The History of Lawns – It’s NOT Good!

In the US, lawns take up two percent of the land. To put that into perspective, it’s about the size of the state of Georgia, or the Republic of Ireland, or Greece.

In fact, they are the most grown “crop” in the country, covering more space than wheat, corn, and fruit trees combined.

Every year, we tend them, mow them, maintain them, and strive to improve their condition, health, and aesthetic.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why?!

In this article, we take a look at the history of lawns, and find out that they’re not as great as you might think.

Contents

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The Origin of Lawns – The Spark Notes Version

The west’s obsession with lawns has a long history, but for anyone who would just like the abridged summary, here it is in a nutshell:

  • Lawns were originally an area of land without forest, or brush, used to tend livestock.
  • They later became symbols of the elite, as wealthy landowners sought to show off their gains via the most ostentatious displays possible outside stately homes.
  • British turf sports such as football (soccer), cricket, and golf also have a part to play in our quest for the finest patch of lawn possible.
  • In America, the desire to tend lawns has exploded into a full-blown obsession, as any visit to a big box store in spring will tell you.

When you think about it, lawn care is absolutely bizarre. So why do we do it? Read on to find out!

a green lawn in backyard

What is a Lawn?

Lawn, noun: a stretch of open, grass-covered land, especially one closely mowed, as near a house, on an estate, or in a park.

I will draw your attention to a key part of the above lawn definition from Dictionary.com – “especially one closely mowed.”

That, right there, is what sets this patch of green space apart from every other crop. The necessity to keep it under control, to trim it back, and to go to war with nature.

I’m not a fan of linking to Wikipedia, but it does mention another key phrase – (lawns are) used for aesthetic and recreational purposes.

Which is one of the main reasons we keep them around in this day and age – but not why they first originated.

But what does a lawn actually consist of? It’s just grass, right?!

Depending on your region, lawns are made from a variety of different grass species – and you can follow that link to learn about the most popular types.

And fascinatingly, none of these species are indigenous to the US, and they can’t grow naturally here without help!

What on earth is this all about?!

The History of Grass Lawns

Why do we have lawns?

A lawn’s roots (historically, and not literally), lie in England, and parts of Europe, where they became a much-desired form of landscaping in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But the history of lawns and etymology of the word is actually much older.

The word “lawn” comes from a 15th century English word, laune, which, in turn, is derived from the 13th century launde, which itself comes from the old French word lande.

We could go back further, but you get the point. It basically means a glade, or open space in a forest or woods.

A clearing, or barren area of land.

It was on this area of land that farmers would graze their livestock in the Middle Ages.

And for anyone rich enough to own a castle back in those days, a lawn was valued as a form of defense. You can easily see an army coming across a vast, grassy expanse, rather than hidden in a wood.

man watering a green lawn

If only Macbeth had cultivated a lawn!

But the fashionable style and design of these green spaces we know today were created centuries later, in order to replicate the rolling pastures and fields of England, and/or the Italian pastoral landscape.

England’s natural beauty has long held the admiration and adulation of writers, poets, and artists – which may also have been something of an inspiration to early landscape gardeners.

William Blake’s iconic work And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, (more commonly known as the hymn Jerusalem), is one such example, as Jesus was purportedly “on England’s pleasant pastures, seen.”

So too with colonizing landowners, keen to replicate the look of a manicured English garden, trimmed grassy areas to within an inch of its life, the borders cut with geometric precision.

As such, English imperialism is somewhat to blame for lawns being created around the world, where they became a status symbol, and a sign of wealth and well-to-do society reveling in the hey-day of the British Empire.

Think of them as the 18th century equivalent of a social-media flex. Manicure that baby up, and see how many likes you get from your fellow landed gentry.

That, and they looked nice, and reminded colonialists of home.

Popular English sports such as cricket, football (soccer), and golf required large areas of cultivated turf to play, and lawns became known as a place for recreational purposes – as well as aesthetically pleasing ones.

And yet, when we get down to brass tacks – it’s just all about the money.

The History of Lawns in Americ

Wealthy landowners in North America began replicating these gardens in the 18th-century, and it is widely regarded that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are responsible in part.

They both hired English landscape gardeners to recreate the look of an English country estate on their respective plantations.

And with that, the rest of the country sat up and took notice, copying the trend across the nation. If you had the means, of course.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that lawn-fever really started to take hold, with the residential suburban boom of post-war America.

Everyone wanted to show everyone else they had money, and lawns were one way to do it.

Which has led to the obsession American homeowners have with them to this day.

clover lawn being watered

Indeed, our desire for pristine green spaces is so ingrained in our society that we actually have laws, rules, and regulations enforcing the upkeep of lawns in our neighborhoods.

People are actually imprisoned for failing to trim their lawns!

Owning the best lawn care tools and equipment has also become an obsessive preoccupation, as homeowners strive for the American dream – of which a well-manicured lawn is very much a part of.

In fact, you could argue that obsessive lawn care in the US is a hangover from those early plantation days, and remains an unconscious (or conscious) desire to display wealth that’s deeply entrenched in our national psyche.

Whether we’re aware of it or not – we’re still desperate to show others we’re doing well for ourselves.

And spending billions maintaining something that gives almost nothing back could certainly be considered an asinine way to do it!

For a more detailed exploration of the history of lawns in America, follow that link to an excellent article by Scientific American.

And this piece explores how we might look to end this toxic lawn obsession.

You can also watch the entertaining, and hilarious video below, which also touches on many of the points made here.

The History of Lawnmowers

Lawns don’t take care of themselves, even if they are the most self-sustaining crop we humans can cultivate.

These days, we have so many different types of lawnmower that it can be hard to know which is the right one to use.

Lawn mowing technology didn’t start to properly develop until the 19th century. Before this, landowners would hire (or enslave) men to do the (incredibly) hard work.

Have you ever used a scythe? It’s absolutely brutal!

Thankfully, the dawn of mechanization saw advancements in agricultural machinery, and it was in Gloucestershire in 1830 that the first cylinder mower was invented.

But it wasn’t until 1902 that the first petrol lawnmower was introduced, which was a game changer for more efficient garden maintenance, and its descendants are still very much in use today.

However, opinions are shifting once more, and I, for one, am a champion of battery-powered lawnmowers over gas. Follow that link for some excellent examples of how this tech has improved.

And if you really want to explore the future of lawnmowers, this article on robots vs ride ons will tell you more.

Whether you decide to keep maintaining a lawn or not – don’t be afraid of change either way – it’s time to embrace it.

There’s no getting away from the fact that robotic and battery-powered lawnmowers are the future.

reel mower on green lawn

That’s if lawns have any future at all…

The Negative Impact of Lawns

Lawn care and maintenance takes a lot of work – and it’s a massive, billion-dollar business.

If you’ve been thinking about doing away with the money, time, and effort it takes to look after a lawn, but you’re not yet convinced, then take a look at this summary the negative impact of this practice:

  • Lawn care offers little to nothing for other plants and wildlife in our gardens. Pollinators, for example, are vital to all life on earth, and a huge expanse of grass doesn’t help them in any way, shape, or form.
  • Lawn maintenance is time-consuming, expensive, and wasteful.
  • The process of caring for lawns creates more greenhouse gasses than the lawns themselves absorb.
  • The billions (nay – trillions) of gallons of water used to irrigate our lawns every year is mind-boggling. Most people won’t even be able to read a number that high. It’s a MASSIVE waste on an almost unfathomable scale.
  • Chemicals! We use so much toxic stuff on our lawns as part of a maintenance schedule – and so much of it is applied improperly – which leads to damaging run-off into water courses.
  • Every summer, the constant noise of lawn-mower maintenance equipment becomes almost unbearable, and the fuel emissions are obnoxious. At least try to make the switch from gas-powered machines!
  • There are many different types of lawn fertilizer, and they’re often confused, overused, and wasted – causing damage to our gardens, and the environment in general.

This list is not exhaustive – and there are better alternatives to lawns. Read on to find out more.

Lawn Alternatives

Regular readers will know that we do love a well-manicured lawn at Yardthyme, and we’ve written plenty of guides on how to achieve one.

Our complete month-by-month lawn care calendar is a good example!

But that’s not to say we’re not open to alternatives, and we recognize that lawns aren’t that great for the environment in general.

Perhaps it’s time to consider other options as our needs and tastes evolve – as well as the needs of the planet? Here are a few examples to get you started:

In an ideal world, vegetable gardens and patches across the land would replace our lawns. If you’re looking at alternatives, I urge you to try to grow your own food.

Allowing the grass to grow as nature intended is another option. If your yard has a lot of sun, try cultivating a prairie garden. Encouraging natural, native plants is highly beneficial to insects, wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole.

Have you ever considered cultivating a moss lawn, or perhaps a cover-based one? Follow those links for the pros and cons of each.

(Spoiler – they’re both much less work to maintain than what you currently have!)

And speaking of less work, synthetic lawns might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but they require little to no maintenance, and will save you a small fortune over time.

This article on artificial turf vs sod will tell you more.

And think about this – they never, ever need watering…

There are many more alternatives to lawns out there, and the sky’s the limit for what you could have in your yard. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

lawn being watered in closeup

The Future of Lawns

All that said, we recognize that lawns are still very much a part of societal norms, and, love them or hate them, they’re here to stay.

For the time being, at least.

Lawns are aesthetically pleasing areas, which can be of great use when it comes to calming the mind.

They continue to offer a safe and comfortable place for our children, pets, and family to relax and play; and not everyone has the time, will, means, or desire to do anything more than tackle the annual mowing season.

That, and a tidy, attractive lawn can add as much as 11% onto the value of our property.

So, there’s surely a happy medium to be had?

Here’s a good example:

Last year, I used a sod-cutter to remove a large chunk of lawn at the bottom of my garden. This was replaced with several vegetable boxes, and a charming fire-pit area perfect for social gatherings.

My lawn is half the size it once was, which means it doesn’t take nearly as much time to mow or maintain. And we still have a nice swatch of grass for recreation, and for the dogs to run amok.

We now grow our own food, and are nearly self-sustaining – when it comes to vegetables, at least!

And while I recognize that, for many homeowners at least, removing a lawn just isn’t possible, or practical; I think the future of lawns is in trying to trim them back a little – while still keeping a moderate, well-maintained patch of green.

That is why we will still promote and practice responsible, ethical, and eco-friendly lawn care on this website.

And speaking of, check out this article on Mother-Nature approved lawn maintenance, and go here to find out how to make your own organic DIY fertilizer!

Summary

I hope you’ve enjoyed our brief foray into the history of lawns, and that you’re more familiar with our largely unhealthy obsession with this archaic practice.

But they continue to have a place in our lives, and they’re not going anywhere, any time soon.

Let me know your thoughts on the topic in the comments. Are you a hard-core lawn-care enthusiast? Perhaps you’re looking at alternatives? Maybe you have a great suggestion to replace residential lawns?

In the meantime, stay safe out there, and happy gardening!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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