x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Do you really need a lawn?

The idea that grass is a low-cost, easy option for the garden is a misconception. Traditional lawns are time consuming and demand a lot of water.

With lawns’ huge demand for water, small decisions about them can make a significant ecological difference.
With lawns’ huge demand for water, small decisions about them can make a significant ecological difference.

In gardening circles, Turf War is one of those phrases that would probably have to be invented all over again if didn't already exist. In recent years the debate over the use of turf grass in arid areas has raged between those who believe its use is morally and environmentally indefensible and those who place the right to a lawn on a par with the right to vote.

Such are the passions aroused by this debate that in one community in the south-western US a gardener was subjected to a hate-mail campaign when he tried to introduce local residents to planting schemes that offered a more sustainable alternative to their traditional lawns.

I certainly hope the advice I'm about to give doesn't elicit such a vehement response but regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I sit in the turf-alternative camp. While I'm not opposed to the use of turf grass in all situations, I think the negatives associated with a domestic lawn far outweigh the positives, and that's even before one considers the subject from the perspective of water conservation and sustainability.

There is a widespread misconception that grass is a low-cost, hassle-free and easy option. Please believe me when I say that it is not. In terms of the time spent watering, mowing, weeding and feeding it, a well-kept lawn is actually the equivalent of caring for a hairless pedigree dog with breathing difficulties.

They are high-maintenance, require constant attention and are deeply unforgiving in the way that they cruelly expose their owner's relative success or failure as a gardener. A garden full of different plants and trees is capable of hiding many sins but an ill-kept, weed-ridden and sickly lawn is almost impossible to disguise. I would advocate spending as little time, money and effort on doing so as possible.

There is then the fact that lawns in the UAE are indefensible from an ecological point of view. For a recent project I was asked to design a garden with the main aim of achieving as low a water requirement as possible by balancing the irrigation needs of the garden with the amount of water that could be recycled from the house. I spent weeks working with specialist irrigation engineers, arboriculturists and nurserymen to achieve a design that was aesthetically pleasing, technically advanced and horticulturally innovative.

Unfortunately, the client also insisted that I include an 8m x 8m lawn in the scheme and, as the weeks passed, we struggled to achieve a satisfactory balance between the demanding irrigation target and a garden that was attractive. 

The main problem was the lawn: even though it made up only four per cent of the garden's total area, it was responsible for 28 per cent of its irrigation requirement. When you consider that the UAE is facing a water crisis, that UAE residents have one of the world's highest water consumption rates and that more than half of all residential water used externally here goes to landscape irrigation, this story hopefully shows how small-scale decisions about lawns can make a significant difference.

The choice of an appropriate lawn alternative depends largely on what you want from your lawn in the first place. For a radical alternative, why not consider replacing your lawn entirely with a collection of xerophytic grasses and succulents. Not only will this reduce your garden's irrigation demand, but it will also cut the associated costs and maintenance while providing greater visual and botanic interest.

If, however, it's a single species green space that you're after and the area isn't going to be trafficked too heavily, Sesuvium portulacastrum (sea purslane) may well be the answer. Sesuvium is already widely used in the UAE as a turf substitute and can be seen on many roadsides and central reservations, and is increasingly being used on green roofs. Although it will not form a smooth, even surface like a lawn (reminding me instead of green beans), Sesuvium has many other benefits. Not only does it require less water than turf grass, but it is sun and salt tolerant, can be cut with a strimmer and has wonderfully delicate pastel-coloured flowers.

There is a story that most of the Sesuvium in the UAE originates from a cutting smuggled into the country by a gardener who returned from a holiday in the Pacific. Even if the tale is apocryphal, Sesuvium is certainly vigorous and very easy to propagate. Simply take a 2-3" cutting, place it in a glass of water until a root system develops, then plant it in a small container filled with a free-draining potting mixture until the new plant is ready to be potted on. Very soon you will have more than you know what to do with.