Lawn care TV commercials provide a snapshot of America’s obsession with turf grass as well as its impact on us and our environment. We are shown that a green, weedless, pest free turf grass lawn is within our reach, year round, regardless of where we live. The subliminal marketing message is: if we don’t conform by having the requisite lush green lawn, we are losers and possibly bad elements in the neighborhood.
To keep up our end of the neighborhood’s appearance, all we need is at least 35,000 gallons of water, copious amounts of fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide, devices to dispense, spread, and spray them, a minimum of 2 pieces of lawn specific equipment—a noisy, polluting gas-powered lawn mower and a gas-powered or electric edger—several plastic bags for grass clippings, perhaps a gas-powered blower, and a slice of our free time on a weekly basis.
Turf Grass is Big Business
The U.S. has approximately 50,000 square miles of lawn, an area the size of New York state, making it our largest irrigated crop 1. Annually, Americans spend $6.4 billion on lawn care products 2 and about $50 billion paying other people to deal with our lawns and gardens 3.
When did our obsession with turf grass lawns begin? I decided to find out.
Origin of Grass
Turf grasses that cover U.S. lawns today descended from grasses that date back to the Paleocene era of South America and Africa, between 60 and 55 million years ago 4. The grass family includes approximately 10,000 species from edible grasses like rice, wheat, and maize to turf grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass.
Lawns before the 19th Century
In the old days, grass served practical purposes. Edible grasses were cultivated as food crops. Grassy meadows and enclosed pastures were used for grazing goats, sheep, and cows.
The idea of planting grass solely for beauty and enjoyment is said to have arisen during the cultural movement of the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries). The first use of grass in this manner was small areas in formal gardens of aristocratic landowners.
During the 18th century, wealthy English landowners transformed their estates into landscape gardens with expansive rolling lawns, groupings of plants and shrubs, tree groves, lakes, and a classical ruin or two. Lawns were the purview of the very rich and displayed their wealth for all to see. They were the only ones who could afford to set aside large areas of land for pleasure and pay an army of servants to scythe their grass to a uniform height.
This may have sparked the first cases of grass envy.
Lawns Come to America
During the 1800s, wealthy Americans living in the northeast, with a climate similar to England, adopted English landscape garden designs including manicured lawns. Lawns continued to be a status symbol and signified one’s affluence.
New York City’s Central Park, which opened in 1859 5, initiated the concept of public parks and demonstrated the use of grass lawns for relaxation and recreation.
Two things occurred during the 1870s that extended the reach of lawns. First, the invention of the lawn sprinkler meant grass could be grown in regions where it required supplemental watering. The second, improvements to the lawn moving machine made mowing grass easier and more efficient. During the 20th century, lawns continued to gain in popularity.
The advent of the automobile may have unintentionally led to the spread of residential grass lawns. Property setback rules were established to provide a safety margin, a space of 30 feet or so, between the front of a home and passing traffic on the street—a perfect space for a lawn. In the 1920s, commercially grown turf grass made it possible to plant a fully grown lawn and increased the use of single types of grass in lawns
The end of World War II brought an array of fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides into the hands of homeowners which enabled them to tackle a variety of lawn challenges and attempt to grow lawns in any climate.
The tract home design of 1950s and 1960s suburban developments probably sealed the deal for turf grass lawns. Neighborhoods were intended to be uniform in appearance. Large tracts of land were subdivided to form small lots for single-family homes. Houses were either identical or similar in design, each with its own front and back turf grass lawns. TV shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Brady Bunch reinforced suburbs as the ideal place to live the American Dream. People could relate to Ozzie borrowing his neighbor’s lawn mower and the Bradys playing volleyball on the grass in their backyard.
Today, more than 50 years later, the turf grass lawn still dominates and we continue to show our affluence with not one but two green lawns.
But at what cost? The next post will look at the environmental impact of turf grass lawns.
1. NASA Earth Observatory – Looking for Lawn
2. Bloomberg – The Real Cost of an Enviable Lawn
3. Research and Markets – Landscaping Services in the US
4. Plant Physiology – Evolutionary History of Grasses’
5. CentralPark.com – History
- Reimagining the California Lawn, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, Bart O’Brien
- The New Yorker – Turf War
- Wikipedia – History of Gardening
- Wikipedia – Lawn