Leafing through a garden design book the other day, I was struck by a curious fact. The book is one of many by John Brookes, the renowned British designer. In virtually every case study presented, the size of the lawn is greatly reduced in comparison to the standard suburban garden most of us would recognize. As there is no indication in the book that Mr. Brookes is relating to water conserving gardening, it is safe to assume that design is his paramount issue of concern.
Gardeners in dry climates should take note of this, because saving water is usually the first reason, if not the only one offered, for reducing the size of a garden lawn. It is not difficult to see why, as grass in the Mediterranean climates typical of Southern Europe, Southern California, or Southwest Australia, requires at least 700 mm of irrigation water year. In more arid regions like Central Asia and parts of the Middle East, the consumption rate rises steeply. Yet here we see a world-famous garden designer, severely limiting the area allotted to a lawn, for purely design reasons.
All professional designers are acutely concerned with scale and proportion. Most of us understand this when it comes to how vertical lines relate to each other, such the height of a tree being in scale to the size and height of the house. There is little difficulty in pointing out that a 30-meter tree would be out of place in a tiny backyard plot, and next to a two-storey house.
Less obvious perhaps, but no less pertinent, is the need for the horizontal spaces in the garden to be in suitable proportion to each other. Let’s take for the purpose of simplicity, an example of a 10m by 10m plot, (30ft * 30ft) where the grass takes up almost all the space, with 0.5 meters in width being left as a border for bedding plants. Looking at the two main spaces, i.e. the lawn and the border, it is clear that the proportions are completely wrong. That is why John Brookes or any less famous garden designer would never create a garden in such a manner.
In fact, it is fascinating as a dry climate gardener, to see the design solutions he proffers. Lawns are replaced by brick paving or by a wooden deck, by sweeps of ground-hugging plants, or by a beautiful seating area enveloped in lush, green foliage. Furthermore, by expanding the width of the beds at the expense of the grass, it is possible to increase the three-dimensional character of the garden by means of raised structures, or sunken spaces. Remember that changes of level, however gentle or subtle, are the stock-in-trade of the garden designer.
Some gardeners in dry climates may look jealously at their counterparts in wetter climes, and dream of growing acres of lawn without having to worry about wasting water or how best to irrigate the grass. Instead, we should learn from the great garden designers and reduce the size of the lawn in relation to the plot as a whole. In this way, we not only save water, but also create a more satisfying garden composition in the process.