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The history of the modern lawn 

click to enlarge FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller

What does your lawn do for you? Odds are you’ve never asked yourself that question. Your lawn is simply a part of your home. It’s your job to mow it, keep it weed-free and water it responsibly. But that’s all what you do for your lawn. Your benefit? A nice street-side view of your home, and happy neighbors.

And yet the concept of a lawn evolved from some of our most basic human instincts. According to The Lawn Institute, some turfgrass scientists “note the need for humans to surround themselves with low-growing turfgrass is a trait ingrained from our ancient ancestors. They point to Africa, many thousands of years ago where the low turfgrasses of the expansive savannas allowed humans to better spot approaching danger or stalk their prey.”

This same principle applies to later development, when castles, forts and towns benefited from open surroundings and low-growing grass, all the better to see any incoming threats. But few of us consider our own home’s lawn to be a safety feature. In fact, it has become almost entirely aesthetic in function.

This aesthetic appreciation of low-cut turfgrass began around the 15th century, when it was considered a status symbol to boast lush and well-maintained grounds around your home. While historians claim that lower classes had common areas of grass upon which to feed their livestock, only the wealthy could afford to maintain private patches of clear land, often mowed by servants wielding scythes.

A famous 16th-century example? The palace of Versailles in France, famed for its lavish gardens and the landscape’s tapis vert (green carpet).

The lawn eventually made its way to the middle and lower classes during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Like many inventions of the time, a fancy new device called the lawn mower proved equalizing: an inexpensive way to maintain low turfgrass. 

In North America shortly after the invention of the lawn mower, housing developers began to include lawns in their building designs, creating neighborhoods, suburbs and even entire towns around the idea that each home would have its own patch of grass. The Lawn Institute credits Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who designed New York City’s Central Park, with popularizing the practice, as well as Abraham Levitt, the founder of Levittown in Long Island, New York. This 1940s and ’50s suburban development was widely considered the ideal place for family life, and copies of it proliferated across the country.

People wanted their own private lawns for games like croquet and golf, for aesthetic appeal, for a natural escape from the urban life. What began as a precaution against attack has become a staple of American family homes, and a symbol of the American dream.

But the state of our environment has changed drastically since the 15th century, and even since the 1950s. Now, owning a lawn can be a burden not just on the homeowner, but on the ecosystem.

Here in Colorado, you might be better off with some low-water-use xeriscaping. In unincorporated El Paso County, yards that feature native, naturally occurring grasses aren’t technically considered  “lawns” at all, because they don’t involve “landscaping,” according to county spokesperson Joel Quevillon.

But many neighborhoods are still married to their turfgrass. Over time, technology has made it easier to keep a lawn green, with toxic chemicals and herbicides like Roundup (which is banned or restricted in 17 countries), artificial fertilizers, lawnmowers, seeders and various forms of irrigation now readily available. But their contribution to environmental damage — pollinator destruction, water shortages, air pollution, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico — might make one wonder: Are happy neighbors worth it?

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