Lawn Pros and Cons
One of the weightier decisions a gardener must make before designing a garden from scratch is whether to plant a lawn. Some people decide the issue quickly, and I’m one of them. Fifty years ago, when my husband, Lou and I were building our home in Del Mar, California, my mother-in-law, Frances Wright, asked, “You don’t want a lawn do you?” “Oh yes I do!” I said. “I want a lawn for our children to play on. Children need to wiggle their bare toes in the grass.” In the 1950’s Southern California’s irrigation water was cheap and plentiful, and water conservation wasn’t a concern. “But who will mow it?” asked Frances. “I will!” I said and that settled it. In most households it is the man who cares for the lawn and takes pride in its maintenance, but in our household I was the gardener and not my husband. We planted from seed and chose cool-season ryegrass, which was replaced long ago in California with less thirsty and less disease-prone alternatives, such as tall fescue. I mowed it once a week with a push mower and enjoyed the exercise. One day while I was mowing, a Morning Cloak butterfly flew round my head until I stopped and lifted my hand. The butterfly alighted on my outstretched palm and stayed there a long time gently fanning its wings. I thought it had something to do with the lawn, but it didn’t. Friendly Morning Cloaks still come to hand in my garden even without a lawn.
Even in those days lawns were an anachronism in the dry West, but I had a good reason for wanting one. Years later, during the 1970’s when portions of the lawn succumbed to shade, water was more expensive, and our daughters had grown up, Frances Wright suggested I dig out the lawn and replace with a brick patio. This sounded like a good idea so I hired the job done, but the first morning when I woke up and looked out of our bedroom window at brick instead of grass, the sparse look shocked me to the core. “What have I done?” I said to Lou, “I’ve banished nature!” Eventually I realized a lawn was not a necessary component of a natural garden, but at that moment I was sure it was. Barrels, pots, and hanging baskets were the best solution I could find. I filled them to overflowing with colorful plants and watered everything with the hose. Containers gave me the look of a garden, but they didn’t save any time or water. Then in the 1980’s while demonstrating drip irrigation on TV, I hooked up drip lines and a timer and automated all the irrigation. Here was a way to save time as well as water and grow a garden too. After that, I never looked back.
Since my childhood in England, lawns had been part of my life. Now I was weaned from them and looked at all garden plants and the wild landscape, too, with new eyes. Far from banishing nature, perhaps I’d become a true westerner and had begun to love what grew well here instead of yearning for something that didn’t belong. In the west all garden styles are permissible, and unless we grow native plants exclusively, all styles require some irrigation, but there are ways to achieve a wide variety of effects without resorting to profligate waste. Even lawn grasses offer us choices, including the drought-resistant grasses, Bermuda grass and zoysia, that will pull in their horns and go through drought without dying. Shortly after I got rid of the lawn we had our first serious drought. People became more aware of the need for water conservation. Nonetheless, water-guzzling cool-season lawns were still a major feature of most home gardens and commercial landscapes, but no longer of mine.
Lou and I moved to Del Mar in 1955. We built our home here because his mother, Frances Wright, and her husband John Lloyd Wright lived here. John Lloyd Wright was the second son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and John had followed in his father’s footsteps and also became an architect. The Wrights owed Lou a legal fee, and in lieu of payment they gave us the large lot next door to their house on the west but further down the hill. They included the architectural fee, so we could build our home. During the first 5 years of our marriage in the early 1950’s, Lou and I rented houses in and around Los Angeles, one hundred miles north of here. Los Angeles was a city of small homes, and those in West Los Angeles where we first settled had beautiful gardens. Most of them had large front and back lawns.
When I first came to Hollywood in 1944, one of the first sounds I associated with waking up in the morning was the clickity-click-whoosh, clickity-click-whoosh of overhead sprinklers watering lawns and gardens. People poured water on the ground as if there were an endless supply. Back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania my family had relied on rainfall to keep the lawns surrounding our stone farmhouse alive, and sometimes they went a bit dry. But in California where water had traveled for hundreds of miles by aqueduct, lawns were wet and squishy underfoot. There was something empty and slightly sad about all these abundant gardens with their over-irrigated lawns. Los Angeles didn’t feel real, it was just another Hollywood set. Many people came to California from the east coast or the Middle West, and they brought their gardening styles along with them. Homeowners of the 1940’s and 50’s vied with each other to have the best lawn on the block. Few people realized that a broad expanse of lawn wasn’t fitting in the arid West. Even fewer knew the history of lawns in America or why so many Americans even to this day take such incredible pride in them. Today the whole subject of lawns deserves a second look, but a century ago America’s love affair with lawns revolutionized the appearance of suburban America and brought about a huge improvement in American life.
The great lawn mania began in the 19th century as an effort to clean up small-town New England. In her well-researched book, “The Lawn, A History of an American Obsession”, Virginia Scott Jenkins chronicles the entire story and questions today’s aesthetic of the ubiquitous front lawn and all it means to us in time, water, and chemicals. But a glance at what American towns must have looked like before the advent of the lawn is enough to make one conclude that whatever faults lawns may now have, when first introduced they were a huge improvement over what was there before. Many small towns and villages in colonial New England consisted of two wide rows of houses, arranged on either side of a road, along with a white clapboard church, a meeting house, a general store, a school, a tavern, and a common. Behind each house stood a barn, an outhouse, a chicken coop, odd pieces of farm machinery, and often an open-fronted carriage house sheltering a wagon, a carriage, and a horse-drawn sleigh. In prosperous New England, only the poorest people lacked these accoutrements. When I was a child, many of the barns and carriage-houses were still standing. When my brother and I immigrated to the United States in 1939, it was only 30 years or so since the horse had been a major means of travel. Our Dad, Emerson Fisher-Smith, brought John and me and our little half-brother Bill to America to escape the coming war and to join our mother, Ruth, and her second husband Geoffrey Morris, who had rented a house for the family in Huntington, Long Island. Our house had one of those old, open-fronted carriage houses still standing next to it. We used it as a garage for the family Buick and for storing firewood. I used to climb onto its rakishly sloping roof to read the American books my schoolteacher suggested to me.
One’s vision of America in the Victorian era, influenced by old movies, might be that of lovely Colonial buildings surrounded by green lawns, but the truth is grass didn’t grow as well in America as it did in England. When the settlers first came to America they found to their dismay that native grasses weren’t nutritious enough to keep European cattle alive. They imported pasture grass, but lawn grass in any quantity wasn’t brought to America until much later. European weeds imported accidentally grew better and spread more rapidly than grass. In England the common in each village was meant as a community grazing ground for domestic animals, but in America, since there was little if any grass, townspeople used the commons as dumping grounds and they soon became scruffy, messy places, criss-crossed by pot-holed wagon trails, edged by piles of trash. Weeds proliferated, and pasture grass sprang up here and there while domestic animals including cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens wandered about freely throughout most towns, grazing on grass or weeds wherever they found them. People commonly threw garbage out of their back doors to feed the pigs, notorious rooters that can tear up a patch of green grass and turn it into a mud wallow in no time flat. Some homeowners fenced the front of their property to keep animals away from their front doors, but front yards were little more than bare ground and weeds with possibly a few hollyhocks or other more straggly flowers kept alive in dry weather by buckets of water from the well.
In the 19th century a horse and carriage or cart performed the same service as a family automobile or truck does today. Hay was the fuel that kept horses running, but what emerged from the other end it was a lot more difficult to ignore than exhaust from a car. It took huge quantities of hay to keep animals alive especially in winter. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize what the road and most of the ground around the house must have been like in hot weather when dust and insects became a problem, or in rain or snow. I once drove by an isolated farm in the Grand Massif of rural France that had a mountain of manure in its stone-walled barnyard almost as high as the barn. One poor farmer had simply gotten overwhelmed. Some New England towns had sidewalks of planks and later slabs of stone, so women in their long dresses and business men in good clothes could walk about without getting covered with dust, mud, and manure. Some households were neater than others, but if you could have gone up in a balloon above a small town in America at the beginning of the 19th century you would have seen buildings surrounded by mud, weeds, bare earth, and trash.
In the midst of this sorry state of affairs arose the great idea, let’s clean things up! The movement began when well-to-do Americans traveled to Europe on the Grand Tour and came home extolling the English landscape garden. Above all they had admired the smooth, emerald-green lawns, perhaps not fully realizing that in England a cool, rainy climate combined with centuries of mowing and rolling had conspired to produce grassy perfection. In some cases incredibly smooth lawns appeared to stretch to the horizon where polite English cows, sheep, and deer, unlike unruly American ones, were apparently content to munch grass and ornament the view without so much as dreaming of invading the garden. This peaceful scene was made possible by a clever 18th century invention called the ha-ha. A ha-ha is a grassy ditch one side of which slopes gently up into a pasture and the other side of which is a vertical retaining wall stopping at ground level. Ha-ha’s keep deer and domestic animals out of gardens in a similar manner that moats in zoos keep wild animals inside enclosures. One can stand in a garden or on a lawn and look straight over the ha-ha without realizing it is there. Many an unsuspecting person has fallen off into space, hence the name. They are still building ha-ha’s in England, and several were built in the United States by Thomas Jefferson and other wealthy men, to keep deer and cattle out of their gardens. Last summer I took a photograph of a ha-ha at Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales with a young cow staring at it as if to say “What a nuisance I can’t climb over that!” This ha-ha had been built since I last visited Bolton Abbey in 1971. In those days, there were no crowds of visitors swimming in the River Wharf or picnicking on its banks, and inside the grassy nave of the ruined abbey, cows had wandered around in bucolic splendor.
The people of post-Civil War New England, hungry for entertainment, were as addicted to attending lectures as people are today to flicking on the TV. In the 1860’s and 70’s lectures proselytizing the cleaning up of villages by planting grass became the rage. Preachers climbed into their pulpits, citizens formed women’s clubs and garden clubs and magazines extolled gardening as a healthy pursuit. Orators exhorted townspeople to cover all bare ground with grass and plant avenues of elms. By doing this, they claimed, the entire village could be transformed into a pleasant landscape, like an English landscape garden, that all could enjoy. The enthusiasm took hold and spread. Townships passed laws mandating the fencing of pigs, cows, and sheep. Townspeople spread fresh gravel on roads, cleaned up trash and manure, collected unused farm equipment into museums, and created local dumps distanced from town. But the grassy paradise envisaged by reformers couldn’t completely come about until the development of better ways to mow grass than sheep and scythes. Even in England, lawns weren’t widely popularized until after 1830 when the lawn mower was invented. Various sizes of mowers were imported into America and sold to the wealthy, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century when lightweight, reasonably inexpensive, hand-pushed lawn mowers were manufactured in the United States that growing a lawn became practical for people of modest means.
During the 1890’s new companies sprang up to import and develop lawn seeds that would grow in America. The development of city water systems, rubber hoses, and sprinklers made it easier to maintain a lawn and a garden through summer heat. Women and later men began to take up gardening by the droves. They planted lilac, orange daylilies, dogwoods, and forsythia. Daffodils and tulips became the rage. But the most dramatic difference took place when people seeded lawn grass around their houses right down to the edge of the road. European travelers noticed that America’s democratic spirit expressed itself through the fact that instead if having walls and fences around their gardens, the front lawns of small towns everywhere ran together like one enormous communal park. Children played together with no thought of boundaries, citizens of all classes greeted each other in a friendly way as they walked about through the village, and in the evenings families sat on their front porches, chatting, knitting, and watching the children play. Only the elderly folks realized that just a few years earlier the whole village had been a sea of bare earth and mud, and that the planting of lawns had brought all this about. By the turn of the 19th century, the habit of planting front lawns had spread from town to town, up and down the east coast, and throughout the Middle West. It took another fifty years for the typical suburban look to spread coast to coast throughout the United States, and for the accepted ideal to be that every house in every block should have a front lawn with the street shaded by an avenue of trees, preferably all of the same species or variety.
The democratic style of the American garden persists to this day, and there are still many good reasons for having a lawn. If one has children and dogs, a lawn may still provide the cleanest ground cover on which they can play. One can’t play games such as croquet, lawn bowls, or badminton on anything else except a clay court or artificial grass, and few gardeners are happy with these alternatives. Lawns help cool houses and provide a pleasing green that’s restful to the spirit. But on the other hand, especially in the West many gardeners feel that if a lawn is used merely as a convenient way to cover space, one can find better alternatives.
A century ago the front lawn revolutionized the look of America, but it did so during an era when planting lawn grass was the only known way to cover bare earth with clean plant material. Today thousands of new plants have been introduced and studied, and new styles of gardening have emerged. When combined with other plants, even a small amount of green ground cover can lend the peaceful atmosphere of a lawn. Across from my front door, is a raised bed with a formal planting of ferns, liriope, and mondo grass. I recently planted two flats of Irish moss in the front portion of this area to replace some ferns that had been there before. In the same way that bonsai trees satisfy our desire to be around an ancient forest, this ‘mini lawn” satisfies our psychological yearning for the green grass that the history of lawns in England and America has influenced us to expect.