By Daniel Ray, Editor in Chief at LawnStarter.com
For centuries, people have appreciated lawns, although not always for the same reasons we do today.
In medieval times, members of royalty would encourage open expanses of grasses around their castles, so as to better see approaching enemies.
Formal gardens, including grassy areas, have been cultivated for centuries in Europe, Japan and China. Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries began to cultivate turfgrass as playground areas. One bowling green in England, the Southampton Old Bowling Green, has been in continuous use since 1299.
The word “lawn” itself originated from the word “launde” in Old French, meaning wooded district or heath. By the 1700s, the word had entered English and acquired the meaning of mowed, grassy area. The actual mowing, in those days, was accomplished by scythes for the wealthy, and grazing animals for everyone else.
Lawns for commoners got a huge boost on Aug. 31, 1830. On that day, machinist Edwin Beard Budding of Thrupp, in Gloucestershire, England, was granted patent 5990 for his invention: the first lawn mower. In his application, he described it as “a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass plats of pleasure grounds, constituting a machine which may be used with advantage instead of a scythe for that purpose.”
The first lawn mower using Budding’s design was manufactured in 1832.
The patented design proved to be a superior alternative to the scythe, especially for use on large sports fields and gardens. By 1902, the first gas-powered mower was invented, paving the way towards the creation the same rotary gas-powered mowers we use today. Modern-day yard and lawn culture began in the mid-20th century following World War II, coinciding with the boom in subdivisions (defined neighborhoods and suburban living) in the 1940s and 50s.
Much of the rapid proliferation of lawns in America that we see these days can be attributed to the growth in the residential subdivisions, chiefly by Abraham Levitt. Levitt built more than 17,000 homes from 1947 to 1951, each with its own yard, in Levittown, N.Y. On adding the lawns to each homestead Levitt stated, “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns".
American homeowners without large properties and farms had paid attention to maintaining a front lawn in the early parts of the 20th century, but the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s saw a decline in individuals’ abilities to care for their grass and gardens. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to maintain a presentable front yard as a sign of support and strength for the war effort. When former servicemen returned home and were able to buy affordable housing using the GI Bill, an attractive lawn and front yard became a symbol of stability and prosperity.
Lawn care today requires extensive money and resources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated that 1/3 of public water resources goes toward landscaping and as much as 70 percent of public water in the western states.
Rising land value prices in the 20th century caused residential developers to move houses closer together, forgoing land around the house for a defined front and back yard to preserve some feeling of open space for the homeowner.
For many people, the backyard has become an extension of their house. It is where they cook, eat and entertain. It’s also where they are able to do work, like tending a garden or working in a garage or shed. With careful architecture and landscaping the backyard can be turned into an outdoor oasis in the middle of a common neighborhood, fit with a water feature, playground, and/or cooking appliance.
Because of those recreational and practical features in the backyard, it has become a popular communal meeting place for many Americans. The backyard is the perfect place to entertain guests on a holiday or invite friends over to share the swimming pool or trampoline.
There has also been a recent rise in urban farming and backyard agriculture. Many people have not just built vegetable gardens in their backyards, but have taken to adding small livestock. There has been a surge in the popularity of homeowners raising chickens for eggs and meat or goats for milk.
There has even been a return to the old ways of mowing grass. Targeted grazing, in which grazing animals are set free on a specific lot of land, has been touted as a way to keep lawns neat without the need for machinery.Read Next: Lawn Mowing - Everything You Need to Know