Turf is the largest irrigated “crop” grown in the United States. There are approximately 30 million acres of lawn in the U.S. – roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. Annually, all those lawns use 80 million pounds of pesticides and 100 tons of fertilizer.
So how exactly did we get here?
A nation of copycats
To begin with, the history of lawns in America really starts in England. Unlike the warm summers we enjoy here, the cloudy, temperate English climate is ideal for turf. Even so, until the mid 19th century, lawns were a symbol of wealth, as landowners relied on grazing sheep or labor intensive methods like scything to keep the grass low.
This began to change with the invention of the lawnmower in 1830. Suddenly, an average middle-class homeowner could enjoy the prestige of a lawn. And indeed, the association of lawns with wealth and a refined lifestyle existed from the beginning, as this excerpt from inventor Edwin Budding’s patent shows: “Country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise.”
Meanwhile, wealthy Americans in the 19th and early 20th century were heavily influenced by English architectural and garden styles. American estates slavishly copied the greenswards of England, making lawns a symbol of wealth and class in the New World as well as in the Old.
Lifestyles of the not-so-rich and famous
For the average American, however, lawns were virtually non-existent. The yard, both front and back, was a utilitarian space devoted to supporting basic domestic needs like caring for livestock and if a family had time, growing vegetables. A lack of public sanitation meant that yards typically housed outhouses and cesspools, and often the backyard was treated as a giant refuse heap. In fact, it’s not unusual for current day owners of Northeastern brownstones to find old bottles, buttons and cutlery when digging around in older parts of their yards.
New York City, circa 1900 courtesy of Smoke and Mirrors
This began to change when advances in public transportation created the first suburbs. Combined with the creation of public sanitation services and electric refrigeration, yards were no longer required to be strictly utilitarian and homeowners were free to consider other alternatives.
The beginning of the suburban stereotype
So where did Americans turn for guidance on what to do with their suddenly liberated landscapes? Garden clubs and the media, of course! Garden clubs and civic beautification committees heavily promoted an ideal suburban landscape of shrubs and lawn. By the 1930’s nearly all garden advice in books, newspapers and magazines advocated lawn and foundation shrubs. In a 1937 Better Homes and Gardens article extolling the virtues of regional architecture, despite the local character of the houses themselves, all featured virtually identical lawn and foundation plantings in the yard.
Fast forward to today. Oversized lawns, considered by some to be an American icon, are in reality an English import, poorly suited to much of our climate, and glamorized by an historical version of bossy HOAs and Martha Stewart wannabes. Happily, for the first time, many of us are questioning our unthinking devotion to our lawns and the tyranny of weekly mowing and instead considering alternatives that sustain the environment, reflect our regional cultures and support our personal lifestyles.
Are you ready to join the revolution?
If you'd like to learn more about the past (and future) of lawns in America, I highly recommend From Yard to Garden, The Domestication of America's Home Grounds by Christoher Grampp, which served as primary source material for this article.
This month, the Garden Designers Roundtable has teamed up with the Lawn Reform Coalition. Be sure to check out what bloggers from both groups have to say on the topic of lawn alternatives (and thanks, Susan Harris, for the bonus post!):