Ohio State University Extension Bulletin

Ornamental Plants Annual Reports and Research Reviews 2000

Special Circular 177-01

The American Lawn: An Unrequited Love

Martin F. Quigley

The most ubiquitous feature of the American constructed landscape is the lawn of closely mown turfgrass, currently covering more land area than any agricultural crop. In the United States alone, lawns cover upwards of 50,000 square miles, more than 80% of which is residential land.

Rather than the mixed species turf that evolved specifically in the British Isles as the result of regular grazing and frequent precipitation, most American lawns are either monospecific or a blend of only two or three species. The ideal is what Bormann (1993) calls the "Industrial Lawn:"

"[The American lawn] is not attuned to the peculiarities of place." That is, regardless of climate, weather, soils, or topography, the expectations are the same nationwide. To meet this expectation, over the last century, the turf industry has developed both tougher and more desirable strains of both warm- and cool-season turfgrasses, but even a cursory reading of lawn-care advertising confirms that most residential lawn care is a losing battle against climate, pests and traffic, and other variables.

Turf maintenance is unquestionably the single most labor- and input-intensive component of the constructed landscape. Approximately $30 billion per year is currently spent on lawn installation, care products, equipment, and the lawn service industry. The concept of the attainably perfect lawn remains sacrosanct - despite Americans' increased "environmental consciousness."

And while ornamental grasses are increasing in both popularity and availability, these grasses are being sold as decorative border plants or flower bed accents (along with shrubs and herbaceous perennials), not as substitutes for turfgrass. Only in some areas of the arid southwestern United States has municipal legislation actually begun to proscribe residential lawns, and in fact, many American communities actually have ordinances requiring a certain level of landscape turf maintenance.

Our idea and ideal of the residential lawn is the product of sustained and very successful marketing and is based on the popularization and idealization of a "natural" turf. This began in the 19th century as a conscious imitation of British estate grounds, and was made possible here by the invention of the reel mower (around 1830) and the rapid growth of residential suburban zones around the cities of the east and Midwest. The ideal of the American lawn was subsequently subsidized by the USDA (developing seed sources for turf-forming grasses), the U.S. Golf Association (codifying the maintenance regime and mowing height for a closely clipped sward), and the Garden Clubs of America, including their City Beautiful Movement in the early part of this century (equating lawns with "hygiene" and civic responsibility).

But, while almost every American home owner has one, based on the evidence of this survey and the sales figures for lawn products, few people are actually satisfied with their lawns. By the end of the last decade, the EPA estimated that 70 million pounds of chemicals were being applied annually to lawns, representing a higher concentration of chemical input than for any form of agriculture. Lawn-care products (from improved seed to systemic fertilizers and pesticides), machinery for every task, and maintenance services all continue to be profitable industries.

Considerable recent research and publication have suggested that Americans are ready for a variety of alternatives to the standard residential landscape, particularly the dominance of the lawn. This has prompted a great deal of interest in development, production, and promotion of no-turf groundcovers, "native" and "ornamental" grasses, and, to some extent, a changing approach to design of the residential landscape itself. However, there is little evidence that the average American really wants to change either the extent, the look, or even the intensive maintenance of the typical lawn.

To help develop realistic goals for the writer's own horticultural research in evergreen, non-grass ground covers, the writer wanted to know the degree of commitment of "average" American homeowners to their lawns and to gauge their awareness of non-lawn landscape potential. Lawn care has been called a "petrochemical addiction" (Graham 1996), and the environmental consequences are inarguable. But, apparently, regardless of environmental impacts, it is a given that the market will respond only to public demand. What is that demand, when it comes to lawns?

Over a three-year period, more than 900 survey questionnaires were completed by middle-class, middle-American college students at Eastern Illinois University. The demographics of the students were very consistent in every class - exactly half the students were from Chicago suburbs, and the other half came from smaller towns and rural farming communities "down-state" from the metropolitan area. Family income ranged from about $25,000 per year to just over $100,000 per year - there was neither extreme poverty nor great wealth. Regardless of family composition, income, ethnicity, or any other variable, 100% of these students had grown up in detached, single-family houses, and 100% of those houses had lawns. Thus, every respondent had personal experience and family involvement with lawns - maintaining grass for recreational use, for appearance alone, or both.

The survey instrument contained both subjective lines of inquiry. Family makeup, income, housing, and general "lifestyle" were first described. Then, 15 specific questions were answered either numerically (e.g., actual of maintained lawn per residence, how many mowings per year, how many hours per week spent using the lawn as opposed to tending it), or by yes/no answers (e.g., whether fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation were used, whether a push mower or a riding mower was used). Finally, a series of subjective comments was solicited (e.g., "Do you love your lawn?"). These tended to become family exercises in which the students' parents were frequently quoted. To increase reliability and to standardize the analysis, the survey results were rigorously weeded of any incomplete questionnaires, or any with internally inconsistent responses (e.g., respondents who said that 1.2 ha (3 ac) of lawn required 20 minute per week to mow with a push mower).

Among the survey respondents, median lawn size was an acre. The average lawn size was just over an acre, but this number is skewed by the inclusion of residential lawns of 5 acres or more in some of the rural properties. All these lawns were regularly mowed, whether or not they were used for anything but their appearance. According to Michael Pollan (1991), "Since we have traditionally eschewed fences and hedges in America, the suburban vista can be marred by the negligence - or dissent - of a single property owner. That is why lawn care is regarded as such an important civic responsibility in the suburbs. ..."

Average number of mowings per year was 30 (median = 26), for an average total of 65 hours spent mowing per year, or of 2.2 hours per mowing. However, the median time for individual mowing was 1.5 hours; there was extreme variation in these particular data, probably due to inclusion of other "yard work" as part of lawn care by some respondents. In any case, most mid-western homeowners mow once a week during the growing season. Despite relatively small lawn areas owned by the majority of families, 41% used riding mowers; 58% used only power walking mowers; fewer than 1% had reel mowers. There was an obvious correlation between larger lawn size and riding mowers, but many small lawns are also mowed with riding mowers. Aside from those who used contractors for pesticide applications, fewer than 2% of respondents contracted with service companies for actual lawn mowing - these are middle-class Americans, tending their own grounds.

Non-labor inputs varied greatly; more than half of the homeowners (55%) provided at least some irrigation during the growing season, although relatively few had automatic systems. Two-thirds (66%) fertilized regularly, and some quite frequently. Only 40%, however, used any kind of pesticide or herbicide during the whole maintenance year. If the total chemical concentrations being applied to lawns are truly more than any agricultural crop, at the national level, this would suggest that a significant number of people are grossly exceeding recommended application rates.

Family time spent using, enjoying, or simply "being" on the lawn varied greatly among respondents, and averaged 175 hours per year - five or six hours per week, usually on weekends, and primarily when the household contained young children and/or dogs. Median use time per household, however, was only 58 hours, less than an hour a week. Furthermore, 26% of respondents spent absolutely no time at all outside on their lawn, and another 26% spent less time using than they did maintaining their lawns. However, even though more than half of these respondents did not use their lawn much, or at all, 96% answered "yes" to "Do you love your lawn?"

Stated opinions in the survey were very strong:

  1. Do you love your lawn? Like it? Yes or no, and why?

  2. If all the grass died, would you replace it?

  3. Do you ever consider your lawn a waste of time and money?

  4. Would you prefer an evergreen groundcover planting that needs no mowing, and weeding only once per year?

  5. Do you consider the lawn essential to your property value?

When asked how many months of the year their lawn actually looked good, the average was 4.7 months (median = 4 mos). Almost no respondents drew the connection, that for at least two-thirds of the year, their lawns bear no resemblance to the established ideal (green and lush) in their personal imagination, or on the television. Obviously, despite regular maintenance and doing "the right things" to achieve the proper lawn, the surveyed Midwesterners recognized that the "product" of all the labor and input was not the promised image. Yet, 97% of respondents considered that the turf lawn itself (not just "an attractive landscape" or other planting alternatives) was "essential to their property value."

Despite Americans' avowed love of "nature," perception studies have repeatedly suggested that landscaping with obvious human influence or elements is generally preferred to "wild" or unmaintained scenes. It is ironic, that while broad sweeps of lawn seem intrinsically appealing to our cultural bias, it is the framing or enclosure by more vertical elements, such as trees, that actually created the landscape "effect," without which the lawn would be perceived as a void. In fact, the most startling result of the subjective responses was the frequency of assertion that lawns are "natural," or "a part of nature." There was almost no consciousness that the amount of maintenance required for the average American lawn, including all the mechanical and chemical inputs they perform themselves, completely undercuts the notion of any "naturalness" in a high-input, mono-specific sweep of turf.

While almost 100% of survey respondents considered the lawn essential to their property and life-style, some did disparage the maintenance requirements, and said "... the lawn is just there to please the neighbors." However, no one wondered whether the neighbors might feel the same way. How, then, can a change in landscape preferences, including the predominance of turfgrass, actually begin? A few survey respondents said they might consider a low-maintenance, evergreen groundcover an acceptable substitute for their turf - usually for shady places where grass would not grow in any case. However, most lawn owners, even those who were allergic to grass or who spent no time using their lawn for recreation, were deeply suspicious of any non-grass alternative.

Tessyot (1999) quotes J. B. Jackson (1951) saying, "In America, the lawn is more than essential. Yet to condemn [lawns] or justify them on utilitarian or esthetic grounds is to miss the point entirely. The lawn is precisely that landscape element which every American values most." Clearly, the American lawn is an icon that has more than functional value to the average homeowner. It is an emblem of pride of ownership - and it is unlikely that any alternative treatment for the residential landscape, no matter how attractive or environmentally preferable, will be easily embraced by the American public.

Therefore, horticultural research and marketing must be focused not on eliminating or replacing the lawn as a concept, but on developing better plant materials that will achieve the desired look and proper function of turfgrass lawns - a durable, walkable surface with less required mowing or petrochemical input. To be successful, these species or cultivars must not only thrive without the high inputs demanded by conventional lawns, but must be green for a greater proportion of the year.

John Greenlee (Graham, 1996) is working on "natural" lawns - not just by selecting drought-tolerant grass species such as buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) or salt grass (Distichlis spicata) but by examining non-grasses, such as sedges (Carex spp.), for their ability to grow into turf-like mats of acceptable color and durability. It is this kind of research that will pay the biggest dividends in the horticultural industry. As a nation, we have heavily invested - both culturally and financially - in lawns for a century and a half. Rather than change the public desire for a "lawn," it is more practical and profitable for the industry to meet that expectation with more appropriate and sustainable plants.

Literature Cited

Bormann, F. H., D. Balmori, and G. T. Geballe. 1993. Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Conover, H. S. 1958. Ground Maintenance Handbook. 2nd Ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Graham, W. 1996. The grassman: can John Greenlee do away with the lawn? The New Yorker. Aug. 19, 1996.

Jenkins, V. S. 1994. The Lawn: A history of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D.C.

Kaplan, R., S. Kaplan, and R. L. Ryan. 1998. With People in Mind: Design and Management of Everyday Nature. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

Pollan, M. 1991. "Why Mow?" Second Nature. Atlantic Monthly Press. New York.

Teyssot, G., Ed. 1999. The American Lawn. Priceton Architectural Press. New York.

Wolfe, J. III and J. M. Zajicek. 1998. Are ornamental grasses acceptable alternatives for low-maintenance landscapes? J. Environ. Hort. 16(1):8-11.

Wyss, B. 1999 "Consider getting rid of the lawn." The Providence Journal; reprinted in The Columbus Dispatch. 8/15/99. Columbus, Ohio. p. 13J.

Zmyslony, J. and D. Gagnon. 1998. Residential management of urban front-yard landscape: a random process? Landscape and Urban Planning 40: 295-307.

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