The History of American Lawns: Not as Boring as you think

The American obsession with velvety lawns isn’t much older than the happy days of the 1950's. The story of how America became the land of freshly cut lawns, reaching from shore to shore, could fill books, complete with twisted and complicated plots that always end with the “green, green grass of home,” but here's the shortened version. And for those who are trying to get their lawn done this month, here's the how-to.  (and a schedule for lawn care).

General Plan of Riverside · Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Landscape Architects · 1869.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer who co-designed Central Park with his partner Calvert Vaux, is said to have defined the American lawn, but he doesn’t get credit for inventing them. Gardeners in England had incorporated lawns into their estates since the time of the Tudors, but in the English tradition, lawns were a part of the landscape — not the landscape. Used for bowling greens and long vistas, the swaths of green in Europe belonged primarily to the wealthy and were unattainable by the poor.

Olmsted created the unified lawn, or a more democratic approach to lawns — one that provided every homeowner a quarter-acre patch of green. Commissioned to design one of the first planned suburbs in 1868, Riverside in Illinois, he stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road. Also, fences or “walls” were prohibited, giving the whole development a park-like setting. Lawns continued over property lines and mowing your grass became a matter of pride, the homeowner’s contribution to keeping the neighborhood spiffy, a sentiment that’s still prevalent today.

Prior to the expansion of the suburbs, lawns were minimal in most places and practically nonexistent in the South. The typical Southern front yard was hard dirt that was swept daily. Grass was thought to harbor mosquitoes, insects, rodents and snakes, and were considered a fire hazard.

The suburban explosion and the 40-hour workweek changed the daily routine of homeowners and allowed more time for ornamental gardening. Three organizations are directly responsible for instilling the desire and creating the necessary resources to ensure a summer of freshly cut lawns. 

In 1915, almost a half century after Olmsted designed Riverside, the US Department of Agriculture collaborated with the US Golf Association to find the right grass — or rather, combination of grasses — that would produce a lawn suitable for the American climate and fit the definition of “good grass.” Bermudagrass from Africa, bluegrass from Europe and a mix of fescues and bentgrass were included in the research, all of which are non-native to the United States. Within 15 years, the USDA had produced several grass combinations that would work in American climates.

Dandelions the "bane" of all good, weed-free lawns.

The American Garden Club was the most effective in getting the American public on board. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain beautiful and healthy lawns. They defined a good lawn as “mown to a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, neatly edged and without weeds.” By the 1950s, the American public was convinced, and the quest for the perfect lawn became a weekend pastime. Weed-free, freshly mowed lawns were as much a labor of love as a civic duty.

Today, Americans are still writing the history of lawns. As we are more aware of some of the environmental hazards of lawn care, the enthusiasm for the lawn is dwindling somewhat. Modern homeowners are incorporating ground covers, flowerbeds, mulch and shrubbery where grass once reigned. Swaths of green are getting smaller, and some traditional front yards of grass are removed completely in favor of mulch, shrubs, trees and perennials.

Grass is still the largest part of the American garden, but whether or not it keeps its favored focal point… Only time will tell.

AAP, Cinthia

Cinthia Milner is the garden coach, blog writer and outside sales staff for BB Barns Garden Center.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.