Beyond the border: lawns

Green velvety swathes, or brown clumps - how does your grass grow?

Grass covers about one quarter of the Earth's landmass. It is one of the most common, naturally occurring, self-seeding plants on Earth. Most of Earth's grasslands are wild, untamed meadows teeming with weeds and wild flowers or fields. But there are patches of grass, usually rectangular in shape and found adjacent to houses where the grass is greener, shorter and sometimes stripey. These are lawns.

What makes grass into a lawn is gardening - lots of it. Lawns need feeding, watering, weeding, spiking, rolling, trimming and mowing. Paving, flagstones, or decking are easy to maintain, but grass is traditional and cheap and, to some, a luxuriant emerald sward is the height of good gardening.

The word "lawn" comes from the French launde, meaning glade, and grass grew well in the fertile soil left as Britain's forests were felled in the Middle Ages. Originally, lawns were kept short by the grazing of sheep or cattle. When the industrial revolution arrived, the lawn became a symbol of wealth, showing that - unlike peasants, whose land had been confiscated under the Enclosures Acts - the lawned gentry had land to spare. Even then, lawns were labour-intensive and had to be trimmed with scythes, or were made from low-growing ornamental plants such as camomile. Then, in 1830, Edwin Beard Budding hit upon an idea that was to transform suburban Sundays forever. Inspired by a machine used to trim bobbles from cloth in the Worcester factory where he worked, he invented a rolling cylinder to cut grass with a scissor-like action - the same machine drawn by tractors to cut parkland today.

The Second World War was a traumatic time for lawns as thousands were dug up and turned into allotments. But the postwar expansion of towns and cities spawned 1,000 outdoor carpets.

Maybe lawn lovers like to think their small piece of pristine turf represents a small victory over nature. While the plant world is not naturally neat and tidy, if well dressed and given regular haircuts, a lawn can be made to look like its respectable face.

Lawns to visitThe Backs, Cambridge: views of Cambridge's colleges across famous riverside lawns and ancient meadows. Contact Cambridge Botanic Garden: 01223 336 265.Chatsworth House: the Capability Brown designed gardens at this Derbyshire stately home are the favourite lawns of Tom Fort, author of 'The Grass is Always Greener'. See: Palace: during August and September the palace's 42-acre gardens are open to visitors. See:

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