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Why it's hard to have a good-looking lawn in Perth, Australia

by Jim Heath
Copyright 2008 Viacorp

Perth has miserable lawns. Because there are two types of soil: sand or rock. In the hills, it's rock. In the coastal plain, it's sand. Fine-looking lawns don't grow easily on sand or rock.

And there's another lawn-killer: Perth's dry summers. For long months, you're trying to keep a lawn alive on sand or rock -- in a desert.

But almost everyone here tries to have a lawn. I can guess how this started: immigrants from the UK and other green and pleasant lands were used to their luxuriant lawns. They brought that requirement with them, like afternoon tea.

These days, immigrants from countries with rich soil and year-round rain still arrive in Perth with headstrong requirements for a lawn. Indeed, when they look around, they see lawns everywhere. (Well, sort of lawns.) They're sure their lawn won't look like that. No one warns them what they're in for.

When we came here from the UK, we rented a house in an old Western suburb. There was a pleasant-enough lawn. The rental agreement included a gardener. The landlord must have known what would happen if he left the garden to the care of tenants, especially new UK migrants. So a capable gardener showed up every two weeks, mowing and sometimes fertilising. Meanwhile, the watering in summer was automatic. Vigorous sprinklers came on at programmed times, drawing water from a private bore. Smelly and rusty-coloured water sprayed out, eagerly sucked up by the lawn and other vegetation.

So if you know what you're doing (or hire a qualified gardener), and you pour on water, you can grow a lawn on sand or rock. But expect heavy discouragement if you try to do it yourself but don't know how to. Or if you don't have your own bore that supplies as much free water as you want. Because the Water Corporation often restrict how many minutes per week you can use their scarce mains water for your sprinklers.

It all means that great numbers of Perth lawns look like one of these examples:

lawn-1

lawn-2

lawn-3

That doesn't mean the people with lawns like that aren't trying. Some work at it like quarry slaves. These are pretty normal lawns for Perth and they show signs of work. But the forces against you are simply too great. You can watch TV garden programs, spy on neighbours who have slightly better-looking lawns, pour on as much water as you're allowed to, and sprinkle your struggling grass with everything but powdered diamonds. And nothing much improves.

I should add that there's another type of lawn-owner. They just don't care. Their lawn looks woeful, but sometimes no worse than many others. So why worry?

This far along in Perth's history, there seems no choice. If you buy a house, it comes with some description of lawn (probably revived by superhuman gardening efforts in order to help the sale.) If you build a house, the plan includes a lawn. What else? All the other houses around have lawns. Are you a normal person or a freak? Of course you want a lawn!

If you think I'm exaggerating how hard it is to maintain a presentable lawn, consider this empty block that will soon have houses on it. These houses will all have little lawns, on top of that deep sand that you can clearly see.

sandy building block

Or this new house, with a sandbox where the lawn will go.

sandbox ready for new lawn

The hills

In the hills, there's rock. The surface is crumbly and dusty, with brown pebbles and trace nutrients. Incredibly hardy native plants have evolved that can live on it. The plants are also able to endure long droughts without withering. Some home owners are delighted with this bushland and simply leave it that way. After all, it looks OK and takes care of itself! That's what we did when we lived in the hills. Here's what part of our 2000 square-metre bush block looked like:

part of bush block in the Perth hills

Others scrape off the scant vegetation and turn the rock and brown pebbles into a feature. They build little islands of garden by importing soil and growing a few roses or some low-water native plants. But no lawn. Like this one:

hills no-lawn solution 1

Individuals who are exceptionally determined, rare and experienced do sometimes cultivate acceptable-looking lawns in the hills. Like this one:

hills lawn

I spoke to the owner. He admitted that on many occasions he'd nearly given up. So much time and cost.

The lawnless revolutionaries

Beaten down by water prices and unrewarding work on their patchy lawns, rebellious or pioneering souls strip their lawns right out. They put in areas of gravel, mulch, and attractive plants that don't need much water. The Water Corporation encourage this for reasons that aren't hard to guess, and they sponsor free seminars on how to live lawnlessly: Great Gardens.

But it's still rare to see interesting, no-lawn gardens. Here are five:

no lawn solution 1

no lawn solution 2

no lawn solution 3

That's not sand. It's compacted crushed limestone.

no lawn solution 4

Mulch on the verge. Then mulch and eye-catching plants around the house.

garden by Eiji Morozumi

This was done by Eiji Morozumi. More examples of his work.


Finally here's a dramatic solution, spotted in the hills near Kalamunda:

plastic lawn

No watering needed. No fertiliser. Never needs cutting. It's plastic.


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