I am grateful for a note from Sheffield, in which Payne Knight’s criticism of the omnipotent Capability Brown’s landscapes as ‘uniform, eternal green’ is cited to justify a claim that ‘lush green richness’ was the beau ideal of 18th century English design. In fact, reliable species counts from the mid-18th century show that top-quality meadows contained 28 or more species. There was no pure grass seed on the market and no one would have bought it anyway, as the poet Mason reminded his sheep: ‘ev’ry fav’rite herb /Shall court your taste, ye harmless epicures!’ Like any other improver, Brown would let a good hay field go to seed and use that with the addition of clover for sowing grass fields, aiming for what we would now call bio-diversity.
A second question – when was the grass cut, or how long was 18th century grass? – was first put by the redoubtable George Clarke of Stowe.
Here’s a first stab at an answer: best practice would rest hay meadows by grazing them every other year. John Parnell took note that ‘This is a piece of good management almost universally observed in the best Parks in England.’ Do the maths; if an average-sized park had 2-300 acres of hay meadow, then half would be grazed each year, but the rest would not all be cut for hay either. Horses and oxen were stabled through most of the year and would be fed with ‘soil’ [green fodder] daily.
I remember when hunters at Badminton’s great stables were only turned out for a month’s rest in the summer, but were fed the rest of the time on freshly cut fodder collected with a cart and nag, and supplemented with artificial grasses, usually vetches and lucerne. Naturally the grass close to the stables got the most cuts in those days and that’s what makes sense of Christian Hirschfeld’s observation: ‘A perfectly flat area of grass, even if it contains nothing else, may initially seem refreshing, but we soon tire of it … The purer, more lively and sparkling the green, the more charming grasses are in general … When several such areas are found in a large park, they must differ in both the variation of green hues as well as in their heights. The cheerfulness of this colour is in any case the particular attribute of grass.’
So the length of the grass depends on when it had been mown – not a very helpful answer, but true all the same.