The History and Evolution of Lawns in the U.S.A.
“When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.”
Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first great landscape designers. In 1851, he was commissioned to lay out the grounds for the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian.
What do you picture when you conjure up the notion of an idyllic, quintessential American home? A white picket fence? A driveway parked with a classic American car? Those are pretty standard images. So is the picture-perfect lawn behind that picket fence – and the lusher and greener, the better.
America’s obsession with lawns can be traced back to the 1800s. The folks over at Pennington, a seed company that grows its grass here in America and has the largest private seed research facility in the U.S., put together this pretty comprehensive timeline of America and its love affair with healthy, well-trimmed grass.
It seems to start around the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson replicated a European-style lawn at his Monticello estate. At that time, most people still used their gardens to grow vegetables and herbs, and to keep livestock. But if you had enough money that you didn’t have to rely on your cows or your veggie garden to live comfortably, you could afford a lawn. It was a sign of luxury if you didn’t have to grow at least some of your own food.
How Cutting Grass Helped Grow a Cultural Symbol
In 1830, Edwin Budding built the first lawnmower is Gloucestershire, England. Until this invention came into the picture, grasses were maintained either by scythe or grazing cattle. Neither of those two options would have done much to popularize the modern day lawn. Using a scythe was time consuming, hard work that required a highly skilled laborer. And cows don’t really fit so well in a suburban cul-de-sac.
Across the pond back in America, shortly after Budding’s invention, Frederick Law Olmsted was pioneering a new type of landscape architecture. With the building of New York’s Central Park in 1857, lawns continued to expand and grow in significance. The trend of using a front lawn to set a home back from the street had officially begun.
Wartime Victory Gardens, Weekends, and Weeding
The trend of Americans adding lawns to their homes had begun before the turn of the 20th century, but it got backtracked with both the First and Second World War. Not only did people have their minds on other things, but bringing back home gardens was encouraged. There was a movement dedicated to growing crops for allied troops – the war garden movement – where people were encouraged to “sow the seeds of victory” by planting a garden. The government joined in, too. Woodrow Wilson brought in sheep to the White House so the grounds crew could serve in the military, and Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn.
Wartime aside, in 1938, another major shift happened to everyday American life: the 40-hour workweek. The Fair Labor Standards Act gave many Americans the weekend off. It wasn’t too long before those two days were filled mowing, trimming, raking, mulching and whatever else was needed to cultivate and maintain a lawn you were proud to call part of your home.
Working in the yard increasingly became a hallmark of American suburban culture. A beautiful lawn came to represent a lush, flourishing life; a symbol of the American dream fulfilled.
From Chemlawn to Xeriscaping: America’s Landscape Continues to Evolve
When you were growing up, how often did you see a Chemlawn truck in your neighborhood? Or get impatient about waiting to play on the lawn when you spotted one of those little white flags that warned you to stay off freshly sprayed grass?
Chemlawn started in 1968, but reached its peak in the 80s.
It was a different time back then. People weren’t aware of the dangers heavy chemicals carried. Saturating your lawn with heavy pesticides and fertilizers? Well, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
The culture of cultivating the darkest, greenest, lushest grass – by any and all means necessary – began to shift as environmental awareness increased. Weaning our lawns off toxins is just one part of the equation. Do you know how much water is takes to keep a lawn thriving? Well, it takes a lot! Especially in dry areas where grasses simply do not survive naturally.
As our culture evolves and shifts to support the current reality of water shortages and changing climates, so is our collective idea about what the perfect American lawn looks like. According to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map , America has at least 11 separate planting zones. And that picture perfect dark green grass behind the picket fence? It just isn’t conducive to all of them.
Enter Xeriscaping. The word comes from the Greek prefix xero, which means dry, and is a type of landscaping the greatly reduces – or even completely eliminates – the need to water your yard. Featuring plants native to their grow zone, this landscape movement has been embraced by many homes across the country. A beautiful southwestern yard full of succulents and rock gardens? That’s xeriscaping.According to the
Just How “American” is Your Grass, Anyway?
In the best possible melting-pot kind of way, America took a European style, coupled it with plants from Europe and northern Asia, and made it into a quintessential, iconic American symbol. The grasses used in those lush, thick lawns associated with white picket fences and American dreams? They aren’t even American. The lushness of Kentucky bluegrass is not from Kentucky, and Bermuda grass is actually from Asia. Before movements like xeriscaping, grasses native to America like broomsedge, bluestem, and buffalo grass were pushed aside in favor of imported seeds. Whether the plants themselves were native or not didn’t seem to matter at all to most people.
An Investment Worth Its Weight in Memories
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Americans spent more than $29.1 billion on lawn care in 2015. That a lot of green to keep your grass, well, green.
Whether you live in a part of the country where green grass is easily attainable, you work hard to grow grass in a less than ideal grow zone or you’ve made the switch to more native plants, you probably spend at least some time thinking about your lawn, and you probably know someone who makes their yard a priority. Maybe that person is even you.
After all, it’s easy to get nostalgic about your lawn. Was mowing one of your chores growing up? Do you have memories of your Dad working in the yard? Or your Mom? How many enterprising teens do you know whose first job was to help mow the neighborhood? Do you remember backyard barbecues, games of freeze tag, or time catching fireflies? And, ah the smell of fresh cut grass – that’s a smell everyone recognizes in an instant. No wonder America has had a centuries long love affair with their lawns.