – maybe a year? It was a silly plan.
Five years later, I am still without a lawn. Yes, I wish I could lie down on the grass and watch the clouds; yes my new garden is more about kale than grass. But I love this. If I had had a lawn, I probably would have dug it up by now to use as a home subdivision. My only regret: I have absolutely no excuse for a riding mower.
“ Rhapsody in green: a writer, an obsession, a laughable little excuse for a vegetable patch ” (Kyle Books, £ 9.99) is out now