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The History of Lawns
by Cinthia Milner - posted 06/01/17


The tradition of neatly mown green front yard isn’t as old as you would think. The concept began 1868
in the first American suburb in Illinois, and its roots come from the Tudor era in England.

For most American homeowners (gardeners or not), the upcoming summer months signal a time of mowing and watering lawns, followed by the perennial chore of raking. It’s as American as apple pie, right? Actually, the American obsession with velvety lawns isn’t much older than the happy days of the 1950s. The story of how Americans became the land of freshly cut lawns, reaching from shore to shore, could fill books, complete with twisted and complicated plots that always end with the “green, green grass of home,” but here is it in a shortened version.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer who co-designed Central Park with his partner Calvert Vaux, is said to have defined the American lawn, but he doesn’t get credit for inventing them. Gardeners in England had incorporated lawns into their estates since the time of the Tudors, but in the English tradition, lawns were a part of the landscape — not the landscape. Used for bowling greens and long vistas, the swaths of green in Europe belonged primarily to the wealthy and were unattainable by the poor.


General Plan of Riverside · Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Landscape Architects · 1869.

Olmsted created the unified lawn, or a more democratic approach to lawns — one that provided every homeowner a quarter-acre patch of green. Commissioned to design one of the first planned suburbs in 1868, Riverside in Illinois, he stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road. Also, fences or “walls” were prohibited, giving the whole development a park-like setting. Lawns continued over property lines and mowing your grass became a matter of pride, the homeowner’s contribution to keeping the neighborhood spiffy, a sentiment that’s still prevalent today.

Prior to the expansion of the suburbs, lawns were minimal in most places and practically nonexistent in the South. The typical Southern front yard was hard dirt that was swept daily. Grass was thought to harbor mosquitos, insects, rodents and snakes and was also considered a fire hazard.

But then, the suburban explosion and the 40-hour workweek changed the daily routine of homeowners and allowed more time for ornamental gardening. Three organizations are directly responsible for instilling the desire and creating the necessary resources to ensure a summer of freshly cut lawns.
 



There are plenty of ways to incorporate flowerbeds and a nice lawn into your landscape, including planting a barrier of trees and shrubs between the road and your house.



Some opt for no grass at all, using mulch and plantings instead. In some cases, it is much easier to plant shade-loving hostas under a tree canopy than to struggle with grass.

Lawn Facts

The amount of pollution emitted by a lawnmower operating for one hour is equivalent to the amount of pollution emitted by a car driven for approximately 20 miles.

Up to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns.

Americans spend more than $5 billion on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for their lawns and $700 billion on pesticides, totaling 67 billion pounds of synthetic pesticides.

20 million acres of American land is planted with residential lawns.

In 1915, almost a half century after Olmsted designed Riverside, the US Department of Agriculture collaborated with the US Golf Association to find the right grass — or rather, combination of grasses — that would produce a lawn suitable for the American climate and fit the definition of “good grass.” Bermudagrass from Africa, bluegrass from Europe and a mix of fescues and bentgrass were included in the research, all of which are non-native to the United States. Within 15 years, the USDA had produced several grass combinations that would work in American climates, but not without a host of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation and, of course, the right lawnmower.

The American Garden Club was the most effective in getting the American public on board. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain beautiful and healthy lawns. They defined a good lawn as “mown to a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, neatly edged and without weeds.” By the 1950s, the American public was convinced, and the quest for the perfect lawn became a weekend pastime. Weed-free, freshly mown lawns were as much a labor of love as a civic duty.

Today, Americans are still writing the history of lawns. As we have become more aware of the environmental hazards of lawn care, the enthusiasm for the lawn is dwindling. Modern homeowners are incorporating ground covers, flowerbeds, mulch and shrubbery in place of grass. Swaths of green are getting smaller, and some traditional front yards of grass are removed completely in favor of other plants.

Grass is still the largest part of the American garden, but whether or not it keeps its favored focal point… Only time will tell.

 

A version of this article appeared in a June 2013 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Cinthia Milner.

 


Cinthia Milner is a writer, gardener and manager of BB Barnes Garden Center in Brevard, NC.