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A brief history of grass

From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the grounds of Versailles, humans of every age have manipulated the nature around them to reflect current trends. American landscaping is no exception: when Europeans moved to America, they brought their own ideas of a proper landscape. Mimicking noble estates, American landscaping emphasized massive, open lawns and decorative hedges. This style remains en vogue, and has become problematic as the years progressed.

Grass lawns began out of the whims of wealthy French and English nobles. Since medieval times, feudal lords ordered nearby forests cleared to better spot invading enemies. Years later, their descendants kept grasses short and lawns spacious using grazing sheep or peasant labor. For this reason, large lawns–or “laundes”–gained popularity as a staple of the rich.

When British citizens left for America, they took the garden designs of the mother country with them. They soon found that the grass varieties of Europe and Asia were ill suited to America’s drier climate. England’s damp weather could easily host the water-dependent plant, but American soil needed constant watering. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the trend was further popularized by elites like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Lawnmowers and sprinkler systems later enabled the spread of grass; vegetable and herb gardens that decorated front yards were moved behind homes and replaced with shrubs and bushes. What was once a symbol for the wealthy became the norm.

With the end of World War II, grass lawns took off. Suburban neighborhoods sprang up overnight, and with them, water-guzzling grass lawns. Americans were tired of rationing as they had in wartime. The rise of consumerism grew access to seed, sod, and tools to make the “ideal” American lawn. Even advertising propelled the expectation that a perfectly manicured yard of green grass and trim hedges was a neighborly courtesy. To achieve these nearly impossible results, pesticides and herbicides were introduced, proving deadly to both small organisms and the people who use them.

The long term dangers of fumigants and pesticides–including cancers, birth defects, and organ and nerve damage–have surfaced in recent years. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, an estimated $200 million dollars in damages (costs of emergency care, hospital visits, and resulting deaths) occurs from pesticides each year. Close to 40 million acres of land were used for lawns as of 2010, exacerbating problems from poisonous chemicals to land conservation to drought. For the true good of our neighbors, the next trend of American landscaping must be a sustainable, native, climate-conscious alternative.


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