Lawns have been a cultural obsession for centuries. Beginning in the days of English aristocracy as a symbol for the elite, lawns have represented wealth, abundance, and social status. In the United States, a mysterious social pressure to maintain an impeccable lawn has percolated through urban and suburban communities. For unexplainable reasons, people have spent countless hours on their days off from work slaving over their lawns in attempt to attract the attention of those passing by. Many are now questioning these deep-rooted ideals. The notion that voided space, occupied by a lawn, can be put to use is an appealing idea for those who only get a water and fertilizer bill in return from their front yard. Countless options are available for these individuals rethinking the conventional lawn. Beyond the realm of a dynamic California native landscape (displayed on the east side of the library), incorporating native grasses into these areas is a highly attractive option. California native grasses are adapted to our climate and thrive in our soils, developing extensive root systems that are able to tap into water sources otherwise hard to access.
These bunchgrasses hang low to the ground and devote their growth to the extensive root systems that stabilize hot, dry hillsides. With the ability to live well over a century, species such as Nasella pulchra are known to produce root systems up to 20 feet deep, outcompeting many plants unable to access vital resources. Unfortunately, a major threat to the steadily declining populations of California native grasses are the introduced annual grasses that are now littered throughout North America. Prior to Spanish colonization and the introduction of their barnyard and brick making grasses, native bunchgrasses spanned the entire state. They are now highly fragmented into small populations in select regions throughout the state. Preservation of these relic strands is of high conservation concern. Existing populations are declining in response to weeds, urbanization, and poor fire management strategies.
Fig A: Deschampsia caespitosa surrounded by introduced annual grasses
A Brief History of the Conventional Lawn
The lawn originated in medieval settlements serving as communal livestock grazing areas. Townspeople assemble into common areas and share the same patch of grass among the community. In a sense, this is a variation on the modern park. Toward the end of the middle ages, English aristocracy began devoting plots of land to large, manicured lawns for their aesthetic quality. These lawns symbolized royalty and the ability to use land for such purposes.
Centuries passed and the popularity of lawns among western Europeans grew. Albeit, to this time, lawns were highly labor intensive as the contemporary lawnmower had not been invented yet. First seen in the United State during the late 18th century, lawns gained attention as wealthy individuals attempted to mimic English landscaping. Come late 19th century, the lawn mower was invented and the idea of incorporating a lawn seemed more feasible. The industrial revolution and subsequent migration into urban environments sparked a landscaping frenzy as those with unkempt yards were considered low class. Meanwhile parks, golf courses, and baseball fields were popping up and the sight of a manicured lawn became an ordinary sight. The request from the federal government, during World War II, to maintain the integrity of the home front and exemplify the country’s morale established the lawn as a pure form of Americana. The subsequent baby boom generation adopted these values, creating the incessant demand for sod, fertilizer, and the all-familiar bright green lawn.
-Bunchgrass: perennial (living two years and longer) grasses with deep, extensive root systems and leaves attached in a bunch at the soil surface.
-Introduced species: exotic/invasive species brought in from a foreign region (i.e. not native).
Species on Display
- Peter Raven, Ray Evert, and Susan Eichhorn. Biology of Plants. Sixth. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999.
-Calflora: Information on California plants for education, research and conservation.
[web application]. 2008. Berkeley, California: The Calflora Database [a non-profit organization].
Available: http://www.calflora.org/ (Accessed: Oct 20, 2008).
-All photographs: Creative Commons Attribution