We’ve been too busy to mow our small lawn with any regularity this summer. We’ve even stopped picking up the clippings which I normally use for vegetable garden mulch. The backyard is worse; it hasn’t been mowed since June. The deer are helping by eating some of the clover down but it is beginning to look a bit like a hayfield.
In the history of the lawn in North America, there is little if any difference between a lawn and a hayfield. After all, the grasses we commonly use in our manicured lawns originated from the cow pastures of our European forefathers.
The idea of the “lawn” grew out of the aristocracy in England and France during the late 1600s to 1700s. They owned and managed huge blocks of acreage that also sustained many peasants who relied on the lord of the manor to feed and clothe them. It was a tough job, especially when crops failed and the peasants got restless. So to keep the peasants gainfully occupied, they began employing them as groundskeepers. Many hands made light work of scything down pastures to turn them into manicured lawns and keeping flower beds perfect.
When Europeans made it to North America, they brought their landscape traditions with them. Many new settlers who had been under the thumb of the landed gentry now found they could do many of the same things their former landlords did; build a big house and surround it with a manicured lawn.
There were several major problems with this. First, North America didn’t have the summer rains found in England and France to keep them green. So it was necessary to water them. Second, our native grasses didn’t grow the same as the European grasses. Ours grew too slowly, so they imported grasses like Kentucky blue grass, annual and perennial rye grass and Bermuda grass to continue the look. Ironically Kentucky blue grass is native to the Middle East and Bermuda grass comes from Africa.
The reel lawn mower was invented around the middle of the 1800s which made it much easier to keep up the lawn. About that time, the newly invented sport of golf and the City Beautiful movement also started. The game of golf on manicured lawns became a status symbol while the City Beautiful movement worked to plant gardens and lawns in blighted industrial cities across the country. Slowly front yards that once grew a survival crop of vegetables began sprouting lawns.
Finally, after World War II jump-started the economy and returning soldiers began buying houses under the new government programs and creating the suburbs in the process, the lawn became the ultimate status symbol for the middle class. With that came the almost indiscriminate use of water to keep it green, pesticides to keep it weed- and bug- free and air pollution from gas-powered mowers to keep it looking good.
Is it worth it? Good question. Maybe we should just go back to the hayfield.