There seems to be something deeply engrained in the British psyche about having the perfect lawn - the more they’re like a billiard table, the better. Oh, and flowers aren’t permitted. And for greatest kudos it should be striped.
The idea of leaving bits of it to grow long? Well, what would the neighbours think? It would look like we just don’t care!
Yet if you go somewhere like the Alps, you find people with as much pride in their homes as us but who are happy to let their grass grow long and full of meadow flowers, and it looks delightful.
Long grass has loads of benefits for wildlife. It is a mini jungle, moist and sheltered at its base, producing abundant flowers, pollen and seeds. Beetles, caterpillars of various moths and butterflies, grasshoppers – they all benefit, and so then do birds, bats, Hedgehogs and others.
But there are ways of letting parts of your lawn grow long while looking like you still have standards! (Note that I say 'parts' - I think it is important that there is some short grass for Blackbirds, mining bees etc. But we need you, the wildlife gardeners, to compensate for the millikons of gardeners who have no long grass at all).
Here’s the easy way. When you mow the lawn, just leave some blocks of grass unmown until autumn. Squares or rectangles are really simple to do – this is one that my mum and dad did.
They were amazed at how neat it looked and at the flowers that emerged out of nowhere. Keep the edges hard and straight and it will look like something from a Chelsea Flower Show garden.
Or why not mow sinuous paths through the longer grass, giving you meandering walks, such as here at Denman’s Gardens in early spring.
If you want to keep the kids entertained you could even mow a maze in the grass!
It saves loads of mowing time and looks great. So why not give it a go this summer? Just keep mowing the pathways as you normally would every couple of weeks.
When to mow the longer bits
There are three simple mowing regimes for the longer bits of grass.
The ‘Bronze Medal’ version is to just leave your patch to grow for a few weeks whenever you choose and then mow like normal.
But if you want a wildlife ‘Gold Medal’, there are two options.
Either only mow between July until late autumn, giving you a spring meadow. This suits people who really need a short lawn during the summer holidays where the kids can play or you can entertain or sunbathe.
Alternatively, mow until early April, and then leave it until late September (a summer meadow). This is great for summer butterflies.
There are all sorts of extra things you can do, such as adding plug plants of flowers, or bulbs for the spring meadow. But the big first step is letting some of the grass grow. Go on, give it a go and let us know how you get on.
I have tried this (spring meadow) from last year. As I only have small areas of lawn I can only have a small area. My problem this year is that after it rained the grass has got so strong that my plantings of Lady's Smock only survives if I pluck the grass to allow light in. The Cowslips are well buried. I am tempted to get some Hay Rattle seeds and see if that will weaken the grass.
On the other hand, as Aidran says, long grass on its own is good for wildlife, as well as being attractive and fascinating trying to identify the grasses (so far: Rye grass, Sweet Vernal, Cock's Foot, Yorkshire Fog, and some I can't identify ) Plantain, Creeping Buttercup and Sorrel are also holding their own. Amazing what is in a 2ft by 5ft bit of lawn!
I’ve been leaving areas of long grass for a few years and am amazed at the different flowers which just appeared, I even have some wild orchids. The whole area buzzes with insects which feed the birds and bats.
I have a spring meadow and mow most of it at the end of this month or the beginning of next depending on the length of the grass. I try to mow around the clumps of Knapweed as this is a particular favourite of so many insects.
Later on in the year I leave areas of grass for about a month, this gives the clover time to flower. My ground is very fertile, if I left it any longer during the summer it would grow too tall and fall over smothering everything beneath it.
It has taken a number of years of trial and error to find a mowing regime which suits my garden, wildlife and soil, it has definitely been worth the work.