A GROWING CONCERN: Cutting the American lawn down to size

IT’S TIME TO free ourselves from the grueling and extremely harmful task of upkeep necessary to perpetuate the “American lawn.” Let’s recall my strongly held belief that GRASS is an acronym which stands for “Grueling Repetitive Annual Seasonal Service.”

It is a constant battle waged each and every month of the year if one wants to achieve the perfect lawn.

To begin,we must first come to realize one huge fact: the American lawn, per square foot, may be the most expensive, time consuming and environmentally destructive part of any yard.

In this era of global consciousness, carbon footprints and resource management, one’s lawn can be the Darth Vader of one’s universe.

What makes an American lawn?

First, let’s define what comprises the American lawn.

It begins with an ideal look: Perfect, green, lush, just mowed and absolutely weed free. It must be the best lawn on the block, or at least as far as you can see from your own house.

It is rooted in status and concern, because anyone with a poor lawn must be lazy, financially strapped or just plain not care about themselves or their neighbors. (If that weren’t the case, why would they let their lawn look like that?)

Now, we need a little history lesson to understand how this “model yard” standard came about and why many of us were raised to follow this mode without conscious thought.

It is just what is expected, seen and repeated around the country.

Back at the turn of the last century, the Victorian lawn was the standard. The English garden was the rage as more and more people were moving into the middle class, buying homes and tending their yards.

Power mowers were not invented yet, slave labor was abolished and indentured servitude was on the way out.

Along with this, weed and feeds, Round-up and pre-emergents did not exist, so it was a horrible, labor-intensive struggle to maintain a yard full of just green, lush grass and nothing else.

In this time period, the dream of home ownership was being realized along with the concept of labor laws, the work week and leisure time.

For the first time, the non-wealthy were enjoying yards along with the elite. The Victorian lawn suited this phrase perfectly, for it consisted of a tall (by today’s standards) 3- to 3½-inch grass full of various other low-creeping plants and moss.

Yes, you can believe that a lawn full of what today we call weeds (i.e. anything but Kentucky bluegrass) in addition to this mixture of plants, the lawn itself is full of fine-bladed, evergreen grass such as fescues and ryes that were the bulk of the grass varieties.

These varieties stay green all year long, unlike the ornamental, wide-bladed Kentucky blues that go dormant in the summer.

Neighbor competition

All is well until the Roaring Twenties when fast, fabulous wealth created new estates and mansions. Then, in the age-old keeping ahead of the Joneses, these new wealthy elite wanted everyone to see their wealth, and a perfect lawn certainly displayed that opulent waste.

Then came the Great Depression that wiped out that wealth, followed by the Great War with its sacrifices and rationings.

As the war ended, great masses of money flowed to the average person, and suburbia was born. Along with buying your house out in the “Burbs,” new inventions were available — the gas mowers, edgers, riding mowers and more.

The fabulous new dawn of science was upon us, and the homeowner had his share of the marketplace.

Herbicides, insecticides and pre-emergence killers were now available and very affordable.

All of a sudden, the average Joe could have a yard seen two decades before only at the wealthiest estates.

In order to show everyone on the new cul-de-sac just how well you were doing, the perfect American lawn was idolized.

It was perfectly green thanks to fast-dissolving fertilizers. It was weed-free without much time required by dropping a few bags of weed killer a couple times a year.

It was short and just mowed thanks to gas motors on the mowers, and perfectly green all year round because few cared about excessive water consumption.

The American lawn used new hybrid grasses that were thick-bladed and green as long as you added that water every few days.

The perfect American lawn showed all who passed by that you were making it and could afford to waste all the time, money, equipment, water and chemicals it took to keep this unnatural creature alive and perfectly well. And if the neighbors couldn’t do this, all the better.

Happy Father’s Day and stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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