The history of how the lawn became a mainstay of the American landscape is a study of the development of the American industrial, political, and social way of life.
Advances in manufacturing saw regular filings with the US Patent office for ‘lawn maintenance machines’ and lawn sprinklers, and what would eventually be marketed as a garden hose by what is now the BF Goodrich Company.
As cities began to develop, install, and maintain water distribution systems, many of the challenges of establishing and maintaining a lawn evaporated. Even then, the lawn was not readily adopted.
Those in the south maintained their preference for the ‘swept lawn’ (the tall grass was literally swept into graceful arches with lawn brooms), and immigrants from foreign lands followed their homeland traditions of removing greenery surrounding the home to eliminate risks of mosquitoes and fires, often leaving compacted and bare earth as the landscape.
The majority of home properties were homesteaded and every patch of earth was cultivated for food to eat, preserve, or trade.
It wasn’t until golf began to emerge as a gentleman’s sport that the interest and demand for alternatives to native grass species, combined with increased pressure from ranchers in the drought prone West needing better grass sources for grazing culminated into partnered research by the USDA and the US Golf association to import, establish, and study varieties such as bluegrass, Bermuda grass, fescues and bent grasses.
Research found bluegrass to be the most widely adaptable to differing growing conditions and it quickly recovers from grazing, active play, sports competitions, and general recreation.
Still, widespread promotion of bluegrass (and other matt-forming grasses) didn’t occur until the late 1800/early 1900’s when increasing pressure from various civics organizations campaigning for the beautification of communities grew into a national agenda.
Corporations such as Westinghouse, Colorado Fuel & Iron and many others established planned communities where employees could rent company owned properties so they could be within close proximity of the workplace. As the beautification movement gained momentum, these company-owned developments began to host competitions where tenants were awarded prize money for the ‘best looking lawn and garden’.
Better Homes & Gardens (established in 1922 by the former United States Secretary of Agriculture, Edwin Meredith), and the Garden Club of America began nationwide beautification contests in which communities, and later individual applicants, could be entered into a sweepstakes of $1,000 for having the most well manicured lawn and bordering flowerbeds. In today’s dollars, that $1,000 dollar equivalent is nearly $19,000.
Recognizing that cultures and trends are initially adopted by the youth, gardening and lawn maintenance classes became part of the school curriculum, and badge work and other honors were awarded to civic-minded organizations like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire, and other youth and naturalist organizations.
Junior Gardeners clubs became regularly promoted in the media, and communities encouraged ‘beautification’ campaigns by way of fliers, competitions, freely distributed ‘how to’ pamphlets, and even ‘shaming’ strategies.
With World War I, the focus shifted from Lawns to Victory Gardens – where it was once again patriotic to produce your own food to free resources for our soldiers overseas.
Continued research found that Kentucky bluegrass is a cool season plant that thrives in most geographic areas with winters – and it isn’t found in most southern states because it enters dormancy when air temperatures rise above the upper 70’s.
During the high heat of summer, bluegrass begins to develop a coppery-yellow color that fails to ‘green up’ with frequent watering or fertilizing. Once cool temperatures return, green blades appear again.
In spite of its ability to quickly recover from heavy use, Kentucky bluegrass is not without its Achilles heel. Its shallow root zone requires more frequent watering during its growing season and it is susceptible to a number of pests and disease. It is these characteristics that kept bluegrass from becoming widely adopted until the development and widespread production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides like DDT.
As World War Two came to a close and our servicemen returned home, political and social movements were established to eliminate the dour effects of the Great Depression and war. New industries based on scientific advancements resulted in an economic boom, generating an even larger ‘middle class’ with newfound ‘free-time’ and more economic purchasing power.
It is during this time that the ideal image of the little house with the white picket fence, a manicured lawn, and properly tended flowerbeds was promoted as the ‘successful homeowners’ landscape.
The bluegrass lawn was here to stay.
Today, entire courses at the university level are dedicated to a multitude of topics for those preparing to enter the turf business – either working at sod farms, golf courses, city parks departments and other organizations that work extensively with turf.
As a result, the CSU Turfgrass department and the Colorado State University Extension office have reams of reliable information available to homeowners, property managers and others who need comprehensive, easily understood information on the conventional and organic establishment, maintenance, fertilization, and treatment of pests in the lawn.
Next time you or your neighbor mows the lawn, take a moment and try to imagine the landscape without a mass of green carpet, and what would be in it’s place.
Until next time, may your knees be green and your spirits light.