A lush, verdant, unblemished green carpet of turfgrass in front of a suburban home is accepted as an iconic American image on par with apple pie. When in fact, it is a venerable notion of beauty adapted from another continent and era.
The Industrial Revolution along with trade catapulted many in England into a privileged aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries where upon they accumulated hundreds of acres of land, subsequently transforming their estates into an ideal romantic landscape. In a Brownian or Reptonian landscape (landscape designers Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton), the lawn would virtually extend from the house out to a distant meadow. Mind you, grazing livestock (ie: sheep, rabbits) or a slew of workers with scythes would be working non-stop to trim its growth. When originally attempted back in the states, Americans were unsuccessful to replicate this. Two hundred years ago, native grasses seemed unsuitable for this function. Moreover, sufficient water and extremes of temperature worked counter to early efforts — the climate in England being considerably different than in virtually all of the United States even though the rainfall and temperatures in the Northwest have some similarities.
Lawns began as a status symbol. The ability for an English or European landowner to have endless acres of fields as a playground rather than for production of food would truly be flaunting their excesses. Along with other “continental” tastes, perhaps this may be one of the reasons for the national aspiration to create these carpets. Even today, “grass has become for many a luxury item basic to being a satisfied and responsible homeowner.” (Bormann, Balmori, Geballe; Redesigning the American Lawn 2001)
From an evolutionary perspective, one could also suggest that our culture adheres to the prospect refuge theory of preferring clean open spaces, and we’ve been predisposed and conditioned to appreciate the open swath of green lawn.
As people of upper classes traveled off of the American continent, read books, viewed paintings and photos, the desire grew to emulate European aristocracy in their garden design. What truly made this a possibility for landowners was the invention of the push mower in 1830 by Edwin Budding. Still, for the most part, the manicured lawn remained the possession of the upper classes in the United States and other industrialized countries. Subsequently, the lawn was heavily promoted after the turn of the century by magazines, garden clubs, golf enthusiasts and the US Dept of Agriculture. Conforming to what your neighbor had (keeping up with the Jones’) and therefore acquiring status and acceptance, was the culture of the 1950’s and 60’s (and remains so today). During the post-war housing boom, track houses and developments (offering 3 1/2 %, 30 yr. fixed mortgages) were procured by servicemen returning home and identical homes sprung up everywhere. The notion of a postage size, perfectly manicured 2” high, “dandelion absent” lawn was ever-present. With the advent of affordable sprinkler systems, the lawn became very manageable for homeowners.
In “Second Nature”, the author Michael Pollan, relates his father’s ambivalent spirit toward maintaining their suburban lawn in 1960, what he refers to as “ the most characteristic institution of the American suburb.” It is part of the “collective landscape: while not exactly public land, it isn’t entirely private either”. “To maintain your portion of this democratic landscape was part of your civic duty. You voted each November, joined the PTA, and mowed the lawn every Saturday.”
As Pollen recollects, his father decided one summer to forego mowing his lawn, create a mini-meadow out of that half-size postage stamp front lawn. Cars and passerby’s would stop and stare in at this anomaly. Neighbors wondered if there was a death or the family was moving. As the weeks passed, a representative neighbor for the community was selected to deliver the message – CUT YOUR LAWN! Pollan’s father’s response was to mow his initials into the untamed lawn. S-M-P. That was the last time his father used the mower before moving the family to another town!
As the face of a neighborhood, during these years communities began to enact weed laws aimed at protecting the public from neglectful landowners whose littered yards they believed could attract rats, mosquitoes or present a fire hazard. But also to promote what Pollen refers to as “the collective face of suburbia,” reflecting a shared sense of acquired values. As our understanding of a healthy ecosystem has matured, these laws are still wrongfully enforced against natural landscapes. According to the E.P.A. “Natural landscapes are not a threat to safety or public health. More distressing, enforcement of local weed laws fosters an unnatural aesthetic conformity, by promoting and protecting monoculture laws, that furthers the malignant notion that humankind and Nature are independent.”
In the 1970s, the natural landscape movement emerged from infancy as it gained professional recognition and a modest measure of formal organization. In 1972, landscape architect Darrel Morrison, then a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI, designed Walden Park in Madison as a predominately native landscape. Morrison continues to create noteworthy public (and private) native landscapes throughout the United States, emphasizing plant communities and the important clarification that selection of native plant material is only native if it is indigenous to that specific local area. Most recently, the New York Botanical Gardens installed one of his lyrical landscapes this past year.
“It is estimated that the total amount of monocultured lawn in the United States exceeds the size of the state of Pennsylvania.” (National Gardening Association) Suffice to say, lawn covers a considerable amount of the United States. Currently the aesthetic and environmental pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction. Most horticulturalists, environmentalists and educated professionals in the landscape category who do not have economic ties to the lawn industry are well versed in the non –sustainable reasons behind minimizing or even elimination of this deficient ecosystem.
One irony of this evolution is that in 16th century England, wealthy landowners had lawns that were natural meadows with thousands of wildflowers. In those days, “grasses were hated weeds, and garden boys would creep along the flower lawns picking out the grass.” (Hatfield, A.W., How to Enjoy Your Weeds, 1971) . In the 20th and 21st centuries, this perception of the ideal lawn has been turned on its head. Dandelions and other flowers are despised. Turf grass became the vegetation of choice. Weed laws protected and promoted this “ideal”.
A second irony is that to sustain these lawns homeowners burn millions of gallons of fuel powering inefficient mower engines, pouring chemicals into our lawns, creating an interpretation of a centuries old romantic dream of existing with nature ….as we assault it.