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The Tyranny Of The Lawn
For more than a century now, American homeowners have been struggling to remake their small patch of the environment into a soft, green carpet just like the neighbor’s. Who told us this was the way a lawn had to be?
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
When it comes to lawn care, my father has always insisted on doing it the hard way. No shortcuts or modern conveniences for him. After my parents bought a new house in San Diego in the early 1970s, he refused to break up the soil with a Rototiller the way most people did. His more thorough alternative involved digging a foot down with a shovel, pulling the rocks out, and forcing the dirt through a mesh screen. Eventually the whole family joined him, flailing at the hard clay soil with pickaxes and shovels like a band of suburban sharecroppers.
One day, as I chipped away at the unyielding dirt, it occurred to me that lawns were pretty unnatural in Southern California. You had only to look at the expanses of mesa untouched by bulldozers to know that what grew naturally was mesquite and manzanita. If you wanted a lawn, it meant lots of hard work, starting with installing a sprinkler system and remaking the top eight inches of soil in your yard. Once you got the grass established, you had to water it twice a week in warm weather. If you wanted it to be a deep, lush green (and who didn’t?), you gave it periodic doses of nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Then there was the weekly or biweekly mowing, edging, and weeding to keep it looking trim.
Of course, there were residents of Southern California who didn’t bother with lawns. They filled their yards with green concrete, gravel, or redwood chips. But these people were about as popular as homeowners who parked pickup trucks in the front yard or kept their Christmas lights up year-round. They had violated the iron rule of lawns, which may be stated as follows: SHORT, GREEN GRASS IS THE ONLY NORMAL, RESPECTABLE THING TO HAVE IN YOUR FRONT YARD .
Nancy and Walter Stewart of Potomac, Maryland, discovered this truth in 1986. That was the spring their tractor mower broke down one time too many, and they decided to let most of their seven-acre yard grow. Soon shaggy meadow grasses and wildflowers overtook the lawn. The Stewarts loved the natural look and the low maintenance—twice-a-year mowing and no watering or pesticides. But in their posh Washington, D.C., suburb the meadow garden stuck out like a jalopy up on blocks. The neighbors were furious. One sent an anonymous note calling the yard “a disgrace to the entire neighborhood.” Someone started a fire in it. The county cited the couple under its weed ordinance. After the Stewarts threatened a legal challenge- Nancy is a U.S. Justice Department attorney—the county finally amended its weed law to permit meadow gardens with a mowed strip surrounding them.
The Stewarts’ is only the most recent of several well-publicized cases over the past decade in which meadow gardeners have had to fight in court for their unorthodox lawns. They tout the economic and environmental advantages of going natural, and they may have reason on their side. But law and tradition favor this country’s forty-five million lawns covering some thirty million acres. In many communities, if you grow your grass too long, a homeowners’ association may cut it for you and send you the bill. The Stewarts got to keep their meadow, but they didn’t win much understanding from their neighbors. Nancy summed it up: “Every father was once a son who had to cut the lawn. If we are right [about meadow gardening], then what have they been doing for the past fifty years?”
What have we been doing indeed? Just how did the coddled green lawn come to be an American standard? Consider that before European settlers arrived, the East Coast was forest, the Southwest a desert, and the plains were covered by long grasses. Only the Pacific Northwest provided the year-round drizzle in which lawns flourish. Save for several native grasses that are currently popular with landscape architects, the grass in our lawns is descended from foreign seed. Kentucky bluegrass, the so-called Cadillac of American lawn grasses, is really a Mercedes-Benz or a Peugeot; it was most likely brought to the United States from France or Germany.
For centuries humans have lived near grasses for a variety of sensible reasons. They provide people with food, with materials for clothes, shelter, and implements, and with feed for their animals. Grass may have helped early man survive on the African savanna, according to the Maryland biologist John Falk, who hypothesizes that the savanna’s shortgrass allowed humans to spot their predators from a distance. If a threatening animal got too close, the scattered trees offered a place to escape, provided, of course, that the animal wasn’t a tree climber. FaIk thinks this primeval experience has left us genetically programmed to prefer grass to other kinds of terrain.