Lawns are beautiful but unnatural  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

Anita's creatively crafted lawn at Toad Hall
I love a neatly mowed lawn, the small of the grass after its been trimmed, and have come to associate both with family life. In a recent blog post on Scientific American, however, Ferris Jabr takes a closer look at the history and ecology of lawns.

…The history of the lawn begins at least 900 years ago in Great Britain and Northern France, both of which have maritime climates with relatively mild winters and warm humid summers that are ideal for many different grasses. In its inception, the word ‘lawn’ may have referred to communal grazing pastures—clearings in the woods where sheep and other livestock continually munched wild grass into submission. Even today, some place names retain the memory of these early lawns: Balmer Lawn in England, for example, encompasses 500 acres of grass pasture. Soon enough, people found other uses for grasses: aesthetics, sport and leisure. King Henry II (1113 to 1189) had gardens at Clarendon Palace that boasted ‘a wealth of lawns’ and Henry III (1216 – 1272) ordered laborers to slice up tracts of naturally occurring turf and transplant them to his palace. The world’s oldest bowling green, in Southampton, England, has been maintained since at least 1299.
            In ancient times, lawns were not always expanses of unbroken green, however. Some medieval paintings of gardens depict carpets of turfgrass stippled with various flowers, such as lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, wild strawberries, violets, daisies, and daffodils. People walked, danced and relaxed on these flowery meads, which were meant to imitate natural meadows. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans used white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and other low-growing meadow and groundcover plants—sometimes mixed with grasses—to create lawns and pathways on which to walk and mingle. In the early 1900s, a weed known as cotula (Leptinella dioica) began invading bowling lawns in New Zealand. When the groundsman of the Caledonian Bowling Club tried to get rid of the weed by scarifying the lawn, he only quickened its spread. Rugby players noticed, however, that they ran faster and played better on the tightly knit, smooth carpet formed by the weed than on grass. By 1930, Caledonian Bowling Club replaced all its grass with cotula; other clubs did the same.
            For most of history, however, mixed plant lawns and non-grass lawns have been the exception, in part because a smooth, well-kept, lush grass lawn became as much a symbol as a functional part of one’s property. In the early 19th century, vast grass lawns surrounding manors were not only aesthetically pleasing—providing unobstructed views of an estate—they were also further proof of wealth. To keep their lawns neat and trim, British aristocrats and landed gentry had to look after grazing animals—most commonly a flock of sheep—or hire laborers to slice through overgrown grass with scythes….

You can read his fascinating post here.

This entry was posted at Wednesday, August 07, 2013 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Thanks, Denis, for this post. I remember when it was an entirely new idea to me that grass lawns were not always what they are today. When we lived in NM it was especially challenging and pretty ridiculous to keep a green lawn. Now days we have gradually been moving (stumbling?) toward use of rain gardens on the boulevards and native grasses in our flower beds. When the Chem-lawn truck arrives in our neighborhood and sprays fertilizer and weed killer we can smell the poisons for several days. Now days I wish more than ever that we could abandon more of our preconceived notions of tidiness and beauty and try other ways of caring for the small land plots around us.

August 8, 2013 at 10:44 AM

It's been fun to watch Anita move the lawn and flower beds of Toad Hall in new, more natural, sustainable directions that are also so beautiful strangers sometimes stop to look and comment.

August 8, 2013 at 10:49 AM

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