The American Lawn – Be the Envy of the Neighborhood

Once a symbol of affluence, the turfgrass lawn has become ubiquitous, commonplace. Let’s make our yards the envy of the neighborhood and be green.

Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) - Photo: Author's Sister-in-Law Katja
Front Yard Turfgrass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season)

If you’ve been following The American Lawn post series, you learned about the origins of our obsession with turfgrass lawns and how our year-round quest to keep them green, weedless, and pest free, in any climate, negatively impacts people and the planet.

This post will explore ideas for converting our turfgrass lawns into yards appropriate for the 21st century—beautiful and environmentally friendly.

Native and Adaptive Plants

Have you ever noticed how some yards stick out in their neighborhoods, but not in a good way? Like a turfgrass lawn surrounded by water-loving tropical plants and flowers sweltering in 100° heat.

I propose the American yard of the 21st century have a sense of place, of belonging; fitting the flora, fauna, and climate of the home’s region.

Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ - Photo: Thomas J. Story, SunsetNative and adaptive grasses, plants, shrubs, flowers, and trees are essential. First, they are local and help us achieve a sense of place in our yard. Second, native and adaptive plants have already invested a lot of time and energy evolving to flourish in our particular area’s soil and climate, rainfall or lack thereof, and have built-in pest resistance, thus they do not require undo amounts of water or a lot of human and chemical intervention.

Turfgrass Alternatives

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to turfgrass lawns. One is sure to meet just about everyone’s climate conditions, individual taste, yard care abilities, and wallet. There is no point in removing a turfgrass lawn only to install a another water hungry landscape that requires just as many chemicals, so choose native and adaptive plants that meet your aesthetic and design criteria.

Let’s look at some options and imagine how we can transform our ordinary turfgrass lawn into an environmentally friendly yard we will enjoy and our neighbors will envy.

Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue - Photo: Stephanie CurtisFor lawn lovers, a greensward of grasses, sedges, or grass like plants that can withstand some foot traffic provides an attractive and environmentally friendly option to turfgrass. Some greensward plants can be mowed to provide a turfgrass like appearance and others are tufted or more informal looking.

Rock Garden with Succulent Plants - Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press

rock garden is a good choice for those wanting to make a visual statement and be water wise. Intricate or seemingly random designs can be achieved with various sizes of boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand, interspersed with interesting plants. Succulents with their bold symmetrical shapes are popular rock garden plants.

Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA - Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset

tapestry garden mixes sweeps of low growing ground covers with annuals and perennials in an interpretation of the English cottage garden that many Americans seem to admire. A carpet garden is a variation of a tapestry garden and contains broad areas of one or a few types of plants that provide a uniform look.

Meadow in Santa Fe, NM - Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset

When we think of a meadow, we often picture grasses swaying in the breeze dotted with colorful wildflowers. Meadows are grasslands and prairies and can include a wide range of grasses, sedges, shrubs, wildflowers, and bulbs. Meadows are intended to have an effortless informal look that varies throughout the year as different plants bloom and wane.

Grow Your Own Greens - Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

Do you love to cook? Are you a fan of locally grown organic ingredients? If so, converting a boring turfgrass lawn into your very own farmer’s market garden may be just the thing. Imagine being able to harvest salad makings, pick bell peppers, or snip fresh herbs just steps from your own doorstep. Plant a fruit tree or two and enjoy pears, peaches, lemons, or avocados picked from your own yard. You just might start a new trend in your neighborhood

Transforming Your Yard

Removing a turfgrass lawn and replacing it with an environmentally friendly yard full of native and adaptive plants is not an easy undertaking, but well worth the effort (check the resource section for help and ideas). Visualize your beautiful transformed yard that requires minimal or no water, fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. Enjoy sleeping in and not waking up your neighbors with noisy polluting gas-powered lawn equipment (make a few bucks and sell it on Craigslist). This is the green part of making your yard the envy of the neighborhood.

If you are not ready to part with your turfgrass lawn completely, consider reducing the size of your lawn and trying out an alternative on a small scale. That way you can keep your lawn and reduce its environmental impact. You never know, you may find your test rock garden or meadow growing and your turfgrass lawn shrinking.

Photo Credits (top to bottom, click on the photo to open link):

  • Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) – Photo: Katja Casson
  • Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ – Photo: Thomas J. Story, Sunset
  • Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue – Photo: Stephanie Curtis, Joan S. Bolton Santa Barbara Garden Design
  • Rock Garden with Succulent Plants – Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press
  • Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA – Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset
  • Meadow in Santa Fe, NM – Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset
  • Grow You Own Greens – Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

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The American Lawn – Our Obsession with Turf Grass

Aerial View of Residential Neighborhood with Turf Grass LawnsLawn care TV commercials provide a snapshot of America’s obsession with turfgrass as well as its impact on us and our environment.

We are shown that a green, weedless, pest free turfgrass lawn is within our reach, year-round, regardless of where we live. The subliminal marketing message is that if we do not 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.

Turfgrass is Big Business

The U.S. has approximately 50,000 square miles of turfgrass 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 turfgrass lawns begin? I decided to find out.

Origin of Grass

Turfgrasses 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 (corn) to turfgrasses 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.

Stourhead Landscape Garden, Wiltshire, England with Rolling Lawns, Trees, Lake, and Bridge
Stourhead – Wiltshire, England

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 turfgrass 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 turfgrass lawns for relaxation and recreation.

Two things occurred during the 1870s that extended the reach of turfgrass 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 mowing machine made mowing grass easier and more efficient. During the 20th century, lawns continued to gain in popularity.

Turf Grass Sod being Rolled Out on LawnThe advent of the automobile may have unintentionally led to the spread of residential turfgrass 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 turfgrass 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 turfgrass lawns in any climate.

The Brady Bunch TV Show House with Grass Lawn
The Brady Bunch TV Show House

The tract home design of the 1950s and 1960s suburban developments probably sealed the deal for turfgrass 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 turfgrass 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 turfgrass 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 turfgrass lawns.

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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. – History