Lawns and Lawn History
While a lawn is defined as that portion of a yard or land area covered with mowed turfgrass plants, those patches of turfgrass play an important role in our lives. Why lawns are important is a question well worth exploring.
Internationally-recognized turfgrass scientist, Dr. James B Beard, says, “It is evident that for many, many hundreds of years, man has been willing to invest time and money in improving turfgrasses to achieve better functional, recreational, and aesthetic benefits. Why? Basically, turfgrasses were developed by modern civilizations in order to enhance the quality of life of humans. The more technically advanced a civilization, the more widely turfgrasses are used.”
What’s more, he adds, “Grasses have effectively functioned in protecting our environment for centuries.”
In “The Evolution of Turfgrass Sod,” Dr. Beard shares his extensive research into the story of the lawn’s role in fulfilling these functions.
We’ve compiled highlights from his findings and background from multiple other sources for the short overview of lawn history that follows.
Some scientists note the need for humans to surround themselves with low-growing turfgrass is a trait engrained from our ancient ancestors.
They point to Africa, many thousands of years ago where the low turfgrasses of the expansive savannas allowed humans to better spot approaching danger or stalk their prey.
Fast-forward to the medieval days where, in England and across Europe, tree-free grass-filled spaces around castles made it easier for watchmen to scan the horizon for friend or foe.
For early documented evidence, Dr. Beard points to “published literature” in the 12th century. “..that indicates the existence and the culture of turfgrass lawns..” These “…. low-growing, perennial grasses” were “defoliated regularly by animal grazing or by the use of hand scythes.”
Beard also cites English literature of the late 12th and early 13th centuries reporting sports use of turfgrass.
He points to the “bowling greens” noted then as “…the forerunner of our modern fine turfgrasses that are used on tennis courts, croquet courts, and golf putting greens.” He further points to the cricket of those times as “…the first team sport played on turfgrass.”
As Beard says, “Thus, the use of turfgrass as a surface for outdoor sport had a major evolutionary role in the development of turfgrasses.”
Paintings from the European Renaissance period of the 15th century show turfgrass within the private ornamental lawns and within the public parks spaces of those days. By the 16th century, elaborate formal gardens graced the land of the elite.
During that period and long after, wealthy landowners used much of their grassland for livestock production with the lawns surrounding their homes maintained by their servants with hand scythes.
The villagers devoted most of the space around their homes to the production of vegetables, fruits and herbs, holding central grassy spaces “in common” as the grazing area for their sheep and cows.
Beard reports on “significant development” on the sports side during the 1500s, too, with “…the evolution of the team sport, soccer, as played on the turfgrass areas of public greens in England. There also is documentation concerning the evolution of golf played on turfgrasses in Scotland.”
From the 12th century forward, sodding (also called turfing in the early days) was the form of turfgrass establishment. Beard reports the first written description of sodding appeared in a Japanese book in 1159. Sod was typically harvested by hand from older, established, livestock-grazed lawn sites.
Early immigrants to North America brought this lawn-related culture with them, along with the seed to reproduce it.
Though on both continents, and in China and Japan, only the wealthy could afford expanses of scythe-mown lawns. For the common areas, livestock still did the mowing.
The 19th century brought change to all this.
As Beard reports, “The first mechanical lawn mower was invented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830. Invention of an effective mechanical mowing device allowed more extensive use of mowed turfgrass areas as part of ornamental gardens and larger recreational areas such as parks, the latter allowed less affluent persons to enjoy mowed lawns.”
By 1890, mass production of mechanical mowers made them available to the public at an affordable price.
Aspects of turfgrass care were about to change, too.
Beard says, “This was an era in which numerous trial-and-error approaches were attempted by practitioners to develop specific turfgrass cultural practices to improve the density and functional performance for sports, recreational, and ornamental uses.”
Beard notes the first published scientific turfgrass research conducted by Dr. William J. Beal of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station appeared in the 1890’s.
As Beard reports, “Subsequently, during the twentieth century numerous turfgrass research programs evolved at major universities in the United States and at a few research institutions in other countries around the world.”
The early 19th century also marked the introduction of “a sled-like device” for controlling width and depth while harvesting sod.
Many credit Frederick Law Olmstead for sparking the migration of turfgrass lawns to the homes of ordinary North Americans. He not only designed incredible public spaces, including New York’s Central Park, but also a new look in residential green space. His design for the Chicago suburb of Riverside included a lawn for each home.
By 1952, Abraham Levitt and his sons introduced Long Island to Levittown, their “cookie-cutter” suburban community with established lawns part of the home sale package. This, and their widely-promoted, second planned community drew national attention.
During the same period, the demand for affordable housing skyrocketed with the return of GIs following World War II. As these young men married and started families, the suburban home, complete with lawn, became the American dream.
The proliferation of home lawns, the growing golf and team sport markets, and the increasing popularity of sodding, prompted research by turfgrass breeders in both cool-season and warm-season turfgrass.
As Beard reports, they worked to develop “…. turfgrass cultivars with improved density, uniformity, and pest resistance desired by home owners as well as with year- round sod strength to facilitate harvesting and transplant handling.”
Along with new cultivars for better results with seeding and sodding, advances in technology from the post-war period throughout the 1950s brought major changes to home lawn care.
Do-it-yourself became much easier with the introduction of rotary mowers, effective pesticides, combination fertilizer and weed-control products, and hose-end sprayers and drop and rotary spreaders for more efficient application.
Advanced equipment for other cultural practices, such as aeration, dethatching and topdressing appeared, too.
Sod harvesting and installation equipment and practices opened even more options for turfgrass establishment.
Irrigation, in both in-ground automated systems, and hose-end sprinklers, brought more efficient and effective water control to both commercial and private lawns.
The focus on environmentally-friendly lawn care, with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Best Management Practices (BMP) added a new dimension to lawn maintenance at all levels.
Advances in all these areas of turfgrass science continue at a rapid pace.
As stated by Dr. Beard in The Journal of Environmental Turfgrass, “Through education about proper turf grass selection, irrigation equipment selection and use, man can also realize increased benefits from turfgrass. That little grass plant most of us take for granted may help make this planet more liveable, especially if we learn to give it a chance to give us all of the benefits it is capable of.”
For a more thorough history refer to Field of Dreams…The Evolution of Turfgrass Sod – Dr. James B. Beard.