A look at our obsession with the lawn

A look at our obsession with the lawn

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

What if someone told you to grow a plant but keep it a certain height, never let it flower, water it weekly and feed it several times a year? Sounds like a lot of work, yet that's exactly what our lawn demands - and we succumb to its needs.

The lawn began as a symbol of wealth in Great Britain during the Elizabethan Era, where a larger estate meant you could support more sheep and their constant grazing.

Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the United States' first landscape designers, perpetuated this notion in his 1841 book "Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening." He urged readers to improve their front yards and considered an essential part of the perfect garden to be an expanse of "grass mown into a softness like velvet."

Cultivating the perfect lawn took root in a big way after World War II. With the suburban building boom and increased manufacturing of gasoline-powered mowers, the obsession grew. At the same time, companies started marketing agricultural chemicals as fertilizers for home use.

To this day, the lawn remains a huge part of our cultural psyche.

"The lawn is a common space that represents freedom and openness," says Mike Nowak, a Chicago-area gardening guru and spokesman for SafeLawns.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes a natural approach to lawn care. However, according to Nowak, this can present an odd juxtaposition for homeowners.

"Research shows that the people most likely to use synthetic chemicals on their lawns are college educated and in upper-income brackets," he says. "Research also has shown these are the same people most likely to be concerned about their environment. There's a real disconnect between their practices and what they think they support."

Philosophical reasons aside, Americans spend $40 billion each year maintaining and improving their yards.

"Many people obsess about the lawn because they fear doing the wrong thing," says Melinda Myers, author of "The Perfect Lawn Midwest Series." "Add that to the neighbor's velvety green, weed-free lawn, and you've got a lot of pressure."

Myers likes to remind people that there are all types of lawns besides grass. Ground covers, perennials, meadow and woodland are just some of the kinds of gardens and plants that can reduce the need for turf grass. "Pick one that fits your style and energy," she says. "Most people just want something green that will keep their feet from getting muddy in the rain.

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a national director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.

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