Go for an Edible Estate …the case against lawns
Why do we dedicate so much property to something that requires precious resources, endless hours and contaminates our air and water?Posted Jan 28, 2009
The front lawn is so deeply embedded in our national psyche that we don’t really see it any more, at least for what it actually is. What is that chasm between house and street? Why is it there? Or rather, why is nothing there?
I grew up surrounded by a lawn. This is a common American phenomenon. Perhaps the first growing thing most of us experience as a child is, indeed, a mowed grassy surface. How are a child’s ideas of “the natural” affected by this? Of course, there is nothing remotely natural about a lawn. It is an industrial landscape disguised as organic plant material.
As a teenager I passed many weekend afternoons mowing the lawn and I loved it. The more overgrown the lawn, the greater the sense of satisfaction as you roar over it to reveal that crisp trimmed surface and fresh grassy smell. I suppose most of my outdoor time as a youth was spent on a lawn. It is the first defensive ring between the family unit and everything beyond. It is the border control that physically and psychologically keeps wilderness, city, and strangers at a safe distance.
The Birth of the American Dream
Even if you have never seen Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in the hills of Virginia, you know it well. It is still the de facto prototype for the American home. You may recognize its prominent features in many contemporary housing developments: the Palladian windows, the white-columned portico, the red brick facade, and the vast green lawn that dominates the landscape around it. Jefferson’s house is very much in the tradition of the English estate.
Master of all it surveys, wilderness at bay, anchored on the lawn, the illusion of absolute independence – this is still the model for most Americans’ real-estate fantasies. Jefferson had a well-documented love affair with his kitchen garden, which was really more like a small domestic farm. He kept a detailed diary of its growth and evolution through the seasons and years. He lavished upon it devoted attention and care. It seems to have been one of the great passions of his life. And yet, where did he locate it?
The house is clearly the focus of the site, on top of the hill and the center of all power. But his beloved garden is hidden from view, to the side and slightly down the hill. The lawn and flowerbeds are laid out in soft decorative curves, a pleasing complement to the house and obviously meant for pleasure. The hidden productive garden, however, is terraced on a long straight bed, divided into a grid, crops arrayed neatly in rows. With that binary division between sterile ornamental pleasure and pragmatic secluded production, Jefferson reinforced an attitude toward our national landscape that we are still living with today. Roll out the lawn and hide the crops!
Given Monticello’s early influence, how would American neighborhoods look today if Jefferson had decided to plant his food in front of his house instead? The world wars left many farms across the United States short-handed. The federal government embarked on a campaign to encourage Americans to do their part by growing food on their own property. First called war gardens and later victory gardens, they quickly became popular across the country.
By the end of World War II, over 80 percent of American households were growing some of their own food. Within months after Victory Day this activity quickly subsided. With its demise went the widespread knowledge among most Americans of how to grow their own food. In Schrebergärten in Germany today we see some evidence of what a neighborhood of victory gardens might have looked like. These community gardens were first developed as a social program in nineteenth-century Berlin.
Residents were allotted plots in green belts at the periphery of the city, giving them the opportunity to seek respite from the confines of their urban lives by traveling a short distance to work in a food and flower garden. On each plot they would construct a small cottage, and many relocated to these tiny shelters after the city was bombed during World War II. Visiting these gardens, which can still be found throughout Germany, is like stepping into either some agrarian past or a utopian future.
Each yard is a diverse and abundant display of food growing. Most of the gardens are meticulously groomed and maintained to such an extent that it becomes clear this is not just about sustenance; they are also meant to be delightful pleasure gardens. In this otherworldly neighborhood of gardens, modest human quarters are subservient to the land that feeds the residents.
Back in the United States, the introduction of the leisure weekend, the abundance of fresh water, the production of industrial pesticides, the availability of the lawn mower and cheap gas, and the rise of home ownership with the explosion of new suburban housing developments in the 1940s and ’50s all set the stage for the unfurling of the great American lawn as we know it today. Its puritanical aspects seem suited to the Eisenhower years of good manners. Is there a connection between landscape and hairstyles? Trimmed grass and crew cuts seem like obvious companions. Nature is not something you surrender to; rather, if you use enough industrial force, you can bend it to your will. This premise and the assumption that land and natural resources were in infinite supply are in part what gave us today’s lawned landscape.