A blackbird hops across the lawn, its dark feathers gleaming in the summer sunshine. It pauses for a moment, ducks down and emerges with a worm wriggling in its bright yellow beak. Dusky summer evenings have brought another friend to the garden – the hedgehog. They’ve been busily snuffling across the lawn in search of tasty snacks – in fact where the grass is a little longer you can trace the tracks of this much-loved garden visitor.  

Lawns are havens for wildlife. They also give us a fantastic social space to play, picnic and relax with friends or family.  

These precious pockets of nature could be under threat as homeowners replace them with plastic grass. Here we’ll outline how to create and look after a natural lawn and explain why plastic is bad news for your wild neighbours.  

A blackbird plucks a worm from the lawn. Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com) 

New lawn - no problem

If you’re just starting out on a new garden, one of the first things you might be thinking about is a lawn.  

The cheapest option is to sow some grass seed. The grass seed will grow up quite quickly and after a few cuts, it should be ready to use. Laying turf gives instant results but is a more expensive option. Both methods will require a little preparation – working out how big you want your lawn to be, breaking up and levelling the soil and sowing the seed or laying the turf. Our tips for creating a lawn page provides more useful information on getting started.  

Whether you sow seed or lay turf, you’ll need to think about the kind of lawn you’d like. Do you want the cheapest hard-wearing variety with rye grass or a more formal type with fine grasses? Would you like to liven up your lawn with wildflowers? Again, there are options to consider. You may prefer a ‘flowering lawn’ option which contains a mix of fine grasses and flowers, which can cope with regular mowing. If you take a hands-off approach to gardening a general purpose meadow turf or seed mix will allow you to leave the grass uncut for a leisurely 8-12 weeks in summer.  

Embrace nature - avoid artificial

Plastic grass is often touted as a maintenance-free solution for outdoor spaces. Although it may look green, it is devoid of any environmental value and contributes to the nature and climate emergency. Let’s explore seven reasons to steer clear of plastic: 

  1. Carbon cost. The carbon cost of creating and importing plastic grass is huge. With several kilograms of plastic grass per square metre, even small spaces will generate large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. 
  2. Ends up in landfill: Unlike natural lawns which, with some care, last indefinitely, plastic grass has a limited life.  At the end of their lives, plastic lawns are normally sent to a landfill – the planet doesn’t need more plastic.  
  3. Pollution: Artificial grass generates fragments of plastic which are washed off into the surrounding environment, including waterways. BBC documentary Blue Planet showed how microplastics are slowly killing our sea creatures, fish and birds 
  4. Flood risk: Grass lawns with plants and natural soils slow the flow of rainfall and trap sediments, meaning rain doesn’t immediately rush into local drainage. Plastic turf is laid on a bed of non-absorbent material (you don’t just lay it on top of the soil) so when rain falls onto it, the water runs off much more quickly. If we prevent rainfall absorbing into the environment we’re more likely to experience the devastating effects of flash-flooding.  
  5. It’s not cool. Where natural lawns can have a cooling effect on local temperatures, plastic grass can heat up dramatically and become unusable for pets and children on hot summer days. In a warming climate we need to do all we can to keep things cool.  
  6. Squeezing out nature. Installing an artificial lawn involves removing the soil surface and the plastic grass that is laid on top creates a barrier to soil-dwelling life. Our living lawns are an important home for so many animals both above and below ground..  
  7. Maintenance-free? Think again. Because plastic grass is a barrier to the soil below, the worms that would normally pull fallen leaves and other organic material down into the soil cannot do so – all materials will have to be removed without nature’s helping hand. Particles of sediment can also become trapped in the pile and encourage weeds, which have to be removed by hand. 

It is true that natural lawns come with one-off production and transport carbon costs, as do petrol lawnmowers. But a natural lawn’s cooling, flood-preventing, carbon storing and nature-boosting properties are so incredible removing the soil surface and shrinkwrapping it with plastic just doesn’t make sense.  

Let it grow

If you have a natural lawn, how can you manage it in a way that’s simple for you, looks good and gives nature space to blossom?  

First things first – ditch the fertilisers and pesticides. Wildlife thrives when you sow a variety of plants and flowers. Fertilising encourages certain plants to grow quickly but at a cost – the smaller flowers and plants will get smothered. Delicate grasses, clovers, daisies and other flowering plants are great for wildlife and add colour to a lawn.   

A sea of daisies – perfect for wildlife and for daisy chain-making too! Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com) 

Next up, give the mower a rest. This will give your lawn a chance to breathe, for flowers to flourish and for critters to move safely through the longer vegetation. Longer grass will also help your lawn to cope better with drought by retaining soil moisture, it will also reduce run-off during heavy rainfall and help cool the atmosphere. Using the mower less frequently is a carbon-friendly option too. Raising the height of lawn mower cutting blades is another way of providing garden wildlife with a little extra habitat. 

If you’re worried that mowing less often will make your outside space look messy then there’s a simple solution – mow a neat strip around, or perhaps mow a little path through, the longer areas. The mixture of plant heights can create a nice variety of habitats for wildlife.    

To find out more about managing a lawn with nature in mind, click here. 

Creating pathways through areas of longer grass can be a lovely way to add interest to your lawn. Credit: Adrian Thomas, RSPB. 

A great green option

Lawns are wonderful natural carpet that can support all sorts of activities from football kickabouts to BBQs and they’re a better solution for wildlife (and the planet) compared with other options such as plastic grass. And as we’ve shown you, living lawns needn’t be hard work.  

A swathe of grass can be a wonderful space from which to enjoy your garden. It doubles as a feeding ground for garden birds such as starlings and blackbirds as well as somewhere for bees and butterflies to forage on clovers and other mini flowers and a fantastic space for hedgehogs to snaffle on slugs and snails come nightfall.  

Don’t underestimate the power of a small patch of grass. Explore the Nature on Your Doorstep pages for inspiration to help you create the perfect space for you and your wildlife.