A Garden in Umbria

Design - Turn over a new leaf - January 2018

January is a time for hope, when we look forward to the garden waking up in spring. It is a time for new year resolutions. I am sure that you will already have made yours, but here is another one you might consider for the coming year: it’s time to get rid of the lawn.

Do you have a lawn? Most people do have one, or at least a ‘patch of grass’.

Now this may seem like a silly question, but may I ask: What do you use your lawn for?

Whilst you are thinking about that, let me tell you what it is about lawns that I not only dislike but actively resent.

I am, of course, talking about lawns in our central Italian climate. With temperatures hitting 40 degrees in summer and little or no rain, any self-respecting lawn that wants to stay looking nice in the ‘English’ style needs a great deal of watering. Even a small lawn (say 5m x 10m) soaks up about 50,000 litres of water during the course of the summer.

There is also the dirty subject of weedkillers - please don’t tell me that you use them on the ‘lawn’ - which will kill off any remaining hope of wildlife visiting the garden. And fertilizers, full of nitrates which are poisoning the ground water in our district and turning Lake Trasimeno into a slime pit in dry summers.

And after all that, you just have grass. Not even anything special or colourful or beneficial for wildlife, and certainly not in sympathy with the local landscape. Grass.

Now you tell me that you don’t water your lawn. So how does it look in summer then? Pretty awful I expect …

Back to my question then: what do you use your lawn for?

Tanacetum, Teucrium divaricatum, Teucrium aurum

If it is to fill in the space between the flower beds, then why not consider gravel instead, or terracing, perhaps with low growing drought resistant plants to soften the look: short varieties of Teucrium are good for this.

Festuca glauca (Photo Gardeners Dream)

If you want a neutral background to show off a longer view or to frame a specimen tree or sculpture, how about planting a low growing, mat forming alternative, such as ornamental grass Carex halleriana and Festuca. Much more stylish and it won’t need mowing either.

Bermuda grass

For a path or area that has to withstand regular walking, playing football or even cars driving across, Phyla nodiflora (also called Lippia) or Zoysia tenuifolia. In Florida they use Bermuda grass for golf courses: the variety ‘Yukon’ can withstand cold winters. This is not like the normal lawn grass but has a creeping growth habit which gives it resistance to drought. It goes a bit dull looking in winter but only needs to be mowed once, perhaps twice, in late spring or early summer. 

Satureja thymbra carpet in front of a bench

But if you want to really let go of your lawn-dependency, why not go for a mixture of plants which will give interest and colour, not to mention wild-life friendship, all year round: thymes, camomile, Satureja (Savory), dwarf varieties of Achillea, Euphorbia and Potentilla, Sedum, Tanecetum

My ‘lawn’

For more inspiration I recommend Olivier Filippi’s book ‘Planting design for Dry Gardens: Beautiful, Resilient Groundcovers for Terraces, Paved Areas, Gravel and Other Alternatives to the Lawn.

The photo at the top of this page is by the Moore Sprinkler Company

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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