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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why are lawns so prevalent in "European" cultures?

     Manicured lawns have been present in certain organized societies for centuries, as signs
Lancelot "Capability" Brown
of power, great wealth and ostentation. Especially cultures in, or derived from, Europe, like ours. Often lawns were converted from sheep meadows, since the sheep didn't maintain them neatly. The popularity of the manicured lawn among the rich and powerful reached its peak in late 18th and early 19th century Europe (mainly England).
Back then, early landscape designers like Sir James Pennethorpe, Lancelot Brown, Sir John Vanbrugh, William Kent and Humphrey Repton put large lawns in their clients’ estates that served to irritate less-wealthy people, who could not afford the full-time gardeners that large lawns required. The “less-wealthy people” also needed to use whatever lands they had to raise crops and farm animals so they could eat. This trend among the upper classes became known as the Landscape Gardening School, summarized in a 1771 book called “Observations on Modern Gardening”.

So, when Europeans settled this continent, one of the first things the “leaders” did, by habit, was to put large lawns around their homes. Lawns acted sort of like expensive cars or big swimming pools do today. The lawns signified wealth and power – the owners did not need to use the land for food crops like most people, and had to skills to be able to read things like “Observations on Modern Gardening”, unlike most people.

Very gradually, the "lawn trend" crept into fashion with the almost-wealthy, and those who wanted to appear wealthy.

Fast-forward a few hundred years.  21st century lawns are based on the very same logic behind wearing neckties and cowboy boots; somebody in another era thought they served a purpose and impressed other people. Now, however, very few people grow their own food and most people can read, but almost every house still has a lawn around it.

Before you sneer and call me a “tree-hugger”(which I view as a compliment) let me point out that lawns serve a purpose. To a degree.  Little children can run and play on lawns. A lawn is vital to a barbecue with the neighbors. A lawn is a great place to play croquet, touch football and badminton. The neighbor next door smiles at you more when you have a green lawn. A lawn is a good place to lounge when you sunbathe. 

Native plant fans like me are not irritated when we see a lawn. We’re irritated when we see a bigger lawn than the owner actually needs. It’s rarely the owner’s fault however. Most of the time, a lawn is put in place before the home is even lived in. Why? Because sod is cheap to buy, and can be put down by cheap, unskilled labor very quickly. And because whoever planted the lawn is probably not the same person who will be paying the water bill, fertilizing it and mowing it.

In today’s economy of dwindling natural resources (like water) and rising prices, a big lawn certainly does not promote water conservation.  Of course, this wasn't a concern several hundred years ago. Typically, over half the water a household uses goes for watering the landscape. So a water-guzzling lawn flies in the face of municipal or neighborhood water restrictions, which didn't used to be a concern.

Anecdote: a north Texas resident wanted more time for golf on the weekends. So he reduced the size of his lawn about a third. He now has a 3 handicap, and easily lives within the watering restrictions his city is enforcing.  And his yard looks beautiful - it's colorful and attracts many more birds.

Another Texan became light-headed whenever his monthly water bill arrived. He helped half of his lawn transform into drought-tolerant trees and flowers. His water bill is A LOT lower now. So is his need for weekly lawn maintenance and air conditioning.

A homeowner in central Texas never waters (admittedly a bold step), allowing only the native trees, shrubs and flowers to grow. As you’d expect, the only plants that prosper are those that are accustomed to very little water. She’s also seen a marked increase in birds and butterflies at her place.

How best to conserve water? Start by reducing the size of your lawn – easily the biggest water-user in any landscape. It’s not an easy step to take, but in 2013 it makes a whole lot more sense than maintaining a lawn that was theorized by European aristocrats a century or two ago.


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