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Back to Basics: The Lowdown on Lawns

Ever wondered why exactly you have a lawn or even why they are so popular in US culture? What makes a carpet of grass so attractive to homebuyers and homeowners: is it truly only for aesthetic, or does it serve a functional purpose? The seeds of this typical feature of many US homes sprout from a fertile history through agriculture and nostalgia, starting hundreds of years ago.

The first mention of lawns existing was around 1100 CE in modern-day Britain but became more prominent around the 16th century. The term, “lawn”, is thought to be derived from the early English word, “launde”, which was denoted a natural field, glen, or meadow for pastoral people to graze their herds of livestock (planetnatural.com). Being natural lawnmowers of the age, these grazing animals took care of the overgrown fields of the wealthy elite, establishing a symbiosis of sorts. The lords and ladies of the land, in turn, had fresh meat provided to them, and the common folk was able to freely feed their granted animals on the lands.

In the many years after this established dynamic, personal lawns for other socioeconomic classes started appearing more in the 19th century. Before then, lawns were a feature that only the rich elite could have. They were high-maintenance and expensive, requiring animals and human help to take care of their grounds. Without some assistance, the beauty and aesthetic of having a personal field or meadow would be soon forgotten in a jungle of overgrowth. Normally for other people, they would have some small personal gardens or pastures if in rural areas with wells and cesspools for living. The concept of not utilizing every inch of the land for survival was a luxury that many in lower socioeconomic statuses could not afford or even imagine having until after the US Civil War.

After the US Civil War was when lawns started to grow into the hearts of the American people. With Frederick Law Olmsted’s invention of the famous push mower in the late 1860s, this planted the seeds for what is now known as the standard of the American Dream: Suburbia. Now, maintaining a lawn was easier than before. Many influential people touted the importance of having an inviting lawn, including Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott (sound familiar?) saying, “‘A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house…Let your lawn be your home's velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration’.”(Scientific American, 2013). One could say that these two were likely the progenitors of what is known as an HOA today.

During the aftermath of World War II, the idea of Suburbia grew to its most popular. The founding of various Levittowns in the US and Puerto Rico established the suburbs as an idea of a conformed and safe area for those returning home from the war. In 1947, the first Levittown in Connecticut held over 17,000 homes with plush and lush grass in the front of every single house, contrasting drastically with the common establishment. Yet with that many homes, Levittown went from an example to the American standard for homes. Many builders thereafter followed in Levittown’s footsteps, and other homebuyers of the time wanted the same luxurious lawn that many others had. It represented to many people the success, wealth, and comfortable conformity they desired.

Lawns served not only as a status symbol and an earmark of nostalgia but also benefit homeowners today beyond the previously mentioned. For one, they provide a relatively safe and personal space for semi-privacy (and a green space echoing the elite of centuries past). This creates a place for camaraderie with neighbors, whether it is for parties, games, or social gatherings with friends and neighbors. With the plants providing ground cover, the roots deter soil erosion and encourage oxygen production for the world at large. What’s more, the homogeny that lawns promise makes for easier landscape architecture and gives comfort in a sense of unity with one’s neighbor. Think about it: what would be your thoughts about someone in your neighborhood that disregarded the need for a lawn? A different arrangement or use of one’s land would separate themselves in one form or fashion. Whether that would be welcomed or not is up for debate.

However, with the pros are cons of having and maintaining a lawn itself. The typical lawn generally requires more watering and more chemical pesticides in addition to gasoline and other hazards known to be harmful to humans in order to maintain. These are not only detriments to the environment as a whole but also to one’s own microcosm of their home inside and out. To talk simply of chemicals would not suffice. Native plants and animals would be considered as well. A majority of the grasses used in modern American lawns are foreign in origin (Kentucky Bluegrass, for example, is a common European grass that was imported). These grasses are out of their natural habitat and require more attentive care than native plants would. Yet we care to ensure our grass remains verdant enough to keep its “natural” beauty despite its unnatural placement, proven through the over $40 billion in lawn care the US spends every year (bankrate.com, 2016).  

Xeriscaping and other solutions (i.e. gravel “lawns”, native weeds, etc.) have addressed these concerns. In a recent article from Real Estate NewsSource in the July 15th, 2016, issue, an article from #AskTheJaphets cited the importance of these alternatives for lawns. With fresh water availability falling and with food costs steadily rising, maybe relaxing on the importance of having under-utilized land would serve better than the tedious maintenance most of us suffer throughout the seasons. Take for example in the Monte Vista district in San Antonio, there are several houses that use their land to grow food and wildflowers instead of the prescribed lawn. Perhaps following in their example is worth consideration… as the original purpose for a lawn has long outgrown its former lofty status.


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