For the love of lawn

Gardening+Australia%27s+Sophie+Thomson%2C+with+horticulturist+Mark+Hannan.+Photo+by+Linda+Lacey

Gardening Australia’s Sophie Thomson, with horticulturist Mark Hannan. Photo by Linda Lacey

Sir Walter Buffalo has an almost cult-like following in some circles. Tough and adaptable, the Buffalo family is believed to have arrived in Australia close to 200 years ago, taking its name from the boat on which it came.

While its ancestor Buffalos are remembered as irritating and sharp, the modern Sir Walter is softer but still attractive and hardy. When environments are challenging, Sir Walter Buffalo is reliable.

Couch is another popular Australian. Loveable and easy going, Couch always looks good but has a reputation for taking over. Kikuyu similarly dominates if not controlled, but Kikuyu’s vigour and sporting-field success means its less appealing attribute is generally forgiven.

For many years, Sir Walter Buffalo, Couch and Kikuyu, and others of their kind, held pride of place in many of our public and private spaces. But where a healthy Sir Walter Buffalo, Couch or Kikuyu used to be envied, such displays are now often derided as flagrant excess.

Our climate is changing and we are being confronted with its impacts. As we head into another summer many parts of Australia have long-term rainfall deficiencies. Every crisis needs a villain and when it comes to intensifying drought conditions, Sir Walter Buffalo, Couch and Kikuyu are now often labelled our enemies. For us to survive, they must die.

Or must they?

We’re talking lawns of cause, and it would be a rare person that has never interacted with a Buffalo, Couch or Kikuyu. They are three of Australia’s most popular lawn varieties. When faced with dwindling water supplies our Buffalos, Couchs and Kikuyus are often the first thing to be sacrificed. Challenging the belief that lawns are the ultimate in environmental vandalism however is the proposition that having a lawn – especially a lush, green one – is integral to living more comfortably and sustainably on our warming plant. Sir Walter Buffalo, Couch, Kikuyu and others might actually be the cool guys of climate change resilience.

Lawns aren’t unique to Australia but they feel distinctly Australian. We danced around sprinklers on them, they cushioned our slipping and sliding across pieces of plastic, and we buried our bare toes in their cooling carpet while battling bindii and bees. Lawns turned our backyards into mini MCGs and Adelaide Ovals, giving birth to the one-hand, one-bounce rule and helping perfect the ‘speccie’.

Our federal government toils beneath a radiant green lawn (a blend of Tall Fescue and Kentucky Blue Grass with a smattering of drought-tolerant Couch, in case you’re wondering).

The Victa lawn mower was paraded during the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics but, as with the lawn, Australia cannot claim the invention of the lawn mower, merely the improvement of it.

For those born before the millennium drought of the late 90s to late 2000s, lawns symbolise summer and innocence, and help build a sense of identity, according to horticulturalist Mark Hannan,

“Growing up with the great Aussie backyard and 1970s suburbia, a lawn is ingrained into my psyche,” he says. “It’s intrinsic to me, to my character.”

Despite feeling so Australian, lawn was originally considered very English. Lawn historian Peter Macinnis credits Andrew Jackson Downing, an American landscape architect who sprang to prominence in the 1840s, with the popularity of lawn.

Downing was enamoured with the English style of garden and advocated for “grass mown into a softness like velvet”. He viewed a badly kept lawn as a sign of a “rude and barbarous people”.

The perception of lawn as a marker of a civil society also followed Europeans to Australia. Macinnis says that here, as in England and America, grass cultivated into a lawn was a display of status as it required land and water to grow and staff for mowing. It also provided a cultural connection to ‘home’, helping to keep Australian’s Britishness alive.

When the Adelaide Botanic Gardens came into being in the mid-1860s, early plantings included experiments with grasses that would be able to withstand long, dry summers, such as Couch and Buffalo.

For much  of the 19th century however, lawn in Australia remained a luxury. Its source, grass, was instead considered a life and hope-sustaining commodity. In 1896 poet Banjo Paterson wrote of the dull despair of drovers as they led starving cattle towards sweet green grass.

Macinnis and other landscape historians say lawn became entrenched in the Australian way of life through a few key developments. The first was the invention of the lawn mower (in England) in the 1830s. Its evolution into the rotary push mower many of us have today made taming grass into a lawn easier and reduced the need for paid staff.   Ironically, paid lawn mowing services now sustain many household lawns.

Second, the development of some of our most beloved sporting codes, such as cricket, football, golf and lawn bowls, required turfed surfaces. This added a recreational value to lawn’s aesthetic one. Lastly, through the expansion of Australian cities and the rise of the suburb, yards became bigger and gardens more common.

In the 1920s much of Adelaide’s open land was reshaped into suburbs under soldier settlement schemes. This included the development of ‘ideal garden suburbs’ to the west and south of the city.

Out in these new suburbs, homeowners modelled their gardens on designs popular at the time, including those by Edna Walling who wrote monthly articles for Australian Home Beautiful and promoted informal gardens that featured lawns.

Over the next 80 years, on these little plots of paradise, we grew and tended patches of Buffalo, Couch and Kikuyu until they became so much a part of the landscape they began to be mundane and expected.

Once a symbol of the elite, lawns were soon synonymous with hills-hoists, the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the reticulation sprinkler and the drone of a distant two-stroke.

Then something happened.

The start of the new millennium delivered a record-breaking drought. By the mid-2000s, 80 per cent  of urban Australians were living with severe water restrictions. We turned off our garden taps and a green, lush Buffalo, Couch or Kikuyu became the ultimate, unforgivable sin.

In 2007, 66-year old Ken Proctor died in the driveway of his home in Sydney’s Sylvania following an altercation with a passer-by who became infuriated at the sight of Ken watering his lawn.

Water restrictions preventing non-essential water use, such as watering gardens and washing the car, were loosened nearly a decade ago, but the perception of lawns as wanton waste of water has continued.  Just recently, a Brisbane man received a note reading ‘Shame on You! There are places that haven’t got enough water to drink or shower but your lawn is green!’.

But while we’ve been spying on the neighbours, our cities have been getting hotter. And, according to Melissa Bradley of Water Sensitive SA, by allowing our lawns to go to dust, we’ve inadvertently started to cook our suburbs.

Mark Hannan, who manages biodiversity and environmental education projects for the City of Charles Sturt in Adelaide’s west, refers to Melbourne as an explainer.

“They had this big thing where they realised during the droughts over there that turning off the water and encouraging people not to use water actually had huge thermal impacts for the heat island,” he says. “What they were finding was the city and the surrounding landscape actually got hotter because of the ‘don’t use water’ message.”

What Hannan and Bradley are saying is that, in our desire to save the environment by saving water, we have been contributing to urban heat, which is one of the biggest issues impacting our ability to survive in a changing climate.

Those working in the climate change adaption field are now encouraging us to rethink our lawns and how we maintain them. It’s a confusing message. For years we’ve been told to save water by not watering the lawn, but now we’re being told to water the lawn to save the planet.

Hard surface cover is one of the biggest generators of urban heat, according to Bradley, and, unlike lawn, hard surface cover in our cities is growing. At a Cooler, Greener Adelaide Conference, Bradley said just over 43 per cent  of Adelaide’s metro area is hard surface. Policies preventing urban sprawl into productive agricultural lands, combined with a growth in single person households and a preference for low maintenance lifestyles, have resulted in the chopping up of house blocks in Adelaide’s established suburbs.

Blocks of land that once featured a single home and up to 70 per cent  non-hard surface cover including lawn now accommodate up to five homes and have less than five per cent  of non-hard surface cover. Between 2013 and 2017, Adelaide lost on average 150 Adelaide Ovals of green cover each year.

A city that lacks green open spaces is, on average, four  degrees hotter.

Hannan calls lawn the city’s air conditioner. “Plants transpire, so you think, we’ve got heat blowing across a hot landscape, that landscape just gets hotter. When heat blows across a transpiring landscape, you’ve got an evaporative cooler because you’ve got evapotranspiration.”

Evapotranspiration occurs when plants draw water up through their roots and stems and out through their leaves. Not only is the plant cool to touch, but so is the air around it. Studies have shown that even in cool temperature cities in the United Kingdom lawns can be up to 25 degrees cooler than tarmac surfaces in the midday sun.

“Anything living is good because you get evapotranspiration. As heat comes across lawn you’ve got the cooling effect and you’re going to be degrees cooler, and if you’ve got that lawn surrounding your house, you’re basically in a cool, green island,” Hannan says.

It is because of this cool island effect that Ali Wood-McGair surrounded her passive resistance home in Adelaide’s west with lawn. “It was about keeping the ground cool around the house,” she says of the decision that catches some people off-guard when they visit each Sustainable House open day.

“When it came to the courtyard in the middle of the home we wanted the space to be cool so lawn was the better option because the no water alternatives such as rock and concrete would just heat it up.”

 

Gardening guru Sophie Thomson is also an advocate of using lawn for evaporative air conditioning. She stresses the importance of growing lawn on the hot side of the house and supporting its cooling effect with other plants.

“If you’ve got a hedge, on a day when the hot wind blows it gets filtered through the hedge and gets reduced,” she says. “It then passes under a tree and gets cool, and then over a lawn and picks up moisture, and if it goes into your house, that’s your evaporative air conditioning.”

Having tried unsuccessfully to substitute her Buffalo lawns with a less water dependent native turf (it wasn’t as resilient), Thomson doesn’t believe people should be shamed for having a lush green lawn. “Lawn doesn’t require much water. You could be using your wastewater, your grey water on your lawn to keep it green. A healthy lawn will stay green for longer.”

While we grapple with the idea of growing lawn for sustainability, even more confronting in our era of water scarcity is the idea that we should never stop watering them. Lawns that aren’t watered stop evapotranspiration as they seek to retain water. When we let our lawns die, urban heat increases because we’ve essentially turned off the air conditioner.

Water Sensitive SA, an organisation working with government and communities to implement water sensitive urban design, has found that in an extreme heat event (when the average daily temperature is 32 degrees or above) the land surface temperature of unirrigated lawn can be 20 degrees hotter than irrigated lawn.

When you stand on bare earth during a typical Adelaide summer day of 35 degrees celsius the air around you can be up to 40 degrees.  Move to a well-watered lawn and your day cab drop back to 28 degrees.

How did it happen that we so badly misunderstood lawn’s environmental benefits?

“I think it’s a lot like how butter was demonised in the 70s,” Hannan says of the turnaround in thought. “We didn’t have the sophisticated understanding of fats back in the 70s to know that some fats were good, so we were told that all fats were bad.

“I think that’s where we were with water and lawn. We were told to let the lawn go to dust because it’s a symbol of profligacy and wastefulness and how dare you have a beautiful green lawn when there are people starving.  But it became hotter because there was no water in the landscape.”

Hannan also thinks that the millennium drought was the first time many Australians experienced a water crisis of the scale that meant they had to choose between flushing the toilet and keeping the garden alive. This created extreme responses.

“I think it was the zeitgeist, it really was. We were getting ‘save water’ messages everywhere. I remember I was running campaigns at council about water saving devices and state government was chucking all this money into it,” Hannan says.

“It was a pretty grim situation.  Fortunately, that stuff doesn’t happen too often, so when we have that, it’s the scarcity complex. Things are going to be horrible for a long time, where can I cut? We were in that scarcity mindset.”

Does the change in thinking mean that we should now place adapting to climate change ahead of saving water?

“Not necessarily,” Hannan says. “It’s about mitigation and adaptation, the things go together.”

“Water is a tool at our disposal. You want to water before a heat wave comes along and charge the landscape with moisture so that the moisture in the landscape dissipates the heat.  If you water judiciously at the right time, you’re having a protective effect.”

South Australia’s water provider, SA Water, now has permanent Water Wise measures in place that advise people how to save water by watering the lawn. These include giving the lawn a good soak two days before a heatwave arrives, and ‘flash watering’ for five minutes on hot days to help lawn function as nature’s evaporative air conditioner.

Ironically, it’s not that much different to the advice of the South Australian Nurserymen and Seedmen Association in the era that gave rise to the suburban lawn, which was also a time when South Australians regularly faced water restrictions.

In 1930, the Association’s president, a Mr Fairey, said “in most cases a quarter of an hour on one spot twice a week will keep a lawn in good order in dry, hot weather.”

Despite the change in messaging, it appears the reputations of Sir Walter Buffalo, Couch and Kikuyu have not yet been redeemed.  As demonstrated by the note to the resident of water restriction free Brisbane, lawns continue to be seen a less deserving of water.  A quick poll on the value of lawns on Facebook reveals that there is a bit of guilt attached to admitting a love for lawn.

“Ideally water should be going to something that serves an environmental purpose or produces something that’s needed,” says Donna Mijatovic who tries to live lightly in Adelaide’s dry north-east. “In saying that, I love the cool feeling of lawn and we have a small patch at home.”

“I think this is where we get a bit bourgie, you know, we think, ‘I grow food crops rather than having a wasteful lawn therefore me and my water use is morally superior’, but the so-called wasteful lawn is actually doing a lot of good for the environment.”

Mark Hannan points out that lawns also have an aesthetic and practical value that we shouldn’t overlook in our haste to minimise our impact on the plant.

It’s about honouring what it is about lawns that made people fell in love with them in the first place.  “I love lawn,” he happily admits.  “I come home, I see the lawn and it’s beautiful. A lawn is respite, it washes your eyes clean, there’s just something about grass.  I can’t walk over and lay down on my zucchini crop.”