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Do Americans insist on too much lawn?

Occasional Observer
The United States and Canada are the only countries with such an abundance of private, residential lawns.

America’s large, manicured lawns can be very beautiful, at times almost magical. However we could have even lovelier, ecologically superior landscapes while saving an enormous amount of money were we to substantially reduce the proportion of manicured lawn in our country.

The Washington Post has figured that approximately 20% of the state of Connecticut is covered in lawn grass. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, manicured turf grass lawns in the U.S. cover more than 50 million acres of land. In addition to countless amounts of water, every year Americans lawns consume over 200 million gallons of gasoline and 70 million pounds of pesticide, adding more than $36 billion annually to the costs of lawn care. 

More than any other country, Scotland, with its countless miles of sheep grazed greenswards, helped define the large lawn. But despite the prevalence of extensive public greenswards, even Scotland does not have most of its small residences wrapped by grass. The United States and Canada are the only countries with such an abundance of  private, residential lawns.

The earliest lawns we know of were the commons, British and continental European meadows, where villagers grazed their sheep or cattle. These animals kept the grass cropped and fertilized as they grazed. During the 17th century in France and Britain, closely shorn grass lawns at the castles and stately residences of wealthy landowners were planted partly to prevent marauders from hiding close by in woodland and sneaking up on these grand homes. 

The first mechanical lawn mowers appeared in England in 1830, followed 40 years later by the classic, walk behind reel mower. Gasoline powered mowers arrived just before World War I, and rotary mowers in the early 1950s. Today the enormous range of lawn cutting machines includes riding mowers bigger than a small house.

In the 1860s, Frederic Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park, started a national movement, with communities all across the United States demanding parks with interesting natural features and very large grassy spaces. 

Whereas lawns in Great Britain were found mostly in large estates, in the U.S. lawns became something for everyone. Huge post-World War II housing developments such as Levittown were built all over the country and part of the package a new homeowner usually bought was a pre-installed lawn. 

Housing developers plant their new housing developments with lawn grass because it is the least expensive ground cover to install. But first costs are soon overtaken by continuing expenses. In many communities regular mowing is mandated and enforced by local governments or homeowners associations. 

A homeowner needs to acquire a mower or hire a mowing service, most of whom insist on frequent mowing at regular intervals. For all but the smallest properties, costs are apt to exceed $1,000 a year.

While a large estate may be set off nicely, looking its best surrounded by a large lawn, smaller homes on fraction of an acre lots are apt to appear larger and more interesting when an enclosing lawn, at least in part, is replaced by a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, walkways and sitting areas such that the whole area is more intricate and cannot be visually taken in at a glance. This is like an empty room that, paradoxically,  feels larger with the addition of furniture.

Healthy lawns require good, rich organic soil. Most commercial lawn fertilizers try to compensate for poor soil with ultra fast acting nitrogen fertilizer that accelerates growth. But this is like eating amphetamines instead of food. 

Incorporating dwarf clover seed into the mix would slowly draw nitrogen down from the air into the soil offering a safer, less expensive choice, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizer applications.

For those fed up with all that mowing, there are some alternative solutions. 

Where local regulations permit, one can simply let the lawn “go,” perhaps just  mowing it annually to prevent it from reverting to woodland. Or one might create special features over what had been lawn such as flower or vegetable gardens, sitting terraces, or a pond.  

A blend of fine fescue grasses produces a lawn that grows slowly and stays low with mowing just a few times a year, the main drawback being that it is slow to establish and weeds will start to take over unless controlled for a season by hand weeding or application of suitable herbicide.

A lawn of just wild white clover might also be a good solution. Although too tender for an athletic field, a clover lawn can stand up to the milder wear and tear of a suburban yard. Growing no more than 3” to 5” high, it might be mowed once or twice a season or maybe not at all. And in midsummer, when most lawn grasses go dormant and turn brown, clover stays green.

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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