Your Home Landscape – Armed Warfare, Part I

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Hotline, Summer 2001

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

In the modern hustle and bustle of two income households, traffic congestion severe enough to produce the phrase “road rage,” meals on the run, and not enough sleep, there is one activity to which many of us are willing to commit both time and money. That activity for the many property owners with a yard is the ongoing care and cultivation of the lawn. Walking through a neighborhood on a pleasant summer day is bound to produce a repetitive sight of home landscapers watering the grass, applying various support products and the background noise of myriad powered lawn care tools in the heat of summer. Why have so many people bought into this idea? Is it because it’s a good idea?

History: The Birth of the Lawn

Apparently, in past history a lawn was not considered a good idea. In Africa, the immediate area around an early dwelling was a small swept dirt yard, the Mediterranean region had enclosed courtyards, and many European towns typically had homes built close to the road with no front yard area and a small backyard geometrically designed to provide maximum space for flowers, herbs and vegetables.

Here in early America, the Native Americans lived, for the most part, within the natural environment, not keeping individual yards or pasture. The settlers in early American towns followed the European model of having the house close to the road with small backyards. In rural areas, the swept bare yard was most common. The early settlers even had trouble maintaining pastures adequate for their livestock, as the native American grasses were not as nutritious as the European varieties. As early as 1640, there was a regular market in grass seed and English clover in New England’s Narragansett region but it was not bought for lawn purposes.

In the early seventeenth century, the predominate French and English gardens of the aristocrats were formal and geometric, but that was about to change. A new landscape concept arose due largely to the use in England of a sunken trench called a ha-ha. This allowed most types of livestock to be held within an area while not impeding the vista. Thus the new landscaping concept had the family estate visually extended into the surrounding countryside and natural environment. An extension of the vista landscape was taken to extremes by English landscaper Capability Brown who was not so interested in blending nature into the landscape but simply in producing very large expanses of smooth cosseted turf, slightly contoured: the Lawn. The success of Brown’s landscape became a keystone of aesthetics that cemented the lawn as the great icon of late eighteenth century British society.1

The American lawn concept was imported from England by some of our most influential citizens of the day. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both designed lawn areas around their estates of Monticello and Mt. Vernon respectively. In the late 18th century many views of Mt. Vernon were copied, distributed and soon replicated by wealthy American land owners on their own property and ultimately on the village commons whose care often fell to Village Improvement Societies made up largely of the wealthier residents of the town.

American cities were growing and taking on the problems of congestion, dirt and crime. In response, the public park movement developed (usually including large expanses of grass), in order to bring some of the benefits of country life (health, serenity) to the cities. At around the same time, wealthier citizens fled to the suburbs in response and developed single family homes well set back from the street and surrounded by an extensive landscape emulating the parks. These development areas were often named parks such as Cleveland Park and College Park.

Still in the 1900s, most urban Americans (75%) lived in rented apartments, but that was about to change. The lawnmower had been invented in 1830 and over a few decades was becoming available. Transportation by train and trolley were critical to surburban expansion. By 1902 there were about a thousand golf courses whose park like landscapes were much admired.

Real estate developers often displayed pictures of single family homes in the center of lawns. In reality, there usually was no lawn but purchasers often followed up and made this a reality. In larger cities, ordinances began to appear requiring set backs from the street. The City Improvement Organizations (proponents of the lawn) continued to grow, as did an infant landscape industry soon providing literature, advertising and tools to make lawn care easier.

After World War II, with the advent of low cost, long-term mortgages for veterans, the federally financed interstate highway system and newly available and affordable automobiles, individual homes and yards blossomed into vast residential suburban communities. Contractors found grass to be an easy way to hide the scars of construction. The yard design of the new communities continued to be influenced by the now familiar park-like designs and golf courses.

A manicured lawn came to be associated with good citizenship. The front yard became, to some degree, the purvue of the neighborhood as real estate values depended partially on the well-groomed street appearance of the collective front lawns. In many neighborhoods achieving the greenest monoculture of lawn was and is often an unspoken neighborhood competition. So here we are with our lawns, more than 20 million acres of lawn (32,000 square miles in the United States), covering more land than any single crop. This is true in spite of the fact that unlike the mild wet climate of England, most of the United States has a climate inhospitable to this landscape. As an example, in urban areas on the east coast, lawn irrigation accounts for as much as 30 percent of water consumption, with the average lawn using 10,000 gallons of water over the course of a summer.2 We have not begun to document the needs for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer and energy or what might be alternative ideas. Feel like a lemming? Stay tuned to the next issue of the Hotline for Part II. Here is an opportunity for many of us to make some individual changes that collectively will make a big difference.

If you would like to read more about the history and problems of the lawn, a suggestion is Redesigning the American Lawn, A Search for Harmony by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T. Geballe or The Lawn, A History of an American Obsession, by Virginia Scott Jenkins.

GASP will be presenting a slide presentation on the topic of The Lawn, Its Impacts and Alternative Landscapes/ Ideas. We invite you to call GASP if you would like to have this free presentation for your garden club, church or other group: (412) 441-6650.

1. Redesigning the American Lawn, by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T. Geballe, 1993 Yale University, pg. 18.
2. National Wildlife Federation, “Backyard Habitats Provide Gardeners Way To Cope with Drought,” 1999.