It is likely that most homes in your neighbourhood will have a lawn. But why? Have you ever stopped to consider why lawns are so popular?
Short, maintained grass, it could be argued, feeds into our human urge to tame and control our surroundings. Short grasses make it easier to see any dangers coming. They make it easier to move swiftly over an area. Perhaps this, in some ways, explains the almost primal popularity of the modern lawn.
Lawns are, in the big scale of things, a rather modern phenomenon. The ‘lawn’ as a concept does not appear until 1540, when the word ‘laune’ first appears in print. It is likely related to the Celtic Brythonic word which means ‘enclosure’. This hints at the origins of a managed grass area – as an enclosed pasturage from animals rather than a sight for human recreation. It was grazing animals that kept grass short.
It was not until the Middle Ages that a lawn more similar to our modern concept began to gain in popularity (in Northern Europe). Most commoners at this time, of course, used the curtilage around their homes for kitchen gardening, and often grazed livestock on common pastures. But aristocrats (who did not have to use all their space to grow food) began to favour formal ornamental lawns and the concept began to separate from the idea of a ‘pasture’.
As ornamental lawns became more common for the wealthy in the 16th Century and thereafter, the lawn became a sign of wealth and privilege and became aspirational. But most people of the lower classes could not keep the staff or spare the time required to scythe a lawn for ornamental purposes. The invention of the lawn mower changed all that – allowing those of lower incomes to manage grassland for ornamental reasons.
Lawns really began to take off in the 19th and early 20th Century. The mid-century rise of the suburbs greatly contributed to the spread of the lawn. Increased wealth also meant that a disconnect crept in between people and their food and far fewer people grew their own. Lawns, over time, became less a status symbol and more about aesthetics. Lawns came, over the 20th Century, to represent a whole host of cultural and societal norms.
If you have a manicured lawn, how much have you considered your choice? Have you ever thought that there might be better alternatives? A lawn is rarely the best choice to make the most of your space.
Over the next couple of days, I’ll return to this topic. Tomorrow I’ll share a recent case study. Then in Sunday’s post I’ll talk about why you should lose your manicured grass lawn, and give you a few suggestions of what to put in its place.