A Brief History of Lawns & the Disappearance of “Growing Your Own Food.”
American Lawns? When and Why Did We Start Growing Grass? What have we lost? What can we gain and reclaim by replacing our “grass” with fruit and vegetable gardens? Can gardening become an emerging field/service coinciding with more "remote working" and increasing inflation?
The quick answer is: having a lawn was a status symbol. It illustrated you were wealthy. You did not have to grow your own food or tend to any animals. Fast forward to today, we are all dependent upon grocery stores and food delivery services. Our “lawns” are largely useless and the upkeep costs money. That very same space and money could be utilized to grow beautiful organic food year-round.
The cold hard truth and some statistics: According to NASA, American yards consist of over 31,375,000 acres or 50,000+ square miles of “monocultures of grasses that require high maintenance, demand vast resources, and do not support pollinators or wildlife.” Lawns are classified in ecological terms: a wasteland. Why aren’t “lawns” part of the Climate Change narrative? How did we get here and what can be done to change this? To benefit families, communities and the environment?
Having a lawn in the 18th or 19th century, much less mowing it, watering it, and keeping it weed free was not possible for most land owners unless they were extraordinarily wealthy. President Thomas Jefferson, an avid horticulturist, in approximately 1806 was among the first to replicate European lawn styling in America at his Monticello estate. Other wealthy U.S. landowners soon followed suit illustrating they are part of a new American aristocracy, but most Early American yards stayed devoted to vegetable and herb gardens with grazing animals.
The history of the American lawn was driven by a desire for social status, marketing and eventually facilitated by technology. Maintaining a lawn became easier in 1830 with the invention of the reel mower. English engineer Edwin Budding modified a machine used for cutting the nap on velvet in textile factories to accommodate “grass.” In 1868, Frederick Olmsted designed Riverside, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated each house be set back 30 feet from the road with no walls between them. He did not like the walls between English houses; he planned for each home to have one or two trees and a lawn that flowed seamlessly into the neighboring lawn. This created the impression that all the homes were in a single community/park.
Shortly thereafter in 1870, Frank J. Scott an influential landscape architect published: “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds.” This was the first book devoted to “suburban home embellishment.” It directly influenced the style of the suburban landscape in America on a societal level with ideas such as, “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” It began this shift in the thought paradigm of the masses to aesthetics rather than function.
With the technology to maintain them and the desire to have them, lawns became more common in temperate parts of America. In drier areas, lawn irrigation was still a challenge until the invention of the garden hose and sprinkler in 1871. This invention also facilitated the nation’s first golf course appearing in New York in 1888. Golf absolutely exploded in America. In fact, F. Lamson-Scribner, a senior agrostologist at the USDA wrote: “Lawns are the most fascinating and delightful features in landscape gardening, and there is nothing which more strongly bespeaks the character of the owner than the treatment and adornment of the lawns upon his place.”
In the early 20th century, the American Garden Club popularized the front yard lawn even more so through a series of contests. The Garden Club’s standard was: “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” This only focused on aesthetics and not on the appropriate grasses or plants for the appropriate place. Hence, the unintended consequences of pollution from pesticides to control the “weeds”, groundwater pollution from fertilizer use, and air pollution from gasoline-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. All of which are: money-makers. Nitrates to petrol.
The construction boom after World War 2 happened during another era of “good feelings” and “great prosperity.” This period of time cemented "lawns" into the American landscape; they spread through suburbia like wildfire. The introduction of affordable rotary powered mowers is when a lawn in the front yard became the norm. The garden was moved to the backyard and greatly reduced in size to eventually becoming a novelty or largely nonexistent. Housing developments like Levittown, with thousands of cookie-cutter homes with small identical lawns became the model for suburban development. A well-tended, manicured lawn, with no “weeds” or “dead spots” demonstrated your devotion to the community and pride of ownership. And we still unconsciously do this today to keep up with the Joneses.
Virtually nobody is a farmer and few are true “gardeners.” Yet, everyone is or has hired a landscaper. People spend hundreds of dollars on lawnmowers and weedwhackers. Over one hundred hours a year “maintaining” their lawns. Spending $25 to $75 a week on a professional lawn services. Some have even gone so far as to eliminate the need for even water and people put down residential AstroTurf. For thousands of dollars, you can have the appearance of “grass” with rubber and plastic surrounding your home blanketing the soil.
We are whether you like it or not entering the 4th Industrial Revolution. This is an age of transhumanism. Where the digital becomes interweaved with the organic; where the digital has already become sentient. You are being funneled into dystopias where you will “own nothing and be happy.” Where you will reduce your carbon footprint, live the minimalist or tiny house lifestyle; even your currency will not be tangible anymore. Your electric vehicle which cannot go great distances will be capable of being limited to turned off. You are even being encouraged to stop eating meats or drinking meals consisting only of supplements to powders.
The cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, categorized as fresh, or even better organic; the cost is skyrocketing and the quality is misleading to inferior. These fruits and vegetables are chemically ripened or induced, to have waxy films on them; to the genetically modified with no seeds at all or seeds that will not grow if planted.
Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American consumes approximately 146.6 pounds of vegetables per year. The majority of our vegetable consumption is 50 pounds of potatoes and 30 pounds of tomatoes; both extremely easy to grow. Just for perspective and assuming the environment allows for planting; within 10 foot rows you can grow: 10 to 12 pounds of beets; 10-14 heads of broccoli; 8 to 12 heads of cabbage; 12 to 15 cantaloupes; 15 to 20 pounds of carrots; 8 to 12 heads of cauliflower, 15 pounds of eggplant, 35 to 50 heads of garlic; 30 pounds of potatoes, 20 pounds of strawberries, 5 to 7 watermelons... you do not need acres to have big yields.
If you have a landscaper; consider firing them. Use that money to hire a gardener. Have the gardener help you decide what fruits and vegetables, what trees are best to plant in your geographic location/space. Have them maintain your garden and harvest your yields. If you do not have a landscaper and you are a weekend or day off landscape warrior; seriously consider becoming a gardener.
Very few individuals in America eat the recommended and/or a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables. Everyone has access to YouTube. Find some videos and figure out how you can easily grow fruits and vegetables all year round. Strive for all year round because with very inexpensive non-permanent structures you can shield plants from the elements. Also tremendous things can be accomplished with hydroponics. It is even easy to incorporate ponds with tilapia, to rabbits and or chickens into your new, healthy and practical “gardens” and greenhouses.