The strange appeal of garden lawns

The bigger question, says David Hedges-Gower, chairman of the Lawn Association, is whether that is possible – or whether our attachment to the established lawn aesthetic, after seven centuries of lawn hype, and 70 years of the lawn as a mass consumer good, is just too strong. Can we accept, he wonders, that without watering and pesticides, the stereotypical lawn works for some climates, but definitely not others? 

“We’ve been sold a dream of prettiness with lawns, without really understanding them at all – we [gardeners] don’t put a plant in our gardens we don’t know, but the lawns just seem to be there,” he says. 

Robert Pavlis, a biochemist, gardener and the author of the book “Garden Myths”, is sceptical that change to our lawn culture is really coming. For one, he says, the alternatives proposed so far “just don’t work in practical terms”, either because they require some expertise to maintain, or because they’re not hardy enough to walk on without damaging the plants. This would negate the current functional purpose of a lawn to an extent – since they’re considered valuable spaces for play and leisure, as well as for showing off.

Pavlis also draws a distinction between gardening and lawn maintenance – which is one reason why city authorities tend to favour using lawns to fill leftover public places or to beautify abandoned ones: it’s easy, cheap and no great competence is required to maintain it. 

“Likewise, the problem is that, being pragmatic, the majority of people with lawns are not gardeners either,” says Pavlis. “If everyone just let their lawns do what they want, as environmentalists argue for, most people wouldn’t accept the results. Why? Because it would be ugly. I’m not sure we’re going to change that perception. The truth is that most people would rather make an aesthetic choice with their lawns than an environmental one.”

Join one million Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “The Essential List” – a handpicked selection of stories from BBC FutureCultureWorklifeTravel and Reel delivered to your inbox every Friday.