The Quest for the Perfect Lawn

perfect lawn

This is an example of the “perfect lawn” that many Americans dream of growing.

People take pride in their lawns. Some people are even obsessed with making sure that their lawns are perfectly green and manicured. This attitude has become a stereotype of American suburban life. Yet, people did not always have lawns in America. Furthermore, the care that goes into the perfect lawn is actually harmful to the environment. Perfect lawns also require quite a bit of time and resources. Yet, the only benefit that lawns provide is aesthetic pleasure. So why are Americans so focused on such a seemingly unimportant piece of land? Environmental history provides the answer!

The first person to introduce the idea of a lawn in a suburban setting was Frederick Law Olmstead. He created a neighborhood where all the homes included a grassy area. Although he did this in the 1860s, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that lawns became prevalent. Prior to this era, Americans used their property to raise livestock and grow crops. It wasn’t until after Americans started purchasing most of their food at a store that they had space to plant a lawn.

800px-Dallas_skyline_and_suburbs

A suburb just outside of Dallas, TX. Lawns are hallmarks of the suburbs.

Right about this time, consumerism was becoming more of a factor in American life. Companies that sold lawn care products began to market their goods. When they advertised their products, they claimed that if people did not take good care of their lawns, they were portraying themselves in a negative light.  During World War II, they even went as far as to claim that an unkempt lawn was unpatriotic. Since patriotism was such a highly valued quality during this period, employing that language was an extremely effective marketing strategy. After the war, more and more people moved to the suburbs, where they suddenly had the space for a lawn.

Unfortunately, the whole concept of a perfect lawn is unnatural.  In “Turf Wars,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes, “Pretty much by definition, lawns are unnatural.” None of the grasses that are found in American lawns are native to North America. Kentucky blue grass, the most popular kind of grass found in lawns, originates from Northern Europe. There, temperatures are cooler and there is more rain. This is very different from the climate in many parts of the US, including the West and the South. Therefore, homeowners had to constantly water their lawns.  In chapter 13 of Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in America History, Ted Steinberg writes, “Just a small 1,000-square-foot bluegrass lawn in coastal California, a 2006 study revealed, required 28,000 gallons of water a year. Move that same lawn into a more arid part of California and the number rose to 37,000 gallons.”

800px-Runoff_of_soil_&_fertilizer

Runoff of fertilizers pollutes rivers and drinking water.

Just having lawns did not satisfy Americans. The lawns needed to be perfect. This means that lawns not only needed water, but they also required synthetic fertilizers. A German scientist named Fritz Haber made great advances in the creation of synthetic fertilizers. Haber came up with a way to make ammonia by fixing hydrogen and nitrogen together. This is called the Haber- Bosch process, and Haber won a Noble Peace Prize for his work in 1918. The hydrogen that is essential for this process comes from natural gas which is a nonrenewable fossil fuel. Emissions of natural gas contribute to global warming. There has also been an increase in runoff due to the use of these fertilizers that pollute rivers and drinking water, which may cause many health problems, including cancer. Despite these negative impacts, people still used fertilizers. Steinberg writes, “In the 1980s, Americans spread more chemical fertilizers on their lawns than the entire nation of India used to grow food for its people.” This is astonishingly high number since lawns are not used for productive purposes.

The story of the conception of the perfect lawn is an example of the power of advertising. A marketing campaign convinced people that it was necessary for them to have the perfect lawn. Lawns do not provide people with economic benefits. Besides the fact that they provide children and pets with a place to play, they do not provide many physical benefits. They just look nice. Yet, Americans are willing to spend time and money trying to create the perfect lawn. Sadly, this goal is unattainable because grass that is not native to North America will never grow perfectly. While trying to reach this impossible goal, Americans have also caused quite a bit of environmental consequences, and even damaged their own health. As Kolbert writes, “As the anti-lawnists correctly observe, the American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.” If average Americans weighed the benefits and consequences of lawn care, perhaps many would realize that the perfect lawn really is not that important after all.

For more information on the history of lawns, refer to the following sources-

Ted Steinberg, “America in Black and Green” in Down to Earth:  Nature’s Role in American History, Second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/21/080721crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=all

To learn more about the Haber-Bosch Process and the negative impacts of fertilizers on the environment, visit-

http://www.organicvalley.coop/why-organic/synthetic-fertilizers/

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