Love that lawn

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
June 2014

Steffie Shields admires a ‘His and Hers’ Lincolnshire lawn voted Britain’s Best Lawn.
Remember how Tom Jones sang his way into our hearts with Green, Green Grass of Home? We Brits love a good lawn. Recently, I was invited to visit a garden in New Apley, near Wragby, for a special presentation. Owners, Sandra and Malcolm Rogers had together won the top national prize Britain’s Best Lawn 2013 with their very different ‘His and Hers’ lawns surrounding their bungalow.

The competition is sponsored by Briggs & Stratton, the world’s largest manufacturer of air-cooled petrol engines for lawnmowers and other outdoor equipment. Gardening journalist, Martin Fish led the judging panel which unanimously agreed that Sandra and Malcolm should be joint-winners. Ian Small, the UK head of sales and marketing for Briggs & Stratton, presented a plethora of prizes: champagne, flowers, a framed Certificate of Achievement, Wilkinson Sword Garden tools, a Keter Easy Go wheelbarrow, two tickets to the Harrogate Flower Show, a year’s subscription, a consultation with Martin Fish, and – not that they need it – a copy of Dr D G Hessayon’s best-selling ‘The Lawn Expert’.

Ian explained: “This is the first time we’ve had dual winners but Malcolm and Sandra’s lawns were so innovative and demonstrate the flexibility and creativity of lawns. They are worthy winners of the competition, with a combination of formality and environmental care.”

Then came the best prize: a super new walk-behind mower, an Atco Clipper 16 powered, of course, by a Briggs & Stratton engine.

The traditional English lawn has long been admired worldwide; although, funnily enough, the word stems from the French word ‘Launde’: originally an open area for grazing deer. Perennial, pleasurable bird-haunted lawns have, for centuries, offered both visual pleasure and space for outdoor entertainment and sport. Grass tolerates drought, grows quickly and well in England and suits its oceanic climate. The recent winter’s unprecedented rainfall seems to have benefitted our lawns.

The famous royal gardener, ‘Capability’ Brown, whose 2016 Tercentenary approaches, loved a good lawn. A smooth sweep of green calmed grand house settings and simplified country vistas. Of course, in his day lawns were more than fifty acres! They had to provide the hay fuel for their horses, the transport of the day, with sheep being the main mowers. Brown instructed his workers: “Keep all in view very neat.”

Perhaps Leicestershire-born Malcolm, propagating from the age of three, learned this subliminally after being taken on as an apprentice bedding out thousands of plants in the walled garden at Stapleford Park, a site where Brown was once consulted. A stint at Leicester Parks Department followed, growing for the Lord Mayor’s Show, then time studying horticulture at Brooksby College, before a change of career found Malcolm’s energies serving the brewing industry.

Since moving to New Apley eighteen years ago, Malcolm and Sandra, who are keen members of Wragby Community Gardeners Club, often spend up to five hours each a day in the growing season in their garden, sheltered by a distinctive backdrop of woodland. They do take Christmas day off! Like Brown, they are both hard-working and modest, but with obvious zeal. Malcolm said: ”It’s not in my nature to neglect things.”

The secret of his lawn success lies in cosseting his three-quarters of an acre to get that traditional, picture perfect striped carpet look. This unites the entire garden, setting off an array of textured blossoming trees and plants – here a fountain (a present from their son for his sixtieth birthday), there a pond; here a driftwood sculpture, there a clipped, dome-shaped shrub, and there a circle of hybrid tea roses. The odd exotic feature such as the spiky dark evergreen monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, contrasts his velvet smooth turf.

Matching the colour of the sky, a miniature blue Monet bridge crosses a stream, cutting a meandering swathe through the middle of the lawn. The water edged with bog plants, rough rock and gravel gently flows from one irregular pond to a smaller, circular pool.

Exploring further, I found an alpine rockery, rose-laden pergolas, a tidy vegetable garden, woodland walk, and a herbaceous border as impressive in planting as the straight edge along its length. As inspirational as a mini ‘Barnsdale’, there is something for everyone. I was reminded of the down-to-earth hero of BBC Gardener’s World, the late Geoff Hamilton who encouraged my generation to get out and garden by making it all seem easy and possible on a budget. Malcolm immediately confessed that he, too, has been enormously influenced by the evolution of Geoff’s paradise gardens.

A pergola framing a lush green path leads to a pasture across the road, Sandra’s perhaps more contemporary ‘meadow lawn’. Back in April this looked like normal, natural grassland. However, I imagine from June onwards this will definitely not be the case for six months. Judging from the corner triangle of wild meadow, she also tends, linking the formal garden to the woodland, awash with snakes head fritillaries, wild orchids and cowslips. I visualise her meadow full of movement in the breeze and humming, a wildlife haven of poppies and wild flowers.

I noticed Sandra’s sense of colour – even her outfit blended perfectly with the garden. The birdsong chorus of approval was also remarkable. The birds obviously enjoy this habitat as much as the owners. I came away enriched, determined to spend more time working in my garden rather than at my computer. I have been picking dandelion clocks before the seed blows on the wind, and digging up weeds from every corner, spurred on by memories of Britain’s best lawn.

Talk about a love affair with nature; Sandra and Malcolm courted by dressing and curling the petals of chrysanthemums for local flower shows! A marriage made in a garden, they look on this as a long project, remain committed and sometimes open for charity. Both realise that a garden also helps to keep a community together. This one has, like its owners, a heart of oak. A mature spreading oak acts as a focal point and pivot, and emphasises its very Englishness, surrounded by a sweeping lawn, simply the best in Britain.

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