Blades of Glory
For the love of lawns
By Noah Salt
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “lawn” simply refers to a mowed field or open area of grass. But in fact, an American lawn is much more than that, the reason those who maintain them, whether homeowners or maintenance crews for highways, municipal parks or sports fields, spend upwards of $60 billion a year just keeping our grass green and visually pleasing.
This tab covers 40.5 million acres, making lawns the most cultivated crop in the United States, consuming an estimated 30 trillion gallons of water each year just to look pretty as a picture.
We can blame 16th-century Europeans for our modern obsession with our lawns. In Middle English, the word launde simply translates to a “stretch of grassland that resembled a glade” as were common in approaches to medieval castles and walled fortresses — kept clear of trees so approaching friends and enemies alike could be seen. In villages about that time, grassy areas known as “commons” developed where locals could graze their livestock, the grass kept efficiently trim by grazing cows and horses.
In the 18th century, as Scientfic American reports, “the use of green, expansive spaces began to appear in landscape design in France and England. At the palace of Versailles, a small lawn — a tapis vert (i.e., a green carpet) — was installed. And in England, the trend inclined toward more open landscapes with fewer fences and hedges. This space was covered by closely mown grass. Thomas Jefferson, who was among the few to see these changes firsthand, was greatly impressed by the large swaths of green turf that were common to English country estates and tried to emulate this style at Monticello,” says Scientfic American.
“George Washington hired English landscape gardeners to achieve a similar end,” the magazine continues. “Mount Vernon had a bowling green and a deer park, also common elements in English garden design. The popularity of Washington and Mount Vernon helped the contagion of the idea of a lawn as images of Mount Vernon were produced and distributed throughout the United States into the 18th and 19th centuries. This gave wealthy Americans something to copy and aspire to. Coming from a leader such as Washington lent credence to the perception that this was a break was the norm and unique to America.”
Until the mid-19th century, across Europe and America, houses were generally built close to roads for purposes of commerce and transmission of news. But beginning about the time of America’s Civil War, larger houses began to emulate English estate houses that were typically built in meadows or glades with trees, idealized landscapes that became living symbols of affluence. Well-maintained grass lawns were a significant feature of such landscapes.
By the 20th century in America, beautiful lawns were unapologetic emblems of wealth and social status, as typified by the narrator of Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, who recounts his wealthy Long Island neighbor’s distain over the state of his own yard on the eve of a romantic luncheon. “We both looked at the grass — there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began,” Carraway laments. To solve the problem, the mysterious Gatsby dispatches his own gardeners to take care of the offensive patch of grass.
A couple of other factors boosted the concept of a beautiful lawn irrevocably into the hearts of the average American homeowner. The rise of automobile and train travel fueled the growth of civic beautification programs designed to make cities and towns more attractive to visitors and folks just passing through, contributing to a growing national obsession with attractive neighborhoods. Following WWII, an explosion of federally-financed home construction symbolized by sprawling suburban projects like New York’s mass-produced Levittown — where homeowners were required to mow and maintain the lawns at least once a week — made the idea of the “perfect” lawn not only a source of homeowner pride but a means of competing with one’s neighbor. Lawn services took over the role traditionally performed by staff gardeners.
These days, even as the chemical lawn crews quietly cruise the neighborhood, there is a definite move toward more “natural” landscapes in the form of eco-friendly water-saving concepts like xeriscaping and designing areas that need little in the way of fertilization and constant attention, preserving both aqua while keeping the run-off of phosphates into the groundwater at a minimum.
Still, we freely admit, there’s something fetching about a lovely green lawn on a lazy summer afternoon that invites our admiration and beckons exploration by bare feet.
Besides, mowing the grass is something of a cultural institution to many of us who grew up in suburbia, addicted to such blades of glory.