How did they keep lawns trim in the days before lawnmowers?

Rock Wallaby and cropped turf

Rock wallaby and cropped turf

How did they keep lawns trim in the days before lawnmowers? asks The Guardian newspaper. Animals and scythes were originally used to maintain closely cut turf…and Australia has an indigenous answer.

The first lawns were probably nothing more than grassy parcels of land – meads or meadows – grassland, either in its natural state or used as pasture, or for producing hay. Meadows could either be farmed or fallowed fields or used as ‘commons’, pastures secured from attack and enclosed inside medieval settlements. Commons were deliberately set aside for communal livestock grazing. 

Natural chalk grassland with sea carrots (Daucus carota subsp. gummifer), St Aldhem's Head, England.

Natural chalk grassland with sea carrots (Daucus carota subsp. gummifer), St Aldhem’s Head, England.

Lawns are essentially a European invention. Salt marshes and other grasslands are naturally occurring lawn-like plant communities. Cumberland turf, Festuca rubra, the finest of the cool season turfgrasses – was originally farmed and cut from British salt marshes.

When the aristocracy accepted them for their ornamental value in landscaping, they adopted the ha ha. A ha ha is a 17th century French invention – they are retaining walls which keep livestock in fields without interrupting views and vistas from the house – they balance beauty with the utility of farming. British landscaper Capability Brown famously used vast, sweeping lawns with ha ha’s in his landscape designs. Surviving ha ha’s are rare in Australia, but there’s a fine example in the grounds of Melbourne’s Werribee Mansion.

Heritage Ha Ha, Werribee Mansion, Melbourne

Heritage Ha Ha, Werribee Mansion, Melbourne

In Australia, wallabies were used to crop the turf growing at the first Government House in Sydney, NSW, which was built in 1788. This is because their feeding creates a perfect surface.

There are many examples where Australian native turfgrasses, such as salteen, aka saltwater couch, Paspalum vaginatum, are cropped by wallabies and kangaroos.

Pebbly Beach, in the Murramarang National Park near Nowra, NSW, is one example I used to occasionally visit when I lived in Sydney.

Common couch, Cynodon dactylon, has a cosmopolitan distribution and has been widely naturalised. It may be native to Australia and England. This species forms a great sward when cropped by wallabies.

Revegetation of Woolloomooloo Bay in the Yurong Precinct, Sydney, included planting native weeping meadow grass, Microlaena stipoides.

Revegetation of Woolloomooloo Bay in the Yurong Precinct, Sydney, included planting native weeping meadow grass, Microlaena stipoides.

When I managed Sydney Botanic Gardens (1992 – 2003), I planted weeping meadow grass, Microlaena stipoides, another fine-leaved Australian grass, into banks in the Sydney Domain. Encouraged by its performance in the Woolloomooloo Bay revegetation project, I had it planted in the Yurong Precinct in places too steep to safely operate a ride-on mower. We brush cut this weeping meadow grass to look like a lawn. Wallabies crop it a fine surface.

Archimedean Lawn Mower, USA, 1870

Archimedean Lawn Mower, USA, 1870

Alas, the wallaby experiment at Government House ended because they also nibbled the ornamental trees and shrubs which were planted there. Instead of learning to grow a range of plants that are not wallaby food – creating an integrated system – it was easier to get rid of the wallabies and return to the scythe.

Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower in Britain in 1830. Once the first lawnmowers arrived in the colony of NSW, gardeners adopted them. They never looked back.

 

 

 

Priory Meadow by River Frome, Wareham, UK.

Priory Meadow by River Frome, Wareham, UK.

 

Ancient Priory Meadow by River Frome, Wareham, England

Ancient Priory Meadow by River Frome, Wareham, England

Jerry Coleby-Williams
10th June 2018