Lawn mores

TED STEINBERG, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of "American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn."

ONLY IN AMERICA, with its 50-odd-million households participating in lawn care and its 16,000 golf courses, is turf an estimated $40-billion-a-year industry. That is roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Vietnam. The United States is far and away the world’s leader in cultivating perfect, weed-free, ultra-trim, supergreen grass. How did the greening of America come to pass?

The leading theory, mentioned in news reports, rests on genetic predisposition. According to the “savanna thesis,” human beings are attracted to grassy open expanses because we evolved as a species in Africa. “We spent 98% of our evolutionary history in those savanna-like environments,” the ecologist John Falk once explained. “Our habitat preference for short grass and scattered trees seems to be a vestige of that history.”

The problems with the theory extend beyond a lack of evidence. The hypothesis, for example, does not explain why Americans, in particular, are so attached to closely cropped green grass when all human beings -- whether they are French, Nigerian or Chinese -- presumably shared in that same evolutionary experience.


A better explanation rests on history and ecology. While it is true that lawns in the U.S. go back to the time of Washington and Jefferson, only after World War II did the perfect-turf aesthetic emerge. The story begins in the late 1940s with the mass production of suburban homes. Every one of the 17,544 homes built in Levittown, N.Y., was surrounded by grass. But the quest for perfectly groomed expanses of turf doesn’t really begin until the 1950s.

First, you need to understand some ecology. We tend to associate bluegrass -- one of the most common lawn grasses -- with Kentucky, but the species actually hails from the moist, cool climates of Eurasia. Trying to grow bluegrass and other cool-season species here that are not indigenous to North America is thus an uphill battle. Many turf grasses, for example, need an inch of water per week during the spring and summer, or more rain than normally falls anywhere in the continental U.S. during these seasons.

That the deck is stacked against perfection is bad news for the homeowner but a potential windfall for the chemical lawn-care business. Beginning in the 1950s, companies selling herbicides and fertilizer used advertising to cultivate the perfect-turf ideal.

Why did the perfect-lawn aesthetic emerge in the 1950s? Because that was a time in the nation’s economic history when -- with Americans already awash in consumer goods such as refrigerators and washing machines -- manufacturers longed for new ways of stimulating demand. The perfect lawn fueled postwar consumerism as homeowners repeatedly bought products in the elusive quest for an impeccable yard.

There was no business conspiracy here. Lawn-care companies simply pursued their economic self-interest and sold grass seed mixtures that no longer included clover -- until the 1950s a part of all lawns because of its ability to fertilize by adding nitrogen to the soil. Instead, companies urged homeowners to buy a bag of chemicals to make up for the nutrient shortfall. Or better yet, to put down new weed-and-feed products, which killed clover and then fertilized to replace the nitrogen that the clover had once provided for free.

Lawn-care companies also tapped into other postwar developments such as the trend in color. Brightly colored consumer products were all the rage. Supergreen lawns and hot-pink cars became status symbols. Companies pushed multiple fertilization treatments to keep turf at its greenest.

And, of course, beautiful lawns meshed wonderfully with the conformity that was a fixture of life in the ‘50s. What better way to show one’s solidarity with the neighbors than to cultivate the same green expanse of grass out front.

Economic imperatives, color preferences and conformity are better explanations than genetics for the all-American lawn mania. Focusing on genes tempts us to accept as inevitable the roughly 75,000 Americans injured each year using lawnmowers or the groundwater contamination caused by lawn overfertilization. But, in fact, ecological history suggests that traveling back and forth across the yard with our spreaders is no more natural than the chemicals we are putting in the ground.