National Not Gardening Week

Unmown lawn © Tim Ward

Things not to do in May

I am sure we have all been inspired recently to get out into our own plots for national gardening week.  However I thought I would like to make a plea for a national 'Not Gardening’ week.  

Why you ask?  Well with all the pressure on the survival of our native plants and animals due to increasing development, intensified agriculture and the stress created by climate change, gardens are becoming an increasingly important home for wildlife.  We can to a lot to improve our gardens by making sure we plant pollen and nectar rich plants for insects, create homes for bugs, put up nest boxes for birds, make a small pond and many other beneficial changes.  But sometimes the best thing we can do is nothing because 'weeds' can be just as important (probably even more important) as ornamental plants for food and shelter.  All those untidy corners full of nettles and brambles may be some of the most wildlife rich places we have in our gardens and essential refuges to allow creatures to pass the winter months in safety.  So my message to everyone is, for the benefit of wildlife, don't make you garden too tidy!

My top not gardening tip for this week is: don't mow your lawn


Picture of unmown lawn TMW

Unmown lawn in early spring with Lady's Smock in the foreground © Tim Ward

Leaving part of your lawn to grow long for the spring and summer will create a superb habitat for bugs and beasties which in turn will help many of our favourite garden birds to feed their hungry nestlings.  Also, you will be surprised how many flowers pop up.  Many of these, such as self-heal and birds-foot trefoil (or 'eggs and bacon' as it is often called due to the colour of the flowers) are much loved by bees; both the familiar bumble bees but also the many different species of often overlooked solitary bees which are responsible for a massive amount of flower and tree pollination.  Of course when you start you will get plenty of the common flowers such as dandelions, daises and creeping buttercups but I find if you mow a thin boarder around the edge of the lawn, it keeps them away from the flower beds and also makes it look intentional rather than abandoned.  If the lawn is large enough it is nice to mow a meandering path through the middle so that you can immerse yourself in your wonderful new habitat.

Bird's-foot Trefoil

Bird's-foot trefoil © Tim Ward

Orchid leaves in lawn

orchid leaves growing in a lawn © Tim Ward

Dandelion Clock

Even dandelion seed-heads are wonderful when you look closely © Tim Ward

Mining bee nest

Mining bee nest in grass © Tim Ward

Meandering path through lawn

Meandering path through unmown lawn © Tim Ward

If you are lucky you may find that some more unusual species appear.  Exactly what species do grow depends on the history of the lawn and what there is growing in the local area.  Many lawns near modern houses will have been created from turf or commercial grass seed but even these are quickly colonized by the local flora and fauna.  Some however may be remnants of old hay meadows, and if this is the case, you are very fortunate as plants can survive for many years not flowering and unnoticed in the base of the sword waiting for an opportunity to show themselves if conditions become more suitable.  We were very lucky when we stopped moving an area of our lawn and a few wild orchid leaves appeared in the first year.  When we looked more closely in the lawn for other similar leaves we found some curious bright green spade shaped leaves about 4 cm long.  Some of them had strange spikes with serrated edges growing from the middle.  We then did a 'finger tip’ search of the rest of the lawn and found over 100 of these little leaves growing amongst the grasses

Adder's-tongue fern

Adder's-tongue Fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) © Tim Ward

To our surprise these turned out to be Adder's-tongue Fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum);  a rarely recorded plant in Powys, known to grow in only a few locations.  However I suspect due to its small stature it may go overlooked and could be growing unnoticed in many lawns around the county.  We believe our lawn has been mown continuously for at least 20 years so it is obviously quite a tough little plant. 

Interesting fact:  Small in stature the Adders-tongue may be but when it comes to chromosomes, it’s a giant!  It is reported to have around 1,262 which is probably about the largest number found in any organism on the Planet.  To put this in context, the normal number for humans is 46 (23 pairs).  The reason for this is not clear as most of the extra DNA code is junk however it is probable that it is just a result of the species being very ancient, combined with its propensity to self-fertilize.  Multiplying chromosome number is relatively common in ferns and is also thought to be a strategy to avoid sterility following hybridization

Although I am championing the concept of 'Not Gardening' in order to maintain and improve the floral diversity of your lawn, it is a good idea to mow and collect the clippings once every year at the end of August, once all the seeds have set.  This helps keep the sword open and also reduces nutrient levels which weakens the coarser grass species and encourages the more delicate flowers. If you are a bit impatient to develop a beautiful flowery mead, you may be tempted to scatter a selection of wildflower seeds.  Unfortunately, for most species, this does not tend to work very well in an established lawn.  One thing that may work is sowing fresh seed of yellow rattle.  This stalwart of the 'species rich' wildflower meadows is a semi-parasite of grasses, reducing their vigour and making more space for the wild flowers to grow.  It may take a couple of seasons to get it going but once established it will quickly spread throughout the uncut area of the lawn.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle seedlings coming up in the grass © Tim Ward

So I hope you take this opportunity to join me in doing some 'Not Gardening' so that you can sit back and enjoy the flowers and the bees and the other insects too


I'll give an update on the lawn later in the year and include some pictures of the unmown lawn in full flower.