Ted Steinberg | American Green | W. W. Norton & Company | March 2006 | 43 minutes (7,070 words)

Although there are plenty of irrational aspects to life in modern America, few rival the odd fixation on lawns. Fertilizing, mowing, watering — these are all-American activities that, on their face, seem reasonable enough. But to spend hundreds of hours mowing your way to a designer lawn is to flirt, most would agree, with a bizarre form of fanaticism. Likewise, planting a species of grass that will make your property look like a putting green seems a bit excessive — yet not nearly as self-indulgent as the Hamptons resident who put in a nine-hole course with three lakes, despite being a member of an exclusive golf club located across the street. And what should we make of the Houston furniture salesman who, upon learning that the city was planning to ban morning mowing — to fight a smog problem comparable to Los Angeles’s — vowed to show up, bright and early, armed and ready to cut.“I’ll pack a sidearm,” he said. “What are they going to do, have the lawn police come and arrest me?”

Surprisingly, the lawn is one of America’s leading “crops,” amounting to at least twice the acreage planted in cotton. In 2007, it was estimated that there were roughly twenty-five to forty million acres of turf in the United States. Put all that grass together in your mind and you have an area, at a minimum, about the size of the state of Kentucky, though perhaps as large as Florida. Included in this total were fifty-eight million home lawns plus over sixteen thousand golf-course facilities (with one or more courses each) and roughly seven hundred thousand athletic fields. Numbers like these add up to a major cultural preoccupation.

Not only is there already a lot of turf, but the amount appears to be growing significantly. A detailed study found that between 1982 and 1997, as suburban sprawl gobbled up the nation, the lawn colonized over 382,850 acres of land per year. Even the amount of land eligible for grass has increased, as builders have shifted from single-story homes to multi-story dwellings with smaller footprints. The lawn, in short, is taking the country by storm.

Lawn care is big business, with Americans spending an estimated $40 billion a year on it. That is more than the entire gross domestic product of the nation of Vietnam. Lawn care has become such a competitive field that something as simple as choosing a company name can challenge even the savviest landscape professional. A glance at the national lawn-care directory reveals a very imaginative crowd, able to move beyond the old medical standbys such as Lawn Doctor and Lawn Medic, and such obvious choices as Green Lawn of Riverside, California (not to be confused with Lawn Green of Sacramento, California), into the realm of the avant-garde: Lawn Rescue, Lawn Authority, Lawn Express, Lawn Manicure, Lawn One, Lawn Genies, Lawnsense, Lawn Magic, Ultralawn, Lawnamerica, Lawn Rangers (of Texas, of course), Lawn Barbers, as well as more inventive concoctions such as Marquis de Sodding, the Sod Fathers, and Mow Better Lawns.

April is “National Lawn Care Month” in the United States, but in no other nation of the world. “It’s the perfect time to honor the environment both through Earth Day and National Lawn Care Month,” a representative of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America once explained. And where else can you find advice on a sales pitch like the following one a trade magazine proffered to the up-and-coming lawn professional: “Have a couple of key messages on the benefits of turf. Use statements like . . . ‘I am maintaining your 8,000 square feet of turf so it will continue to provide enough oxygen for your family plus several others in the neighborhood.’”

Surprisingly, the lawn is one of America’s leading “crops,” amounting to at least twice the acreage planted in cotton.

Hardcore lawn enthusiasts explain that they are not even growing “grass.” No, they are involved in something far more serious: tending “turf” (a word that comes from Sanskrit, meaning tuft of grass). A whole new generation of mower technology has come to the fore: hydrostatic walk-behinds, zero-turn units, and commercial riders. Consider the aptly named Xtreme Mowchine, a riding mower said to cut grass at fifteen miles per hour, a speed that, according to the manufacturer, makes it the fastest lawn mower in the world. “IT’S LIKE A MOWER ON STEROIDS!” blares the advertisement. And mowers are hardly the only product line out there for coiffing the yard. An arsenal of machines is now available, even to the amateur — aerators, sod cutters, dethatchers, backpack blowers, trimmers, and edgers — lying in wait to drown out the first sounds of spring.

Sometimes the lengths to which the truly devoted grass enthusiast will go might shock even your most dedicated weekend lawn jockey. Moles are a case in point. These little miscreants have the annoying habit of tunneling beneath the lawn, causing one victim in Florida to liken the “mole subway system” in his yard to “a map of New York City.” Imagine the horror, then, of residents in Washington after the state passed a ballot initiative  that outlawed the use of “body-gripping traps” for dealing with this common turf menace. Here was an assault on the lawn that no self-respecting gardener could countenance. The first line of attack, understandably enough, involved homegrown remedies like pouring castor oil or tossing chewing gum down the holes. The more creatively inclined tried saving their bodily fluids for use in the crusade. Others pinned their hopes on asphyxiation, hooking up long hoses to the tailpipes of cars. If those strategies failed, there was the prospect of advanced technology, such as gas bombs with names like “the Giant Destroyer” and “Gopher Gasser.” While this is not an advice manual, we should learn from the mistakes of others, which brings to mind the Seattle homeowner who ignited his entire lawn after pouring gasoline down the tunnels and dropping in a match.

* * *

As bizarre as the lawn fanatics may seem, when looked at closely, their behavior is only a slight exaggeration of what has come to be seen as normal. If most homeowners today are not making turf checkerboards or rushing to mow the Joneses’ lawn next door, they do aspire to a presentable yard which keeps the neighbors happy and adds to their property value. Few Americans bother to question the lawn, in part because its true price is not readily apparent. What is that price? Although the turf industry says that the lawn is the equivalent of “First-Aid for the Earth,” the reality is more complicated. Grass by itself can indeed prevent soil erosion and storm-water runoff, but the quest for perfect turf is another story altogether, with a dark side for both the landscape and public health.

The following is a list of some things the industry does not want you to know.

  • Between 1994 and 2004, an estimated average of 75,884 Americans per year were injured using lawn mowers or roughly the same number of people injured by firearms.
  • Using a gas-powered leaf blower for half an hour creates as many polluting hydrocarbon emissions as driving a car seventy-seven hundred miles at a speed of thirty miles per hour.
  • Nearly half of the households sampled in one study failed to carefully read and follow the label directions when using pesticides and fertilizer.
  • Approximately seven million birds die each year because of lawn-care pesticides.
  • In the process of refueling their lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other garden equipment, Americans spill about seventeen million gallons of gasoline every summer, or about 50 percent more oil than marred the Alaskan coast during the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster.
  • A single golf course in Tampa, Florida — a state that leads the nation with over a thousand of these emerald green creations — uses 178,800 gallons of water per day, enough to meet the daily water needs of more than twenty-two hundred Americans.
  • Suburban households and lawn-care operators apply more herbicides per acre on lawns than most farmers spread to grow crops.
  • Of the approximately sixty thousand landscape workers in California subject to leaf-blower noise every day, less than one in ten is likely to be wearing hearing protection.
  • Diazinon, for decades a widely used lawn-care pesticide similar in chemical composition to nerve gas but touted as safe, was finally banned by the E.P. A. in 2000, and yet a loophole allowed retailers to go right on selling it as late as 2002.
  • Lawn chemicals are commonly tracked into the home, where they build up in the carpet, thus placing small children, whose developing bodies are far more vulnerable to toxins, at risk of chronic exposure.

The rise of the lawn to dominance in suburbia represents one of the most profound transformations of the landscape in American history. If it does not quite rival in its scale the Great Plow Up of the Southern Plains that precipitated the Dust Bowl or the massive deforestation of the Midwest and South during the nineteenth century, then it is at least not far behind. How did this transformation come to be?

The leading theory holds that people the world over love lawns because of a genetic predisposition. According to the argument, human evolution took place on the savanna of Africa and this simple fact explains the enormous human attraction to the lawn. “We spent 98% of our evolutionary history in those savanna-like environments,” the ecologist John Falk, a proponent of the theory, once explained. “Our habitat preference for short grass and scattered trees seems to be a vestige of that history.” Not only is there little empirical support for this theory, but recent evidence on early habitats in Africa suggests that human evolution may well have occurred in wooded regions, not grassy ones. The American romance with the lawn is no more the product of our genes than are other aspects of our social organization, such as differences in wealth and social status. What invoking biology does is to help cast the lawn compulsion as something beyond our control, thus rationalizing the mantle of green we have wrapped around our homes. And besides, the grass in the African savanna is neither green nor short.

We need not go back thousands of years to understand the American passion for turf. A few hundred will do. For the lawn, it turns out, is a recent invention. The word ‘lawn’ dates from only the sixteenth century and derives from the Old English ‘launde,’ denoting an open space or glade. As etymology suggests, the concept of the lawn was the product of British ingenuity. By the eighteenth century, or perhaps a bit before, neatly mowed turf — maintained by laborers working several abreast with scythes — began springing up on the estates of the British aristocracy. The lawn had become a marker of class privilege in part because one had to be rich enough to afford to hire all the laborers needed to cut it. And it remained a rich man’s affair until at least 1830, when John Ferrabee, a factory owner, and Edwin Budding, a mechanic, both of Thrupp, England, invented the lawn mower, laying the groundwork for the lawn’s eventual democratization. Turfgrass flourished in the moist, cool climate found in the British Isles. But the lawn never evolved into the kind of moral crusade it has become in America, perhaps because the elements in Britain cooperated fabulously in support of grass.

The rise of the lawn to dominance in suburbia represents one of the most profound transformations of the landscape in American history.

Not so in the Americas. Unsurprisingly, turfgrass is not native to North America (nor are dandelions and clover, for that matter). Nearly all of the grass species found in America’s yards today are immigrants from abroad — from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Even Kentucky bluegrass, the mark of the signature lawn, is believed to have sprouted first in the cool fringe areas of northern Europe’s forests, thousands of miles from Churchill Downs.

How did it come to pass that a set of non-native plants, not at all adapted to our country’s climatic conditions, grew to become the basis for our national landscape? The story begins with the European colonists, who ventured to North America with an assortment of animals — horses, cattle, and sheep — not originally found here. The native grasses, not adapted to grazing, quickly succumbed as the livestock chewed them to death. Into this now empty eco-niche came imported bluegrass seed — the germ plasm of future Levittowns — arriving in fodder, dung, bedding, and baggage, and turning pastures all the way from New England south to the Carolinas and west to Kentucky a new shade of green.

George Washington had a lawn as did Thomas Jefferson, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule: The greening of the American yard did not happen overnight. The great bulk of the imported grass seed was used to feed domesticated animals. Cultivating grass around homes did not become popular until after the Civil War. Before then, most people in towns and cities either maintained small fenced-in vegetable gardens or simply left the area alone, allowing it to revert to dirt interspersed with whatever vegetation flourished. “The well-trimmed lawns and green meadows of home are not there,” wrote Charles Dickens on a tour of New England in the eighteen-forties. And as for the backyard, with its outhouses, no one would dare think of planting turfgrass and holding a family occasion there.

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In middle-class suburbs, change began to occur in the eighteen-seventies. Dense urban areas gave way to streetcar suburbs filled with detached housing. Setback rules, which required homes to be located at least thirty feet from the sidewalk, came into being. Suddenly a new landscape imperative was on the rise, as marked by the appearance in 1870 of Frank J. Scott’s The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds. “A smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass,” he wrote, “is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Meanwhile, inventors bent on modernizing the lawn mower secured thirty-eight patents between 1868 and 1873 alone. Then came the lawn sprinkler — patented in 1871 — a device that became increasingly available as the nation’s municipalities brought public water supplies on line.

Despite these developments, in blue-collar suburbs from Cleveland and Pittsburgh clear to Los Angeles, functionality trumped aesthetics when it came to the yard. As late as the nineteen-thirties, working-class suburbanites — struggling to put food on the table — micro-farmed their property, growing fruit and vegetables and raising chickens, geese, and rabbits. Even for those higher up on the social scale who had lawns, the idea of a perfect yard, neatly manicured and devoid of weeds, was more of an aspiration than a reality. Time was one problem. Until the passage of legislation in 1938 making the forty-hour week the norm, Americans commonly worked half the day on Saturday. With only one full day off, and that a religious day for many, and long hours Monday through Friday, it would have been hard to muster the energy needed to pull weeds — the main defense against them at the time — or to mow. To the extent that any mowing at all took place, it was mostly a chore assigned to the boy in the family. “You probably remember, as I do all too well, the boyhood task of mowing the lawn. That’s all the attention it ever received,” said a businessman reflecting back at a celebration honoring the Scotts Company. No concerns about stray leaves or edging, divots or brown spots, and certainly no interest in mowing patterns. As an advice manual from the twenties warned, “Don’t fancy for a moment that you can have an English lawn in an American climate.”

Only with the housing boom following the Second World War did the idea of perfect turf become a national preoccupation. In the fifties, a huge burst of suburban development, fueled in part by the creation of the interstate highway system, turned the nation into a sprawling black-and-green canvas. Turf became as ubiquitous as television, with grass grown on a massive scale in defiance of climate from the densely packed suburbs of Long Island to the most distant, parched reaches of the Southwest. The lawn became the outdoor expression of fifties conformism; crabgrass — once a valued food crop — became the backyard’s answer to body odor. (Call me literal-minded, but how is it that one of the most important books ever written on suburban development, Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, doesn’t even have an entry in the index for the dreaded weed.) A revolution of rising expectations took place as suburbanites sought the terrestrial equivalent of the Holy Grail: a neatly trimmed, perfectly green lawn that unfolded across the front yard like a living version of broadloom.

* * *

The perfect lawn is a malignant fantasy, an ecological conceit founded on two resources our nation is rapidly running short of — oil and water. Keeping a lawn green takes one to two inches of water per week; for a mere thousand-square-foot lawn, that easily adds up to over ten thousand gallons a summer. Less realized is that, like a fully loaded luxury sedan, lawns are hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels. It takes natural gas to produce lawn fertilizer; petroleum to power the wide-area mower that runs “like a Deere”; oil to keep the weed whackers, edgers, and blowers all buzzing. And at the end of the day, when the sun goes down and quiet creeps back across suburbia, it is time for the landscape crew to load the accoutrements of power back into the pickup with its 340 horses — and head straight for the filling station.

The high-energy lawn lives on, despite the energy crisis of the seventies and the more recent wars in Iraq. If Scotts had its way, people as far afield as subarctic Anchorage and tropical Honolulu to arid Las Vegas to Hackensack, would all participate in the same national ritual of fertilization plus insect and weed control at least four times per year. At least that’s what the eternal wisdom doled out on the company’s website advises visitors from these zip codes. To pay for its expensive lawn-care advertising campaigns, its increasing raw materials costs, and growing debt load, Scotts must continue to expand the market for its products. “Almost 30% of homeowners are do-nothings!” Scotts exclaimed in one recent annual report. “The average do-it-yourselfer still makes fewer than half the recommended product applications each season. If every homeowner made four applications a year, lawns could be a $2.8 billion market!”

What companies like McDonald’s and Burger King did in building fast food into people’s everyday routines, the people at Scotts want to do for lawn care — to make rolling the spreader around the yard four-plus times a year as matter-of-fact as passing through the drive-through at the golden arches. Hooking Americans on high-energy turf, as opposed to the high-calorie diet, remains a bit more of a challenge; one national study, for example, revealed that 11 percent of those surveyed admitted to eating dandelions straight off their lawn. Still, fast food and lawns have much in common. Both are the product of postwar suburban expansion and the growth of the interstate highway system. Both are major moneymakers for powerful corporations. Both are centered on the need for instant gratification. Both have profound, largely hidden, social and ecological consequences. And both continue to be enormously popular with the American public. The only difference is that fast food is cheaper and more convenient for consumers, while the lawn is a drain on people’s time and money.

* * *

If the rise of modern suburban living started at Levittown, America’s most famous planned community, then the rise of American lawn culture started with Levittown’s mastermind, Abraham Levitt. Between 1947 and 1951, Abe Levitt and his sons, William and Alfred, built more than seventeen thousand homes on the potato fields that once dominated a large flat section of Long Island. And every last one of them had a lawn to mow. “No single feature of a suburban residential community,” Abe wrote, “contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.” Not for nothing was Abe Levitt dubbed by his coworkers “the Vice President of Grass Seed.”

The story of Levittown, New York, has been told many times. William Levitt, the hard-charging businessman in the family, is normally the featured protagonist in these tales. Bill Levitt was the Henry Ford of houses, manufacturing them in large numbers and cheaply enough to put them within reach of the thousands of ex-servicemen and others tired of the overcrowding and squalor of postwar urban life. Less recognized is that Levitt and Sons invented a mass-produced landscape to go along with its ready-built housing. Almost overnight, 17,544 new lawns sprang up in Levittown. The man chiefly responsible for them was the patriarch of the Levitt family, an avid gardener himself who used to personally inspect the state of Levittown’s lawns and gardens. “A fine lawn makes a frame for a dwelling,” Abe explained in 1949. “It is the first thing a visitor sees. And first impressions are the lasting ones.”

The perfect lawn is a malignant fantasy, an ecological conceit founded on two resources our nation is rapidly running short of — oil and water.

At the time the Levitts arrived in northern Long Island, the area rested in the hands of America’s wealthiest families, the descendants of J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Vincent Astor, and hundreds of other plutocrats who built huge estates in imitation of the British aristocracy, right down to the lawns and golf courses common among that set. To help engineer the necessary lawn culture, they brought over gardeners from Scotland. Eventually the Levitts would take this aspect of genteel life and democratize it, giving tens of thousands of Americans a chance to be the lord of their own little manor, even if they had to mow it themselves. Before too long, Abe Levitt would see to it that grass returned to play the lead role in Long Island’s ecological destiny.

Back before Levittown, when the Levitts first began building on Long Island, they made a point of landscaping the premises before putting their homes on the market. “In the Thirties,” Abe’s son Alfred explained, “Father was the one who had the foresight to realize that by intelligent landscaping the normal depreciation of our houses could be offset.” The word ‘landscaping,’ as it turns out, only entered the English language in the thirties. Abe was onto something novel. According to Bill Levitt, his father called landscaping a form of “neighborhood stabilization.” Not coincidentally, the first thing a 1931 lawn-care manual tells its readers is that “good lawn turf adds to the pecuniary value of the home.”

After the Second World War, the start of the baby boom, combined with the federal government’s new mortgage programs, gave the Levitts an opportunity to perfect the building techniques employed in Norfolk. Breaking down the work process into a set of twenty-odd steps, the Levitts transformed single-family construction from a craft into an industrial enterprise. “The only difference between Levitt and Sons and General Motors,” Bill Levitt once reflected, “is that we channel labor and materials to a stationary outdoor assembly line instead of bringing them together inside a factory on a mobile line. Just like a factory, we turn out a new house every twenty-four minutes at peak production.” That house, the Levitts liked to boast, only took up about 12 percent of the lot. With the exception of some concrete paths, the rest would be landscaped in the spirit of a garden community. Abe saw to it that all the homes in Levittown received some fruit trees and evergreens. But the bulk of the land was covered in grass seed, a quick and efficient means of healing the landscape once the bulldozers and concrete mixers had moved off down the road. It was no accident that grass became the dominant suburban plant. Grass is the Francisco Pizarro of the plant world, a species with a knack for conquest. It has evolved to reproduce quickly and grows close to the ground and thus thrives on disturbance, flourishing wherever human beings and their earthmoving equipment have gone. Grass, explains agriculture writer Graham Harvey, is a true opportunist, a homesteader at heart. That it became the signature landscape of postwar suburban development — the greatest surge in home building in American history — owes as much to ecology as to expedience. “It has been truthfully said,” explained Abe, “that no single feature of the garden contributes as much to beauty and utility as a good lawn.” To underscore the point, in the spring of 1948 Levitt and Sons spruced up, free of charge, all the lawns installed the previous fall, fertilizing them and reseeding where necessary. “This is the first spring in Levittown,” Abe pointed out, “and we want to present to the nation a model community in every respect.”

According to Bill Levitt, his father called landscaping a form of ‘neighborhood stabilization.’

Lawn care is not something that comes naturally, certainly not to the erstwhile apartment dwellers inspired by Levittown’s freshness and architectural, not to mention racial, uniformity. (Even as late as 1960, there were no black residents among Levittown’s more than eighty thousand homeowners.) In a weekly gardening column that appeared in the Levittown Tribune (a newspaper owned by the Levitts) Abe offered advice to the newly arrived immigrants in the land of the lawn. If Levittown was to become the garden community that Abe hoped, homeowners would need to learn the importance of what is now a weekly suburban ritual: mowing the yard. The ecological logic behind mowing is fairly simple. By keeping the grass from flowering and going to seed, mowing forecloses on sexual reproduction, with its genetic luck of the draw, and compels the individual plants to reproduce vegetatively by sending out a web of underground and lateral stems. The result is a thick carpet of grass otherwise known as a lawn.

The busy neosuburbanites flooding into Levittown could not be bothered with esoteric ecological principles. What they did understand, many of them being veterans, was the disciplined world of the armed service. Taking note of this fact, Abe showed them how to apply some spit and polish to the yard:

In military service, a man must shave and have his hair trimmed regularly for experience has proved that men are worth more if their morale is high, and an unkempt creature thinks little of others and less even of himself. It is so with a dwelling house and so with a lawn. Remember, your lawn is your outdoor living room about 7 months of the year. It is the first approach to your house. Your visiting friends form their opinions of the neatness and cleanliness of your house at their first approach.

The crew-cut look, popular with both hair and lawns in the forties, impressed the Levitts enough that they inserted a covenant in their deeds requiring Levittowners to cut the grass once a week between April and November. Bill and Vivian Montgomery, who moved to Levittown in 1947, learned about the mowing regulation the hard way. “I was working days and going to school nights on the GI bill,” Bill recollected, “and I was too tired to mow the lawn one week. That Saturday, we woke up to the sound of Levitt’s lawn mowing crew cutting our lawn. We got a bill in the mail. I don’t remember what it cost, but I was so embarrassed I never missed mowing the lawn again.”

Lawn monoculture melded perfectly with the ethos of conformity central to nineteen-fifties suburbia. For many, urban anomie gave way to suburban togetherness, to picture-window living that allowed people to easily observe and survey each other on a daily basis. In this world of “group living,” as historian William Chafe has called it, individualism and self-expression suffered. No one wanted to stand out. The idea was to get along with the neighbors as they gathered regularly to discuss what was happening at the school, life with their in-laws, “or the latest cure for crabgrass.” To a large extent, getting along and going along went hand in hand. “The suburb,” wrote sociologist David Riesman, “is like a fraternity house at a small college in which like-mindedness reverberates upon itself.” While we must not overstate the importance of suburban conformism, it no doubt weighed heavily on people’s minds. And what better way to show your dedication to getting along than to cultivate grass, a plant that if mowed assiduously would replicate in clone-like fashion, making your front yard look precisely like Mr. Smith’s next door.

Nevertheless, the suburban savanna that the Levitts sowed could not have happened without the mass production of the rotary power mower. Early power lawn mowers used multiple blades to create a scissor-like action which literally clipped the grass. These reel mowers offered a low precision cut, making them perfect for use on golf greens, where they are still used today. But they are expensive to manufacture and not good at cutting grass over two inches high, common on home lawns, especially in the spring. Tall grass is a job for the rotary power mower, patented in 1933 but rarely seen before the Second World War, when companies such as Toro and Jacobsen began producing them. These machines employ a single blade spinning at a high speed, which tears the grass blades in half about as delicately as one rips up unwanted mail. Mass-produced in huge numbers in the postwar years, the rotary power mower has insinuated itself into garages all across America. As one lawn authority explains, “Just as the gasoline engine, when harnessed to the automobile, led to the expansion of the suburbs, it also, when hooked to a mower, allowed us to expand our lawns.”

Without these inexpensive power mowers, America’s quest for perfect turf would have been impossible. But without the rise of auto-centered sprawl, Americans would have had no reason to manicure their front lawns in the first place. “With increased use of automobiles,” historian Kenneth Jackson writes, “the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” Without porches or stoops, the front yard in suburban communities like Levittown had no real utility. No longer the locus of community activity, it evolved into something for show, into a reflection of personal identity. A huge sociological experiment was set to begin. As the practical value of the front yard declined, its symbolic value — what it said about the integrity of the homeowner and the neighborhood, more generally — skyrocketed. “A fine carpet of green grass,” Abe Levitt told readers of his weekly column, “stamps the inhabitants as good neighbors, as desirable citizens.”

Although lawns had existed in America since at least the eighteenth century, only in the postwar period did turf take on the attributes of an indoor space. The notion of carpeting the yard fit perfectly with one of the dominant architectural trends of the time. “Perhaps the most noticeable innovation in domestic architecture in the past decade or two has been the increasingly close relationship of indoors and outdoors,” wrote the authors of The American House Today, published in 1951. Magazines like Sunset discussed the virtues of “bringing the outdoors indoors.” The patios typically included in ranch homes — an enormously popular form of housing in the postwar years — functioned as an extension of the indoor living space, and so did the neatly manicured lawn, which brought domestication even further into the backyard. The yard, according to a 1963 report on the “outdoor living” market by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, “is used as an extension of the house — a second living room without walls.”

No one group spent more time out on the lawn than the baby boomers themselves, who romped around playing catch and freeze tag. With large families the norm during the postwar years, letting the children go out to play in the backyard offered millions of moms a brief respite from the demands of parenting. And with the back nicely covered with turf, mom didn’t have to worry that Junior would track mud onto the freshly vacuumed carpet.

* * *

Before too long, the mass-produced landscape pioneered by the Levitt family spread far and wide. Back in the days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, more than half the U.S. population crowded into the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. After 1940, however, Americans began striking out to the south and west as federal policies underwrote the proliferation of housing subdivisions in the Sun Belt, spanning from Florida to California. The G.I. Bill, for example, let American ex-servicemen buy homes without putting any money down. Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration offered inducements to lenders that helped to reduce the down payment for the general population from as much as 30 percent in the nineteen-twenties to as little as 10 percent. Uncle Sam also intervened to increase the loan payback period, bringing down the monthly mortgage expense. Together, these developments, combined with the mortgage-interest tax deduction, made it cheaper to own a home than to rent one. As a result, in the fifties, subdividers, working at breakneck pace, erected more than fifteen million houses. Every year during the decade, an area about the size of Rhode Island was swallowed up by new real estate projects.

The Sun Belt cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Tampa, Orlando, and Houston expanded across the countryside, gobbling up agricultural land and turning it into a mélange of asphalt, concrete, and turf. In Southern California, the opening of Disneyland in 1955 transformed rural Orange County with its citrus groves into a nexus of radiating subdivisions, a developer’s paradise that by 1980 had become home to twenty-six cities. In Los Angeles County, the population of the San Fernando Valley shot up from a hundred and fifty thousand in 1945 to nearly three-quarters of a million in 1960. Though perhaps given to exaggeration, valley developers claimed to have bulldozed a thousand fruit trees per day in the fifties as they hacked the orchards to pieces to make way for new subdivisions and lawns.

Lawn monoculture melded perfectly with the ethos of conformity central to nineteen-fifties suburbia.

Everywhere development went, land used to grow crops gave way to the new money-centered lawn aesthetic. Even the working-class suburbs built before the Second World War, where vegetable gardens and ramshackle chicken coops were as common as two-car garages are today, participated in the makeover. Speaking of one blue-collar Los Angeles suburb, a local newspaper editor in 1963 declared: “South Gate’s lots have become far too valuable to use for crops.” Land once prized for putting food on the table of factory workers came to be seen more narrowly as real estate and was carpeted in grass to help keep up its property value. Landscape, to paraphrase German social philosopher Max Horkheimer, descended into “landscaping”; the lawn became the linchpin of the yard’s new commodity status. A 1955 survey of Los Angeles County alone turned up sixty-three thousand acres of turf, costing $90 million a year to maintain. “People do not spend money year after year buying something that they do not want. Every new home owner wants a lawn,” the report reads. Even the new office parks — their owners seeking to project an image of efficiency — wrapped themselves in turf. When architectural historian Reyner Banham visited Silicon Valley south of San Francisco to see I.B.M.’s new research center in the early nineteen-eighties, he made note of the “well-kept landscaping typified by lawns so neat they might as well be Astroturf.”

From Georgia to California, Texas to Colorado, the lawn became the verdant incarnation of postwar capitalism, spreading like food coloring in water and turning the national landscape a deep shade of green. Climatic and soil conditions were brushed aside as developers insisted on growing grass in the most improbable of places. In 1967, entrepreneurs even expanded a nine-hole golf course aptly named “Furnace Creek” to eighteen holes, building square in the middle of Death Valley, where temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees.

And to keep these lawns in check, a burst in lawn-mower sales brought the manicuring of America to new heights. People bought 139,000 mowers in 1946; 1.2 million a mere five years later; and a stunning 4.2 million in 1959. As one critic noted in 1961, “the recalcitrant lawn and the odious foundation planting are forever with us from Florida to Oregon — a sacred cow, which we feel compelling to have and hold at any sacrifice.” Precisely what suburbanites gave up was spelled out in The New York Times Book of Lawn Care (1964): “With today’s power tools and efficient fertilizers, an acre of lawn can be kept in good condition with just a half-day’s work each week.” Just a half day? A 1961 study estimated that, at a minimum, even a modest lawn required a hundred and fifty hours of work a year. In suburban America, it was nearly impossible to escape the world of turf. The creation of the interstate highway system, a $25 billion program funded by Congress in 1956, not only opened rural areas to subdivisions and lawns, it created a great deal of new turf in its own right. Every new mile of four-lane highway required a two-hundred-foot right of way, or twenty-five acres in all. By 1961, highway rights of way consumed an area equal to more than twenty-nine million football fields, and virtually all of it, as a practical matter, was seeded with grass.

By then, the commodification of the landscape had reached new heights, as turf grown on sod farms was bundled up for sale like the televisions and washing machines arriving in suburbs by the truckload. The same culture that saw McDonald’s emerge to cater to the caloric needs of a suburban population on the go produced instant lawns to satisfy the yen for immediate gratification on the ground. Sod farms sprang up in the latter part of the fifties to indulge a wealthy clientele unwilling to wait for a seeded lawn to come in. In the space of a decade, the number of sod farms increased from a dozen major growers to more than a hundred and fifty by 1966. “Seeding is old-fashioned, inefficient, and dirty; it is the horse-and-buggy way of making a lawn,” said one grower. “Sodding is the twentieth century way.” By the early sixties, landscaping professionals even shot lawns out of the end of a hose — water, seed, fertilizer, and mulch. Call it McTurf.

* * *

A yen for green grass is one thing; impeccable turf is something yet again. Levittowners could as easily have decided to let the weeds take over and, as long as they mowed regularly, not run afoul of any regulations. “What’s wrong with crab grass and just cutting it short?” Alan King once asked. Even Abe Levitt himself had no major objection to such a lawn regimen.

As much as Abe loved grass, he never fully embraced the idea of the perfect lawn. He advised, for example, against the backbreaking labor involved in pulling out every last blade of crabgrass for fear that it would discourage the up-and-coming gardener. “I don’t believe in being a slave to the lawn,” he once wrote. “One should enjoy a garden and the work attached to it. But to become a slave striving for perfection has, usually, its repercussions.” A 1959 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the psychosomatic effects of suburban development and “conspicuous consumption” explicitly mentioned the lawn as a source of psychological tension. “Many of our patients are overconcerned about keeping up appearances: . . . there cannot be a blade of crabgrass in the lawn.”

Everywhere development went, land used to grow crops gave way to the new money-centered lawn aesthetic.

Nor was Abe a snob when it came to species selection. While agreeing that Kentucky bluegrass made for a beautiful lawn, he was hardly wedded to lawn monoculture. As he put it: “Even our lowly weeds, which are just other native grasses, if kept cut to not more than two inches, help to green carpet the ground.” Clover to him was “just as nice as other grasses.” Abe Levitt, who died in 1962, set limits on his love for lawns. The island’s baby boomers, however, came down with a serious case of turf hysteria. Instead of consulting one of Levitt’s gardening columns, Long Islanders these days are far more likely to seek advice one town over from Levittown at the Cornell Cooperative Extension located in East Meadow. The agency operates a turf hot line and a morgue where people bring in dead pieces of lawn for autopsies. Some people send in lawn samples by overnight mail. “You would think that these people were waiting for a, you know, for a diagnosis of cancer from their doctor or something,” says Ralph Tuthill, who works there.

The turfgrass specialist Maria Cinque began working at the extension in the early seventies and for more than two decades dispensed friendly advice to homeowners dealing with lawn anxiety. When it comes to lawns, she has seen it all. “I believe that if fertilizer were banned,” she once remarked, “Long Island homeowners would buy it bootleg if they had to.” Cinque fielded questions from stricken suburbanites so torn up over dead grass that you would think they were calling about a sick child. She knew of one elderly woman who used to lovingly cut the entire expanse with a pair of hand shears. Others had such a soft spot for turf that they called inquiring about the prospect of sodding their roofs. Long Islanders are willing to go to extraordinary lengths. Cinque recalls a woman who spent all day laying down sod only to find that when she woke the next morning it was gone — stolen in the middle of the night.

Is it any wonder that Tamson Yeh, who took over at the extension after Cinque, describes herself as a “turf psychologist”? She says that, ironically, homeowners misinterpret the government-imposed watering restrictions in effect in the area (allowing odd addresses to water one day and even the next) as a state order requiring them to irrigate every other day. Some Long Islanders, Yeh insists, have watered the lawn for seven straight hours at a time.

It’s mind-boggling to consider the lengths to which Long Islanders will go for the sake of grass. One woman mistook the extension’s directive to bring in for analysis a six-by-six-inch piece of beleaguered turf and loaded thirty-six square feet of yard into her car. “Her entire trunk was a turf sample . . .” says Tuthill. “She didn’t think anything about it.” Abe Levitt, who introduced a generation of Americans to the lawn, would have scratched his head in disbelief.


Ted Steinberg is the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he has worked as an environmental historian for twenty-five years and is the author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, and, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, among others.

Excerpted from American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, by Ted Steinberg. Copyright © 2006 by Ted Steinberg. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath