Le tapis vert – The Green Carpet

About lawns on the French Riviera – and lawn alternatives for subtropical climates

HHabits, loved and unloved ones, are in all cultures, what two German sayings would express as „the salt in the soup“ and „the hair in the soup“ – both at the same time. On the French Riviera you don’t get around your jardinier’s cultivated déjeuner. In England you learn to live with your groundsmen’s civilised chat – during working hours – and in Germany your grumpy arborist will leave behind a „functioning“ fruit tree. Especially in a different culture we adjust to the circumstances, even if sometimes there’s something missing for complete bliss.

And that’s OK: a cheer for the diversity of cultures; a cheer for the melting pot that the Côte d’Azur is. Diversity is enlivening, the unknown is exciting. The new makes us inquisitive, gives us wings for new ideas and power for new ventures.

Many visitors of the Riviera are coming here for exact this reason: they want to recharge their batteries, within this unique mixture of culture, climate and breathtaking nature. Buyers of second homes are enjoying the pleasant anticipation for special, inspiring gardens.

Eventually though, disillusion arrives. When we’re talking about diversity in southern gardens, disappointment never is far, in the light of the circumstances. Here it is very easy to literally bury a lot of money, efforts and hopes in a garden. Especially in Mediterranean gardens there’s often a complete lack of variety and new, innovative ideas.

Why are most of the gardens so uninspired and uniform? Why does functionality dominate our lives in every aspect, but when it comes to garden design, there’s a disproportionate effort for one specific plant, which seldomly brings joy, but causes a lot of trouble.

I am speaking of the „good“ old and completely non-functional lawn. How did it happen, that lawns are confused with a carefully designed garden? Is it simply through pure imitation, dull copying? Why do we fulfil our dream of a life in the south, but then fail with a garden that doesn’t fulfil our aspirations? Are gardens not that important in the end?

Lawns quickly give their owners a feeling of „design“, but they aren’t much more than a makeshift solution for the hunch that somehow parts of the gardens should be kept free or open. But what for exactly? Which functions does such a lawn serve?

Rarely these areas are large enough so grandchildren can play football there or a much valued husband can practise with his pitching wedge. And even if so, usually it doesn’t take long until a note is heard: „Please be careful there, don’t damage the lawn!“, because right: lawn is very demanding and delicate.

It’s actually quite absurd, that within this we find its original purpose: the desire for impressing others by the sheer size of a very labour-intensive and useless area: when lawn as an element of design was „invented“ it was seen as impressive when someone had the funds to pay somebody else for scything and maintaining vast pieces of land that were not serving any agricultural purposes.

The odd thing about lawn: it’s always an issue. Nothing in a garden causes that much trouble. Lawn will only ever create joy when it’s flawless and „manicured“. A spotless monoculture, that serves no purpose, that holds no value for nature, that doesn’t attract any insects, but at the same time claims more labour, water, fertilizer and money than any other plant.

The problem with lawn is: in its monotony any deviation from the perfect norm will instantly be visible.

In the U.S. lawn already is the most irrigated plant, well before corn. A little over 50% of the total private household water consumption is now used for the outdoors, thus lawn irrigation. In comparable regions in Europe that’s no different. Why don’t we accept, that a lawn in the subtropics will never really function, without disproportionate efforts?

Who does enjoy a perfect lawn will wish to keep it. But do size and location make sense? Does its layout really add something valuable to the garden, or does it only exist because a garden without a lawn is not a garden?

And yet, there would be numerous alternatives, starting with a well conceived layout and the right mixture of a little bit of – perfect – lawn or resistant small ground covers that don’t even require any mowing or watering, and perennials, shrubs and trees. It is about the right balance in the garden, which starts with a professional design.

So why not „exhibit“ certain special areas through the use of lawn and donate special maintenance to only them: for Le Nôtre, the creator of Versailles, lawn was „un tapis vert“, merely a green carpet, by nature and common sense a small, but very special area that only existed to draw attention to other, more interesting, elements of a garden.

The history of the art of gardens comprises thousands of years. Over this whole time lawn always was and still is a rather minuscule element. Let’s give gardens the beauty and variety back that they once had in the olden days, because: „tradition is not the preservation of the ashes, but the sharing of the flame.“