The Green Carpet at Versailles was one of the first lawns designed strictly for show. Photo: Remi Jouan, Wikimedia Commons
Conqueror of the suburbs, the lawn has quietly made its place into our everyday life. Here’s its fascinating history, from the medieval village greens to the garden of Downton Abbey and the arrival of inexpensive lawn mowers.
If there is one element that dominates our suburbs, it’s the lawn. This carpet of greenery stretches over vast areas, dominating the landscape as soon as you leave the city’s core of concrete and asphalt. Not many houses don’t have one … and around many homes, it is indeed the only living decoration. But where does this overwhelming popular fashion come from?
The Beginnings of the Lawn
The first lawns were likely village greens or town commons, found throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The citizens of the village had the right to graze their cows, sheep, horses, etc. on this communal pasture. The constant grazing produced a very short meadow which was called lawn, from the Middle English launde, for glade or opening in the woods.
The aristocracy adopted a similar green space around their castles: again, one simply maintained by grazing animals. The idea at the time was said to show that the owner was a good Christian (a reminder of the many references to sheep, shepherds and pastures in the bible), but in this period of almost constant war, a grassy space free of tall vegetation also let you see the enemy coming from afar.
French- and English-Style Gardens
When André Le Nôtre designed the gardens of Versailles for Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century, launching the jardin à la française (French formal garden), he included a vast “green carpet” (also called “Royal Alley”), a parterre of vegetation kept mowed by gardeners with scythes and located on the garden’s main axis. This was probably one of the first strictly ornamental lawns in history.
The cool, humid climate of Western Europe made such an innovation possible. It would be difficult to imagine lawn having evolved in the hot, arid climates of Mesopotamia or Egypt.
Soon such “green carpets” began to spread all over Europe along with the French formal style, because nobles wanted to imitate the Sun King.
But the reign of the French formal garden—highly geometric and dominated by precisely trimmed hedges, designed to show the total domination of man over nature—was actually short-lived. It was almost wiped off the map less than a century later with the arrival of the English landscape garden, under the influence of English designer Capability Brown (1716–1744).
This style offers a return to a more natural look, a rediscovery of nature … but of nature as improved by human hands. Brown designed sweeping pastoral landscapes marked by artificial hills, asymmetrically shaped lakes, serpentine streams, seemingly natural groves, etc. Connecting all these elements was an undulating green lawn. Maintenance is still mainly done by the cattle and sheep, which were prevented from wandering into the manor house by “ha-has”, ditches specially designed so as to appear invisible from a distance.
Do you remember the layout of the grounds, with its endless green lawn and tall evergreens, of the TV series Downton Abbey? That was a pure English landscape garden.
The idea of the English landscape garden was to show that the owners could afford to devote vast amounts of highly valuable land to purely aesthetic purposes. They often held garden parties and lunches on the grass with hundreds of guests. Only the richest could afford such luxury.
But with the arrival of the first lawn mowers, timidly in the 1830s, but especially from 1860 on, first the gentry, then the middle class took the style for themselves. Now there was no need to hire teams of peasants wielding scythes, one man could mow a vast lawn over just a few days.
So, the price of maintaining a lawn dropped considerably. Not only could the castles and manors of the landed gentry have vast lawns, but simple country homes as well.
By the Victorian era, even as the lawn was taking over upper-class abodes, lawn sports—croquet, tennis, lawn bowling, polo, etc.—were also becoming popular and they required flat grassy surfaces. Yet another reason to put in a lawn!
Also new to the time was the revolutionary idea that it was healthy for both body and mind to be outdoors in a natural setting. This led to the creation of city parks dominated by lawn, a type of urban green space that remains popular to this day. Many city parks are essentially English landscape gardens minus the manor or castle.
In the New World
The most affluent North Americans have always followed European fashions attentively, and, especially from the 1870s on, their homes too began to be surrounded by lawn, first in the countryside, but soon just outside of towns as well. This is the birth of the suburb, then as now dominated by lawns. Where North Americans innovated was in setting the suburban house not near the street, which was the tradition for middle-class homes in Europe, but in the center of the lot, well back from the road, and surrounding it with lawn to clearly show the status of the owners.
Until this point, lawns were composed of whatever grew there naturally and could support mowing: not just grasses, but clover, plantain, dandelions and other herbaceous plants. There was as yet no concept of a lawn weed. Soon, though, grass and clover lawn seed mixtures began to be sold, not for pasture development, as in the past, but to create more beautiful lawns. Then the turf industry was launched, allowing homeowners to create instant lawns with rolls of turf.
With the arrival of cheap mowers, accessible cars and the 40-hour work week just before WWII, giving everyone a Saturday off to mow the lawn (Sunday, of course, being entirely devoted to religious activities), the middle class was ready to leave the city and settle massively in the suburbs, an area that had, until then, been reserved for the rich. And every little house had to be surrounded by lawn. In fact, lawns were not only a fad, but often municipal regulations actually required homeowners to plant a lawn … and some cities still do to this day.
Grass Takes Over
As mentioned, the first lawns were made up of any plant capable of surviving regular mowing, but that would change after the Second World War.
At this time, golf was also gaining ground and although not everyone yet had the means to play this elite sport, envious homeowners did take note of meticulously maintained golf greens from which any plant other than grass was banned … and they wanted the same. So, when selective herbicides that could kill all plants in a lawn except grasses hit the market after World War II, they were instantly popular. No one questioned their safety. As long as they gave better lawns, that aspect was swept under the carpet.
Clover, until then considered part and parcel of a healthy lawn, now had to be banned as a “weed”. From the 1950s to the 2000s, a good lawn was a grass lawn. Nothing else was tolerated.
The Lawn Today
Quite frankly, not that much has changed since the democratization of the lawn in the 1950s other than suburbs becoming even more expansive. When, early in the 21st century, most countries banned cosmetic lawn pesticides for ecological and health reasons, many homeowners managed to circumvent the law by stocking up on now illegal herbicides or finding new ones that hadn’t yet been banned, thus continuing to poison the air, soil and waterways in their quest for the perfect lawn.
Despite that, attitudes are gradually changing. If you let too many dandelions bloom, you are still looked at askance, as in the 1950s. But what is different now is that, if there are no dandelions at all, you are now suspected of poisoning the environment and the reaction is hardly better. In fact, in some landscaping competitions, if your lawn is totally weed-free, it’s presumed herbicides were used and points are actually deducted!
A more sustainable lawn, where grasses and non-grasses are allowed to mingle freely, is catching on bit by bit, as home gardeners learn to use slower growing grasses that need mowing less frequently (low maintenance grasses), avoid lawn pesticides and herbicides, stop fertilizing other than grasscycling and let lawns slip into summer dormancy in areas where summer rains are infrequent. You also see more and more vegetable gardens replacing lawns in front yards and also far more interest in edible landscapes. It’s as if we are now proud to show that we grow our own vegetables rather than being ashamed of the practice.
Still, I believe that the lawn will be a part of our peri-urban landscape for a very long time to come, but I do hope it will continue to take on a more and more natural look. After all, what’s so bad about having a few yellow flowers in a green carpet?