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Lawn talk

A few weeks ago, I said I'd give you some information about lawns in the landscape design and why we generally have them in front of the house.

Lawns were not a part of the English landscape plan until the 17th and 18th centuries. Until that time, all available land was needed for agricultural purposes. Not only that, it was difficult and labor-intensive to care for a meadow without the help of grazing animals.

But early in the 18th century, landscape gardening for the aristocracy entered its “golden age,” and the lawn was born. It then became fashionable to use outdoor areas for social purposes, such as games and walking. Those of higher status also were indicating that they were wealthy enough to not need all the land they owned for agriculture. Grass was not generally used for lawns, but instead they used low-growing meadow plants such as chamomile. Today, we call it ground cover.

Thomas Jefferson is often credited for being the first to attempt an English-style lawn in America, and other wealthy landowners followed his example. Then a major invention took us to the next level, so to speak. That was the mechanical lawn mower. Edwin Budding was inspired to make it after observing a machine used in cloth mills that used a bladed reel to trim the irregular nap of woolen cloth, and give it a smooth finish.

That, coupled with the ability of the Shakers to grow an abundance of grass seed — more than was needed by farmers for pastures — led us to the use of grass, instead of meadow plants, and lawns and parks began to proliferate in the colonies. 

In 1868, Frederick Olmstead, who planned New York City's Central Park in 1857, designed a planned community near Chicago. Homes were set back from the street, with no walls in front of the houses allowed. Homeowners in this new community also agreed to let their lawns abut one another, giving the impression that the area was a large park. Thus was born suburbia, and the lawn-in-front-of-the-house design has never left us.

Some other factors encouraged this fashion, too. One was the passage of legislation in 1938 of the 40-hour work week, giving homeowners more time to spend caring for their landscaping. Another was the end of World War II, after which veterans were granted the ability to buy homes with no money down, and the Federal Housing Administration allowing other citizens to buy with 10 to 30 percent down. They came in droves to the suburbs.

As with most history, however, a few rocks appeared in the road. One was the economic recession in 2008, which resulted in many people digging up their lawns, and planting fruit and vegetables instead. By that time, it was also determined that all those chemicals used on lawns may be harming the ecosystem.

As we in Southern Oregon can agree, the shortage of water has become a real factor. In the western U.S., nearly 50 percent of residential water is used for landscaping, mostly lawns. That is about 200 gallons of drinkable-quality water per person per day. In the West, the amount is higher than the national average because we don't get summer rains. And we haven't even addressed the fertilizers and pesticides that wash away into our streams, or air and noise pollution from power mowers.

Maybe it's time to get back to ground covers instead of grass, growing more of our own food, and if you need a lawnmower, make it a push type.

Coming up: Julie Smitherman, water conservation specialist, will discuss sustainable irrigation practices in a class from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 11 at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. Cost is $10. Call 541-776-7371 to register.