Gardening and Lawn Care

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The nineteenth century was a period of immense gardening enthusiasm in the United States as a growing middle class of leisured women, and men working in office jobs, looked to horticulture as a moral and physical outlet. Victorian women were urged to provide a floral retreat from the world for their families as an antidote to increasing urbanization. Women moving westward took with them seeds, cuttings, and bulbs to domesticate their strange new homes. The nineteenth century was a period of enthusiasm for "botanizing" (collecting and learning about plants). Many people joined the new garden and horticultural societies, and participated in garden shows. Hundreds of new plants were introduced from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, and many amateurs worked to hybridize fruit trees, vegetables, roses, and other plants to produce prize-winning fruits and flowers. Beginning in the 1830s, nurseries, mail-order catalogs, and horticulture periodicals provided seeds, plants, tools, and information for the new gardening enthusiasts.

The formal English, French, Italian, and Japanese garden styles adapted by wealthy Americans were paralleled by informally planted gardens of hardy old-fashioned flowers that could be maintained by one person, tucked into the small lots of the new middle-class suburbs.

The Origin of Lawns and Park Suburbs

The lawn as a garden feature appeared in many different landscape modes. In the United States, the aesthetic of the lawn as a part of the home grounds came from the parks of English country estates designed in the eighteenth century. Terraced or geometric lawns came from the French and Italian garden traditions. The English parks contained meadows cropped by cattle, sheep, or deer. In smaller domestic spaces, grass was cut by scythes, and skilled workers were difficult to find and expensive to hire. Until the late nineteenth century, lawns were found at the houses of the political and cultural elite who had the money and time to devote to the grounds of their estates. The first U.S. patent for a lawn mower was awarded in 1869, making it possible for an ordinary individual to keep grass mowed at an even height without the expense of skilled labor or the inconveniences of grazing animals. Other inventions soon followed, including rubber hoses, sprinklers, lawn rollers, rakes, and edgers, to help the new upwardly mobile middle class achieve proper lawns and affirm their new status.

Nineteenth-century upper-class suburbs outside cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago were modeled on the country-estate aesthetic of placing houses in a park-like setting. One of the earliest was Llewelyn Park in Orange, New Jersey, laid out in 1853. Hedges and fences around individual properties were eliminated so that the community would look like a park. In most neighborhoods, this was not possible until the 1880s when fence laws required the owners of cattle and pigs to keep them confined rather than let them roam the streets.

In addition to lawn mowers and other tools, the new suburban residents found that they needed appropriate types of grass to grow and maintain lawns in different regions of the United States. Cool-weather grasses imported from Europe (such as Kentucky blue grass) would not grow in arid or hot regions of the country. As communities grew across the continent, and national magazines promoted the front-lawn aesthetic, increasing demand for the necessary equipment and plants spurred the growth of what became a multibillion-dollar industry.

The game of golf was introduced into the United States from Scotland in the 1880s and was played on the lawns of wealthy individuals' estates, and in cow pastures. As golf clubs and associations were organized and began developing dedicated golf courses, a need arose for grasses that would stand up to frequent cutting and use. Several members of these early golf associations employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were able to interest their colleagues in this problem. The USDA began sending agents around the world in the nineteenth century to find better forage and hay grasses for farmers. In the early twentieth century, these agents also began looking for turf grasses that could be used for golf courses and, by extension, lawns. Demand for large quantities of weed-free grass seed for golf courses spurred the growth of companies such as O. M. Scott and Sons. Recognizing the growing interest in lawns, Scott targeted golf-club members in their marketing campaigns for lawn seed and equipment. Its successful advertising and promotional literature urged homeowners to emulate golf course fairways and putting greens in their own yards.

In the 1920s, the first communities surrounding golf courses were built for wealthy suburbanites, and homeowners were encouraged to keep their home lawns to the standard of the golf course so that it would look as if the course continued to flow around the houses. This aesthetic was revived in the 1950s after World War II, with the democratization of golf, and continues into the 2000s with countless retirement communities built around golf courses throughout the country.

Growth of the Suburbs and the City Beautiful Movement

The early park suburbs were soon followed by suburban communities on railroad and streetcar lines that made it possible for middle-class men to commute into the city every day. The ideal was a single-family house in its own grounds that would be a haven for the wife and children from the increasing pollution and crowding of the cities. Horticulture magazines and advertising showed well-kept lawns adorned with trees and shrubbery as the mark of prosperous and tasteful households. New homeowners were advised to keep the front yard simple, should they not have the time or money to keep up a more elaborate garden, and to concentrate on maintaining a lawn, a few trees, and shrubs to mask the foundations of the house.

Backyards became less utilitarian, with the outhouse replaced by indoor plumbing, the barn replaced by the garage, woodsheds replaced by coal furnaces and gas stoves, and smaller lots that made henhouses and home orchards obsolete. Automobile suburbs began appearing in the 1920s in areas previously unreachable by public transportation. The automobile forced people to move from the front porch into the backyard to escape the procession of glaring headlights at night, the dust, and the new smell of exhaust. This private space at the back of the house gradually became the family gathering place, children's playground, and private garden.

The City Beautiful movement began at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Visitors impressed by the white buildings and landscaped grounds returned home with new ideas about the organization of urban and suburban spaces. New concepts of zoning and land use included setback regulations that required houses to be set back from the streets in new housing developments. Grass was the cheapest and quickest ground cover, a way to mask the scars of a new development, especially on land that had once been farm fields.

The front lawn aesthetic was adopted enthusiastically by the women of the Garden Clubs of America who initiated community fix-up and clean-up campaigns with prizes for the best lawns and gardens. Some clubs targeted black and immigrant neighborhoods in their efforts to make the community look "nicer," and gardening classes in public schools were seen as important tools of assimilation.

Experimental Grass Gardens

The USDA established experimental turf gardens to grow foreign grasses. One of these was in Arlington, Virginia, where the Pentagon is today. The garden was moved to Beltsville, Maryland in the 1940s. After the war, a uniform nursery testing system to compare grasses under widely diverse conditions eventually included sixty-six nurseries in forty-one states.

Community beautification projects lasted into the 1930s as towns and cities competed with each other during the Great Depression to attract businesses and jobs. However, general interest in lawns and gardening declined as few new homes were built during the 1930s, and many people were unable to afford the costs of garden hobbies. As the economy improved at the end of the 1930s, articles in newspapers and popular magazines once again gave Americans encouragement, instruction, and advice on lawn care and gardening. Government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools, magazines, and seed companies worked together to provide land, instruction, public-service booklets on the basics of gardening, and seeds for individual and community gardens. In the 1940s, the call to plant a victory garden was answered by nearly 20 million Americans who produced up to 40 percent of all that was consumed. Despite the exhortations of the lawn-care industry, few Americans had the time during the war years to "boost morale at home" by keeping up their lawns.

The Quest for Lawn Perfection

Over time the definition of a good lawn changed from a mown pasture to a green velvety carpet. Early lawns were like Persian carpets with a variety of grasses and wild-flowers growing in them. Gradually the aesthetic changed and nurseries promoted weed-free grass seed for a lawn of a uniform color and texture. Such uniformity has always been difficult to attain, but many homeowners in the period before World War II tried using liquids such as kerosene and turpentine to kill weeds in their yards as well as digging them out by hand. DDT, hailed as a miracle pesticide during World War II, was used for eradicating everything from body lice to mosquitoes to lawn and garden pests. After the war, new chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides became available for home use and were marketed by the lawn-care industry as the answer to all lawn and garden problems. Lawn-care advertising exhorted men to use the tools of war (chemicals and power machinery) to beat Mother Nature to a standstill in the yard. Power mowers became status symbols in the new suburban developments that mushroomed around American cities in the 1950s. Riding mowers were marketed as "little cars" to new homeowners with more money and leisure than their parents had.

The number of articles on lawn care and gardening published in popular magazines exploded after World War II with the expansion of suburbia and home ownership. Garden centers and nurseries proliferated, offering seeds, plants, tools, the new chemical fertilizers, and pesticides and herbicides, as well as classes on growing and maintaining gardens and lawns. Turf farms took the place of traditional farms on the outskirts of growing cities to provide instant lawns for the new suburban houses. As housing developments spread during the 1950s and 1960s, lawn and turf grasses covered the country. Americans drained swamps, irrigated deserts, and felled forests, changing the ecological makeup of America by creating millions of acres of savanna. Grass spread around homes, and covered parks, playing fields, and the medians and sides of the new interstate highway system.

After Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, warning of the dangers of DDT, Americans turned to other chemicals such as chlordane to maintain weed- and pest-free lawns and gardens. Home owners concerned about using potentially hazardous chemicals hired lawn-care companies, a practice that that soon became a nationwide status symbol.

Alternatives to Lawns

In the late twentieth century, a backlash began to develop to the millions of acres of artificially green and uniform lawns in the United States. A growing interest in native plants, water shortages, and concerns about the overuse and abuse of chemicals and the environment drew some homeowners to consider alternative landscapes. Wild-flower meadows in the Northeast, home prairies in the Midwest, and desert gardens in the Southwest replaced the regimentation of monoculture lawns. These new landscape styles have challenged zoning regulations and been the occasion for lawsuits from outraged neighbors. Interest in xeriscaping—the use of native plants that do not require watering—is growing and being encouraged by municipalities concerned about water use throughout the country. The new large houses on small lots leave owners with less lawn to mow. Many people are happy to give up lawn care to professional services when they move into town house and retirement communities. The aesthetic of the green velvety carpet, or of the golf course around a home, is under attack, but it may yet survive as scientists work to hybridize dwarf grasses that need little mowing or watering. The herbaceous border, a mixture of annual and perennial plants around a grassy lawn popularized by horticulture writers in the 1880s, has remained the ideal of many American gardens into the twenty-first century.

See also: Hobbies and Crafts, Home Decoration, Home Improvement, Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Suburbanization of Leisure, Women't Leisure Lifestyles


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Virginia Scott Jenkins