A perfectly manicured lawn is a deeply entrenched ideal in the American psyche. Often when there is left-over space outdoors, it is all too common to use lawn as the default filler. But is this the best practice? In recent years, people are increasingly questioning lawn’s dominance over the American landscape, giving rise to a host of intriguing alternatives. PART I will include the history of the American lawn and its consequences, while PART II will discuss alternative styles and practices.
PART I: The Emergence of the Lawn Aesthetic
Lawns are often associated with the United States, but they originated in northern Europe. Lawns first appeared in Great Britain and France in around the 12th century, and their early descriptions state that they were mainly comprised of turf grass. To have a turf grass lawn suggested wealth, as its maintenance required a flock of sheep or a fleet of groundskeepers; in fact, often the lawn was there to sustain the livestock. However, this was not the only type of lawn. Another popular choice was the medieval “mead,” which imitated meadows and had low-growing flowers mixed with turf grass. Sometimes, these meads were comprised with little to no grass at all, often hosting a mix of clover, chamomile, and thyme that released light scents when walked across.
Only in the mid-19th century were turf lawns available to those without grazing animals or groundskeepers after the English engineer Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawnmower in 1830. This early contraption was just as likely to dig up clots of soil as to trim grass, but later iterations continually improved its effectiveness.
The widespread use of lawn in the United States came in the 1860s, when key landscape architects and designers such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Frank J. Scott promoted and popularized it. These individuals viewed lawn as the perfect aesthetic for new middle class housing developments – rather than separating houses with walls or fences, lawn would flow uninterrupted between their properties, creating the vision of homes set within one connected park space. Also, divvying a segment of lawn to each homeowner, rather than a vast expanse of lawn on only one estate, created a collective landscape reflecting the nation’s democratic ideals. The lawn also would showcase the house without the ostentation of too many flowers and look tidier than a patch of vegetables. Frank J. Scott advocated this position, writing, “Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.” He also emphasized the moral necessity of maintaining the lawn, stating that, “It is unchristian to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature, which it has been our good fortune to create or secure.” With the growth of suburban developments mid-19th century, lawns became ubiquitous in the American landscape and have remained.
The True Costs of Lawns
As unchallenged as the lawns were for about 120 years, the push for greater diversity has been ongoing in the United States for the last several decades. These efforts have paralleled the nation’s growing environmental awareness. In 1989, writer Michael Pollan wrote about his mistrust of the American lawn in his article, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” saying “I became convinced that lawn care had about as much to do with gardening as floor waxing, or road paving…. A lawn was nature under culture’s boot.” In the early 2000s, Cristina Milesi and her colleagues at NASA calculated that turf lawns covered 49,421 square miles of the United States – That’s more than three times the area of all irrigated corn crops. The effect of lawns aren’t all bad. Although lawns absorb carbon dioxide at a lower rate than mature grasses or gardens, they still do help reduce urban heat island effects and reduce erosion, but often its beneficial features are outweighed due to how people maintain lawns.
Lawn maintenance and costs are substantial. To achieve a green, weed-free turf lawn, Americans spend upwards of $20 billion dollars on lawns yearly (not including the costs of commercial properties, golf courses, etc.) and use a variety of chemical fertilizers and weedkillers. Milesi estimated that the amount of water used to maintain U.S. lawns is equivalent to about 200 gallons of water per American daily. The result is a verdant monoculture, sterile for the purposes of pollinators, bees, and of use as habitat. Lawn mowers spew out 11 times as much pollution as cars per hour and contribute to urban smog. Chemicals leach into groundwater and propose health risks. Fertilizers are added to encourage growth of green, healthy grass that is almost ironically mowed down as it grows too tall or attempts to flower. All this is done to uphold an aesthetic constructed in the 1800s.
Written by Leslie Johnson, 2017.