The Tyranny Of The Lawn


A Keep Off the Grass sign, stuck into a lush expanse of front yard, reminds us that our right to enjoy other people’s lawns goes only so far. Such a sign carries both a territorial warning and a silent plea: “Don’t destroy the lawn I’ve worked so hard to create.” Lawns represent our love of order, our desire to conquer the wilderness. Beginning with the earliest books on lawn care, writers have condemned weeds, coarse grasses, and insects as disrupters of that order. But it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that homeowners could effectively keep these intruders at bay. By the 1960s the lawn fanatic could tend a scientifically improved strain of grass selected for its fine texture and slow growth. When rain was scarce, he could bathe it with water from his sprinkler system. Specially developed fertilizers guaranteed a dark green color, and power mowers cut the grass to within an inch (or two) of its life, while edgers kept it trimly at bay. Blowers purged fallen leaves, and sophisticated pesticides helped eliminate weeds and insects.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lawns were considerably more motley than their fine-bladed, weedless descendants. Often they were made of sections of turf removed from meadows, and when they were grown from seed, they generally contained mixtures of several types, such as bluegrass, bent grass, redtop, or white clover. In the 188Os botanists began research that would eventually eliminate much of this diversity, evaluating lawn grasses for their hardiness, color, and suitability to particular climates. This work accelerated in the twentieth century, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United States Golfing Association (with its professional interest in good grass) got into the act.

The first triumph of scientific evaluation was Merion Kentucky bluegrass. Originally plucked from the seventeenth green of the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, it was tested, developed for commercial use, and sold starting in the mid-1950s. A great improvement over other bluegrass varieties on the market, it was celebrated for its density, deep blue-green color, and resistance to leaf spot. During the 1950s and 1960s scientists began selectively breeding grass for desired characteristics. As turfgrasses improved, the standards for a lawn rose. By the 1960s the monoculture lawn, consisting of just one variety of grass, had become the ideal. Homeowners grew smooth carpets of Bermuda grass, zoysia, bluegrass, or fescue, all prized for their uniform texture.

Also critical to lawn improvement was the conquest of those twin violators, weeds and insects. Leonard Barron wrote in the 1923 book Lawn Making , “The price of a good lawn is eternal vigilance and persistent cultivation of the grass, so as to keep out the weeds.” Before World War II homeowners struggling to rid their lawns of weeds had to rely on fairly primitive tools: a knife or chemicals such as sulfuric acid and copper sulfate, which killed the weeds all right but took out the surrounding grass as well. Insects were doused with compounds such as kerosene and lead arsenate, also to the detriment of nearby grass.

World War II refined the tactics of warfare against garden pests. The Department of Agriculture developed a spore dust that laid waste the grass-devouring Japanese beetle, sold under the name Japidemic. Chemical-warfare research resulted in the development of herbicides such as 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (later components of the defoliant Agent Orange), which killed weeds by speeding up their growth but left the surrounding grass unscathed. First offered for sale in the 1950s, 2,4-D (now under suspicion as a carcinogen) made short work of plantain, dandelions, chickweed, and sorrel, while 2,4,5T (now banned) was the treatment of choice for knotweed.

A grass-seed-company chairman boasted that his weed killers had enabled some kids to grow up “never having seen a dandelion puff-ball.”

“Hang up your grubbing hoe, and invest a little time and money in some proved weed-killing chemicals,” said a 1954 article in Better Homes and Gardens . “They do the work while you sit back and enjoy a lawn that’s all grass.” In 1961 C. B. Mills, chairman of the O. M. Scott & Sons grass-seed company, boasted to a group of executives that the new weed killers “worked so well, that in some neighborhoods kids grew up never having seen a dandelion puff-ball!” Of course, it was very much in the interest of lawn-seed and chemical companies to uphold the image of the American lawn as lush, green, and weed-free. Lawns had become big business, with lawn-related products generating annual revenues estimated at $3 billion in 1965.

In 1969 an Ohio-based company called ChemLawn began providing regular, professional applications of fertilizers and pesticides for home lawns. This spawned a new indus try—lawn-chemical application—with revenues of $1.5 billion by 1988.