By Elspeth Flood
Between buying our land in 1986 and moving here in 1988, my husband and I spent a lot of time planning our future and final garden.
We had never been much good at grass, always finding it time-consuming, expensive and, frankly, not worth the effort but everyone has to have green to set everything else off, don’t they? A lawn is part of a garden, isn’t it?
Do they? Is it? We decided on an alternative lawn, so ignorant were we then, and inspired by my husband’s uncle in Northern Ireland, we decided on a chamomile lawn which sounded herby and romantic.
I bought two large packets of chamomile seed and spent hours pricking out and transplanting seedlings.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t considered the difference in climate between Ulster and the Algarve; result, one failed chamomile lawn and many wasted hours.
Not daunted, our next alternative lawn was clover. We didn’t consider the wisdom of walking in sandals among bees, but anyway the climate defeated us again.
My husband and our Portuguese gardener decided couch grass was a good idea, since it does grow well here. I begged them to reconsider, and it took me a good few years to overcome that idea, since undoubtedly couch grass grows well here, and everywhere else.
This had one advantage, since I learnt how to get rid of couch grass and similar weeds, by being very kind.
Pile compost onto it, add water, and the happy roots come to the surface and are easy to pull up, so that wasn’t a complete waste of more time and effort, only nearly.
Whilst weeding my green disaster zone, I noticed the dwarf Verbena was spreading into it, and wondered what to do.
A happy lateral thought said: “Praise the Lord, here is the answer to your problems; minimum cutting, low-ish water needs, good colour and generally pretty.”
For a while it wasn’t doing too badly, considering I was asking it to grow in full sun on soil one centimetre deep over lime, where the land slopes in two directions.
Then an officious house sitter noticed it wasn’t grass, so sprayed it with weed killer. I think I’ve forgiven him, but I’ll never forget!
I’m not a quitter and I hate to admit defeat but after 16 years of wasted time, effort and money, I decided to let common sense prevail.
Gravel was old hat, but washed river pebbles were in, so I bought a truck load and some black membrane, added my gardener, and I have never had one second of regret.
It looks mellow, only needs the occasional weed pulling up and the odd top-up of pebbles, and sets off the surrounding plants as well as the finest lawn.
It is also in keeping with the Algarve, which isn’t a grass-growing area and where warm soft browns are part of the landscape. To quote Alexander Pope: “A garden must be in keeping with the genius of the place”, and virulent green isn’t, any more than my alternative disaster zones were.
Life after grass? Yes! Succulents, euphorbias and, would you believe, grass! The ornamental varieties, which provide colour, shape, “flowers”, movement and cutting material for the house vases, whilst demanding minimal work, attention and water.
They can be grown easily from seed, and if the cost of a mature plant seems high, most will self-seed and yield 100 for one (good swapping material with other enlightened gardeners.) I can’t get enough of them, and am nearly as addicted as I am to succulents. Garden centres are beginning to stock more, and I hope people are appreciating their beauty, toughness and undemanding natures.
I know of two gardens near me where the lawns cost €1,000 a month to maintain in the summer, and another which needs watering three times a day in the summer to keep it green, so must be in the same price bracket.
I can think of many more amusing ways to spend money, but apart from that, think of the environment.
The water in the aquifers belongs to everyone, and is beyond price; as the Arabs say “Water is life” and certainly without it, none of us will last long, let alone lawns.
Dig them up, have time, money and energy for other things, and above all, have fun, which is the supreme rule of gardening.
Elspeth Flood is a member of the Mediterranean Garden Society – Algarve. For more information about the Society, please call 289 791 869 or email [email protected]. Also visit www.gardeninginportugal.com