Why We Mow

Why We Mow

Chapter 1 From
Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass

Why We Mow

Back in the Fifties, a neighbor used to joke that his lawn -- without a doubt the greenest, thickest, most perfect one on the street -- cost him $5,000 every summer.

This was a wild exaggeration, of course, but we got the point. The bucks went mostly for water, but a considerable amount was consumed by fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, spring and fall top-dressing, a bag or two of seed to spruce up bare areas and a few rolls of sod to replace grass consumed by white grubs.

As he unloaded lawn-care supplies from his trunk after a visit to the local nursery on Saturday mornings, my neighbor would laugh about his obsession to anyone within hearing distance, poking a little fun at himself. But his jokes were telling. He was inordinately proud of his lawn, and spent hours cutting or grooming it. He tended to its every complaint with the attention of a doting mother to a sick child. I doubt if our neighbor ever figured out exactly how much his thick carpet of turf cost. It remained lush and deep green all season, despite grass's tendency to become dormant in mid-summer, and in spite of the occasional all-season drought. Drought he considered nature's biggest challenge, an occasion to rise to with the fervor of a warrior whose turf, literally, had been invaded. He and his grass always triumphed. The texture was always soft, with blades thicker than the tufts in my new plush broadloom. His lawn was so perfect that the kids in the neighborhood preferred it to their jungle gyms for afternoon play. Our neighbor -- a kind man, really -- gritted his teeth and looked the other way as they somersaulted and tumbled on its velvety surface. His lawn was a prized possession he'd rather admire than use.

Even in my naive youth I suspected our neighbor was lording it over us. But this was the fifties, and the lawn was king. The rest of us on the street, newly married suburbanites with our first homes, actually envied him -- he'd reached a level of lawn nirvana we couldn't yet achieve, but we would one day. We couldn't imagine it any other way.

Were lawns the law? They might as well have been. At the very least there was an unwritten rule that grass would be the feature of the front yard, backed by evergreen foundation plantings and maybe a shade tree in the center of the lawn. Neighbors with patchy or unmown grass were frowned upon, or worse. The unspoken threat of a call to the bylaw officer always hung in the air. The appearance of a single dandelion made us shudder and offer to loan the culprit a can of our most lethal herbicide -- after all, we had standards to uphold.

On occasion we veered a degree or two from total conformity: for example, the island shrub bed planted by an eccentric neighbor to replace the yews and junipers under the picture window was considered a blatant example of front-yard rebellion, until we decided we liked the effect and began to copy the idea.

But none of us could part with our lawns. They were as necessary to the suburban landscape as our cars. Our neighborhood, in fact, was little different from any other in North America. For nearly a century the groomed front lawn had been de rigueur on almost every street on this continent. At last count, more than 24 million acres of lawn grow in North America, and this doesn't include grasslands and areas such as highway embankments. The care and feeding of grass has become a multibillion-dollar business for lawn-care companies and for manufacturers of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, lawn mowers and all the related equipment The lawn itself is an institution, gracing more than suburban subdivisions. Highway cloverleafs have lawns, as do cemeteries, golf courses and the large corporations that take up acres of land on the outskirts of cities.

Our Love of Lawns: Nature or Nurture?

Where did our love of grass come from? Why are we so obsessed with lawns? One theory was put forward a few years ago by Dr. John Falk, an ecologist and former special assistant at the Smithsonian Institution, as the result of research and surveys conducted since 1978. He calls it the Savanna Syndrome. In his view; our love of grass dates back to the time when humans roamed the savannas of Africa in search of food. We preferred to forage on grassy plains dotted with copses of trees because they offered protection from predators, which we could easily spot as they crept up on us in the short grass. Over the millennia, this was encoded in our DNA.

Of course, not a word of this can be proven, although many psychologists agree that humans have an innate preference for open spaces that provide "legibility" which means an environment that's clear and easily understood. Many non-professionals among us firmly believe our love of grass -- and of gardening in general -- is an instinctive throwback to our pastoral roots or to our need to prove our superiority over nature. I confess to having expounded on these theories more than once myself. I swear my own early interest in gardening is genetic (I come from a long line of farmers), and I wasn't the only one on our street to recognize that our neighbor's obsession with his grass revealed his need for control.

But we need only look back in history to realize that cultivation of the land in general has always reflected our need to understand and control nature, if only to survive. The ancient walled gardens of Persia were physical and psychological sanctuaries from the harsh environment beyond medieval gardens, up to and including the cottage gardens of the early eighteenth century, were necessary for sustenance and survival as the source of food and herbs both culinary and medicinal. If any grass grew in those tiny closely planted cottage gardens, the goats ate it for lunch.

The North American lawn as we know it has a more recent history, as well as a more prosaic one. Our fascination with grass has its modern roots in seventeenth-century France's much-admired formal gardens of André Le Nôtre's Versailles, with their tapis verts or small green carpets of grass, built into a tight structure of beds designed to prove that man was a better landscape architect than nature. This style was copied by the English until the eighteenth century, when William Kent and Capability Brown revolutionized landscape design: in their view, nature was a power to be embraced, not controlled, and soon the manor houses of England were surrounded with great greenswards of grass that swept right up to the front doors and off to the horizon. These landscapes were considered natural, but in the end were just more cultivated lawn

The Landscape Movement: Upper-Class Grass

Capability Brown, in particular (his real name was Lancelot, but he was nicknamed Capability because of his constant reference to a site's "capabilities"), like the grand vision. He spared no client's expense to recontour land and uproot trees (even tearing down houses he considered unnecessary) to make smooth surfaces for carpets of grass, scythed, rolled, swept and manured into lush and perfect lawns. Sound familiar? The influence of the garden park is also evident on many of today's large suburban estates, where expanses of lawn set off with trees seem to be the only treatment the landscape architect can envision for a vast space.

This was the peak of the Landscape Movement in England, but like many other landscape styles it was accessible only to the upper classes, who had both the property and the money to care for such large areas of grass. This didn't discourage immigrants to the New World, who brought this vision of endless lawns with them. Hopeful that it would reflect the riches and class such landscapes suggested, the most affluent among the colonists borrowed the approach for their new but more modest land holdings, despite the fact that conditions here did not favor the growth of the fine lawn grasses of England. Highly placed travelers to England also admired the style and brought it back to North America, the illustrious Thomas Jefferson among them. He especially admired Moor Park, a Brown-designed landscape in Hertfordshire, England, and used ideas from it on the grounds of his home, Monticello, in Virginia. The extensive, tiered grass grounds around the University of Virginia's Jeffersonian complex, built as part of his vision of education in America, is still known as "The Lawn" to graduates and students alike.

Although lawns had a presence in North America as the country entered the nineteenth century, they were still a privilege of the wealthy. Pioneers and farmers without the resources or the time for decorative gardening had to remain content with packed-dirt front yards, if they had any yard at all, swept daily to keep the dust down. But the seed was sown: a spacious, rich lawn had become a status symbol, and the desire for one spread to the budding middle class.

The Nineteenth Century: A Lawn for Every Yard

After the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War, the lawn really took hold as a landscape ideal in North America. The fuels used by the machines of the new manufacturing industries produced heavy pollution in urban centers, causing the middle class to seek more pastoral surroundings beyond city boundaries. Railways, streetcars and trolley lines were expanded, and by the late 1800s the suburb, with its detached houses and larger lots, was part of North American life.

In many of the suburbs, as well as in small towns, set­backs of 25 feet or more from house to street began to be the law. This was a huge change from the older city houses, built to abut almost directly onto the street. In smaller communities in New England, village centers began to metamorphose from "commons" into "greens." Formerly untidy packed-earth locations for military drills, hangings, town fairs and other gatherings of the townsfolk, they became parks with mowed lawns and trees, and the activities that were too hard on the grass had to move elsewhere

With more leisure time available, lawn sports became fashionable, and games like croquet and lawn tennis cemented the value of a thick, well-groomed lawn as a base for family activities. Activities like lawn bowling and golf were also becoming popular, and required a strong turf to play on.

The upkeep of grass requires labor, but luckily Edward Budding had come to the rescue, reducing the need for hired help to scythe the grass: in 1830 he'd invented a rather bulky lawn mower, useful for moderately sized plots. It wasn't as useful as it might have been, however, because it required two strong arms to push it. By the 1870s he'd streamlined it so that even a "delicate" woman could operate it -- advertisements eager to illustrate this showed children and women in their Sunday best mowing the lawn while the rest of the family played croquet or lawn tennis in the background. By this time hoses, sprinklers and city water supplies were also available to assist in the proper care of grass.

Lawns need grass seed, too, and agricultural conditions had taken care of this requirement as well, if by default. In the east, where lawns were most seen, our indigenous grasses had, sadly, pretty well disappeared, grazed to near-extinction by the colonists' cattle, sheep and goats. These grasses were replaced by European imports brought in with the idea that they would make good meadow's for grazing, with some seeds arriving as stowaways in ships ballast. The incongruously named Bermuda grass and Kentucky bluegrass, for example (the first is native to Africa, the second to the Middle East), became so common they're considered native grasses by many.

The Democratic Lawn

These influences on the developments of the North American lawn were evolutionary, even passive, compared to the direct hit of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who in the mid-1800s designed Montreal's Mount Royal Park and New York's Central Park in the manner of England's grand estates. In 1869 Olmsted was commissioned to plan the new suburb of Riverside, Illinois, near Chicago, and he carried the torch for the lawn. He designed a neighborhood of curving streets quite unlike the grid pattern prevalent in most cities, and he stipulated that each house was to be set back 30 feet from the road. No garden walls or fences were allowed, since he felt they made a row of homes look like "a series of private madhouses." Each property' had to have at least one tree, plus the lawn, which was to blend with the neighbors' on each side as if they were one.

Riverside, in effect, was planned to resemble one great park, with its grounds open and appreciated by all. This was a departure from the grand estates of England, each of which was clearly the property of one person, and represented North America's democratization of the lawn. The philosophy was held by more than Frederick Law Olmsted; designers Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott also believed lawns should be available to everyone, if only to look at. "It is unchristian to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature.... Throwing front grounds open together ... enriches all who take part in the exchange," wrote Scott in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, his 1870 treatise on landscape design. At the same time, the lawn provided a psychological line of demarcation from the street. As Kenneth Jackson says in his 1985 book The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, "The lawn was a barrier, a kind of verdant moat separating the household from the threats and temptations of the city."

The Twentieth Century: The Recreational Influence

In the early twentieth century, golf, if you can believe it, moved the lawn ethic further along. So did North American cemeteries, which had also picked up on the idea of the grand park and were set on landscapes of sweeping grass. People both played and found eternal rest in the peace of a lawn

The country's golf courses began modestly enough, three or four holes laid out in cow pastures or village greens, but the sport -- and the properties on which it was played -- grew like weeds after a rain. The Royal Montreal, the first permanent club in North America, was laid out in 1873 in Fletcher's Field, a cow pasture on Mount Royal in Montreal. By 1888, when St. Andrews (the oldest continuously operating club in the United States) was founded in another pasture in Yonkers, New York, Canada boasted six courses. By 1902, there were more than one thousand courses in the United States. Today the number tops seventeen thousand in the United States and more than two thousand in Canada. Always a discriminating lot, golfers became more particular about the quality, thickness and height of the grasses they played on, and the new golf associations (the United States Golf Association [USGA] was formed in 1894; the Royal Canadian Golf Association [RCGA] in 1895) devoted many' dollars to research and hybridization of new and improved grasses. With their sweeping vistas and immaculate lawns golf courses became the great English parks of North America, available only to those who could afford to play the game.

As the continent grew up and entered the twentieth century; the garden club movement was born. The middle- to upper-class society matrons who ran these organizations spread the word about the desirability of a well-kept home and garden, and although they emphasized gardens more than lawns they imprinted all who came their way with the need to keep up appearances. During the first half of the twentieth century, community and garden-club competitions became popular, and the new garden magazines encouraged readers to beautify their homes and neighborhoods with well-maintained landscaping. Children were involved in seed-growing competitions through Scouts, farm clubs and schools.

The Second World War was the turning point for the front lawn. After it was over the economy did more than return to normal -- it boomed. Jobs were plentiful. Factories that had spent the previous decade turning out machines and materials for war were now making tons of consumer goods, and it was easy to convince a luxury-starved populace to buy them. There was a spanking white automatic washer and dryer for every laundry room and a shiny, chrome-laden car in every driveway. Big families were the norm, and a three-bedroom bungalow in the suburbs was affordable for the average family. The new housing developments that sprang up just outside the city limits boasted rows and rows of identical houses, and all those front yards needed grassing over. The lawn had finally made its way into the middle class.

The Birth of the Lawn Ethic

And all-important for the new democratic lawn was the means for growing ever-better grass. New power mowers were within the reach of every property owner. New pesticides and herbicides, originally developed for the killing fields of war, were now available at local garden centers, poised to annihilate every enemy of the perfect lawn. The war was over, times were good and people were settling down in a new world filled with families peace and expanses of pristine green lawn.

The lawn became a given, a symbol of the good life, and a good lawn was proof of a properly lived life. All those children who'd grown up during the Depression and the Second World War learning (subliminally or otherwise) that a well-kept front lawn was another yardstick for measuring character, were ready to keep up with -- or surpass -- the Joneses. It was a marketing idea ripe for the picking, and manufacturers of the new power tools and the chemical companies eager to find a peacetime use for their wartime products were quick to promote the idea that you, too, could have a lawn as velvety and eternally green as any, as long as you bought their products.

Trouble was brewing, but it would take a few years for us to realize it.

Front Yard Gardens

This book includes overall planning and design, and outlines the steps for removing the grass, enriching the soil, and planting. The book is divided into several types of front yard gardens, including cottage, minimalist, secret, neighborhood, downtown, and natural. She discusses the key elements of each style, gives tips on how to create and maintain the garden, and provides a list of complementary plants.
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