What's the the best type of lawn for your home?
Tips for choosing between a meadow, mowing, or artificial turf.
Buttercups, onion weed and the last of the daffodils poke up among the long green grass at Wellington Botanic Gardens. Cory Meister – Wellington Botanic Gardens team leader for grounds and trees – said the meadow was planted to encourage biodiversity and reduce the amount of mowing.
It looks amazing, but could you do this in your yard? We take you through the pros and cons of growing a meadow.
Maybe going that green isn’t for you? Our experts weigh up the cost of conventional mowing.
If you’d rather just retire your lawn mower completely, we dish the dirt about artificial lawn options.
How to get started on a meadow
The sweeping scale of a botanic garden means there’s heaps of room for a meadow, but could it work in your yard? Or will you just end up annoying your neighbours?
Meadows have a lot of environmental benefits. They attract bees, along with worms, insects, and spiders for birds to eat. A meadow can also reduce stormwater run-off, which keeps grass greener during dry spells.
Permaculture consultant Kath Irvine said a meadow has grass, dandelions, and plantain with the wildflowers, not just the wildflowers.
“A lot of people get upset with their lawns, thinking there’s weeds coming up, but that’s normal,” Kath said.
If you’re thinking of creating a meadow at home, she recommends starting small.
Place a small square (about a metre square) of black plastic in a corner of your lawn and leave it until the lawn dies. Then sprinkle some seeds over it – it could be chicory, clover or a wildflower mix – and just let it grow.
Once the plants have grown and gone to seed, they will slowly spread through the whole lawn.
“I guess the only disadvantages are if you have hay fever or a bee allergy, or live in a high fire risk area,” then it may not work for you.
Tips for making a meadow
- Tell your neighbours so they know the long grass is intentional, rather than a sign of neglect.
- Start with a small patch of lawn rather than your whole backyard.
- If you don’t want to go full meadow, you can extend your garden beds out into lawn to cut back on mowing.
- A meadow looks its best in spring, while in summer the grasses and flowers will dry out. If you’re concerned about fire risk in summer, cut the meadow back.
- A meadow can make a good habitat for rodents; invest in pest control.
The cost of mowing
Conventional mowing hits your back pocket and the environment but mowing less can be a win-win.
James le Page – Consumer NZ test team leader and lawn mower expert – estimates the average petrol mower costs $225 a year to maintain and run.
While a plug-in electric mower is cheaper to buy and run, a battery mower has a bigger upfront cost. The average cost for a Consumer Recommended model can set you back $1085.
Robyn Simcock – an ecological restoration and soil scientist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research – said maintaining a lawn with conventional mowing also has environmental costs.
Carbon emissions, watering to keep the grass green, a lack of biodiversity, and decreased air quality (especially from two-stroke mowers) are all factors.
She said mowing less frequently is kinder to the environment.
“I think more diverse, longer and less frequently mown berms, parks and reserves are absolutely the way of the future,” Robyn said.
While you may love the smell of freshly cut grass, that smell is a cocktail of organic chemicals called green leaf volatiles (GLVs).
GLVs can oxidise and contribute to air pollution as well as contribute to greenhouse gases.
Tips for mowing
Reducing the frequency of mowing can help keep your lawn green:
- Only cut your lawn back by one-third when you mow. If you cut it too short, it bounces back quicker. It can also rip out the roots, which makes room for weeds to move in.
- While you can mulch your grass on the lawn, it can smother the grass. This creates fungal disease and makes a mess if you leave it too long between cuts.
- Its best to have a mower with a catcher, or pick up the grass, because there’s a risk the clippings will get blown into storm or fresh water. As the grass decomposes in the water, it reduces the oxygen available to animals living in the water.
- There’s also a risk that fertilisers used on grass could add to phosphorus and nitrogen levels in freshwater streams and lakes.
What about an artificial lawn?
If you want to retire your lawnmower, artificial grass could be the way to go.
Julia Addison had artificial grass installed at her house 10 years ago. At the time, she was sick, had been in hospital, and wanted a low-maintenance lawn.
Artificial grass seemed an affordable easy-care option.
She went for a short blade option, because it was gentler on her dogs’ paws, yet she wishes she had gone longer because it would’ve had a more natural look.
“It is obvious it’s artificial turf,” she said.
While the first year after installation was low maintenance, by the second year, weeds started appearing. Ten years later, she gets big patches of weeds.
“I have found when I’ve yanked out a big weed, it might leave a bit of an indentation on the surface.”
Yet, the lawn does stand up well to the demands of her two small dogs, Chalky and Djali. A quick hose-down usually keeps it looking fresh and clean.
While Julia has no regrets about putting the lawn in, and would do it again, her top tip for anyone considering artificial lawn is to keep on top of the weeds.
The environmental cost of artificial grass
While artificial grass doesn’t need water, fertilisers, or cause the air and noise pollution of a lawn mower, it does have environmental downsides.
Celia Connor – Charles Sturt University environment and agriculture lecturer – said artificial grass is likely to disrupt the ecosystem of your soil, which is full of microorganisms.
By placing plastic over soil, you’re cutting off oxygen.
As the turf breaks down over time, materials from the plastic will also leach into the soil “further disrupting soil diversity”, she said.
In 2019, the Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report – written by a panel convened by the Office of the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard – noted artificial grass sheds microplastics.
It recommended problematic plastics could be phased out, restricted or sustainable alternatives developed.
However, at this stage, there’s no plan to ditch artificial lawns.
What to consider before you dig into artificial turf
- Artificial turf is generally made from polyethylene or polypropylene.
- A lawn and installation can cost between $3000 and $15000 (depending on the size of your yard).
- You could also buy artificial grass from hardware stores from $24 per linear metre.
- Installing it yourself will save money but consider paying a professional. The ground needs to be compacted with crushed rock and sand to allow for drainage, and if it doesn’t fit properly the turf may move around.
- Some brands of artificial grass have warranties for 10 years or more.
- Artificial grass can get very hot in direct sunlight. It also adds to radiant heat, meaning it can make the surrounding area hotter.
- Check with your council as to whether there are rules about allowing enough surface area for stormwater run-off.
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