From Minnesota to New Mexico, Americans love their lawns. But the uniform sea of two-inch green stalks that washes over subdivisions across the country is hardly natural or necessary. Lawn care has become a national pastime, and each year, Americans waste billions of dollars and their limited free time in a never-ending struggle to maintain the perfect lawn. In the Southwest, lawn maintenance is no less than absurd given that drinking water in often in short supply. And in places like Michigan, where water is plentiful and the climate is temperate, grass is still impractical and time-consuming, and lawn maintenance harms the environment through lawnmower emissions, toxic fertilizers and pesticides. Grass is expensive, it constantly gives way to hardier plants (commonly known as weeds), it’s always thirsty and it grows too tall for our tastes. We have shown that we can create a yard greener than nature would permit pretty much anywhere we want – but that doesn’t mean we should.
Why are Americans in love with their lawns? Heaps of research exist on the psychological and sociological motivations behind lawn care – how the American lawn represents man’s triumph over his environment and how humans are evolutionarily inclined to like grass, invoking reminisces of man’s early days in the savannahs of East Africa. But even if our instincts are truly calling us to cultivate the land and romp through open fields, they hardly explain how a desire to cultivate turned into a full-blown obsession.
It wasn’t always like this. Perennial grasses, the types we use on lawns, are not native to the United States; even the celebrated Kentucky bluegrass originates from across the Atlantic, most likely brought over by French missionaries in the early 1600s. Neatly manicured lawns started showing up in the mid 1800s, only embraced by the wealthy trying to imitate the European aesthetic of open but ordered spaces – grass was a way of showing off that your family had money to spare.
Grass gradually worked its way down to the middle classes, but not on its own – gardening associations, lawn-care industries and even the U.S. government shoved the importance of an immaculate lawn down citizens’ throats for decades. For instance, in “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins highlights that since the turn of the 20th century, “shaming neighbors into decent behavior by example has been a persistent theme of horticulture writers and advertisers.” The U.S. government got involved during World War II to promote lawn care as a worthwhile hobby that would help out the cause by keeping citizens at home, saving gas and wear on tires. Jenkins writes, “Homeowners were exported to keep up the home front (literally the front of the house) for the morale of those at home and of loved ones in the service.” I’m sure the thought of a fresh-cut lawn awaiting their return was the inspiration that kept American soldiers going. Following the war, all these efforts finally paid off when the massive exodus to cookie-cutter suburbs permitted grass to solidify its place in the American psyche.
These days, we don’t need the government or the lawn-care industry to push us to take care of our lawns – grass is more than well ingrained in American suburbia. But while close-knit communities are replaced with neighbors who have never met, the 1960s image of children playing in the front yard is fading – only accelerated by cranky homeowners who want to keep those damn kids off their front lawn. The uniformly green lawn, so often taken to the extreme, has come to represent the excesses of American society and the triumph of appearances over the pragmatic. Rather than spreading yet another bag of fertilizer, that time would be much better spent actually enjoying one’s yard, even if it’s riddled with a few weeds.
There are hundreds of other groundcovers that are superior to grass. Take clover. It’s just as soft and almost as durable, it rarely needs mowing and it produces charming lavender flowers each spring. Keeping up a lawn that meets the American standard requires fertilizers and the occasional pesticides, while clover is nitrogen-fixing, improving the soil as it grows. Unfortunately, the resident who decides to try out a “lawn alternative,” whether by planting something else or turning his yard into a garden or basketball court, can be assured of more than a few angry phone calls. With subdivision associations keeping close watch to make sure that no rebellious resident dares to let his lawn grow a little scraggly, even loosening up a bit may be too much to ask.
Beam can be reached at email@example.com.