DIY : The Weird History of Lawns – JO Collins – Medium

The United States is graced with lawns. We have rolling university lawns with tumble headed tips split at the ends and swaying in the breeze begging for a haircut. We have crew-cuts trimmed, one after the other in rectangular rows down a city sidewalk.

Sitting on a porch step and watching a trail of ants flow from one expanse of greenish blue lawn to another. This lawn has thin blades of grass with delicately pointed tips. I contemplate this luxurious grass. Why was it chosen? What a difference in softness and elegance in comparison with the 1/4″ blades like a cat’s tongue, course enough to give you a rash but tough enough to support its brilliant color after the hustle and stampede of an outdoor concert. This soft fancy lawn would never survive such an event!

America is obsessed with maintaining the perfect lawn. How did this become such a custom and character of our culture? Average lawn care costs for mowing alone ranges from $30 to $80 a visit and this does not include keeping it healthy, weed free and watered every evening for that gorgeous color. Maintenance is not cheap and proper care is not easy.

Having a lawn before the industrial revolution was something the wealthy could support. Their obsession began with the gorgeous sculpted gardens at Versailles, featuring elaborately shaped grasses.

Popularity then exploded across England. Keeping a lawn and a regiment of groundskeepers living on-site could keep the fields trimmed with sharp scythes, as part of keeping a fine estate, and keeping that estate secure by having visibility for miles. When wealthy businessmen began to travel overseas, they came back with ideas of establishing their own rolling hills of the bladed plants. They found it to be difficult to duplicate at first. The first lawns needed to be watered by hand with buckets. Sometimes grazing animals like sheep, horses, and rabbits were used to keep grasses trimmed.

Sheep were once used on the White House lawn during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

Ultimately, the advanced lawn comes down to America’s love of sports. Outdoor sports fields need immaculately kept areas of play known as “greens”. Playing fields were crafted for football, lawn tennis, bowling greens, and most of all, golf. Golfing did more than any other sport in furthering lawn development.

Golf has an ancient and storied history, but by 1860 Britain held the first World Open which spread interest in the sport all over the world. The first 18-hole course in the US was The Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Illinois, in 1893 after following Canada’s opening the first permanent golf club in North America “Canada’s Royal Montreal Club.” Both countries were hooked.

By 1915 the U.S. Golf Association was collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This team effort led to the creation of the right blend of grasses to develop an attractive yet durable lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in North America.

Cool season grass seeds grow well in Fall, and Spring and can sustain a long dry summer, such as Tall Fescue, perennial Rye grass, and Kentucky Bluegrass.

Warm season grasses grow well in late spring and summer and thrive in areas with mild winters and humid summers. Centipede grass, St. Augustine grass, and Bermuda grass warm season grass types.

For areas with a changing climate, it’s common to blend the two varieties.

By the 1830s Edwin Beard Budding’s invention of mechanical blades mounted to a frame made mowing easier. A push mower was invented by the 1870s, and a steam-powered mower 20 years later. Along with the advent of other inventions like the garden hose, the zest for lawn care came to every corner of burgeoning suburbia by the late 1900s.

From there it seems to have become ingrained as the great suburban status symbol.

By 1930, having a lush front lawn was ingrained in having achieved the American Dream.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s when keeping these cultural standards were difficult, the United States encouraged families to continue to keep their lawns, promoting it as a stress-relief and a show of solidarity and morale.

After World War II, the lawn aesthetic was free to boom again when the United States let American ex-servicemen buy homes without providing a down payment. At the same time the Federal Housing Administration offered reduced down payments for the average American home buyer. These developments made owning your own home cheaper than renting, furthering the spread of suburbia.

“Levittown”, New York was the first examples of how lawns can create a homogeneous culture. Between 1947 and 1951, Levitt and his sons built more than seventeen thousand homes, each with its own lawn. Abraham Levitt was one of the first developers to promote landscaping as having increased property value. He wrote: “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns”. Landscaping was one of the most important factors in Levittown’s success — and no feature was more prominent in his mind than the lawn. They were so adamant, during 1948, the first spring that Levittown had enjoyed, Levitt and Sons fertilized and reseeded all the lawns of the houses he and his sons built, free of charge. The new homeowners were also given pamphlets and fliers about the importance of maintaining a perfect lawn, with tips about how to keep it green, lush, and weed-free.

In 2015, Americans spent slightly more than $29.1 billion on lawn care. 80% of private residences include a lawn. Groundskeepers are in demand for people who want the status of a lawn and can afford to pay someone else to keep it. The booming industry increased the need for lawn maintenance. Which meant increased use of chemical weedkillers, fertilizers, and pesticides, but also high consumption of our most precious natural resource, water.

The culture of lawns may be changing in America.

As awareness grows about poisons and pollutants in our food and pesticides in our water, some want to explore the idea of having beautiful outdoor spaces without a lawn. Cultural shifts such as interest in saving energy, and renewable options also play a part. Cost is also a factor. Some alternative plants, along with rocks and passageways, offer ground cover and are easier to support. Fruit and vegetable gardens have use and purpose, and can save families up to $24,000 a year when done right.

Ornamental grasses, moss, wild herbs, wildflowers, red clover and other spreading types of flowering shrubbery. With the right ground cover, greatly reduces the need for mowing, watering, and using toxic substances may be almost eliminated. Parts of the country which suffer through more drought have been figuring out stunning alternatives to expensive and sculpted lawns for decades.

In some communities which are chaired by Housing Associations, these alternatives may clash with agreed to housing terms. We all know belonging to particular neighborhoods which value a certain aesthetic is not going to be as open to an exception to their rules.

Can Suburbia be redesigned?

Some communities think so.

City councils have begun changing grassy knolls that grow along well-traveled roadways and freeway medians. They are maintained with costly cutting and watering. By planting wildflowers instead the updated freeway areas need less attention and work. The flowers are also more beautiful.

Wildflowers are pretty, and they’re good for your garden. Flowers like ox eye daisies, red clovers, poppies, and wild carrots can serve as all-natural pesticides by attracting useful insects to your garden. These bugs then protect your beautiful blooms and veggies by preying on destructive pests and are often also natural pollinators.

Planting more wildflowers and replenish the natural plants that are more valuable plants for pollinating insects to feed like bees, moths, and butterflies.

Is it time to turn your high-maintenance lawn in a gorgeous low-maintenance field of wildflowers?


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