Designing Your Landscape: The Great American Lawn

An early push mower, from an 1872 catalogue.

Part Two of an Occasional Series on Tips for Designing the Home Landscape

There exists a curious phenomenon in our country found in few others around the world: The mania for the perfect, weed-free Great American Lawn. The word mania is apt, for this passion for wide swathes of unblemished grass is like a disease that strikes men of all ages and classes, which causes them to spend huge amounts of time, money and resources in an attempt to create the perfect landscape. (I say men here advisedly, for this seem to be a primarily male affliction.) The only way to achieve this unnatural creation is, of course, to load the turf with huge amounts of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and then mow the now almost plastic surface with machines that spew out more pollution in a single use than the average American driver creates in a week. (So much pollution, in fact, that many municipalities are now offering mower trade in programs to encourage folks to go electric.) When viewed from this perspective, the pursuit of the perfect lawn sounds a little silly, though it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the Great American Lawn is a uniquely post-World War II creation, and deserves to be relegated to the same ideological garbage heap as some other gardening gems of the period, such as “low-maintenance” gardens, “harmless” pesticides, and asphalt front walks.

The first American lawns with small grass plats, mown with a scythe, used for games playing, as seen in typical Colonial era plan.

If you could travel in time and see what our colonial fathers called a lawn, you might be very surprised. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the term “lawn” meant a flat, green ornamental area specifically for playing outdoor games, such as”bowles,” and later (after 1850) croquet. Such lawn areas were generally quite rare and limited in extent, and exclusively the province of the very wealthy as maintaining such a lawn required full-time gardening help to meticulously scythe and roll it into shape. This all changed with the invention of the mechanical mower – cleverly derived by one Edwin Budding from the blades that cut wool knap in the mills. Suddenly, everyone from maid to minister could have their own greensward with minimal labor. Lawns sprung up everywhere as status symbols, and became a common feature of late Victorian gardens. Long after the mower made grass democratic, people still associated lawns with affluence and power, and strove for bigger and better examples than their neighbors. This practice has continued up to this very day, to the point that the lawn care industry consumes billions of dollars a year.

The original makeup of lawns also may surprise you. The first lawns were just mown pasture; whatever flowers or “weeds” existed were let be. Later in the 1800s, nurseries began to sell specialized seed mixtures. The lovers of the monotone lawn that modern chemicals produce would no doubt wince at the mixture for a perfect lawn given by Frank Scott in 1876:

12 quarts Rhode Island bent grass

4 quarts creeping bent grass

10 quarts red top

3 quarts sweet vernal grass

2 quarts Kentucky blue grass

1 quart white clover

Here's a Victorian era lawn from Frank Scott's Suburban Home Grounds, a leading style manual of the day. Note how the amount of grass surface has suddenly grown with the invention of the mechanical mower.

Some lawns were not even made of grass. Besides clover, rye, crabgrass and even dandelions (horrors!) were considered by many to be perfectly acceptable. The only thing that mattered was that the lawn be flat and green. (Much care was taken to roll the lawn every other week or so.) This happy state of affairs was to change forever with the rise of chemical use in gardens after W.W.II. Suddenly, a perfectly green, single-grass lawn rippling monotonously in the breeze became the norm, thanks to all those fertilizers, herbicides, and that great boon to time-pressed homeowners — the gas-powered mower. Although the lawn has long since ceased to be a symbol of wealth, like lemmings to the sea we continue to follow the path our Victorian forefathers set. The lawn has come to dominate the average American landscape, not, as it should be, one part of many harmonizing with a greater whole.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like a nice lawn as much as the next guy, and for kids, nothing beats a lawn as a play area. Just not so much, and not so often! When I look at the acres and acres of rolling, immaculate lawns which overwhelm suburbia today, installed simply because a more interesting alternative could not be thought of, I just can’t help but think of the aesthetic loss to us all, not to mention the environmental cost: the air and noise pollution from all those mowers and blowers, the landfill problems from the waste, and the millions of tons of excess fertilizers and pesticides washed into the lakes and streams, poisoning aquatic life. All this plus the huge cost of keeping this charade of a landscape green, especially in the West where water is a concern! Between the cost of installation, mowing, watering and other maintenance, a modern grass lawn is, per square foot, the most expensive ground cover around.

So what’s the solution? For those interested in historical accuracy, the first and simplest step is to fire the lawn people with all their chemicals and tolerate a few weeds. As we saw from the recipe above, lawns were a heterogeneous mixture of grasses and other ground covers, which gave them character and durability in adverse conditions. Let’s face it — those spring flowers dotting the lawns are quite pretty, and any that get too enthusiastic can be controlled by mowing. Gardeners also should note that certain types of ground cover plants, like clover, help keep the lawn green during periods of scant water. Here at my design office in Southborough, I have an area of lawn that is out of the well’s reach, and which historically browned out every summer in July and August. I didn’t want to have to install some kind of watering system, so I top-seeded white clover into the existing grass. Now, not only does the lawn stay green all summer, in early June my bees have the benefit of all those clover blossoms for honey production, not to mention the lovely scent that fills the entire house when the evening breeze arises.

A plan from 1915, showing extensive grass surfaces. Even here though, the lawn doesn't entirely dominate the square footage as it so often does today.

Next, consider lawn alternatives, or at the very least, justify your areas of lawn. In my experience, many lawn areas would be better used in some other way. Areas for special activities, such as childrens’ play, are best kept as lawn. Small areas of lawn also complement beds and borders. But install lawn area for lack of better ideas. Take inspiration from our gardening forefathers. Colonial landscapes had very little time for lawn — too costly and nonproductive. Instead, hard-surfaced areas were common wherever outdoor activities were concentrated, and beds of flowers, vegetables and groundcovers filled most of the other space near the house. Woods, meadow and other wilder areas filled the rest. While lawn usage increased as the 1800s wore on, notice how the Victorians tended to break up large expanses of lawn with trees, flowering shrubs, and beds of annual and perennials. Note, too, the many paved areas for paths and outdoor seating. Even by the early 1900s, the beginnings of the turf’s heyday, lawns were clearly only part of the overall design, not the focal point of it. Lawns were meant to compliment the house and other areas of the general landscape, and to link the various parts of the whole into a single unit.

So this spring when it’s 90 degrees outside and it’s time to mow that useless half acre, sit down in the shade instead and think about other, more interesting ways to use that space — you’ll be glad you did.

Until next time then, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.


Designing Your Landscape: The Great American Lawn — 2 Comments

  1. Michael and Associates,
    I am a board member for the DeWitt County Museum in Clinton, IL. We have a beautiful restored victorian home and estate here that is in need of more accurate plant and landscape representation of the era that the home was built. Most specifically I am looking into the types of plants that were used. We have an abundance of beautiful old trees that have been well taken care of but our shrubs, flower, and smaller decorative trees are not present. Is there a source you could point me towards?

    -Eric Forsberg

  2. Your discussion of the lawn here involves so much fascinating history. Love the plans and the ad for the lawn mower. I am a huge fan of Scott’s book. It is pure poetry of the lawn. Keep up the good work. Glad I came across your blog.

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