California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared war on the lawn.
“The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day — that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Brown said in April as he announced historic water restrictions in the face of the state’s worsening drought.
Since then, Californians have been abandoning grass with gusto. A rebate program aimed at enticing homeowners to rip up their water-greedy landscapes proved so popular it used up all its funds in just over a month. And new restrictions approved by the California Water Commission Wednesday limit new lawns to 25 percent of residential yards and bans grass in front of new commercial, industrial and institutional buildings almost entirely.
“You have to find a more elegant way of relating to material things,” Brown said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You have to use them with greater sensitivity and sophistication.”
Those words were, in California at least, the death knell of an icon. Once a broad green manifestation of the American dream, lawns are now apparently inelegant, insensitive and unsophisticated.
They’re also a lot of work, a fact that both calls into question and entirely explains how they became so popular in the first place. Ever since their inception centuries ago, lawns have been a symbol of status — lush, living proof that a person had the resources (and the room) to cultivate a carpet of grass.
The notion of a lawn — which comes from the Middle English word launde — originally referred to communal grazing spaces in Medieval France and England, where the mild winters and humid summers are suited to the growth of grass. But the aristocracy soon found other uses for them — leisure, sports, the satisfying feeling of surveying the yard at the neighboring castle and determining that your own grasses were greener. According to Scientific American, Henry III (who ruled England from 1216 to 1272) was so particular about his lawn he ordered laborers to cut tracts of naturally occurring turf elsewhere and replant them at his palace. Initially these lush expanses were kept short by grazing livestock, but by the 17th and 18th centuries those who could afford to hired laborers to mow their grass — so much the better for keeping the blades neatly and perfectly shorn.
By the late 18th century, love of the lawn had crossed the Atlantic. According to Virginia Jenkins, author of “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” lawnkeeping wasn’t natural in America, and instead “had to be taught by arbiters of taste,” she wrote. The first American lawns belonged to wealthy gentlemen — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Pennsylvania Gov. John Penn — and were associated with abundance and influence. When Andrew Jackson Downing, sometimes considered the father of American landscape architecture, began writing books on gardening in the mid-1800s, lawns were deemed absolutely mandatory.
“No expenditure in ornamental gardening is, to our mind, productive of so much beauty as that incurred in producing a well kept lawn,” he insisted.
Still, for most of early American history vast green lawns were the domain of the elite. Few Americans had the space to cultivate such expanses, and even those who did lacked the time to care for them.
Three 20th century inventions changed all that: the mechanical lawnmower, the 40-hour work week, and the suburb. Suddenly Americans had the means, the time and the room to mow. And mow they did.
When Abraham Levitt began selling homes in his cookie cutter suburban hamlets in 1948, each house came with a pamphlet on how to care for the front lawn. Home ownership in places like Levittown was a symbol of middle class achievement, and a well-kept lawn was a giant green billboard for conveying that message.
But it wasn’t just about ego — cultivating a lawn was considered a moral imperative, a way of demonstrating respectability. Some cities even had “lawn maintenance” ordinances that meant people could be fined for an unsightly brown yard (a practice California only just banned this week). Residents of Levitt’s communities were required by contract to mow at least once a week between April and November, according to the New Yorker.
“A fine carpet of green grass stamps the inhabitants as good neighbors, as desirable citizens,” Levitt wrote.
In the 1960s, when millions of people began moving to states like California, they took their lawns with them — despite the fact that the vast expanses of green made little ecological sense in the arid west. But just like Henry III with his transplanted turf, Californians were willing to rely on technological workarounds to get what they wanted.
In this case, those workarounds were the drought mitigation techniques developed during the 20th century.
“This would never have happened without the Hetch Hetchy, without Owens Valley without taking the water to allow us to have an oasis where it really shouldn’t happen,” landscape architect Sarah Sutton told KQED, referring to the reservoir and aqueduct that convey water to California cities.
The assumption of cheap and abundant water — enabled by technological innovations that turned even the bone dry Colorado Desert into lush Palm Springs — was a critical component of the California dream. Just like the state’s booming cities and massive farms, the presence of wide green lawns in the once-parched landscape was a symbol of success.
Even in the midst of previous droughts, when a lawn became a biological impossibility, Californians fought to keep their grassy expanses. During a dry spell in the late 1980s, after the city of Santa Barbara instituted an 18-month ban on watering lawns, landscaping companies began offering services to paint residents’ grass green.
“After working hard all day, some people don’t want to come home to a brown lawn,” Martin Senn, a manager at a local nursery, told the Times.
This summer, though, in the fourth year of California’s worst drought on record, the lawn’s symbolic meaning has shifted. Rather than wealth, it implies waste. And where Levittown residents once admonished their neighbors for scruffy grass, Californians now turn to Twitter to #droughtshame those who still water their yards.
It was a good 1,000-year run for the green, grassy lawn. But, in the words of California’s “Save our Water” campaign slogan, it’s time to let it “fade to gold.”
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