Lawns and meadows - GARDEN GALLERY - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Garden Gallery

Lawns and meadows


Amoebic expanses of turf covering a variety of slopes and levels provides visual continuity from above, but plays with the visitor’s perception at ground level.


SOFT AND LUSH, a lawn fulfils many functions, providing a green foil for planting, a play surface for games, and an inexpensive yet flexible landscaping material that suits almost any garden style. With a little imagination, turf and other low-growing plants can also be used in a myriad of ways to enhance your design.

Designing with grass

The green baize of a meticulously manicured lawn is the quintessential feature of an English garden. Whether a visual respite from a riotous cottage border or a textural foil for a crisp contemporary garden, the lawn is much more than a space on which to walk or play. But lawns are so commonplace, their contribution to the success of a garden is often overlooked, yet in the hands of a skilled designer this flexible medium serves many purposes. It can link disparate spaces, galvanising them into a cohesive whole, and when cut into geometric shapes, particularly circles, lawns act as focal points, drawing the eye to the centre of the garden and helping to disguise awkwardly shaped plots. A simple mantle of mown turf over contoured ground will bestow dynamic rhythm, while long grass studded with wild flowers or naturalised bulbs emulates agricultural landscapes or parkland of yesteryear, while also providing a habitat for insects, such as bees, butterflies and moths.

“Think about grass as an aesthetic - a visual texture rather than just a utilitarian surface. It’s easy to experiment by weaving mown grass with informal bands of longer grass, where bulbs and perennials can offer seasonal highlights, as it’s a fast-growing material and any mistakes are quickly rectified.”


Although most people remove turf to create beds, you could create an historic feature, such as a ‘parterre de broderie’, where turf is cut into intricate patterns, with the gaps infilled with colourful stones or gravel. Mazes and labyrinths, loved by children and adults, are other options. Formed by a sinuous network of grass paths, they make unusual and dynamic features for larger gardens.

Mowing effects

Classic lawn stripes, created using a cylinder mower with a rear roller, can produce a powerfully decorative, albeit temporary feature. If the mower follows the contour of the land, the dramatic sweep of lines will further accentuate a vista, while a simple striped rectangular lawn can smarten up a formal design. Altering the height of cut adds a further creative dimension, with longer grass delivering a more natural look. Leaving the grass longer has the added benefit of reducing mowing frequency, too, and allows you to include naturalised spring bulbs and other wild flowers and perennials into the mix.

Grasses for lawns

Turf is a mix of various creeping grasses blended to form a hard-wearing carpet of leaves or ‘sward’. It can be sown from seed or created by laying turf on a prepared surface. Most designers use turf for an instant effect, as it establishes quickly, but seed offers a wider choice of grass varieties, including species that suit specific environments, such as shade, or grasses mixed with wild flowers.

For a lawn that is used only occasionally or for ornamental purposes only, try low growing species, such as Festuca gautieri, and other drought-tolerant fescues. Other groundcover plants suitable for occasional traffic include thyme, chamomile, sedum, Crassula and Soleirolia soleirolii. Play surfaces need tougher species, such as perennial ryegrass and smooth-stalked meadow grass.

In hot climates where prolonged drought is a threat, Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), and Paspalum species are used as single species rather than a mix to avoid a patchy effect.

Consider alternative surfaces, including synthetic turf, in recreational areas, particularly around play equipment, which have high foot traffic. The appearance and durability of turfing fabrics has improved considerably in the last few years and from a distance they are difficult to distinguish from the real thing.


To keep turf in good condition it needs regular maintenance, including weekly mowing, and feeding and aerating in spring and autumn. Good light and moisture are required for strong grass growth, although established lawns can endure periodic drought - they may turn brown, but will quickly recover when rain returns - and irrigation in most instances is not needed. Even so, you may want to install underground irrigation systems and pop-up sprinklers before the turf is laid, just in case. Computer controlled timers help regulate the more efficient use of water.

Although turf will survive in semi-shade, it deteriorates in dense shade, particularly in heavily used areas. Special mixes for shady areas are available, but even these will not be able to sustain heavy wear. Layers of wet autumn leaves that sit on the grass for any length of time after falling will also rob the grass of light and air and cause it to deteriorate.

Compaction, caused by constant use, has a deleterious effect on turf and may eventually kill the grass, so consider the routes around the garden, and select alternative landscaping materials, such as paving, gravel, or bricks set into the turf, for main pathways.

Dogs, particularly bitches, can also cause problems; their urine scorches the turf and causes unsightly yellow patches. Products are now available to put into dogs’ feed to minimise discolouration.

Plants for naturalising in grass

BULBS FOR SHORT GRASS: Anemone nemorosa, Chionodoxa lucilae, Crocus tommasinianus, C. chrysanthus, Erythronium dens-canis; Fritillaria meleagris, Galanthus nivalis; Iris reticulata; Narcissus bulbocodium, N.cyclamineus, N. ‘February Gold’, N. obvallaris; Ornithogalum nutans; Scilla siberica
PLANTS FOR LONGER GRASS: Camassia; Campanula latiloba; Centaurea macrocephala; Crambe cordifolia; Euphorbia griffithii; E. palustris; Galtonia candicans; Geranium psilostemon; Gladiolus communis; Lathyrus latifolius; Leucanthemum vulgare; Narcissus species


Meadows are composed of largely self-sustaining herbaceous flowering plants and native grasses. Your choice of plants will be dictated by the nutrient content and type of soil in your garden, and the amount of moisture available. Choose from the wide ranges of seed mixtures on offer, which include different blends of wild flowers, some mixed with grasses, designed to produce a range of floristic effects on a variety of soils.

The best meadows are created on impoverished soils where nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are in short supply. This keeps vigorous grasses in check, allowing the wild flowers space to grow and flower. One trick to reduce fertility is to invert the soil profile and expose the subsoil, which is comparatively impoverished, or import subsoil from elsewhere. It is also important to cut the plants at the right times to guarantee success. Mow meadows in summer after they have flowered and sown their seed for future generations, and then again in autumn to help control the grasses. After each cut, remove the clippings which, if left in place, will fertilise the soil and shade out the plants beneath.

If creating a meadow in a small area, choose ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), buttercups (Ranunculus acris) and yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), and plant bulbs, such as daffodils (Narcissus), camassias and snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris), which can be left to naturalise.


Meadow planting in a modern garden by Mandy Buckland


The linear carpet of pavior-edged turf and architectural lines of the pleached hedge above combine to produce a play on perspective, making the garden appear longer.



Close-mown turf can be seen as a living canvas. These giant paviors inlaid into the grass produce a dynamic pattern as they march across the landscape.



Lawns located on two levels are linked by a carpet of Festuca gautieri, a drought-tolerant grass suitable for areas of light traffic.



Bold stripes generated by cutting the grass with a cylinder mower accentuate the lay of the land and create texture and colour that adds interest to large expanses of lawn.



The central turf pathway that conjoins two sumptuous mixed borders at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum is obliquely intersected by pathways that allow visits to explore the plants on either side.



Synthetic turf is often a viable proposition where conditions are unsuitable for turf, such as play areas or gardens in deep shade.



Instead of close-mowing all the turf allow some areas to grow longer to add visual diversity. Sowing wild flower seeds or naturalising bulbs and perennials will add further interest through the seasons.