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The American Lawn: A Brief History

Theresa Rooney
Hennepin County Master Gardener

The American Dream includes a house surrounded by an emerald green lawn. Where did this preoccupation with the perfect lawn originate? Some believe that our need for open spaces with a few trees began with the very start of mankind on the African Veldt. In France, the rich would display their wealth by allowing large “lawns” of grass where sheep could graze, exhibiting their land and livestock. The English land-owning aristocracy also used the wide open spaces to display their herds of cattle, kept from the home by a “Ha-Ha” (a trench that was invisible until you were nearly upon it). The view of spacious grasslands and herds of sheep or cattle seemed idyllic.

Many of America’s early cities had areas near the bustling downtown where people lived and owned property. The people living in these areas did not usually have a formal plan for their private yards. The green, weed-free lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door of a typical rural home was simply packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden that contained a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Many yards were just weedy areas. Formal gardens similar to those of Europe and modeled after the “English Cottage Garden” were considered a luxury for the wealthy who could afford groundskeepers. One of the first books on lawn care was published in 1870 by a Cincinnati landscape architect, Frank J. Scott. His book, Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, told his readers that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home.”

The first lawnmower patent was granted in 1868, followed in 1871 by the first patent for a lawn sprinkler. By the end of the 1800s, the power mower had been invented. During the early 1900s the game of golf became more popular, and by 1915 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass or combination of grasses that would create a durable, attractive lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in America. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, and a mix of Fescues and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several grass combinations that would work in our climate.

Early lawn care had extreme challenges. Once the right grass was growing, summer droughts required hauling buckets of water. Cutting the grass was also challenge; English lawns in particular must be trimmed with scythes (agricultural hand tool for mowing the grass), an expensive process that requires a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock. It was during the industrial revolution that lawns became practical for most Americans. The invention of the garden hose and the rotary mower made the lawn a more realistic option.

During World War II, lawn mowers and other machinery used to keep the lawns groomed were melted down for the war effort. After the war, returning military personnel claimed their own part of the American dream. The efforts that had been directed toward the war were turned to creating the perfect homes and lawns. Chemicals were available for fertilizers, researched for use during the war for bombs and weapons; the technology was directed now toward peace-time use. No longer were the legumes like clover enough for the perfect lawn. Now fertilizers were needed to create a wonderful green lawn. Real estate developers like William Levitt (of Levittown fame) started mass producing the ‘cookie cutter’ suburbs to house the expanding population. These houses were all surrounded by the requisite perfect lawns.

Current lawn care is still wrought with challenges and often requires an immense amount of effort and chemicals to maintain. According to Conservation International, tens of millions of houses in America collectively maintain about 20 million acres of lawns.

Yale forest ecologist F. Herbert Bormann and his colleagues disclosed in Redesigning the American Lawn:

  • A lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as does driving an automobile for 350 miles
  • 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns (depending on city)
  • Over $5 billion per year is spent on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for U.S. lawns
  • 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • 580 million gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers each year

Today, more and more people are replacing much or all of their lawns with pesticide-free vegetables, fruits and flowers, as well as including natural wildlife habitat and native landscaping. The diversity of native landscaping provides better resistance to disease. Plants native to a specific region tend to be more robust because they have adapted to the local soil, conditions, and weather patterns. This ultimately reduces time, energy and money spent on lawn maintenance.

Read Up

Requiem for a Lawn Mower Revised Edition: Gardening in a Warmer Drier World by Sally Wasowski. Taylor Trade Publishing 2004.

Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening Lawns Grasses and Groundcovers by Lewis Hill and Nancy Hill. Rodale Press 1995.

Act Locally

Hennepin County Master Gardeners 612-596-2118 www.hcmg.umn.edu

The American Lawn

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