4 Interesting Stories From Lawn History

Mon Dec 14 2015 | off-topic | sod

If you had to guess what America's single largest crop is, you might guess corn, wheat, or soybeans. Those species all rank high as cash crops, but a 2015 NASA study revealed that grass lawns cover more land in the US than any other plant. America has roughly 63,000 square miles of lawns, enough to cover an area the size of Texas.

How did domestic grass, a plant that is not native to North America, come to dominate the landscape? Read on to discover four interesting stories that tell the history of the lawn.

1. Lawns Originated on Wealthy European Estates

French and English landowners seem to be the originators of the private lawn. Medieval castles often had large open meadows around them that allowed those within the castle to clearly see any approaching visitors and judge their intentions. Many medieval villages also contained grassy areas, or commons. Local animal owners brought their domesticated sheep, goats, or cattle here to graze.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, people with lawns began taking greater care to keep the grass trimmed and landscaped. Their lawns often consisted of thyme or chamomile, not the carefully crafted grass blends used in sod today. Lawns became a status symbol because only wealthy landowners could afford to hire workers to keep the yards in top condition.

The ultimate status-symbol lawn from this time period still exists: the gardens of Versailles. Primarily designed and built during the 17th century, Versailles includes many manicured lawns and elaborate water features that continue to attract tourists to this day.

2. Golf Leads to Better Grass Blends for North America

When Europeans immigrated to North America, they didn't forget about the beautiful lawns on European estates. Some even brought European grass seeds to cultivate in the new land. Still, lawns remained an expensive luxury that few people spent time or money on.

Some immigrants, however, brought more than memories of lush European meadows. Scottish immigrants also had a passion for sports invented in their native land that required grass. One such sport was golf.

The first golf courses in North America sprang up in the late 1800s. Citizens quickly took to the game, and the United States sent golfers to the Olympics in 1900 and 1904. In fact, at the 1904 Olympic Games, only two nations competed for golfing medals: the USA and Canada.

The rising popularity of golf made landscapers eager for an easy-to-cultivate grass blend. The US Golf Association and the US Department of Agriculture undertook a 15-year research effort to discover the best grasses and lawn care practices for the US climate. This research paved the way for affordable residential lawns.

3. Two American Legends Bring Grass to the Front Yard

Around the same time that golf became an American pastime, cities and towns across America made room for city parks. These small and large parks borrowed inspiration from European lawns, like the gardens of Versailles. Many parks included water features and long pathways for observing nature.

But it took two key figures to move the lawn from the city center to its permanent place around suburban homes. The first was Frederick Law Olmstead. This pioneering landscape architect rose to prominence in the mid-1850s. His best known work is Central Park in New York City, but he also designed landscaping for many neighborhoods, including private yards around each home.

Roughly 100 years later, the second key figure emerged: real estate developer Abraham Levitt. After WWII, returning veterans and their families sought affordable housing. Levitt and his sons created several communities using cookie-cutter house designs. The homes could be built quickly and purchased at a very low price. Each house included a pre-installed lawn.

Interestingly, lawn-mowing technology advanced considerably during the heyday of each of these lawn pioneers. The first lawn mower was invented by Edwin Budding in 1830, so homeowners in Olmstead's day no longer had to use sheep to keep their lawn trimmed. Similarly, more advanced lawn mowers emerged after WWII when Levittowners bought their first homes-and the yards that accompanied them.

4. The White House Lawn Has Quite a History

In the USA, arguably no lawn holds a higher standing than the lawn at the White House. Technically, the White House has two lawns: the North Lawn and the larger South Lawn. The South Lawn hosts numerous annual festivities, including the famous Easter egg roll, and contains exercise facilities such as a jogging track, a swimming pool, and a tennis court.

During WWI, the White House lawn followed in the tradition of early lawns and used grazing sheep as the primary gardeners. A flock of up to 48 sheep lived on the lawn in 1918. The sheep served as a cost-saving measure and a way for President Wilson and his family to show support for American soldiers fighting in Europe.

President Obama and his family made several additions to the South Lawn during his administration. They added a swing set for daughters Sasha and Malia in 2009. In that same year, First Lady Michelle Obama invited children to the South Lawn to help her plant a vegetable garden as part of her health and fitness initiative "Let's Move."

Now that you're an expert in lawn history, show your own lawn some love. Look to our other blog posts for tips about caring for the grass in your yard.