Posted by & filed under Land, Plant Systems, Society, Soil Rehabilitation, Structure.

I hate lawns…. Bill Mollison (‘Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution – An Interview with Bill Mollison by Scott London’)

Lawns, love them or hate them, they are one of those features of modern life that we take for granted, though we’ve long forgotten their origins. We have lawn because we’ve ‘always had lawns’, without questioning why….

Most permaculture practitioners loathe them frankly, seeing the space are valuable ground better utilised for growing food!

Now, imagine if we applied our permaculture design principles to lawns, what would be the result? Can we come up with a permaculture design rationale for the much maligned common lawn?

For the sake of perspective, we’ll look at the origins of lawns, and why we even have them, then I’ll step into highly controversial territory – the concept of a ‘permaculture lawn’!

The History of Lawns

The concept of having a ‘lawn’ come to us from Europe. Originally pastures of grass were used to graze livestock, which kept the grass short, resulting in large expanses of land covered with close-cut grass. Europe’s mild weather with plenty of rainfall ideally supports the growth of grass across large, open spaces.

In the 17th century in England, we first saw the deliberate growing of trimmed grass by the wealthy and the aristocracy as a show of affluence. During those times, land was a valuable resource, as it was used to grow food, which provided a source of nutrition and a source of income. For a wealthy landowner to simply grow grass was a show of extravagance, flaunting the fact that they had land to waste as they pleased.

The enormity of such a status symbol may not be immediately obvious to us in our current day and age until we realise that lawn mowers did not exist at the time! These lawns were cut by hand — by servants using scythes, sickles and shears. The amount of labour involved in maintaining a large lawn was considerable, and only the wealthiest in society could afford to pay people to carry out this work.

The first mechanical lawn mower was invented in 1827 and patented in 1830 by engineer, Edwin Beard Budding (1795-1846) from Stroud, Gloucestershire, England.

After the lawnmower was invented, having a lawn no longer remained the mark of wealth and status that it once was, but this status symbol now became accessible to the masses. From that time onward, we’ve just kept on growing lawns in our front yards, forgetting that they were once grown as a symbol of wealth. Just another one of those unquestioned traditions that people blindly follow without knowing why….

A Permaculture Lawn?

Permaculture’s design principles are universal, and can be applied to all manner of plant-growing systems. If they are universal, they must be applicable to lawns too. Right?

First, in a design, we need to justify the inclusion of each element, and if we include a lawn in our design (I can already hear Bill’s grumbles from here!), we need to explain what it’s doing there in the first place!

Then, we need to devise a method of applying sustainable growing principles to maintain the lawn in our design.

That, in a nutshell, is our two-part challenge in applying our permaculture design principles to something that is oh so not permaculture!!!

Lawn Rationale

In a design, we need a place to put our plants and trees, so we create garden beds for them.

It is critical to separate the garden areas from the paths and walking areas, because the garden beds are strict ‘no-stepping’ areas! Stepping in the garden beds compacts the soil, and this reduces both water and air penetration through the soil structure, which adversely affects plant growth.

People need to be accommodated in the design too, and since people clearly don’t belong in the garden beds, you need to put them somewhere too — a lawn perhaps?

Hopefully this is sound rationale for having a lawn in the back yard. Lawns in the front yard are a different matter entirely, in most cases they are rarely used, and are rarely justifiable, being vestiges of the old European status symbol.

Sustainable Lawns

The biggest problem with lawns is that they are commonly maintained in the most unsustainable ways:

  • Lawns are mowed very short, so the grass doesn’t get a chance to build a strong root structure, which means that it is not very water efficient.
  • When lawns are mowed, the lawn clippings are disposed of, which gradually depletes the minerals from the soil and removes organics matter from the system. The clippings are often full of grass seeds, and are therefore not cold-compostable.
  • To counteract the depletion caused by the disposal of the clippings, chemical fertilizers are used. These damage the soil, and also get washed away and contaminate waterways, causing eutrophication (a process where water bodies receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth.)
  • Chemical herbicides are used to kill ‘weeds’ – contaminating the soil and surrounding ecosystems.

Lawns can be grown sustainably, by using some common sense organic gardening principles:

  • By not mowing grass too short (set the mower to the highest setting) and allowing the grass to grow a bit longer, the root system can grow stronger, making the lawn more water efficient. It also means less mowing!
  • Leave lawn clippings on the lawn after mowing (mow without a grass catcher). The clippings will break down to create a natural mulch. All minerals from the soil are retained, and there us a net positive gain in organic matter over time, so the lawn will be ‘soil building’. Any grass seeds present will self-sow, making the lawn thicker and filling out any bare patches.
  • Fertilizers won’t be required because the soil is not being depleted.
  • Any ‘weeds’ can be manually dug out if they must be, and having a thicker, taller grass will reduce the self-seeding of many ‘weeds’ in the first place.

So, there you go, from a design perspective, lawns can be justified, and furthermore, lawns can be grown sustainably without poisoning the soil and the surrounding ecosystem.

Further proof that you can apply permaculture principles to growing every plant under the sun, and even those we might dislike!

Further Reading:

18 Responses to “Permaculture Lawns”

  1. Øyvind Holmstad

    Interesting historical zumarry indeed! For further reading I’ll also add The polyculture lawn: A primer: http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-12-13/polyculture-lawn-primer

    A problem about adding mulch around the house is that most foundations for houses are too low, often just 10 cm above the ground, while an abseloutely minimum for a wooden house is 30 cm. Thus the wood construction is exposed to rot. If you travel around in Western Norway you see all old houses had a stone foundation for at least 50 cm, often 100 cm. Then you could grow everything close to the house, add mulch and the stone would become a heat resorviar to grow more sensitive flowers and vegetables. This was a very useful pattern!

    Reply
  2. Hugh

    Good article, but would have liked to see at least a mention of using other plant for lawns. For example, yarrow lawns. Lots of stuff on the internet about this if people are interested. These lawns can require less maintenance (can leave them unmowed for periods of time) and may be more resilient in the face of drought and unwanted species, if designed well.

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  3. Richard

    Lawns are a bit of a scourge but for me its not the lawn itself, its how we use them. I think the old principle of “the problem is the solution” fits here well with the lawn. ( Sorry Bill!)

    I’m a permaculture practioner but I pretty much make my living from lawns. In between doing veggie garden and fruit tree maintenance for customers I do lawn mowing to make up a living wage but I try to do it in a sustainable way, i.e, not cutting too short and using natural fertilisers such as powdered sheep pellets, rock dust etc.

    The other major benefit for me is that one man’s waste is my resource. I bring home anywhere between 1 and 4 wool bales of lawn clippings a week depending on the season ( even though I recommend to my customers that mulching is better for the lawn than catching).

    We use this resource on our 2 acre permaculture property for compost making and, in what I call my All Terrain Chicken Tractor (we have a slopping site), a height adjustable hybrid chock tractor/deep litter system I’ve devised as a way to clear and fertilise ground for our food forest. ….Hoping to write up an article for that one day. So for me lawns a great source of fertility in the development of our property.

    But one way to turn your own lawn into an integral part of you permaculture system is to simply graze meat rabbits on it. Just add a bit of clover and other grazing herbs to it, get yourself a couple of hutches and some Flemmish Giants and your lawn soon yields a healthy , lean quality meat.

    Added to that, the waste from your bunnies can be spread with a rake as a natural fertiliser for the lawn, or given that rabbits poo in the same place, put some mulch down where they are doing their business and you have a fantastic wad of fertility for you fruit trees.

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  4. Joanne Dodd

    Hi Angelo,

    Thanks for the article on lawns. I have a very large yard and have been progressively eliminating lawn over the past 6 years, because I hate mowing! I just wanted to share some observations through changing the way I’ve done things. I used to mow without a catcher every two weeks and found that the amount of clippings left behind made it difficult to mow the next time. It would take me several hours, two or more tanks of fuel and much physical effort to get through the whole yard. Last year I decided to try using the catcher and mowing more often, weekly when possible. Using this strategy it takes less time, half the amount of fuel per mow (therefore the same over a two week period) and less effort. I give the clippings to the chooks who eat the seed and spread the clippings around the yard which covers the bare soil in their area and prevents erosion. (I realise not everyone has that option.)

    I live in a summer rainfall dominated area so this strategy works for me. The root systems of my ‘lawn’ plants are very deep and it grows really fast so cutting the grass short isn’t an issue here. My soil is most vulnerable in winter when frost kills off some of the grass species. This, however, presents an opportunity for other plants to come through and a large section of my yard is covered in capeweed. I understand that this points to a Magnesium deficiency but that doesn’t bother me. The Capeweed protects the soil from erosion and has a deep tap root that will bring nutrient up from lower in the profile. There are sections of my yard that are exclusively grass species but most of it is a polyculture of grasses and what many people would call ‘weeds’. I never fertilise it, although the guinea pigs do contribute small amounts, and never water it.

    I appreciate that in the drier regions of Australia that your suggested strategy is more applicable and no doubt I would manage a lawn area that way too. I definitely agree that lawns don’t have to be high maintenance and resource depleting but perhaps the issue is to change the perception of lawns as immaculately manicured monocultures to polycultures that support ecological diversity in their own right?

    Regards
    Joanne

    Reply
  5. Margi Curtis

    I have long argued that lawns are a capitalist plot! (grin) They take up valuable resources energy and time to maintain. Energy better spent seeding the permaculture revolution, IMO.

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  6. david spicer

    gday angelo, lawns are a funny one
    there’s something in our phycolgy that wants lawns, maybe to see predators, but on the other hand my mother inlaw is visiting us here in oz from japan and she notice the amount of energy spent on lawns and the little use they get?

    I think we all know the resources lawns consume and there lie’s the problem, put the same amount of energy in food prouction and we take a great step forward in becoming more self relient

    brave of you to put this post up, but there’s nothing like pushing the edge

    Reply
  7. Christine Shuck

    Here in the U.S. as the permaculture movement grows, there is more and more ‘positivity’ shall we say towards clover instead of grass. As a child, my family’s lawn in Arizona was divided into several segments due to elevation (it was built on a hill and then divided by railroad ties). In one of the ‘mini-yards’ we had clover not grass. It was amazing. I spent hours in this patch, tying clover necklaces and crowns for me (and my poor dog) and I loved to walk on the stuff. I’m hoping to seed the remains of my grass lawn with clover here in Missouri and let my own daughter experience the same joy I did in the warm months. Bare feet and daisy chains!

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  8. Angelo Eliades

    This is a great exchange of lawn ideas. Lot’s of great creative perspectives and practical tips! Lawns will never be the same again!

    With this article, I approached it from a design principle perspective, and considered how lawns can be incorporated into Permaculture systems.

    I’m loving the wide range of approaches everyone has been coming up with for their particular areas.

    All your comments are really inspiring me to try even more things with my lawns (or what’s left of them)!

    My lawns are a mix of various grasses and other plants, and yes, there’s clover in there too. I assume its the low growing variety with the white flowers that’s being suggested for lawns, that’s what grows by itself here, not the foot high clovers that are used in orchards.

    I will do a follow up article on lawn alternatives, since I did discover in my historical research for this article that the very first European lawns were actually comprised of thyme and chamomile, not grass!

    The idea of a herbal fragrant lawn covered in various flowers, such as clovers and daisies sounds very enticing! It’s spring here, perfect time to start experimenting with the lawn, just got to be careful not to step on any bees with bare feet on a flowering lawn!

    Reply
  9. Adam T

    I like the lawn. Its a fantastic aquifer recharge area where my excess storm water flows out when the water tanks and paths are saturated. Its a healthy mix of white clover, dandelion, grass and other unidentifiable herbs that the chickens mow from inside their chicken tractor. It’s a 5 day cycle and there are 6 areas in the rotation, so the grass always has a month to recover. Its never looked greener or healthier. My lawn is the part of the garden’s biodiversity and the best status symbol because it says i want to live sustainably.

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  10. Jason Gerhardt

    While lawns started as a status symbol there are some other reasons why it persists in every nook and cranny these days. A landscape architect friend of mine was doing a consultation at a big university one day and asked the facilities manager, “I didn’t realize you guys had so much water to irrigate all this lawn”. The facilities manager replied, “we don’t, but you can hire any idiot to mow a lawn for next to nothing.” It might be that lawns persist because they are easy to install and easy to manage, that is you don’t need much skill level and can hire the lowest bidder. Lawns from this perspective are dumbing down humanity. So I love the ideas of polyculture herb lawns. Get rid of the monoculture lawns and mix it up; add more dynamism to the human experience! Also, lawns in drylands can be dished out to hold water as a very shallow basin, nearly imperceptible to the eye, with water always flowing to the lowest point.

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  11. Lisa Fernandes

    Great post and discussion. I will echo what other people have said and emphasize the idea of a lawn made of other things. I remember my grandfather (who never quite cottoned on to the weed-free golf course style lawn concept) admiring the “fine clover” in his neighbor’s yard. Love the idea of low-growing, beneficial, travel-hardy plantings. There are also some great “no-mow” and “low-mow” grass seed mixes that are really nice. A bit hummocky or lumpy but really beautiful. Our ducks mow what’s left of our “lawn” and we use the scythe or little reel mower to finish up whatever’s left. Yay!

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  12. Darren (Green Change)

    Some additional unsustainable lawn practices for your list:

    – applying pesticides
    – applying fungicides
    – using lots of water for irrigation
    – mowing using noisy, polluting fossil fuel mowers

    Many of the drawbacks can be addressed by selecting a lawn species that suits your climate and the site properties and uses (hot, cold, frost/snow, wet, dry, sun, shade, traffic level, pests, diseases, etc).

    Lawn can be a useful element in a permaculture design. It generally likes moisture and fertiliser, and its roots don’t go terribly deep. That makes it great to plant on septic system leachfields, where it’ll get plenty of water and nutrient without fouling the pipes below. Regular mowing (with catcher) provides a yield of compostable material too.

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  13. SOP

    “You can’t plant koala fodder trees in that park, they will get in the way of the mowing” – actual quote (or close enough).

    But won’t that reduce the amount of mowing, thereby saving time and money? Oh, and feeding koalas?

    “blank stare”

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  14. Matelot

    Angelo, I agree with everything you have raised in your article. I have kids who love the outdoors and a little bit of lawn plays an essential role in their outdoor acti

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  15. Matelot

    Angelo, I agree with you there is a place for some lawn, but it needs to be managed sustainably. I have kids who love the outdoors and our lawn plays an essential role in their outdoor activities. When I mow I always mow on a higher setting. I find the extra length stops the lawn from drying out too quickly. When I mow I alternate between catching the clippings and leaving them on the lawn. I find the grass clippings give me a supply of nitrogenous material for composting. My kids also have pet guinea pigs which play their part in maintaining our lawn. I move their hutch progressively around the lawn which feeds the guinea pigs, keeps the lawn short and fertilises it at the same time. I think the way I manage my lawn uses a number of permaculture principles. Cheers

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  16. Alexander Van Parys Piergili

    Fantastic article, both from the lawn perspective, but more than that, from a dogma-deconstruction perspective on the Permaculture movement.

    Permaculturists can be (and often are) very dogmatic, specially here in Brazil. I have seen absurd practices done here in name of Permaculture (crusades?) like making a steep terrain flat to build a mandala garden, using herb spírals in very dry areas, or dry toilets in very humid ones.

    I have lawns here managed very much as you mentioned. They are an excellent place for kids playing, running, playing with balls and toys, reading, sun-bathing, dancing, etc. When mowed, they give us excellent mulch for gardens, as organic matter here in my area decompose very fast. We use to select areas for organic matter “harvesting” for mulch, and areas where we leave the grass clippings for humus creation, and often we rotate this areas.

    It is time for Permaculture to evolve beyond dogmas. Design should be practiced under pure observation and experience to find appropriate solutions, otherwise we will be replicating solutions like the ones mentioned above in places where they could be even harmful.

    Thanks for the article, congratulations!

    Reply
  17. JBob

    I have been measuring the amount of time I spend mowing the approximately 2000 sqft of lawn in front of my house. Most of my former lawn has been grazed by sheep for a few years, but this area has some fruit trees that make it easier to keep the animals out. I spend less than 15 minutes mowing it once a month with a push mower that probably uses about $0.50 of gas. No pesticides, no fertilizer, minimal watering. Nice place to sit and play with the dogs. Lawns aren’t necessarily bad.

    Reply
  18. Shane

    Good article and interesting comments, thanks.
    I found this mix online that looks interesting – anyone here tried something like this?
    http://www.sustainable-gardening.com/archives/3158

    I have a client that wants to keep a lawn and I’m trying to think of ways to make it polycultural, perennial and low/no maintenance in a temperate/subtropical climate (Auckland).

    Reply

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