By Terri Smith –
Have you ever paused to consider why so much of our modern world is covered in small swatches of relatively useless greenery? Why we spend so much time, money, and resources growing something that does not provide us with food?
In England and France, the original lawns began as large areas around castles where trees and shrubs were cut down so that guards would be able observe the surroundings. As the climate was milder and wetter than our own, these large expanses of mixed, low-growing plants grew well. During the 16th century, the lawn became a status symbol for wealthy landowners both because these large expanses of grass were associated with castles, but also because the amount of labour that had to go into caring for a lawn was something only the rich could afford.
Fast-forward to the New World and we find that lawns have managed to cross the ocean and have seriously grown in popularity. The Scots loved lawn bowling and golf and both games required closely cropped grass – easily obtained in a country filled with sheep – and it was the Scots who originally introduced the lawn to Canada. As the popularity of these games spread over the continent, so too did the lawn. There are other reasons why this happened, including the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the lawnmower, which arrived on the scene in 1830. But the genetically un-diverse lawn as we know it can trace its beginnings to the development of the subdivisions and chemicals of the 1950s.
The idea of the “perfect” lawn came about as a result of one group of developers, the Levitts, who, from 1948-1952, built four huge subdivisions in the US to house the GIs returning from the war. They instituted the idea of uniform, weed-free lawns these homeowners were not allowed to fence but were required to maintain. This was the conformist 50s, and everyone was watching for both communism and crabgrass: those with non-conforming lawns would be suspected of non-conformist ideas as well and the soldiers who were used to things being orderly were happy to comply and keep their lawns tidy. See Ted Steinberg’s book, American Green, for an interesting read about this confusion between morality and the perfect lawn.
Of course, along with the idea of the “perfect” lawn came the industry that literally ‘made a killing,’ selling fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. While the lawns of yore were made up of thyme, chamomile, moss, clover, etc– a genetic diversity that helped the lawns thrive in varied growing conditions with far fewer inputs– the advent of chemical herbicides in particular led to the demonizing of certain plants in a lawn.
By now everyone reading this probably knows about the benefits of dandelions. Their deep taproots pull nutrients and minerals from deep within the soil making them accessible to other, shallower-rooted plants as well as providing the much-needed first nectar for bees. Clover was an acceptable addition to the lawn for quite some time, but one of the first broad-leaf herbicides had the unfortunate side effect of killing it off, so clover was soon branded as a weed as well.
The trouble with the lawns that came out of this conformist ideal is that they take so many resources. Monocultures are unhealthy. They require so many fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and water. They want optimum conditions, neither too much nor too little sun. Genetic diversity allows a lawn to thrive with relatively little human intervention. Mosses can be beautiful, and do well in the shade, whereas thymes can be soft, and fragrant and do well in dry areas. Mixes of wild grasses can enhance an ecosystem and still be beautiful without requiring the effort and poisons and wasting of water needed for the “perfect” lawn. Perhaps we ought to shift gears now before it’s too late. Do we really want to wipe out our planet in pursuit of the perfect lawn?
For more info on genetically diverse greenery check out:
Terri Smith is a non-certified organic vegetable farmer in the Cariboo. She is passionate about writing, art, goats, and feeding good food to good people. She believes in following your heart, living your dreams, and taking care of the planet.