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14 October 2021

Change is underfoot

Nothing says summer quite like long, neat rows of bright green, freshly mown lawn. The sweet smell of grass fills the air, and nature’s perfume flows into our nostrils/surrounds us. The restful, green patches of grass surrounding our homes are much-loved features of our city and suburbs. But, in Auckland, it’s hard to keep our lawns looking good.


Change is underfoot

For years, homeowners have battled Auckland’s challenging climatic conditions to make their quarter-acre suburban lawns greener, lusher and weed-free. The effort required to maintain that manicured look makes a serious dent in our pockets, says University of Auckland PhD student Olivia Rooke-Devoy. She has researched lawns and estimates we spend $131 million a year on upkeep.

These lawns also create a recurring headache for homeowners when summer water restrictions hit and they slowly fry in the heat.

Landscape designer Trish Bartleet says, “They grow fast and they’re always full of weeds; they’re labour intensive, and the cost to keep them looking good is expensive in terms of technical aspects like spiking and applying herbicides and fertilisers.”

Fellow landscape designer Deb Hardy says any bird that flies above and poos on your lawn is dropping something foreign into it. “Your pristine lawn that started with one variety of grass ends up a combination of multiple plants and weeds.”

Fortunately, as the Unitary Plan encourages us to intensify and land is carved up into smaller parcels, homeowners are beginning to rethink their precious outdoor spaces. The good thing is we’re doing it with an eye on sustainability.

Deb recalls once spending a fortune on creating the most beautiful lawn she ever had because her property was going to be in a garden tour. Then her lawn man told her she’d have to get rid of the worms.

“They make holes and leave little piles of dirt. That seemed terrible. I said ‘no’.”

Until recently, like most people, she never thought of lawns as not being ‘green’.

“But they’re not green at all. Beautiful lawns require fertiliser and pesticides. Then they need all that watering.”

However welcoming they are to our bare feet, lawns provide virtually no habitat for pollinators and other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem. In fact, lawns do substantial harm.

Mowing kills the life in the soils of grassy areas. Once that life is destroyed, soils become barren dirt which washes away into the sea and silts up our harbours.

The rainwater run-off carries pesticides and fertilisers into our waterways. Excess nutrients cause algal bloom, choking sunlight and killing the aquatic grasses that young fish and shellfish need for shelter from predators.

Birds swallow berries and seeds that have absorbed the pesticides sprayed on lawns. Mowing also destroys insect, butterfly and moth habitats – a crisis for Auckland’s biodiversity.

And then, of course, mowers pollute the air. Associate professor Bruce Burns, an ecologist at the University of Auckland, explains that cutting grass produces green leaf volatiles, a heady mix of organic chemicals that make up that fresh, cut-grass smell. These can oxidise and contribute to air pollution which, over time, can be harmful to human health.

Deb’s pristine lawn is long gone. The worms are back and it’s patchy and uneven, thanks to water restrictions. “But in terms of environmental impact, it’s much better.”

She even has a big area under a tree that she keeps as a meadow.

“I let the grass grow and threw in a packet of wild flower seeds. Whatever grew there, I let grow. It created its own little microclimate and looks wonderful. It buzzes with cicadas and all sorts of insects. My cat and dog love lying in it. It’s a little piece of meadow.”

Deb says the trouble is people don’t know there are alternatives to grass, but you just need to look around your neighbourhood to see what else grows there.

Check out the no-mow wild meadow project on the grassy slopes of Grey Lynn Park. Championed by local residents and The Wild Initiative who have worked alongside the council, the project aims to regenerate soils and restore a healthy ecosystem. They’re looking forward to seeing small areas return to wilderness, providing richer habitat for birds, bees and insects.

Another meadow trial has run since 2014 at the Botanic Gardens in Manurewa. Park curator Rebecca Stanley explains that it is a ‘low-mow’ project designed to inform what people can do in parks or other large, open spaces to reduce costs and improve biodiversity benefits.

Landscape designer Xanthe White says there will always be space for lawn as part of the landscape. “In terms of design, it can be really functional, creating space for activity. But often it exists through a lack of imagination.

“As we live at the moment, our lawn is becoming very precious and the luxury of designing land just for someone to mow and burn fossil fuels is obviously becoming more absurd.”

She says most people are now looking at front lawns as living spaces. And they want to utilise these spaces for as much liveability and sustainability as possible.

“A lawn is a space holder. We can do more by using the area for things like food production, enhancing the wildlife – the birds and insects, providing cooling shade with trees, creating privacy, and so on.

She points out that often when kids hit the age of about 12, they don’t play on them anymore. “So it’s really nice to activate these spaces to sit in and garden. No longer are gardens just places to look at. They’ve moved from spaces that are low maintenance to somewhere to plant and grow and eat and get pleasure out of doing.”

Trish Bartleet recently converted a client’s lawn in Pt Chevalier to an urban native forest.

“It was in an existing garden I did for a new house 10 years ago. At the time, they wanted as much lawn as possible for children to develop ball skills. But they didn’t use it much. So they got fed up with trying to keep lawn looking good. It’s not a very sustainable proposition to have a big lawn. And it wasn’t sustainable for my clients.

“They came around to the idea of planting an urban forest, which was appropriate for the area. They were excited to bring more birdlife into the area,” says Trish.

“You’ll never get away from lawns. But if you’re just treating them as a green space, there are lots of alternatives. Maybe it’s time to put in an orchard or vegetable garden, plant shrubs with stepping stones through them, or revert to a free-draining gravel area.

“You can put up to a half of the garden in lovely ground covers and some feature trees which allow that spacious feel and a green, restful flavour. People are interested in exploring that idea.

“When you look at a lawn, you have that lush, green feel and you need to replace that in a slightly different way,” says Trish.
Deb recently convinced clients to convert half their backyard into a native wetland.

“It was sloping and tended to be wet underfoot. They live on the North Shore near the Little Shoal Bay area where there are beautiful, native wetlands, and we wanted to emulate the plantings there because these plants obviously like the conditions and will be self-managing in the future.”

Not only did they create a lovely place to just be, with a path running through it and places to sit, but it also became part of the natural environment.

So, if you’re looking to save the planet, conserve water and save yourself some work while you’re at it, get rid of at least some of your lawn or consider a low-mow wild meadow. Get creative and have fun trying some of the many environmentally friendly alternatives.

Kings Plant Barn Mt Albert recommends the following ground covers for Auckland gardens:

Top ground covers for sunny spaces:

Dichondra silver falls – As with it’s shade-loving counterpart, the silver falls variety can withstand full sun.
Pratia angulata – a fast-growing native, enjoys slightly damper conditions so perfect for patches of lawn that get boggy in winter.
Selliera radicans – a native, likes slightly damp and full-sun positions, tolerates coastal conditions.
Acaena inermis Purpurea – prickle-free native, best in part to full sun, lives around three to five years but will establish fast. Plus, it’s purple!
Muehlenbeckia – looking for something different? Muehlenbeckia can be grown as a lawn alternative and can be mown once established.
Thyme – want something that will tolerate hot parts of the garden? Thyme can withstand a reasonable amount of foot traffic – just make sure it’s mown or cut back in summer as the flowers attract bees.

Top five ground cover for shady spaces:

Dichondra emerald falls – soft underfoot, the green version is used widely as a lawn alternative, and can be grown from seed.
Baby tears – very soft underfoot, likes moist conditions.
Leptinella dioica – a native, tolerant of coastal conditions, best in part shade.
Mondo grass – perfect for between stepping stones or tiles in the garden, dwarf mondo grass will happily grow in shadier spots, even under hedges.
Ajuga reptans – moist, shady spots are best.

Bec Stanley has advice for anyone looking to mow less, or who is dreaming of a meadow at home:

1. Start small (not your whole lawn), and start in the back yard to experiment. Talk to your neighbours. Our society has an unwritten rule that mowing your lawns equals care, and if your neighbour sees long grass they might think you’re unwell. Let them know you’re starting a biodiversity experiment.
2. Be brave and patient. Your site – its environmental features and the plants you already have – will dictate your meadow. It may be wet or dry, sunny or shady, flat or sloped, fertile or infertile. If kikuyu grass is already established, we do not recommend starting a meadow. This grass is too invasive. Each of these factors will influence what will grow there, making it almost impossible to predict what your meadow might look like. It’s not a garden, it’s giving your lawn over to nature, and it may surprise you in a good way or in a way you don’t much appreciate!
3. Nutrient-rich soils are not an easy place to start a meadow. Never fertilise a meadow either. Fertility equals grasses (which is why people fertilise lawns – to keep out the herbs with flowers). I often say to people that to get a meadow they should do the opposite of everything lawn experts advise.
4. You still need to mow so don’t give your mower away. We mow twice a year, in autumn and spring, for the most interesting meadow (ie, lots of diversity).
5. Visit Waikūmete Cemetery’s oldest section in spring. This can give you an idea of what a wild, low-maintenance meadow can look like. This meadow does have a few invasive weeds in it because people took bunches of flowers with seeds there over 100 years ago.


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