Peter Meecham

Immaculate

You might spot them on their hands and knees, grid-searching their section for weeds. Spending their Saturday carving perfect stripes—or even diamonds—into their ‘outdoor carpet’. Most of all, you will know them by their works. Meet the lawn addicts.

Written by       Photographed by Peter Meecham

In the pursuit of perfection, serious lawnies like Simon Slade (on the previous page) and Emma Andrews, above, will periodically slog through a ‘reno’—ripping up and starting again.

Before I could warn him, my friend Guy stepped off the deck and onto our lawn in bare feet. We have Onehunga prickle weed. I made that sound more trivial than it deserves: our lawn basically is Onehunga prickle weed. It has annexed our territory, resisted only by a few doughty dandelions. Even our dog tiptoes round the mowing strip. But it was too late for our guest. It was hard to know whether his pained grimace was down to the spiky seeds, or dismay at my feckless neglect, because Guy is a man who once mounted a months-long, hands-and-knees campaign to liberate his own lawn from something he called “couch grass”. He literally picked every centimetre of every rhizome out of the ground. And he has a sprawling lawn.

Occasionally, I experience a disquiet that might be unresolved lawn shame, but it soon passes. When my own bare feet are caressed by Guy’s Arcadian sward (321 days since the last couch grass incident), when I watch his family lunge for a volleyball without fear of puncture wounds, I fleetingly wonder whether I should care more.

But I don’t. Paspalum trespass is a matter of supreme indifference to me. Until I researched this feature, I thought Kentucky bluegrass was made with fiddles and banjos. I do know a few things about grass, though: I know, for instance, that palaeontologists have found the earliest known grasses in fossilised dinosaur poo some 100 million years old, and lawniscenti would probably recognise them today. Nowadays, grasses account for almost a quarter of the world’s vegetation. There is no continent free of them, save Antarctica—and that’s just a matter of time, the way things are going. Some can grow in salt water. I know that without them, we would certainly starve.

Maybe, then, some primal amity compels the millions of individual devotional acts that add up to one of Western culture’s great bafflements: lawnmaking.

[Chapter Break]

As a lad, Simon Slade liked to watch the cricket at Hagley Park in Christchurch. “I would always sit on the grass embankment, rather than a sterile wooden bench. The grounds were always amazing, pristine—I used to think how nice it looked.” That was the inspiration for the award-winning lawn my toes are right now luxuriating in. They can feel the love that’s gone into each and every blade of this perennial ryegrass. All are trimmed to the exact same height.

The sheer uniformity of it is mesmerising: if I let my focus relax, it shapeshifts into emerald fractals. I peer at the interstices between the ranks of rye, scanning for nuance, but there is no hint: neither moss nor weed, not even old, dead clippings. This lawn is a microcosm of monoculture.

Slade is looking closely, too. He’s just returned from holiday. Usually, people get friends to look after their pets while they’re away. Slade had someone look after his lawn. If I laid down a spirit level here, I know where the bubble would come to rest. Any slope is precisely where Slade has carefully engineered it: around the perimeter, for drainage. Stripes, even and straight, point east-west, like grid lines on a map. He bids me contemplate the stripes from different perspectives, and he’s right when he says they either pop or fade, depending on the angle of the sunlight.

The stripes, the height, the very purity of this crop are the product, variously, of four different lawnmowers. Here they are, in Slade’s garage, spotlessly clean and parked in a row. One, strictly speaking, is not a mower. It’s a scarifier, a kind of powered rotary lawn rake with vertical tines that whirl between the blades of grass, trimming each so it orients upwards, not outwards, and sweeping up organic detritus.

Two are what lawn savants call “reel mowers”. Instead of whirling blades, these cut with a spinning cylindrical bail (like the one on your grandad’s old push mower) that carries blades arranged in a sine wave to perform a surgical scissor action. Both mowers trail a roller, the agent of Slade’s perfect stripes. One has a broom attached to the front, to tease up the blades of grass so they can be better decapitated. The reel mower is what you see groundskeepers pushing along a cricket wicket, and it is, I suggest, what separates the fanatics from the rest of us. None of this approximate, threshing rotary-blade nonsense for them (although even Slade owns one ‘ordinary’ lawn mower, which he’ll use during winter)—the perfect order, the almost cellular congruity, of a trophy lawn is obtained by precision engineering.

It’s no surprise to hear that Slade’s operation is data-intensive. “Anything I do, I’m quite methodical. I send a soil sample away, usually twice a year, to get it tested and analysed.”

In high summer, he can mow four times a week. “I keep it a bit shorter then—around about 12 millimetres. I like to take smaller amounts off more frequently, rather than do a big weekly mow.” In the shoulder seasons, he might mow twice a week, and none of it is a chore. “I’m an active relaxer, so I really enjoy it out there. I put my headphones on and get a bit of sun.” Sometimes, he says, he’ll just “zone out”. Other times, he’s mulling over work stuff (he runs a busy IT company).

Psychology journals are chock-full of studies which have found that people who consciously schedule creative pastimes and relaxation are happier with their lives. It matters not what our indulgence is, only that we each have a space where the rest of the world falls away—where we can hear our own daydreams. As writer Joe Bennett put it, “A lawn mown is a mind eased.”

Study subjects often say that completing a project gives them satisfaction, but it was actually the incremental progress that meted out the endorphins. For Slade, there is no destination, only waypoints. Over lockdown in 2020, he embarked on a purification rite lawnies call a “reno”, ripping out his first lawn—“I wasn’t too keen on the seed that was used”—and starting again. This time, he planted the same perennial ryegrass that’s used on the outfield at Hagley Park. “You’re always chasing perfection, but in reality, you’re never going to get there. So you’ve just got to enjoy the journey.”

Another requisite for happiness, say researchers, is a sense that you’re part of something bigger, a force for good. Enter the New Zealand Lawn Addicts Facebook group, set up by a lawn supplies store to exchange “Lawn advice, tips and tricks”. Experience, knowledge—even labour and equipment—are freely shared. It’s also a safe space. Members admit to spending rainy weekends forlornly vacuuming stripes into their carpet, or cringing when the kids get out the slip’n’slide on Christmas Day. After raking her clippings, one woman put her leaf blower on suction mode and used it to vacuum her lawn. “The neighbours thought it was hilarious,” she wrote.

Hayden Winter’s lawn is on a carefully-calibrated regime of fertiliser, wetting agent, an antifungal, selective weedkiller, and iron. He scarifies, aerates and top-dresses with sand to maintain drainage and perfect flatness. During the growing season he mows every second day.

Hayden Winter is known half-seriously to the group as “the king” for his supreme rye, immaculate edges and lawn knowhow, with which he is generous. He describes himself as “the sort of person that can only have one hobby at a time, due to how much I commit to them”. This particular devotion dates back to April 2017, when back surgeries left him bed-bound for months and he stumbled across lawn porn on YouTube.

“I made up my mind I was going to have the best lawn on the block,” he says. Six months later, his mother died, and Winter dug even deeper. “[Lawns] gave me something to focus on and keep me busy, to keep me out of my head and thoughts.”

Now, he finds tending his lawn a way to spend time with his two young kids. (He once scarified his section with his toddler asleep on his shoulder.)

Over the course of Winter’s addiction, he’s seen the Facebook group grow from 100 members to 13,000. Most are men. But increasingly, women are earning their stripes, too.

“These are my babies,” Emma Andrews tells me, gesturing towards nascent blushes of green across an otherwise blank, earthy canvas. I bend down to see the first slivers of the dark ryegrass she sowed a few days ago. “I reckon these’ll put on 12 millimetres before tomorrow morning,” she says. She can’t wait for dusk to come.

“Every night, I come out and lie down on the deck. I turn on the flash on my phone and get right down low, to get pictures side-on, because that’s when you see how much growth there really is. It’s very, very rewarding.”

Then she posts her baby photos on Lawn Addicts. “I really put myself out there on the page, and since then, quite a few more women have popped up out the woodwork—it’s given them the confidence to engage with the site.”

Andrews grew up in England. In hindsight, turf was probably her destiny: “There were early signs. I can remember being at my dad’s house, and him having a lawn that he didn’t look after—he maybe mowed it once a month, when it was up to your knees. There were foxes living in it. And I remember sitting out there as a child, cutting the edges with scissors. That was something I always loved to do.” She still does: “I haven’t quite mastered my machine edger, so I’ve been using my special scissors.”

The previous weekend, Andrews gave her suburban Rangiora plot, maybe 100 metres square, a “partial” reno. She put in a drain, levelled every hummock, filled every divot, then oversowed with dark rye, the grass of choice, she says, of lawn addicts everywhere. “I don’t know the ins and outs of it all—I believe it’s to do with how the blade looks on one side or the other, depending on the light. I just know what looks nice—the darker, the better for me; rather than lime green.” Then she picked up a hammer and a saw and built her first mowing strip. For good measure, she built a side gate, too, because from now on, the dogs are canes non gratae here. “I worked 13 hours straight,” she tells me. “I forgot to eat.”

Rotorua neighbours Ryan Gray and Jared McLean (below) often swap lawn tips.

Engagement, energy, fulfillment: psychologists will tell you these are three more of the ingredients in happiness, or at least contentment. Another powerful one is a sense that you have some degree of control over your environment. I’ll be honest: I thought this story was going to be about the cracker-barrel idiosyncrasies of lawn fanatics. But in a way, it’s the story of us all—you just need to drop the word “lawn”.

On our rural hectare, my wife and I are replanting native trees (in part because I loathe mowing), and to that end, I raise plants from seed. The first thing I do of a morning is go into my home nursery and peer intently at the seed trays, scanning for some new flicker of green. When a seed germinates, when a seedling sprouts its second leaves, I get a little rush. Whether it’s a blade of dark rye or a tiny tendril of toetoe, the reward centre of our brain neither knows nor cares: what matters is the small achievement, the progress towards our goal, and the connectedness to something much bigger (our local revegetation group now tops 80 landowners). Some people make ships in bottles, some breed very small horses, others restore old ploughs. The gratification is precisely the same, and the need for it may well be a tenet of the human condition.

I put the idea to Andrews. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she says. “I just know how it makes me feel—a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishing something. I think we’re all trying to find ourselves and what makes us tick.”

[Chapter Break]

Any afternoon drive will show you that trophy lawns are, in the main, the preserve of the affluent. It doesn’t take much figuring out: nobody’s going to nurture an award-winning lawn if they don’t own the home it graces. That’s a third of households excluded right there. Secondly, fancy lawns demand copious inputs of time and money—things denied another burgeoning sector of Aotearoa society, the working poor (more than 1.1 million Kiwis at the last count by the Royal Society Te Apārangi).

It has ever been this way. In the Middle Ages, the castled aristocracy liked to keep surrounding pasture short and open so they could see anyone coming, but it wasn’t until 1680 that André Le Nôtre planted a lawn— his tapis vert (green carpet) in the prim Gardens of Versailles—simply for Louis XIV to look at. Suddenly, every country estate in northern Europe was putting in a lawn. The lawn became a potent motif of English country culture. It proclaimed a wealth unbridled. Here were tracts of productive land that the owners could afford to reduce to an idle aesthetic—some were roped off even to foot traffic. Tea on the lawn often decided matters of state, to the distant, deferential click of peasants scissor-clipping the lawns their sheep once grazed. The push mower wouldn’t be patented until 1860, but its advent made lawns accessible to another class—one that couldn’t afford staff but could stretch to a mower.

Wherever The Empire obtruded, lawns were sure to follow, and Aotearoa was no exception. Seats of central and regional administration, the homes of peers, senior bureaucrats and the wealthy pastoralists, all sported lawns sown not from indigenous grasses, but exotics like ryegrass imported from Mother England. Lawn or pasture, grass was the logo of the colonial project.

Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman (Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi, Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Rangi) is a community researcher with a keen interest in ecology and landscape. “I’m as colonised as the next person,” she says. “I was brought up with lawns as a child. They were a regular part of being a Kiwi. That’s where we played.”

McLean and his son Jack spend their weekends tinkering with their collection of eight mowers and keeping the front lawn mint—the back, pictured here, has been sacrificed to dogs and kids.

She points out that today, most marae boast splendid lawns of ryegrass and kikuyu. “I’m not entirely sure what our marae and our pā would’ve looked like back when the English arrived, because there are no good images, but our tūpuna were very pragmatic people. I have no doubt that when the missionaries brought this idea of lawns and gardens and fences, our rangatira would’ve understood them as symbols of wealth or status—they would have known they meant something in the eyes of Pākehā. Our people take great pride in how their marae look, and so we adopted the lawn… It was our choice—it wasn’t forced on us.”

But, she says, “as colonisation really started to bite”, lawns morphed into something more sinister: “Then they became a symbol of suppression—a sign that said, ‘I’ve now got your land.’”

As a homeowner, she’s keenly aware that she, too, lives on land that was once someone else’s: “It was important for me to have a patch of my own, because all our land got taken from us and our family, but there’s a conflict when I think about it. I wonder, ‘Whose whenua am I sitting on?’ I’ve tried to mitigate that by getting rid of as much grass as possible, and planting natives.”

Academic papers and online polemics cast lawns as environmentally inimical and culturally hostile. They point out, rightly, that cultivated lawn is where biodiversity goes to die. Monocrops have a ravenous appetite for fertilisers that release potent greenhouse gasses. Even that gratifying cut-grass smell comes from organic compounds—green leaf volatiles—released into the air, where they can oxidise into other compounds that exacerbate smog and respiratory ailments and aggravate climate change. Finally, say the critics, tended lawns have an unquenchable and untenable thirst—US lawns guzzle 1.5 trillion litres of water on an average summer day. Turf, they charge, is an anachronism in a future defined by drought.

But for now, Christchurch, traditionally our most English of cities, is still ground zero for a hard core of lawnophiles, such as Andrews, Winter and Slade, who like to quip their address as “Ryechurch”. And lawnies, like prickle grass, are thriving everywhere.

Come weekends, you might find Ryan Gray on his hands and knees armed with a small artists’ paintbrush, scouring his suburban Rotorua lawn for shoots of paspalum. He’s applying broad-spectrum herbicide onto individual blades of unwanted grass. “I find my toddler’s paintbrush works best.” At one point, he laughingly calls his paspalum purge “tragic”, but like the other addicts I spoke with, Gray, who works in Government comms, is over apologising for his passion: “There’s a certain joy that comes with manual labour that my day job doesn’t bring.”

“The smell of fresh-cut grass,” he says, “the immediate feeling of satisfaction when you look back at a lawn you’ve just finished and see finely cut lines, stripes in the lawn…”

This is Gray’s first home, and the lawn was his top priority: he went full reno on its weedy ass. “I’ve always wanted a home to be proud of, where from the moment I turn into the driveway, I’m greeted with a sense of reward and relaxation.” Gray happily admits he enjoys the admiration from neighbours and passers-by. He finds it deeply satisfying to open his curtains in the morning and see his “deep green lawn staring back”.

Hayden Winter mentored Emma Andrews through her reno, which involved de-thatching the old lawn, digging drainage trenches, installing irrigation and box edging, re-levelling and re-sowing with dark rye. Three weeks after this shot her new lawn was looking lush.

His dream lawn would be “one hundred per cent tall fescue, but there’s a part of me that’s all too aware how bad monocultures are for the environment”—something he’s trying to offset by planting natives round the rest of his property—“so I’ve pulled back from perfection to let a little bit of rye in there, too.”

Back in Rangiora, Andrews is having none of that. There might be 12,000 species of grass in the world, but she’s concerned with just one. She waves a hand across the yard: “The really long stuff you can see? That’s fine fescue. My real babies are the dark rye coming through. So I’ll do the whole oversow again—re-seed with rye to make it thicker or darker, and kill off the fescue altogether.” Next morning, I get a text. It’s a photo of ranks of rye seedlings under flashlight: they have indeed put on at least 12 millimetres overnight.

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