Clock with bird and leaves, 2018.
history history relevance time using history

Trendspotting: Moving Beyond a Traditional Lawn

In last week’s post, I discussed how breakfast in bed seems to be disappearing as a common activity in the United States. In order to spot trends such as this, you have to have a good sense of the past … what has come before or been a part of the cultural landscape and now is shifting. (That’s an important use of history – trendspotting!)

Another trend I have noticed recently is within lawn care. Homeowners seem to be less inclined to constantly be caring for a large expanse of grass, a crop that might look nice but doesn’t do much in terms of feeding people or bees.

A History of Lawns

The Pennington website has a succinct history of the lawn industry. Pennington sells grass seed and lawn care products, so they probably won’t be keen having me discuss an anti-lawn trend, but their timeline is useful in showing just how long we have been obsessed with lush, flat greenery around our homes … since the 1700s!

Naturally, the earliest adopters of lawns were the wealthy because lawns take so much tending to maintain. Also, grass is not terribly useful for all the work it takes. Who else could afford to put all that effort into a nonproductive crop? It wasn’t until the 1870s, according to the Pennington timeline, that front yard produce gardens moved to the backyard, being supplanted by grass.

Alternatives to Lawns

As a homeowner, I was attracted to my house for its yard, which has around 10 mature oak trees and an entire “forest” of Chinese elms. Yes, there’s a lawn, and we are those annoying neighbors who like to let our grass get fairly tall before mowing it. What with city ordinances to contend with, we have to be conscious of exactly how long we let the grass get. If it goes over 6 inches, we can be cited.

One of the mature oak trees in our yard, 2019.
One of the mature oak trees in our yard, 2019.

 

The forest of Chinese elms in our yard, 2019.
The forest of Chinese elms in our yard, 2019.

What I’ve noticed over the past few years is that more and more people are turning their lawns back into flower and vegetable gardens. Most of the time, people just turn a section of their yards over to plants that are more productive than grass, but sometimes, if they are really ambitious, they’ll make their entire yards into gardens.

A neighbor's large produce and flower garden takes up a sizeable chunk of the yard, 2019.
A neighbor’s large produce and flower garden takes up a sizeable chunk of the yard, 2019.

I first noticed this yard-as-garden phenomenon in Portland, Oregon, gosh, 10-15 years ago, if memory serves. This was while we were visiting my brother and his wife, who lived there at the time. I was amazed at the yards-as-gardens that I saw and hoped this trend would be adopted back in Minnesota.

We added a giant lily garden in our front yard after we put an addition on the house in 2004. There were a few reasons for this. 1) I like flowers. 2) I prefer perennials because I am inherently lazy about tending gardens and didn’t want to have to plant new every year. 3) My laziness also transfers to lawn mowing, so putting in a giant lily garden meant less lawn to mow. 4) Our soil is sandy and grass grew sparsely in this area, making it difficult to mow. 5) I wanted a rain garden to catch some of the water running off our roof.

We have also added a garden of hostas for most of the same reasons.

Our lily garden, 2019.
Our lily garden, 2019.

 

Our hosta bed, 2019.
Our hosta bed, 2019.

Helping the Pollinators

Obviously, the yards-as-gardens trend has caught on in Minnesota since our Portland trip, with this now being a common sight in our town. However, there has been a slight change within the past year, I’d say.

I’m seeing far more yards where the grass and other native plants are being allowed to grow quite tall. The lawn might eventually be mowed, but homeowners are not as obsessed with keeping their lawns sheered like a crew cut. Or, homeowners are allowing sections of their yards to be overtaken by grass and native plants. My mother-in-law has a back section to her yard that she is letting grow so that it can serve as a pollinator garden. And the last time she mowed, she left the grass on the front boulevard alone so that it would grow tall enough to go to seed. This makes perfect sense because our roads are salted and sanded in winter and this mix gets tossed up onto the boulevards, killing the grass.

A patch of long grasses and plants being left along a driveway, 2019.
A patch of long grasses and plants being left along a driveway, 2019.

I suspect the newest trend of native plants being allowed to grow is because people want to do something that alleviates the shortage of bees and other pollinators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a web page devoted to providing information on creating habitat for pollinators, including encouraging people to plant native plants. It also suggests not applying a bunch of chemicals to your property. We’ve been getting the message for some time now about how bad herbicides and pesticides are for human health and the health of other species. Looks like some of us are taking this to heart.

I’m no climate scientist, but I also wonder if having tall native grasses and plants allows them to sequester more carbon dioxide than shorn lawns.

Will City Ordinances Keep Up?

To my nature-loving, let-nature-take-care-of-herself attitude, this is a positive development. However, cities may not adapt their ordinances quickly enough to take this trend into account. As a consequence, those who are trying to do right by nature may run afoul of the law and be punished for it.

Here’s where we historians need to be at the ready. We’ve got to be willing to point out that having perfectly manicured lawns is a relatively recent development in the history of humanity. Just because cut grass has been common in cities within living memory doesn’t mean we can’t alter what we’re doing in response to today’s environmental pressures. This is an area where we can return to what happened with people’s yards prior to lawns and see how that might be adapted in the current age.


Have your lawn care practices changed in recent years? How so?

 

 

 

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