If I were to ask you to picture the average American home, you would probably think of a suburban landscape with white picket fences, luxurious minivans and well-manicured, rich green lawns. Despite the fact that most Americans do not live in these kinds of households, this is what most of us are subconsciously trained to aspire to live in — the quintessential image of the “American Dream.” The anxiety and pride involved in maintaining a better lawn than your neighbor is an often-joked about but still very real obsession for many people across the country, as having a good lawn is often seen as a symbol of prosperity, discipline and freedom. To have enough excess time and energy in your life to spend on cultivating a lawn means that you are a successful member of society — not just economically, but in spirit and values.
But where did this obsession come from? A lawn, taken out of context, is a very peculiar landscaping choice. It is neither incredibly decorative nor useful, and in terms of land use, it is extraordinarily inefficient. It is essentially a large swathe of land that produces nothing except a space to do recreational activities, most notably for dogs, children and golfers, and it often takes an immense amount of care to maintain. In drought-prone areas such as California, a lawn is a dreadful sponge for unnecessary water use, soaking up an average of 1 to 1 ½ inches of water a week, which adds up to 52 to 78 inches a year. To put that in perspective, Berkeley, on average, receives a total of 25 inches of rain per year. And of course, there is the upkeep; it is generally recommended to mow your lawn at least once a week, and the average American can spend about 70 hours a year on lawn and garden care. When you add all that on top of the fact that a place such as the Bay Area is incredibly tight on space, the pros of using up precious land to have a lawn seem to get pretty slim.
To have enough excess time and energy in your life to spend on cultivating a lawn means that you are a successful member of society — not just economically, but in spirit and values.
Lawns can be made from a variety of different grass species, which are usually determined by the region. But even with these accommodations in mind, fescue, the most popular lawn grass in California, is actually native to a completely unrelated region of Europe and Asia that is much cooler and wetter than California. Despite its name, Kentucky bluegrass, the most popular lawn grass nationwide, is also native to Europe. Both of these grasses are considered ‘cool season grasses,’ meaning they thrive in regions with cool winters and hot summers, and grow best when the temperatures are 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Both Kentucky bluegrass and fescue have had adverse environmental effects since their introduction to America during the 1800s, as they invade native grasslands all over the country and diminish native biodiversity. Fescue, in particular, also has the added side effect of carrying fungal endophytes that give the plant protection from getting eaten by insects, which drastically reduces the available food for important native insect species, and can also have adverse effects on livestock and native grazers that try to feed on it.
So not only do lawns make a devastating impact on the environment, but they are also an immense time, resource and energy suck. And what do we get in return? For many families, a backyard lawn is an outdoor space to relax and play around in — maybe have a barbeque or play fetch with the dogs. But what about the front lawn, the turf on which most neighborly lawn rivalries are settled, and where people rarely just ‘hang out’? Is it purely for decoration? Is it purely to settle petty psychological disputes and announce to the world how successful, rich and in control of your life you are by way of your impossibly luscious verdant field?
Turns out, historically, yes. Lawns originated in Europe in the 16th century when French and English castles desired the land immediately surrounding their property to be free from trees so that soldiers could see if enemies were coming to attack. These fields were usually filled with thyme or chamomile, and were kept short by grazing livestock. Sometime in the 17th century, the practice trickled down to other smaller wealthy landowners, who perhaps wanted to replicate the status and feeling of a castle in their own homes. They started maintaining fields of closely shorn grasses around their homes. Instead of using livestock to keep it adequately cropped, they switched to manual labor such as scything. Since a large piece of land dedicated to a lawn signified that you could afford the manpower necessary to maintain it and weren’t bothered by the lost income from not planting a more productive crop in the lawn’s place, lawns became a way to demonstrate your wealth and power.
Lawns came into America around the same time they gained popularity in Europe, and for the first half of U.S. history, they were mostly confined to the upper class. Demand for grass began with the very first settlers, who found inadequate grasses for grazing in the northeast, and requested shipments of European grasses so that their livestock could survive. By the 18th century, all sorts of imported grasses had colonized the American continent along with the settlers, causing many farmers to rely on imported grass varieties rather than find native ones that could adequately fit their needs. By the 19th century, grass became available for residential use.
Lawns came into America around the same time they gained popularity in Europe, and for the first half of U.S. history, they were mostly confined to the upper class.
Still, during the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, lawns were by no means common. Many households instead had a flower garden in the front and an enclosed yard in the back. However, the popularity of wide expanses of green was increasing in Europe, which inevitably led to wealthy Americans following suit. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both enjoyed the aesthetic and implemented lawns in Monticello and Mount Vernon respectively, and images of the green fields in these places became widespread and began to gain popularity with other wealthy landowners.
The growing popularity of lawns for the average American over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries was preceded by several different elements. One element was the encouragement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture when they held a display about how to establish a lawn in 1876. A little later on, the public park movement popularized the idea of a lawn as a place of communal gathering, which helped aid the lawn as a front yard statement: It was a place where you could gather with your neighbors in contrast to the enclosed, private backyard. The creator of this movement, Frederick Law Olmsted, also was one of the first to design suburban developments, where every house got its own lawn. A handful of decades later, the popularization of automobiles and commuting meant that homeowners desired having a nice front display for commuters to drive past and stare at. And finally, in the post-WWII era, there was a boom of building blue-collar tract housing which implemented front lawns to mimic upper middle class housing, which brought lawns to the working class. This time period also roughly correlated to the popularization of suburbs, and over the course of the rest of the century, lawns have cemented themselves as a mainstay of a respectable American home.
Throughout all this history, the common thread is that lawns seem to be a class symbol. Whether you were a nobleman in 17th century England or a suburbanite today, the lawn is a symbol of success—a reflection of who you are as a person. A good, clean, weed-free lawn is a sign you have the wealth and resources to devote to such a fundamentally meaningless project. This, at least on an unconscious level, is a flex against everyone who doesn’t have such a privilege. Likewise, for people who don’t yet have the resources for a lawn, it is something to aspire to. Despite the absolute drudgery and impracticality that is, for many, the reality of maintaining a lawn, we still persevere, because somewhere deep down inside, we are scared that if we didn’t, we would be failures as people.
Whether you were a nobleman in 17th century England or a suburbanite today, the lawn is a symbol of success—a reflection of who you are as a person.
But what if we decided to go against this, to relinquish the clutch lawns hold on the American heart? The lawn, at least in California, has always been a ridiculous enterprise. To grow a crop that needs as much as 2 to 3 times the rainfall we naturally get in our dry, arid, chaparral Bay Area climate, just for the sake of decoration and showing off, is nothing short of insanity. Sure, some may argue it also provides a recreational area, but how often are front lawns really used for that purpose? How many front lawns sit day in and day out, sucking up water from the world and energy from their owners, giving nothing in return?
There are tons of alternatives to lawns that can be more appropriate for the California climate. Xeriscaping, or the practice of using drought tolerant plants for decorative landscaping, is rapidly becoming more popular as homeowners are trying to keep their front yards looking neat and elegant while cutting down their water costs and environmental impact. Xeriscaping can involve non-native plants such as certain succulents that work with the local environmental conditions, or can even incorporate native Bay Area plants such as deergrass and sticky monkey. If you enjoy spending time and energy tending to your lawn, then functional gardens, such as ones filled with food or medicinal plants, can also be a great use of outdoor space that can benefit not just you but the entire community, if you choose to share your harvest.
If you are looking to fill up space with something simple and elegant but low maintenance, there are many different kinds of more drought tolerant groundcover plants that don’t require nearly as much work as lawns, such as Angelina sedum or the ice plant. If you want an area for kids to play around or to do other activities, you can implement mulch, pavement or durable ground cover plants such as clover or yarrow, both of which can thrive in California with minimal upkeep and little to no irrigation after they are established. And of course, if you absolutely must have grass, you can use more low maintenance, drought resistant grass species, such as buffalograss, blue grama or sheep fescue, which all require a fraction of the water regular fescue and Kentucky bluegrass needs.
And of course, there is always the best option of them all: You can opt for an entirely native landscape filled with plants such as coyote mint, California poppy, narrow leaf milkweed and tons of other options that are already perfectly tailored to the Bay Area environment. After putting in the initial work to establish these plants, you can create a nearly self-sustaining ecosystem that may act as a lifeline for some local small animal species, such as insects and birds. You may be working with such a small amount of land you may think it won’t even matter, but little sanctuaries of native biodiversity can be crucial to sustaining local wildlife, especially in a place as heavily populated as the Bay Area.
No matter what your reason for wanting a lawn is, there is a better option out there that is more constructive for your space, time, energy and the environment. Let’s quit the insanity and cure California of this obsession once and for all. Stop growing lawns and start using your land productively — whether that be for the local ecosystem, the larger environment, the community or even just yourself.