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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.
The iron rule of lawns can be expressed as follows: ‘Short, green grass is the only normal, respectable thing to have in your front yard.’
Falk conducted surveys to find out what kind of scene Americans preferred to see when they looked out their back doors. Overwhelmingly his subjects selected shortgrass with scattered trees. So did residents of the rain forest in Nigeria and the desert near New Delhi, India. This suggests to FaIk that even though not every culture re-creates the savanna, people have an innate affinity for shortgrass. Societies as diverse as those of ancient China and Persia, medieval France and Britain, and the Olmecs in Mexico all have cultivated lawns.
But perhaps our love of lawns reflects a more recent past. Until the last century our ancestors were mostly farmers, and it is no coincidence that lawns took hold in the United States after the Industrial Revolution had begun taking people away from their meadows and pastures. Perhaps all the lawn toil and tinkering—the scattering of seed, the mowing, the harvesting of clippings—that spread across the country from the mid-nineteenth century on is really displaced agrarian energy.
There’s also the lawn-as-display hypothesis, which holds that the modern lawn originated on the estates of the British aristocracy and was copied first by upper-class Americans, then by the middle class, and finally by the working class, so that even our tiny cottages and bungalows feature estate lawns shrunk to throw-rug size. Thorstein Veblen touched on this idea in his classic 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class .
Veblen explained the lawn as an example of conspicuous consumption. In an age that valued land for its productivity, the lawn’s nonproductivity was the whole point. It advertised its owner as rich enough to own land that he didn’t have to put to practical use. A status-conscious American of Veblen’s time would never have allowed a cow to graze on his lawn; “the vulgar suggestion of thrift” would have undercut the lawn’s purely decorative function.
Even if some or all of the above hypotheses do explain our attachment to it, let’s not overlook the lawn’s obvious pleasures. Some of childhood’s fondest memories are linked to lawns: the tickle of grass beneath bare feet, cooling off under sprinklers, stretching out on the turf to watch the clouds drift by. The lawn’s dense, springy texture makes a good playing surface for games ranging from football to badminton. It feels lush and cool on a hot summer day. It eases some of the worst aspects of development, absorbing noise, dust, and glare. It has a soothing and inspiriting effect on people. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, University of Michigan psychology professors, cite studies indicating that hospital patients who have a view of grass and trees recover faster than patients who don’t. And a survey conducted by the Kaplans found that office workers who see nature scenes from their windows suffer less stress than co-workers with poor views. Looking at what Stephen Kaplan calls “nearby nature,” including lawns, “improves people’s quality of life, their peace of mind, their effectiveness.”
If you’ve spent any time at all going through gardening books, you’ll have read that the lawn should be picture perfect, a beautiful frame for your home, or words to that effect. The idea that landscapes should look like paintings came to us from Britain. In the eighteenth century British landscape architects rejected the formal landscaping of the Italians and the French in favor of more naturalistic effects. Drawing inspiration from the imaginary landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, William Kent, Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown, and, later, Humphrey Repton planned and supervised landscapes that mimicked nature’s irregularities, with winding paths and asymmetrically placed clusters of trees set into verdant lawns.
These naturalistic (not to be confused with natural) effects were achieved with considerable contrivance, including the diverting of streams, the tearing out and replanting of trees, the creation of lakes, and, in one instance, the demolition of a village that spoiled the view. The goal was a romanticized version of the countryside that blended into its surroundings to create a beautiful picture.
Lawns were a prominent feature of these landscapes, particularly in the designs of Brown, whose work, one critic said, “transformed the countryside.” At estates such as Stowe and Blenheim, he used expanses of gently undulating lawn to create a sense of vastness and openness and to offer distant vistas. Brown shocked traditionalists by pulling down walls and uprooting ancient rows of trees to create his uninterrupted swaths of turf. He replaced straight paths and geometric plantings with curving walkways and clusters of trees. In his landscapes one sees the distant prototype of the American lawn: the wide swaths of grass, the lack of fences, the irregularly placed trees, the curving path to the front door.
Scott warned homeowners against such déclassé practices as growing vegetables, planting too many flowers, or filling the yard with “garish carpentry.”
To the extent that any single person can be blamed for the unnatural state of the American greensward, one might as well point to Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52). A horticulturist and landscape architect, Downing had a brief but distinguished career whose highlights included designing the public grounds around the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institution, editing the magazine Horticulture , and introducing the American middle class to English landscape gardening and architecture through a series of books and magazine articles. Chief among these works is his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841), the first book on the subject written for the average American homeowner. It went through five editions in the decade following its publication and launched a craze for English-style gardens.
Downing, who did not visit Europe until the year before his death, borrowed many of his ideas about landscaping from British writings. To the future frustration of many homeowners, he refused to believe that the lawns that flourished in England’s soggy climate were ill suited to the United States. “There are not wanting admirers of fine lawns, who, witnessing this summer searing, have pronounced it an impossible thing to produce a fine lawn in this country,” he wrote in Landscape Gardening . “To such an opinion we can never subscribe, for the very sufficient reason that we have seen over and over again admirable lawns wherever they have been properly treated.” Downing promoted the lawn’s role as a green backdrop for clusters of trees and meandering paths, and he insisted that coarse, unruly meadow grasses had no place in it. Rather, it should consist of redtop and white clover “softened and refined by the frequent touches of the patient mower.”
Downing comes across to us as aristocratic, dandyish, and haughty, but despite his airs he had a democratic mission. In Landscape Gardening he wrote that the American Republic lent itself to the proliferation of small landscape gardens rather than the development of grand gardens in the European manner. To be sure, one could shrink the estate lawn only so far (Downing warned that the effects he described would not work on lots smaller than ten acres), but the principles of landscaping “may be studied with advantage, even by him who has only three trees to plant for ornament.” Within two decades of Downing’s death in 1852, house and garden writers were doing what he had deemed impossible: adapting the estate lawn to lots as small as a half-acre.
Lawns flourished in the suburbs, which became widespread in the United States during the years after the Civil War, as the railroad and the electric trolley allowed people for the first time to work in the city and live in the “country” (often just a few miles out of town). There the middle class could enjoy homes surrounded by fruit trees and verdant lawns that evoked the farm’s pastoral beauty while avoiding its dreary realities.
Chief among a group of proselytizers who introduced the new homeowners to the mysteries of lawn care was Downing’s protégé Frank Scott, author of the first suburban gardening book, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds (1870). In contrast to Downing’s high-toned aesthetic theorizing, Scott’s is a homelier work, full of cheerful advice on fences, vegetable gardens, and plaster statuary.
Despite his informal tone, Scott had grandiose plans for the suburban halfacre. He warned homeowners against such déclassé practices as growing their own vegetables, planting too many flowers, or filling the yard with “garish carpentry, or plaster or marble images of any kind.” He admitted that the estate lawn couldn’t be translated directly to the suburban lot but insisted that even “the half acre of suburban cottage … may be as perfect a work of art, and as well worth transferring to canvas as any part of the great Chatsworth of the Duke of Devonshire.”
By 1912 unfenced front yards had become so pervasive that one writer lamented that Americans’ “very grass is not their own.”
Having a beautiful lawn was more than a matter of artistic satisfaction for Scott; it was a moral obligation. He compared a lawn “where shrubs and flowers mingle in confusion with tall grass” with the home of a slattern. Grass should be close-cropped. Weeds were cancers that had to be cut with “a long sharp knife, and busy fingers.” But the work required to perfect the lawn was not burdensome; it was fun, even uplifting. Scott was absolutely giddy about mowing. “Whoever spends the early hours of one summer day, while the dew spangles in the grass, in pushing these grass-cutters over a velvety lawn, breathing the fresh sweetness of the morning air and the perfume of the new mown hay, will never rest contented in the city.”
So it was that Scott’s pronouncements, echoed in gardening books, magazines, and advice columns, simplified principles first applied on British estates and sold them to the American middle class as good taste and civic duty. In the decades after the Civil War the lawn became much more than a ground covering or even a decorative asset; it quickly evolved into a suburban institution, shaping weekend activity for several generations of men and teen-age boys. (From the beginning of the suburbs, lawn care has primarily been a male preserve, while gardening was a female pastime.) The lawn mower, perennial symbol of suburban life, had been patented by Edwin Budding in 1830 and was widely available by 1860. When the homeowner wasn’t tending his lawn, he might well be playing on it. A whole set of lawn games gained popularity: badminton, croquet, horseshoes, archery, and tennis. The lawn also became a place for socializing, a setting for picnics and family reunions.
If appeals to self-respect and morality don’t persuade Americans to keep their lawns neat, a little neighborly coercion often works wonders. Lawns, especially front lawns, constitute a curious exception to America’s private-property ethic. To some degree they belong to the community as well as to their owners. Suburban residents will tolerate neighbors who fight with their spouses or run auto-body businesses from their garages—"that’s their affair"—while loudly condemning people who don’t mow their grass. This preoccupation with “thy neighbor’s lawn” is nothing new; property deed restrictions addressing lawns date to the early-nineteenth-century suburbs.
The most visible sign of this attitude is the lack of fences around most front lawns in America, a break with British tradition. Some writers have attributed this to the American democratic spirit; Robert Fishman, a Rutgers University history professor, traces the unfenced front lawn to the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Best remembered as the designer of New York’s Central Park, Olmsted also planned such influential suburbs as Riverside, outside Chicago. He drew some of his ideas about landscaping from English suburbs, which he toured in the 185Os. He particularly admired the verdant setting of Birkenhead Park, near Liverpool, but the high walls surrounding the houses in Manchester’s Victoria Park reminded him of a “series of private madhouses.” When he came to design Riverside in 1868, he did away with front-yard fences, mandated that houses be thirty feet from the street, and required their owners to keep at least one or two trees in the front yard, to ensure that the suburb looked like a park.
Horticulture writers, for the most part, echoed Olmsted’s preference for the open front yard (although a fenced back yard was generally acceptable). Articles in home and garden magazines from the 187Os on denounced fences as unchristian and unneighborly and criticized them for spoiling the suburb’s green continuity. By 1912 the writer H. G. Dwight could lament, in an Atlantic Monthly article, that Americans’ “very grass is not their own.” But Dwight’s grousing represented a minority viewpoint. Only in the Southwest, where lots are small and the Spanish influence is strongest, are fences commonly seen around the front, as well as the back, yard.
The open-yard policy makes for a nice vista from the street, but inevitably the practice leads to turf wars, chronicled in fiction and nonfiction since the turn of the century. In The Garden of a Commuter’s Wife , Mabel O. Wright’s 1901 novel about suburban life, a neighborhood busybody criticizes the main character’s “wild lawn,” which contains violets, dandelion, oxeye daisy, and saxifrage. Says the neighbor: “A wild lawn? How odd! just fancy! Why, it is full of everything but grass. Somehow, I thought a lawn was all grass, you know.” Six decades later The Levittowners , a study of the brandnew planned suburban community of Levittown, New Jersey, described how residents used the same kind of goading to ensure lawn conformity. According to the author, the sociologist Her bert J. Gans, “Standards of lawn care were agreed upon as soon as it was time to do something about the lawn, and by unspoken agreement, the front lawn would be cared for conscientiously, but the backyard was of less importance. Those who deviated from this norm—either neglecting their lawn or working on it too industriously—were brought into line through wisecracks.”
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.
By the 1970s the disappearance of dandelions was no longer universally viewed as something to celebrate. Environmentalists saw something perverse in Americans’ increasing reliance on pesticides and power mowers to cultivate nature. In 1984 Lorrie Otto, a meadow gardener, made the case against lawns in The American Woman’s Garden : “It appears to be the American way to arrive ignorant into a new landscape, to denude it and replace it with a hodgepodge from other climates and even other countries, and then to squander energy to artificially maintain the vegetation.”
Otto criticized lawns for consuming water and petrochemicals (in the form of power-mower fuel), demanding pesticides and herbicides, generating polluted runoff, crowding out native plant species, and depriving insects, birds, and other wildlife of their natural habitats. Otto’s indictment didn’t end there: Lawns were responsible for the stupefaction of American youth. In a tract outlining her opposition to weed laws, Otto considered “the possible consequences of caging children in an endless sea of mowed grass. What happens in a society when the young are not stimulated by a diversity of life? Will the dullness of the environment be echoed in the human mind?”
Otto’s more stimulating alternative, of course, was a garden filled with native plants; her own yard contained species native to her home state of Wisconsin. She argued that these gardens were not only more environmentally sensitive but easier to care for than lawns.
Otto and other meadow gardeners offer suburban residents an escape from the tyranny of the look-alikes, but it’s not clear how many Americans are tantalized by their vision. In the early 1980s, while meadow gardeners urged Americans to open their yards to nature, revenues of lawn-chemical companies were growing by 17 percent a year.
Ultimately it may be environmental and economic necessity more than philosophical arguments that challenges the rule of lawns. Drought conditions affecting parts of the Midwest, South, and Southwest during the 1980s brought watering restrictions to many jurisdictions. In areas such as Dallas, where lawns consume as much as 60 percent of city water supplies during the summer months, there is growing interest in xeriscape gardening, which uses native plants and grasses that require little water. At the same time, lawn pesticides have lost their miracleproduct status. The Environmental Protection Agency is retesting many of them after acknowledging that health studies in the past were inadequate. Citizens nervous about the health effects of pesticides have persuaded several East Coast states to pass laws requiring lawn-chemical companies to notify residents when they spray.
But lawn opponents are taking on more than a rectangle of grass. They’re fighting an institution, a way of life, a setting for childhood, a part of the American dream of home ownership. In the end it may be science that rescues the lawn. At universities around the country turfgrass specialists are busily developing the grasses of the future, which they say will be both easier to maintain and kinder to the environment than today’s turf. A professor of turfgrass science at Texas A & M University has recently developed a variety of buffalo grass that is low-growing and stays green with relatively little fertilizer, water, or pesticides, while a Rutgers University scientist has selectively bred a perennial ryegrass that contains a natural insect repellent. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Turfgrass Evaluation Program in Beltsville, Maryland, scientists have selectively bred a type of zoysia grass that could bring an end to a centurylong national chore. The grass requires watering only three or four times a year and needs fertilizing just once or twice a year. The program director, Kevin Morris, describing the new variety, utters welcome words to weary lawn tenders: “The less you do to it, the better it looks.”