Yesterday I researched lawn alternatives for a strip of land along a roadside. The new border planting needs to be salt tolerant and able to grow in the Boston area. I started reading through a white paper on lawn alternatives for turf planting put out by Sasaki entitled Alternatives to the Great American Lawn. This is an excellent resource for all of you out there who are thinking of seeding new turf before the winter comes. However, my real purpose in writing this blog post is to explore how “The Great American Lawn” became such a ubiquitous part of the American landscape in the first place.
Lawns are a hallmark of Baroque garden design in both France and Britain, although the overall styles of these two countries are very different. French Baroque gardens, exemplified by André Le Nôtre, were characterized by axial symmetry and vegetation controlled by meticulous pruning. English gardening was heavily influenced by the work of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who designed landscapes that, although in actuality were highly controlled, aimed to look as though they were created through natural processes. With both of these European precedents lawns were a way to cover flat expanses of ground that provided vistas across the landscape. They were also very labor intensive and were therefore only created in the pleasure-grounds of great estates.
In the United States lawns were also a sign of wealth throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. Most of the grasses that we use for lawn are not native to North America and were often introduced by the elite seeking to bring an air of refinement to their grounds.
Andrew Jackson Downing played an early role in popularizing the lawn in rural and suburban landscape design. In his 1853 publication Rural Essays he advocates for the use of lawn in creating interest on level ground, explaining that the play of light and shadow highlight slight undulations in the ground plane. Frank J. Scott echoes this sentiment in his 1870 book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds stating that lawn is as essential to outdoor space as carpeting is to interior spaces: “however choice the variety of shrubs and flowers, if they occupy the ground so that there is no pleasant expanse of close-cut grass to relieve them, they cannot make a pretty place.”
For mid-20th century developers like the Abraham Levitt, lawn created a fast and complete looking landscape on disturbed soils. It was this adoption of the lawn as ready-made landscape by post-war suburban developers that has led to our current inheritance of lawn that by some estimates covers 40 million acres in the United States.
Until next week,