With ever hotter UK summers it’s time to rethink the future of grass

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The Guardian

John Bennett Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert were fired up by an unusual mission: how could they help grass grow? It was the heyday of the Victorian era and grass that was cut every summer for hay was the diesel of its day, feeding the horse-power that grew the food for industrial Britain. So, in 1856, Lawes, the owner of a stately home in Hertfordshire, and Gilbert, a chemist, divided seven acres of parkland into plots, fertilising some with manure, treating others with new synthetic fertilisers and leaving some patches alone before cutting each for hay to see which methods produced the highest yield.

The “park grass experiment” is still going today at Rothamsted, the oldest agricultural research station in the world. This summer, when a notoriously rain-drenched island off western Europe became a place of brown parks and yellow meadows, scientists revealed a startling new fact. Over the past century, during which a second agricultural revolution has boosted the efficacy of food production beyond the wildest imaginings of Victorian farmers, yields of hay from the lush Hertfordshire parkland have fallen by around 35%. Yields of spring hay – harvested in June – are forecast to plummet by a further 20% to 50% between 2020 and 2080.

It seems we have a problem with our grass.

We rely on grass in cities and in the countryside. Half of Britain’s green and pleasant land is covered by grasses – pasture, meadows, moorland, parks and lawns. Grassland managed for livestock grazing is the UK’s largest crop by area. Most of our animal protein is fed with grasses: pigs and chickens eat corn (a grass) and sheep and cattle directly graze grass. Amenity grassland in towns and cities is crucial for recreation and wellbeing.

But after this long, hot summer vast swaths of grass turned dusty brown – inedible to animals and unusable for people – highlighting just how much we rely on it, but also how vulnerable it can be. Can grass still thrive in an era of global heating?

‘Lots of grasses have evolved in challenging environmental conditions’: Joe Richomme, botanical horticulturalist at Kew Gardens. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

One particular type of grass widely used in lawns, parks and farm pastures – ryegrass – is coming under new scrutiny for its inability to cope with dry spells and drought. Does grass have a future, particularly in the parched southeast corner of England? Should we sow more drought-resilient grass species – and if so, what are they? Or should we redesign our grassy parks, lawns and farming systems? How must grass change? And how must we change?

As I write this, the first rains since June to reach my part of east Norfolk are pattering down. Elsewhere in the southeast of England, a few weeks of showers have turned desolate beige parks a tinge of green again. There’s less discussion of drought in the west of England and Scotland, where it looks as green as ever, but between March and August even Wales experienced its third driest six-month period since records began in 1865.

Climatologists’ predictions of longer dry spells are coming to pass all over the world and societies tentatively inch towards adaptations. Is the end of the lawn nigh?

California aims to remove 500m square feet of lawns by 2030. In southern England, while Kew Gardens’ grass lawns turned brown all summer – the botanical gardens prioritising the watering of its precious live-plant collections – one area was unaffected: Kew’s collection of around 300 different living grass species from Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Dry cut: ‘the temperate grasses we traditionally rely on aren’t good at coping with drought.’ Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

“Dry conditions aren’t a problem for most grasses really,” says Joe Richomme, botanical horticulturalist at Kew. It’s just that the temperate grasses we traditionally rely on for lawns and parks aren’t as good at coping with drought as others. “Lots of grasses have evolved in challenging environmental conditions. Grassland biomes are shaped by wildfires, grazing by animals and by periods of seasonal drought. In the grass garden this year, throughout May and June where we had not much rain, and July where we had just 4mm, I only watered once and that was because I lost my nerve. As soon as we had the rain, the grasses started growing again. They were fine.”

Could we add a bit of this grassy resilience to our domestic lawns? Richomme is interested to see if adding “warm season” tropical grasses to turf mixes might create a more drought-resistant lawn. “We’re going to be looking at doing some experiments with warm-season grasses being seeded into our turf to try and cover these drier periods that we are going to be having more of in the coming years,” he says. But it’s not a guaranteed fix: warm-season grasses could go dormant during cold winters, with frost creating brown patches just as the sun did this summer.

Like Kew, the National Trust has prioritised plants over lawns across most properties in the southeast. The traditional immaculately striped lawn of the stately home is loosening up. Mowing regimes are less frequent because longer grass is more resilient in dry spells. Ham House’s fine lawns have been planted with bulbs, which are followed by native wildflowers. The steep mown banks of Polesden Lacey have been allowed to grow long.

“They are as attractive, just in a different way,” says Emma McNamara, the Trust’s gardens and parks consultant for London and the southeast. McNamara points out that the trim characteristics of lawns are not immutable. “Historically, lawns used to be a much wider mix of low-growing, ground-cover plants,” she says. “Having daisies and other species is really lovely and slowly moving away from a single species of grass that you mow to death is a positive thing.”

‘We have to change our mindsets. Sustainable lawn care is the easiest thing to do’: David Hedges-Gower of the Lawn Association. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

Reactions to imperfect stately home lawns are mixed. “There’s a lot more understanding from visitors about how to garden more sustainably,” says McNamara. “Some say, ‘Thank goodness your grass looks like mine.’ Others ask, ‘Why are you not watering it?’ to which the answer is, ‘The plant collections are more important.’ We can replace grass, or it bounces back as soon as it starts to rain.”

Perhaps the biggest change required when considering the future of grassy lawns is our expectations. In Gotland, Sweden, a hosepipe ban preventing the irrigation of lawns was followed by “Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn” competition to “change the norm of green lawns”.

You might expect David Hedges-Gower, founder of the Lawn Association, to be a lawn ultra-loyalist, but he is critical of the ryegrass that dominates the modern turf industry. Ryegrass varieties have a thick leaf and look lush at first, but are actually shallow-rooted and susceptible to drought. “These rye grasses are the new trendy grass. It’s a crop grass that can be sold very cheaply in garden centres and is used by the football industry. It’s what we call a replacement grass, because you will need to replenish and replace it because it dies off. It’s not a very good grass,” he says.

Hedges-Gower argues that we must jettison ryegrass, but we don’t need to replace it with an exotic, drought- tolerant wonder species. “Everything we need is already here. Our native grasses, such as fescues, will thrive anywhere and are probably the most drought-tolerant native grass. Bent grasses tend to be found in older lawns and gardens, and prosper in acidic soils.”

And Hedges-Gower wants us to change our perception of lawn perfection. “When grasses goes brown for a period of time we tend to think they are not healthy and look terrible. But they are not dead, they are dormant, and if that grass is capable of regrowing again we’ve got our drought-tolerant plant already,” he says. “We’ve got to change our mindsets. Sustainable lawn care is the easiest thing to do. Use the right grass species and if it is healthy and your soils are healthy, its recovery will be a lot quicker. Putting up with a brown lawn for 10 weeks might be the future.”

It seems that ryegrass is a malign influence in our farming system, too. When not drought-stricken, Britain’s grasslands may still look green and pleasant, but 98% of English and Welsh pasture has been stripped of life over the past century. As the experimental plots at Rothamsted revealed, heavily fertilised grassland quickly loses its botanical diversity, with fertilised plots rapidly changing from containing 50 different species of grass and herb to just two or three grasses.

Seeds of change: grass testing in Oxfordshire. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

Across the country, such “improved” grasslands have delivered more grass for livestock, but much less for nature. Flower-rich hay meadows have also been ploughed up and re-sown with juicy, fast-growing ryegrasses. Barely 2% of traditional “semi-natural” hay meadows, whose wildflowers support a vast array of insect and bird life, survive today.

“We have this bias towards really productive, sugary ryegrass varieties when some of our native grasses will do just as good a job,” says Dr Lisa Norton, an agro-ecologist for the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Norton does not want to demonise ryegrass – “It’s not the baddie,” she says – but she argues that we need a mix of other grass species in farmed grassland, too.

During this summer’s drought in the southeast of England, some farmers with more diverse swards have managed to remain greener a lot longer than farmers growing shallow-rooted ryegrass. Different native grasses, herbs and legumes have deeper roots, adding organic material to the soil and making passages for water to be drawn down into the soil. This makes more naturalistic, diverse grassland better at retaining water in times of floods (another useful attribute) and a superior store of carbon. Ryegrass mixes also tend to be ploughed up and re-sown every five to 10 years to maximise their productivity, and ploughing releases carbon stored in the soil.

‘Across the country, “improved” grasslands have delivered more grass for livestock, but much less for nature.’ Photograph: carlp778/Getty Images

In a climate crisis, we may want more from our farmed grasslands than simply to produce the most grass we can for intensively farmed dairy cattle and other livestock. There’s a “substantial minority” of farmers who are investigating alternatives to ryegrass monocultures, says Norton, who works with farmers in northwest England. “They recognise we need something a bit more resilient and are thinking about long-term sustainable production.”

At Rothamsted, 166 years after the grass-cutting experiment began, scientists continue to seek smarter ways to use grass. “We are very familiar with grasses, and there is a very tight bond between humans and grasses and grasslands,” says Gonzalo Irisarri, an agronomist studying the impact of the North Atlantic Oscillation weather system on hay production. “Three species of grasses provide us with 50% of the calories we consume worldwide – wheat, corn [maize] and rice.”

Such a dependency, Irisarri says, is not wise. So one research priority is to identify a more diverse range of crops and study how farmers can grow more legumes (such as peas) that provide food but also capture and deliver nitrogen to the soil, reducing the use of synthetic fertilisers. New crops, alternatives to grasses, and creative ways of managing the land are needed. Irisarri cites his home country, Argentina, whose soybean production was boosted when many farmers adopted “no till” techniques – not ploughing the soil so that moisture is retained as well as being beneficial to soil microbial life. “Non-tillage systems is something that we learned really fast in Argentina,” he says. “We can retain the moisture, and that’s something that farmers will need to be keen on in the UK in the future.”

Grasslands that we use for leisure in cities and for food in the countryside will change in an era of rapid global heating. No grassland can be lush green all year round, brim with biodiversity and provide rich food for livestock. Norton says there will be trade-offs between different requirements and, ultimately, society’s decisions over what it eats and drinks will shape our grasslands.

“We need transformational change in our grasslands so they are suited to the future environment, climate and needs of society – in filtering water, for instance, and providing higher biodiversity,” she says. “For me the hope is that these new grasslands can be productive and resilient – that’s what we really want.”

‘Three species of grasses provide us with 50% of the calories we consume worldwide – wheat, corn [maize] and rice.’ Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

Green and pleasant: lawn care is all about doing less than before, says Séamas O’Reilly

‘Nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn,’ wrote Francis Bacon. By that, I mean the 17th century statesman, and not the 20th century artist, who presumably felt the same way about paintings of lads in chairs having panic attacks.

The British fascination with lawncare is older than we might presume, but it was doubtless raised to something like a high science by Capability Brown, the 18th century landscape architect whose “pleasure gardens” for the great and good of English society turned a passion into a fervor. He is generally regarded as the reason why, 250 years later, every episode of the Antiques Roadshow looks like it’s been filmed on a golf course with a mansion attached, and why every owner of a deckchair-sized plot of Britain feels a patriotic duty to keep it fashioned with a military haircut.

At my own manor, I try not to look at the lawn, as if its unkempt growth is a giant, pre-historic predator whose vision is based on movement. Were that the case, I’d go happily undetected, since I rarely move anywhere close to the small back yard of my house in Walthamstow. After eleven years in London, my wife and I are finally renting somewhere with a garden, which means I am lawn-adjacent for the first time in my adult life, and resentful of the responsibilities this entails.

Growing up, I was distressingly familiar with the stuff. I was born and raised in a big bungalow my dad bought largely due to the acre-and-a-half plot of land in which it sat. Never mind that this profusion of grass was somewhat surplus to his requirements as a civil engineer, he took to tending it every weekend as if its upkeep was his primary vocation. I say he tended it, but in truth, these duties were soon passed on to his children, and therefore me. I spent many thousands of hours cutting, raking, and piling excess lawn on our entirely futile patch of verdant green, when I could have been playing near train tracks or electrical plants like any normal child. Little did we know that such care was not merely injurious to my personal development, but to the planet as well.

The good news is that the foremost pleasure of rewilding is the fact that, for once, the morally correct thing to do might be ‘less than you were doing before’. Granted, we moved here in February and I’ve only cut it twice but I’m delighted to inform visitors that this idleness was, serendipitously, the morally correct choice; it is the regrowth of grass and insect species, the encouragement of biodiversity, a direct attack on the energy industry, and a nice big spit in the face for all the angry people who spend their time online saying weird things about Greta Thunberg.

I hug myself to see it growing out of the corner of my eye; ankle, and then shin-high, delighted that I’m doing my bit by doing as little as possible. At its current rate it will soon be tall enough that its topmost shoots will rise above the windowsill that looks out toward it from the kitchen.

Before long, it will be looking straight at me. When that happens, I might even look right back at it.

October 2, 2022 at 11:50AM Patrick Barkham

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