Browned off


IN A masterpiece of timing, after the fourth-wettest May on record the Royal Horticultural Society has told gardeners that they should not water their lawns but allow them to die back.

A brown lawn is apparently a sign of your green credentials. Fair enough, the grass will recover when the rain starts again, but a couple of points come to mind.

First, it is very hard in most parts of this country to believe that we can possibly be short of water. I realise that by living beside a stream I may have a distorted view, but I am certain that in Lancashire we have more than enough to share if only someone had the wit to organise some sort of national water grid. If we can throw away an inconceivable £170billion (latest HS2 estimate, denied by the Department for Transport which is sticking to its figure of ‘only’ £98billion) to shave a few minutes off train times from London to Birmingham (using a technology that will be way out of date by the time it is in use), surely we could devise a system for piping water from north-west to south-east. In 2006 the cost was estimated by the Environment Agency to be £15billion (I toyed with the idea of calling that ‘a drop in the ocean’ but I decided against it). Far more immediately, though, the water companies (mostly foreign-owned) should be forced to address the problem of waste though leaks. This amount for England and Wales was estimated last year to be nearly 3billion litres or 660million gallons per DAY, or 1,180 Olympic-size swimming pools. If fixing this means the shareholders in Germany and France get smaller dividends, so be it. 

Second, why bother with a lawn at all? We don’t have one here in Lancashire but when we lived in Bromley we had quite a large one, and what a chore it was to mow. The thing with mowing as opposed to other gardening tasks is that you are not improving or achieving anything, you are just running to stand still. Inevitably it would be put off till one of us felt guilty enough to do it, and the result would be an expanse of pale stalks which looked dreadful. If I had that garden now I would plant shrubs and perennials with paths between and keep a goodly section wild for insects and birds. I’d also use paving and gravel. These hard surfaces don’t reduce the rain supply if it can soak into the earth round the edges.


Thinking about lawns reminds me of a style of gardening which seems to have quite gone out of fashion. When I was at school in the late 50s and 60s my walk there and back took me past a row of prefabs put up at the end of the war (Bromley and Beckenham were badly bombed, particularly by V1s falling short of the London target). The owners were obviously very proud of their small front gardens, and the lawns looked as if they were trimmed every day. The planting involved scarlet salvias, blue lobelia (light and dark), white snow in summer (cerastium – which many garden centres won’t stock these days because it is so low-class, but I use a lot of it and I love it), begonia semperflorens, alyssum and other bedding plants that I can’t remember now, all in rows of military neatness. 


This is the back garden of our reader Quartus on the south-east coast of Kent.

He has not cut this patch of grass because it is home to about 60 bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), which have just come into flower. Although the books say they are not particularly rare, I’ve never been lucky enough to see any. 

Quartus kindly sent some pictures. This is a stem showing several buds. It’s about 10in high.

This is one of the amazing flowers, which deceives male bees into thinking a female bee is visiting. 

The plant even emits a female bee scent. The male bee’s attempt to mate with the fake female aids pollination, though apparently British bee orchids are self-pollinating so there is no need for the deception. Many thanks, Quartus.


The mania for trimming road verges round here continues. Our village enters a ‘Best Kept Village’ competition annually and apparently one of the judging criteria is that the verges are kept short. I’d be interested if anyone can tell me how this

is an improvement on this.


Last week I mentioned that I would write about red kites soon. One or two readers left comments below the line, but if anyone has experience they can share, please email me at I won’t publish anything without permission.

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