The Origins of Lawns

Commercial and Residential Lawn Care and Landscaping Services, Ocala Florida

Beginning

A lawn is an expanse of land filled with grass and other types of plants like clover that are kept shorter than ordinary plants, with the use of a lawnmower and are used for recreational and aesthetic reasons. A lawn is commonly composed of grass varieties and is in need of pest and weed control, and it is usually maintained to preserve its green color and desired height through watering and mowing. Basically, lawns are found around homes, commercial establishments, offices, parks and apartments.

The word “lawn” refers to a managed area of grass, dating back during the 16th century. In many rural areas, policies are put in place mandating houses to contain lawns and obligating these lawns to be properly maintained by homeowners. In some places with water scarcities, the local authorities are promoting lawn alternatives in order to cut down use of water.

Etymology

Lawn or llan came from the word landa, an ancient Celtic language from Britain, which initially means barren land, clearing or heath.

Origins

Lawns existed and believed to have begun as grass enclosures during the early medieval communities and are used primarily for public grazing of farm animals. In the year 1540, the term “laune” has been shown first, similar to Common Britonic words, llan/lan/laun that means enclosure, most likely used concerning a place of worship.

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, the aristocrats or the upper class popularized their lawns. The humid weather of Western Europe in the northern part made it possible for lawns to grow and survive. Lawns were not yet part of other countries’ cultures during this generation.

Lawns were administered quite differently before mowing machines were invented in 1830. They can be seen in mansions and estates and being maintained by hired laborers through shearing and scything methods. Most of the time, lawns were like pastures being kept in good condition through sheep and other livestock grazing. Animals like horses, sheep and rabbits regularly grazed grassy areas for a long period and just like in modern time lawns are kept at very tight and low heights. This is where the meaning of “lawn” derived from, and up to this day the term is still found.

17th and 18th Century English lawns

It was during the 17th and 18th century where the lawn and garden were initially established as social places and walkways, comprising mostly of chamomile which is a meadow plant and a favorite during that period. The Jacobean era of gardening started during the onset of the 17th century and it was also during this time the “English lawn” came into being. The English lawn became a status symbol of the upper class and aristocrats by the end of this era, as they had the means to own land, which was not being used in food production and buildings.

Early 18th century landscape architects, Lancelot Brown, also known as Capability Brown, and William Kent, polished the English landscape gardening for the aristocrats and wealthy Englishmen by designing a more romantic or natural land settings. Popularly known as “England’s 18th century greatest gardener”, Capability Brown designed and conceptualized more than 170 parks, many of which are still in existence. Because of Brown’s great influence, his predecessors William Kent and Charles Bridgeman’s works were often unnoticed by many.

Brown’s work still remains at Warwick Castle, Bowood House, Blenheim Palace, Harewood House, Milton Abbey and Croome Court (the house is likewise designed by him) and many other places. His unique style of undulating, level or smooth lawns that stretched perfectly to the estate and meadow, belts, clumps and spreading of trees as well as serpentine lakes shaped by small streams, were an original style in his English landscape, more like a gardenless appearance of landscape gardening.

The English style of grassland initially spread all over Ireland and Britain and around Europe like the “garden a la francaise” which was later on succeeded by the French landscape garden. Around this era in England, the term “lawn” had been described as a portion of the garden that is covered by grass and is meticulously mowed. Rich families from America during this era also started imitating the English landscape style. In the year 1780, the Shaker community in North America started the initial production of first-class grass seeds, with a few nurseries and seed companies opening up in Philadelphia.

Badminton House and Landscape Garden

Badminton House and landscape garden, in Gloucestershire, England from Morris's Country Seats (1880)

See page for author
Public Domain

landscape garden

1803 painting of the main elements of the English landscape garden

János Rombauer
Public domain

Middle Class Control

A cylinder (reel) mower

A cylinder (reel) mower from 1888 showing a fixed cutting blade in front of the rear roller and wheel-driven rotary blades

By Unknown (Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing in Newburgh, New York)
Public domain

cultivation of lawns

From the 1860s, the cultivation of lawns, especially for sports, became a middle-class obsession in England.

Pictured, a lawnmower advertisement from Ransomes.
Public domain

The first petrol-powered lawnmower

The first petrol-powered lawnmower, 1902

See page for author
Public domain

Before the machine-driven lawnmower came into being, the maintenance of lawns was only possible for the manor houses and exceedingly rich estates of the aristocrats. Shearing and scything the grass were the only accepted methods back then in order to preserve the lawns in their right shape. At that time the majority of land in England was needed for agricultural and other functional purposes only.

In 1830, things changed as Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawnmower. The lawnmower was developed by Budding after he saw a machine from a local clothing mill that made use of a cutting bladed reel installed on a workbench to snip the uneven fiber from wool clothing to give it an even and smooth finish. He designed a mower to cut the lawn on extensive gardens and sports’ grounds, as an excellent alternative to the scythe. Budding was granted on August 31, 1830, a British patent.

Edwin Budding and John Ferrabee (local engineer) came to an agreement for the latter to pay the cost of development as well as acquire the rights to sell, manufacture and provide license to other manufacturers for the lawn mower production. They made lawnmowers at a factory in Thrupp. One successful manufacturer of lawn mowers was Ransomes, Sims, and Jefferies from Ipswich as they started production during early 1832, England still being the leading country for private, ornamental lawns and sport grounds.

Nevertheless, Budding’s model had a few downsides and one of them is that it was extremely heavy, as it was made out of cast iron. Because of its weight it was quite difficult to maneuver, not to mention it did not cut the lawn very well. Its blade would repeatedly spin over the grass pointlessly. It actually took a decade or so of additional improvements before a lighter steel (alloy) was produced, and further innovations in motorization like the drive chain before the lawnmower became a practical offer. With the intention of imitating the aristocrats’ landscape gardens, middle class families all over the country began to cultivate finely clipped lawns inside their back gardens.

Thomas Green of Leeds introduced further innovations from the 1850s. In 1893 he gave birth to the first patented steam-powered mower by James Sumner of Lancashire and during the 1900s, another Ransomes’ automation innovation stood out in the British market. During the mid-Victorian age, sports was getting more popular and so was the lawn mower, as it was used to develop playing fields, modern sporting ovals, pitches, and lawn courts for emerging sports such as lawn tennis, football, lawn bowls, croquet, and others.

It was during 1870 that lawns started to propagate in America. As more and more plants were made known from Europe, these lawns got smaller and were stuffed with perennials, flowerbeds, water features and sculptures. In the long run, the aristocrats began to stay away from the capitals and into new communities. Lawns became more visible in magazine articles, catalogs, and development plans and less associated as a status symbol for the wealthy. This trend paved the way for landscape aesthetic.

Shearing and scything methods

Shearing and scything methods

Deutsche Fotothek‎CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons

The lawn at Kirkby Fleetham Hall

The lawn at Kirkby Fleetham Hall, Yorkshire, circa 1889

By anon (Life time: circa 1889)
Public domain

The Croquet Game, Édouard Manet

The Croquet Game, Édouard Manet, 1873

Édouard Manet
Public domain

United States

Before the European colonization, grasses from North America’s East Coast were mainly marsh grass, wild rye and broom straw. Since the time the Europeans relocated in the region, colonists noted that most grass from the New World were mediocre compared to those grasses from England and their livestock appeared to be less nourished from it. As a matter of fact, when European livestock were brought and spread over the colonies, the majority of the New England native grasses vanished. Interestingly, a 17th century inventory record documented supplies of grass seed and clover sent to the colonies from England. By the end of 17th century, came another market of imported seeds that commenced across New England.

Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda Grass)

Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda Grass)

By Bidgee (Own work)
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A majority of the new swards brought from Europe proliferated much faster and successfully, much ahead of the colonials. One species that turned out to be the most important pasture grass for the southern port settlements is the “Cynodon Dactylon” or more commonly known as Bermuda grass.

Another grass species is the “Poa Pratensis” or the Kentucky bluegrass, which came from the Middle East and Europe. It was believed to be brought to the Midwest part of the United States by French missionaries during the early 1600 and propagated via the rivers around Kentucky, although, it may have spread along the mountains of Appalachia after setting on the eastern shore. At present, Kentucky bluegrass is among the top 3 meadow grasses across the United States, as well as the most sought-after species for lawns.

Poa Pratensis (Kentucky Bluegrass)

Poa Pratensis (Kentucky Bluegrass)

By Rasbak (Own work)
GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0via Wikimedia Commons

Originally, marshes and meadows made of indigenous grasses continued to be harvested by farmers until such time they were overgrazed. As these areas rapidly eroded and were besieged with little to no plant life, farmers eventually had to plant new grass species, this was done with the hope of improving the quantity and quality of hay in order to feed their livestock since indigenous grass species had lesser nutritional value. While the European and Middle Eastern grass species did very well on the North America eastern coast, it was the Mediterranean species that ruled the Western seaboard. In the long run, farmers from colonized areas relied more on cultivated grasses because of their nutritive benefits on their livestock than on natural grasses. Even the Great Plains grasses were toppled by European swards, which were more durable for grazing of livestock. After the 2nd World War was over, the creation of golf courses and country clubs had an upsurge, which continue to have a major influence on the use of grass for pleasure.

American lawn principles

Monoculture of lawns proliferated the equality of community itself. Even when lawns were a familiar component in English dwellings during the 19th century, there was a reform of lawn monoculture and industrialization that took place since the 2nd World War and essentially altered the anatomy of the lawn. Suburbanization was intensified as lawn maintenance expanded and there were increased demand in fertilizers, pesticides, petrochemicals, and natural resources such as water.

In 1930s, maintenance techniques and grass type became in demand as front lawns normalized. It was also during this time the lawn care commerce rocketed. However, in the same period there was the Great Depression and before World War II erupted, it made the normalization of lawns difficult to sustain, as there was shortage of grass seeds in Europe, the principal supplier of America’s lawns. Nevertheless, seed suppliers like the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company from the United States still urged families to continue to take care of their lawns as a stress-relieving activity. During the 2nd World War, homeowners were requested to maintain their front lawns in good condition as a way of showing solidarity, confidence, and strength. After the war, lawn aesthetic bounced back with a vengeance, as the population and housing explosion took effect.

The Federal Housing Administration provided inducements for lenders and reduced down payments of 30% to 10% for ordinary Americans while the United States G.I. Bill allowed American ex-soldiers to purchase homes without down payment. These incentives made owning a house more economical than renting and further empowered the proliferation of housing expansions and lawns. Also, as the 20th century entered, came the start of industrial suburbs across Levittown, New York and was further developed by Abraham Levitt and sons by building more than 17,000 homes with lawns.

Social influences

The existence of lawns in movies such as Edward Scissorhands and Pleasantville mentions the importance of lawns being a visual depiction of an American suburb not to mention its applied culture. It is implied in these movies that if your lawn is not in good condition, you are morally corrupt, with emphasis on community and neighborly relationships. It also implied that moral integrity and owning a lawn has a harmonious effect. Another film with the same theme is The Great Gatsby with a book written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the movie, Nick Carraway rented a house near Gatsby’s and failed to keep his lawn in good condition according to the standards of West Egg thereby causing a rift between Gatsby and Carraway’s lawn that somehow troubled Gatsby and prompted him to mow his neighbor’s grass and create uniformity of their lawns.

Lawn care equipment was advertised over the years and companies took advantage of associating good citizenship with proper lawn care in their promotional campaigns. Also, the general appearance of a person’s lawn is suggestive of the kind of health condition that person has. Women conformed over time to regard the lawn as a component of her household and an important fixture. This is also to urge their spouses to maintain a lawn for community status and for the family.

During the 2nd World War, lawn care companies concentrated on women in place of their sons and husbands. The lawn was endorsed as an essential fixture where wives can support their sons and husbands and American nationalism as a whole. It depicted the lawn as advantageous to the family because of its health benefits and aesthetic satisfaction.

In Australia and Europe, the ornamental lawn appears to be a representation of patriotism, power over nature, domestic family life and order while respecting other gender paradigms existing across the world. Nevertheless, there are still differences in how the lawn is being maintained and its appearance, like the grass species and length and how it is mowed.

Lawn Uses

mowed lawn

A newly seeded, fertilized and mowed lawn

By Animaldetector (Own work)
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

decorative lawn services ocala, fl

The area on the right has not been mown since the previous autumn.

Snowmanradio
GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

typical lawn grass plant

Diagram of a typical lawn grass plant.

By Kelvinsong (Own work)
CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Field Sedge

An example of Field Sedge

By Anthony Valois and the National Park Service Public domain

In many places in the world aesthetic lawns are familiar elements found in parks, public sceneries, and private gardens. They are used for sports and other recreational activities. Lawns reduce erosion and dust creation because of foot traffic. Also, they are like cushions for sportsmen playing football, cricket, golf, hockey, tennis, soccer, bocce and rugby. Lawn clippings can be used in making compost to fertilize soil and as fodder that is similarly beneficial in the making of lawn silage for livestock feeding.

Varieties of lawn plants

Lawns are not just grasses per se but consist of other plants like sedges, wildflowers, groundcovers and herbs that you can walk on. There are a thousand varieties of grass like plants and grasses for lawns, depending on their adaptability to conditions such as irrigation, precipitation, shade, sun tolerances and cyclical temperatures. Botanists and plant hybridizers are continuously finding new varieties of grass species that are economical and sustainable with less need of water, maintenance, fertilizers, and disease and pest treatments.

Varieties of Grasses

There are many grass species that are used at the present time, depending on the climate and their intended use. Finer grass is meant for decorative lawns because of its visual effects while a coarse grass is used for active sports. Certain grasses are adaptable in continental and tropical climates with hotter temperatures and some are created for oceanic weather with cooler summertime. There are also cultivars or crossbreed types of grass, which are suited to a specific environment setting such as low nutrient, low water, or low light location.

There are 3 basic classes of grasses – warm season grasses, cool season grasses and grass substitutes:

Cool season types of grass

Cool season grasses begin to grow at 41 °F (41 degrees Fahrenheit) or 5 °C (5 degrees Celsius) to as much as 77 °F or 25 °C. In places with cool or mild summers, cool season grasses usually grow during autumn and spring. These grasses maintain their color very well when extremely cold and can grow very thick (just like carpets) with quite a few thatches. Typical cool season grasses include the following:

  • Bentgrass (scientific name – Agrostis spp.)
  • Ryegrass (scientific name – Lolium spp.)
  • Bluegrass (scientific name – Poa spp.)
  • Fescues (scientific name – Festuca spp., cultivars and hybrids)

While regional native plants for trailer lawns consist of the following:

  • Feather reed grass (scientific name – Calamogrostic spp.)
  • Cluster fescue (scientific name – Festuca paradoxa spp.)
  • Tufted hair grass (scientific name – Deschampsia spp.)
  • Red fescues (scientific name – Festuca rubra)
Warm season types of grass

Warm season grasses begin to grow at more than 50 °F or 10 °C and can propagate fastest between 77 °F or 25 °C to 95 °F or 35 °C with only one period of growth during summer and spring. They are often inactive during colder months, changing to colors brown and tan. Most of these warm season grasses can handle extremely hot temperatures during summer and are drought tolerant, although most ecotype southern warm season grasses can be destroyed if it reaches 5 °F or −15 °C. Northern types of grasses like blue grama and buffalograss can endure 113 °F or 45 °C temperature setting. Typical warm season grasses include the following:

  • Bermuda grass (or Cynodon spp.)
  • Bahia grass (or Paspalum)
  • Zoysia grass (or Zoysia spp.)
  • St. Augustine grass
  • Centipede grass (or Eremachloa)
  • Buffalo grass
  • Carpet grass (or Axonopus)
  • Grama grass
Grass Replacements

Sedges are great replacements for grasses in garden meadows and mowed lawns. They are great as grass alternatives since sedges are drought tolerant and low in maintenance. Some other sedges being used are Berkeley sedge, cultivar (The beatles), dune sedge, blue sedge, foothill sedge, mountain sedge and ruby sedge.

Ground cover Replacements

Lawns can be replaced with ground covers that include chamomile, creeping thyme, grey Dymondia, creeping jenny, mazus reptans and Lippia. Some other replacements are natural landscapes, patio gardens, rain gardens, Spanish courtyard, meadows, xeriscape gardens, tapestry lawn, kitchen gardens, and butterfly gardens.

Lawn care and maintenance

Lawn care and maintenance varies and is reliant on the type of lawn and climate zone where they grow. See below:

Seeding and Planting

Early spring, summer and early autumn are the major seasons of seeding, laying turf, spraying fresh lawns, and planting liners, as this is when the air is cooler and the soil is quite warm. Although seeding is the most economical, the lawn may take longer to establish. Aeration is best done before seeding and planting to promote thicker lawn and deeper root system.

Turfing or using sod can be carried out in all seasons, particularly in places with temperate climates, and can deliver an instant lawn. However, it is more expensive and defenseless against drought up until it has been established. One inexpensive and fast method is Hydroseeding. This is a method of planting sloped, hillside, and large landscapes.

Chemicals and Fertilizers

Pesticides available for use include chemical and biological insecticides; fungicides and herbicides while fertilizers come in synthetic, organic and inorganic, having time-release and instant applications. However, their effects on the garden ecosystem and the lawn can limit their use, like in the case of Quebec (Canadian province) and 130 other municipalities, where they do not allow synthetic pesticides for lawn use. The soil has to be prepared well in order for the lawn to develop and thrive. If this is not followed, the lawn will run out of nutrients as it wears out. By September 2007, Ontario’s provincial government assured public protection with the passing of bill that will implement the ban on aesthetic use of pesticides for lawn and were supported by various environmental and medical groups. In April 2008, it was also announced the passing of a bill that will ban the sale of garden and lawn pesticides for aesthetic use, and would require pesticide producers to reduce toxins used in production.

Organic herbicide

Hippodamia convergens, the convergent lady beetle, is commonly sold for biological control of aphids.

By Dekayem (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sustainable gardening makes use of different methods to maintain a gorgeous and appealing lawn such as companion planting, biological pest control, organic fertilizers and beneficial insects, to name a few. One example of organic replacement for insecticide use is the application of beneficial nematodes so as to prevent grubs, like the chafer beetles’ larvae. Organic herbicide like corn gluten meal discharges an organic dipeptide in the soil so as to hinder weed seeds growth and prevent its root formation.

Mowing with other maintenance applications

Maintaining a coarse lawn demands occasional grazing of animals or machine cutting while maintenance of a closely cut and smooth lawn requires regular and organized treatments, whether for aesthetic use, for practical reasons or due to social pressure from the local municipality or from neighbors.

Encarsia formosa

Encarsia formosa, widely used in greenhouse horticulture, was one of the first biological control agents developed for biological control of whiteflies.

By Dekayem (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Environmental Issues

Larger quantities of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are being used for every acre of lawn compared to an acre of cultured farm. Given the situation, the constant use of these commodities has been linked to environmental issues such as increased health risks to humans, pollution and turmoil in the ecosystem of lawns. Other environmental concerns involve the following:

  1. Lawn maintenance can use synthetic herbicides, fungicides and pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, which can eventually damage the environment. It has been estimated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that approximately 32,000,000 kg. of active synthetic pesticides are consumed on residential lawns every year in the U.S.
  2. Lawns can lessen biodiversity, particularly when it covers a big area. Lawns in the United States can be made of new species that are not indigenous to an area, and can create a habitat, which can support a minority of species.
  3. It is estimated that close to 17,000,000 gallons of fuel are consumed every summer season while refilling lawn care and garden equipment.
  4. Pesticides and fertilizers require fossil gasses for their production, distribution, then application. And with that, studies showed that these processes actually contribute to global warming while use of sustainable organic methods showed reduction on global warming.
Water Management

Sustaining a fresh, healthy and green lawn requires a considerable amount of water, which is not usually an issue in the area of British Isles, since there is sufficient amount of rainfall in that region. However, in countries like Australia and the United States (southwestern region) where there is water shortage, larger and additional amounts of invasive water supply are much needed. Grasses are usually inactive during winter months and change to brown or tan during dry, hot and summer season, which can reduce the demand of water.

In the United States alone, nearly 40 to 70% residential water is consumed for landscaping and most of it is used in watering lawns. In 2005, NASA study estimated that there were 128,000 sq. kms. of watered lawn, 3x the total area of watered corn. It is probable that lawn maintenance can be done, but at the expense of other valuable resources particularly if faced with severe weather conditions.

Chemicals

There was a growing concern over fertilizer and pesticide use with their corresponding health risks, and eventually resulted in the downgraded presence of pesticides in city landscapes that include lawns during the late 20th century. Majority of the concerns are the environmental and safety impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which led the United States Environmental Protection Agency and other local governments to ban them. Approximately 7 million species of birds die every year because of pesticides and other toxic chemicals used in lawn maintenance.

Reducing Environment Impact

Lawn heights in the United States are basically maintained by lawnmowers powered by gasoline, which can cause urban smog particularly during summer months. In some urbanized areas, the 5% smog was because of small gas engines manufactured before the year 1997, which includes lawnmowers. And in 1997, EPA so as to reduce smog has mandated emission control on engines that are new. Another study in 2010 showed that lawn care applications were evened up by the sequestration of carbon lawn benefits, as they do not contribute to the anthropogenic climate change or global warming. Nevertheless, high maintenance lawns (those that require mowing, leaf blowing and irrigation) and elevated fertilization values that contain net emission of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are likely contributors to global warming.

With the use of environmental methods such as organic lawn management, there will be a lesser impact of lawns. Environmental methods include using sedges, low herbs and native grasses. Additionally, low irrigation volume, grass clippings, integrated pest management system, compost use, exclusive use of natural fertilizer, with shrubs, trees, perennials as well as other plant species bordering the lawn help make lawn maintenance realistic. Two great benefits of having a healthy and green lawn are prevention of excess soil erosion and filtration of contaminants.

Substituting turf grasses by using a range of low-maintenance shrubs, trees and perennials or with ground covers, can be a better alternative to conventional lawn spaces, particularly in hard to mow and hard to grow regions. This substitution can reduce pollution and maintenance requirements plus it can provide higher wildlife value, and aesthetic.