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The History of Lawns in America

By Denise Valenzuela

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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.

Green, weed-free lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door of a typical rural home was typically packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden that contained 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 images of the English lawn firmly planted in their imaginations. Try as we might, it wasn’t as easy to reproduce a beautiful English lawn. After all, they couldn’t just run down to their local hardware store and pick up a bag of grass seed. Grasses native to America proved unsuitable for a tidy and well-controlled lawn, and our extreme climate was less than hospitable to the English grass seeds.

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 suitable to the variety of climates found in America. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, and a mix of Fescues and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several grass combinations that would work in our climate. We were off and running, to find the most suitable pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that would protect and serve newly blended mix of grasses. After all, now that we had a good grass blend, we couldn’t let it starve or be eaten alive by some hungry pest, or succumb to some nasty disease.

The right grass and the right treatments weren’t the only problems facing homeowners wanting the perfect lawn, however. There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. It wasn’t easy hauling a bucket of water out to the yard during the summer droughts. 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. For these reason lawns really did not become common place until the rise of specific technology – hoses and mechanical lawn mowers.

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