Contractors and councils face faster grass growth

Climate change is making grass growth rates increasingly unpredictable and contractors and councils must build this into their contracts, experts are warning.

Mowing: contractors facing rapid spurt in grass growth - image: © Dave McHugh
Mowing: contractors facing rapid spurt in grass growth - image: © Dave McHugh

Complaints have been reported around the country from residents angry at the state of the grass, with a warm, wet summer coinciding with reductions in mowing frequency in many areas.

The London Borough of Bexley has seen twice the usual amount of rain falling in the South East this year and nearly three times as much rain as the monthly average in June, increasing growth and preventing contractors from cutting when the grass was too wet.

ISS Facility Services Landscaping signed a new contract with Bexley in January, with a package of savings made including a reduction in mowing frequency from 10 to nine annual cuts. But the resulting long grass and clumping has riled residents, who have put pressure on the council.

On 1 June, ISS responded by bringing in 13 additional subcontracted staff and additional grass-cutting machinery and equipment, at no cost to the council. Councillors said some £26,000 was spent overall. ISS was uniformly praised by the council for its response, but it was suggested that the heavy rain was being treated as exceptional when in truth it is likely to be common in the future.

In Fenland, ISS has also gone on a PR drive following the rapid spurt of grass growth, sending a statement to the local paper explaining the impact of climate change and outlining measures taken to combat the added growth, including new seasonal hiring, Saturday working and new specialist equipment that copes well with long wet grass.

ISS Landscaping managing director Phil Jones told Horticulture Week: "We've had a couple of instances this year where local authorities, to find savings, have reduced the number of cuts per year and there hasn't been sufficient mowing. At times there has not been sufficient communication and consultation with the public so as soon as the grass grows longer they will complain. It's a tricky one. But Bexley is a very good example of where if two partners work together they can resolve issues of public perception."

As chair of the BALI-National Contractors Forum, Jones is hearing that more and more clients across the country are expecting contractors to find the solution. "But where this sort of thing has happened this year the client has been very realistic - they have stood behind their contractor and supported them rather than blamed them. It's no one's fault, it's just the way it is in terms of finances. From our point of view, contractors should be willing to help local authorities. We don't have an endless supply of money but we think it's right to help."

Most councils are now aware of the changing climate and its effect on grass. Many local authority websites now display this statement: "Climate change has increased the growing season by 24 days in the last 30 years. Increased CO2, rising temperatures and excessive rainfall has and will continue to expedite grass growth. By 2020, a low forecast of one degree annual increase in temperatures is expected to extend the growing season for lawns by a further two-to-three weeks."

"The pattern is there to see," said Jones. "It's not a great recipe to achieve the standard by reducing the number of grass cuts from the bare minimum. It's pretty obvious in a normal year what's going to give the required output and to go below that is inviting disaster really. We do, however, in this country get used to pristine mown lawns in parks, rather than natural, and I think even if it's not a budget requirement it's not bad to have more naturally managed open spaces."

Grounds care consultant Dr Sid Sullivan said there are likely "half-a-dozen" other contractors in a similar situation this summer. "Having looked at grass growth rates particularly, but also shrub and bedding rates, the growth is nowhere near as consistent as it used to be five or six years ago," he said. "We used to stop cutting in November and start again in March, and you used to be able to assume that two out of four summers would be exceptionally dry or wet, but that doesn't hold any more - it's nowhere near as predictable. But I don't see that finding its way into contracts."

Some "fairly sophisticated math modelling" is now required, he added. "The truth is it's far more difficult to assess medium trends than it was a few years back, thus the only factor is the lowest price. The real problem is the unfair, unremitting pressure on budgets. Everyone suffers."

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