It’s difficult to weigh the true benefits and costs of the American lawn. Turf is certainly not the most water or time efficient form of landscape to be sure, but there is no doubt that a green lawn is a cultural standard. Before we pass judgement on this element of our culture, let’s learn a little about the history of turf in the US.
From The lawn: a history of an American obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins, Smithsonian Institution Press, c1994.
A History of Grass in the US
We didn't always have a love affair with our lawns. In fact it wasn't until the industrial revolution that lawns became practical for most Americans. Lawns were seen as a luxury expense for only the wealthy who could afford grounds keepers to maintain the fine bladed plants using scythes. Not everyone wanted cattle or sheep grazing in the front yard to keep the green stuff at a manageable height as did Woodrow Wilson while occupying the White House. Sheep on the White House lawn? Actually, it was an effort to draw attention to what could be done to free up men to fight and help with shortages of wool during World War I. The wool was auctioned off for $100,000 and given to the Red Cross.
The green lawns so common today didn't exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door was typically packed dirt or some form of cottage garden, a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. In England, however, many of the wealthy had sweeping green lawns across their estates. Americans with enough money to travel overseas returned to the U.S. with the English example firmly planted in their imaginations. Reproducing the English lawn wasn't as easy as they had anticipated. Grasses native to America proved unsuitable for a tidy and well-controlled lawn, and our climate was less than hospitable to the English grasses.
By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass—or combination of grasses—that would create a durable, attractive lawn in a variety of climates. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, fescues, and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several useful grasses and turned their attention to the creation of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for them.
The right grass wasn't the only problem facing those wanting the perfect lawn. There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens.
Mechanical mowing came about early in the 19th century and there is a general agreement that an Englishman, Edwin Budding, an engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder, or reel-type mower. It was a series of blades arranged around a cylinder with a push handle patterned after a machine used in a cloth factory for shearing the nap on velvet. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.
For the average American, the invention of the garden hose and the rotary mower made the lawn a more realistic option. Until then, lawns were too impractical for most families. With most of the necessary tools and types of grass seeds, the average homeowner was now able to grow a lawn of their own. Still, it wasn't a widespread practice until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. So effective was the club's campaign that lawns were soon the accepted form of landscaping. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn 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." American thus entered the age of lawn care.
Today, U.S. homeowners spend over $17 billion on outdoor home improvements. More than 26 million households hired a green professional, according to a 2000 Gallup survey and this number is expected to grow. Your little patch of green has become a big business and for good reason. Landscape improvements and maintenance, including lawn care,
The Benefits of Turf
Turf grass is one of the most resilient and useful features of the landscape. It creates a great play space. It’s great for kicking a ball, walking barefoot, and it creates a relaxing space of natural beauty. Lawns have a cooling effect and prevent runoff and erosion of topsoil. Turf can function as a fire retardant around buildings and can increase filtration of water and clean the water as it passes through. Turf absorbs noise, cutting excessive sound and turf can reduce air pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Turf thatch acts as a barrier deterring chemicals from entering the soil profile. Well maintained home lawns can help reduce annoying insect pests while providing a place for family fun and entertainment and can add 15% to the selling price of a home. Some turf grasses also have the ability to go “dormant” during droughts and then recover.
While other plants and landscape options can serve the same function as grass, few offer the same recreational opportunities or have the same universal acceptance.
The Costs of Turf
Turf grass requires substantially more water and maintenance than many other plants. To keep grass healthy it must be watered, fertilized, aerated, and mowed. All of these cost money. The actual costs vary depending on the type of grass, cost of water, climate, mowing equipment, method of fertilization. It has been estimated that it costs more than $1 per square foot per year in some regions to maintain turf grass - after all costs are figured in. While your costs may be quite different, it is important to consider these costs when deciding between turf and other plant materials.
Other issues associated with maintenance of turf include the substantial amount of air pollution caused by gas powered lawn mowers and the water pollution caused by excessive use of fertilizers and herbicides. The American way of maintaining a lawn is hardly a benign activity.