Now is the time to see who really cares about their lawn (and social appearances)

This is the time of year in our area to see which residents really care about maintaining their lawn. There are three main features of the lawn to look at to make this determination:

1. Is the lawn regularly cut to keep up with the rapid growth? At this time of year, the grass grows quite quickly with plenty of rain and warmer temperatures. This likely requires mowing more than once a week in order to keep the grass at a pleasing-to-the-eyes height.

2. Are there no dandelions visible? This hints as the groundkeeper’s efforts regarding weeds. Green grass is all that should be seen as people pass by. The shame of an uneven lawn might be outweighed by having a yard full of dandelions surrounded by perfectly green (and yellow-free) yards.

3. Is the grass uniform and lush? Even with all of the rain and sunshine, different kinds of grass (and other kinds of ground cover) plus patchy spots in the yard could indicate the homeowner is less invested in the lawn.

Two bonus features about the landscaping (often connected to lawn maintenance) to look at during this time of year:

1. If the residence has blooming flowers. This requires either foresight – planting perennial flowers – or time each year to put in new flowers.

2. If fresh mulch has been applied to beds on the property. This may be accompanied by a particular smell or a visible pile (or dirt mark) on the driveway or side yard.

As I have argued before, all of these markers are signs of both residential social norms and class-related behavior.

Grow fruits and vegetables in the front yard instead of a lawn

One journalist discusses alternatives to the grass lawn that dominates the front yard of suburban homes:

Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk…

Ms. Bordessa sees room for edible experimentation, even in the front yard. A clever homeowner could tuck food-bearing alternatives like basil, peppers, eggplant and blueberries into the flower beds without disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic. Grow a fruit tree and the neighbors might even come knocking for a free peach…

But this spring, I decided to plant more and mow less. A local landscaper who specializes in native plants stopped by my house to offer advice. When I suggested the possibility of a vegetable garden in the front, she steered me to the backyard instead, pointing to a narrow swath near the driveway that gets full light. And I could shrink the rest of the back lawn with native plants like sweet fern, sweetbells, witch hazel and silky dogwood that thrive without full sun. In the front, we could expand the existing flower bed and add new ones. She glanced at me and said, “Of course, you’d need to take care of all this.”…

That first crop was so tasty that each season the couple expanded their patch, planting beets, squash, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, chard and peppers. The plants filled the backyard and wrapped around the side of the house, generating enough produce to feed five food-insecure families in the area every week. Their ambitions grew with the crops. “If we’re going to do 10 plants, why not 20?” Ms. MacLagan said. “Why not the whole seed packet?”

Since the front lawn is part of the important display from the homeowners to the street, any effort to do something different than normal – grass and some bushes, flowers, and trees within reason – might catch attention. These suggestions about growing food in the front go even further as they alter the front lawn from a symbol of normalcy or class status and change the focus to production. Then, the conversation is not just about aesthetics or fitting in with surrounding lawns; it is about cultivating the land for a more practical rather than symbolic use.

I wonder how many comments or concerns are tied to different aspects of having a front yard garden:

1. Does it matter how much of the lawn is a garden? Is a small garden more acceptable compared to 50% or the full land?

2. Do the kind of fruit and vegetables plants/trees planted matter? Some might be more visible as food producers.

3. Is it better to have all garden plants or would including flowers and other non-producing plants help soften the shock of a garden?

The demise of gas-powered leaf blowers

One tool in the arsenal of those who care about lawns (i.e. many Americans) may be on the way out due to pollution and noise. See this brief overview of how Washington, D.C. will soon be free of gas-powered leaf blowers:

Back in the fall of 2015, in the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a group of community activists in our hometown of Washington, D.C., had begun an effort to get noisy, hyper-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers banned in the capital, as has already happened in more than 100 cities across the country.

The reasons for the ban are: the obsolescence of the technology, which is orders of magnitude more polluting than other machines and engines now in common use; the public-health danger, above all to hired work crews, of both the emissions and the damagingly loud noise from the gas blowers; and the rapid advent of battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and dramatically less polluting.

The purpose of this post is to record how the story turned out:

  • From 2015 to early 2018, more than one-third of all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District, elected bodies covering seven of the eight wards in the District, voted to endorse this mandatory shift.
  • In July 2018, the council had hearings on a phaseout measure, sponsored by the council member Mary Cheh.
  • Late in the year, the 13-member council passed Mary Cheh’s bill, unanimously.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed the bill, and it will take effect as of January 1, 2022.

The pollution aspects of these tools is little-known. The gas powered devices that are used around the yard and home can generate significant amounts of pollution. As Fallows points out in his longer piece on this topic in the April 2019 print edition of The Atlantic, significant advancements have been made in reducing pollution in other devices but two-stroke engines pollute a lot.

The noise dimension is also worth paying more attention to. Suburban communities, home to many leaf blowers, can be noisy places during the summer months. Those who actually use the leaf blowers can have more direct negative consequences.

While the solution to these problems seems to be battery operated or electric tools, I wonder if homeowners and business owners could advance to a point where grass clippings on sidewalks and driveways or leaves do not always need to be removed. Is it a huge problem that there is some grass left over on the sidewalk? Could leaves be left to naturally break down? This would require a significant shift in thinking about lawns as pristine showpieces and “nature.”

Lawns as sources of and signs of boredom

In a discussion of the development of the concept of boredom in The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch explores the boredom of the lawn:

This world is lost to many of our children, and to ourselves. Even the “nature” that surrounds many of our homes is shallow in a technological way. A typical suburban lawn depends on many technological devices, each of which makes something far easier than it was for previous generations: lawn mowers, pesticides and fertilizers, highly refined seed, and automatic sprinklers. The lawn itself is a kind of outdoor technological device, composed of uniform green grass, kept crew-cut short, with little variety or difference.

A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thin edges of forests. A meadow has countless different species of grasses and other plants, plus flowers in the spring and summer, of different heights and habits. If you pay attention, you cannot possible get bored in a meadow. It is all too easy to be bored on a lawn…

It is surely not coincidental that all the earliest citations of the word bore in the Oxford English Dictionary – from the mid-eighteenth century – come from the correspondence of aristocrats and nobility. They did not have technology, but thanks to wealth and position they had a kind of easy everywhere of their own. The first people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns. (144-145)

The common American lawn is indeed a peculiar piece of “nature.”

The connection between lawns and technology is helpful, particularly since this link is likely lost amidst all the new technology of recent decades. Yet, having a lush and short lawn requires a lot of tools and innovation that many now take for granted. I’m reminded of running into advertisements between competing grass seeds: there is a lot that goes into the components of the lawn.

It also strikes me that the lawn has become increasingly boring in recent decades. It is true that American children in the last 70 years had very different experiences with nature than Middle Age peasant children (though humans have affected nature throughout history and contexts). At the same time, children today spend less time outdoors and utilize those boring lawns even compared to just a few decades ago. Perhaps we could argue that the lawn never offered much and once the world of television, video games, and fears about safety set in, it was exposed for the boring item it really is.

Finally, the lawn continues to be a status symbol just as it once marked the properties of the wealthy. Those with lawns have pressure to keep their lawns free of weeds and leaves and can differentiate their lawn from those of others. Failing to follow these norms can lead to problems.

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together”

In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.

“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”

The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:

1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.

2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.

As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.

Indicating social class by having no leaves present on the lawn

Now that blooming dandelions are not a threat and warmer weather and thick green grass is less common, how can the suburbanite indicate his social class through his or her lawn in the fall and keep it a notch above his or her neighbors? No leaves may be present.

Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.

Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.

And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.

One downside of alternative lawns: they can be stolen

Amid droughts and other nudges away from the immaculate grassy lawn, the alternatives may be easier to steal:

Recently, the Hometown dental office in Hesperia had its artificial grass stolen after someone came in the middle of the day and measured it before sending a crew of people to lift it over the weekend.

Kara Sweeney, the office director and wife of the dentist, James A. Sweeney, DDS, told me that the timing of the theft came as a particular punch to the gut, because it happened at the same time that the couple were pouring their savings into renovations to improve their family business.

“Our office manager saw it and assumed that I asked him to come out [and measure the grass] as part of the renovations we were doing. Then that weekend a neighbor across the street saw three men pulling the grass up. Apparently a police officer stopped them with a pedestrian check and one of them took off into the desert. The police officer shooed them away, I guess, but they returned that evening to finish stealing the grass! I guess they already had their measurements and knew it would be the piece for their project. We reported it to the police and I am hoping the pedestrian check helps them find who did it,” Sweeney explained…

When I asked Sweeney what she plans on doing to pretty up the barren eyesore that now sits in front of her office, she said that part is still unclear. “We’re going back and forth on whether to file an insurance claim or not on the grass. We’re not even sure if it’s covered, to be honest with you. We got a quote for fixing our landscaping, not even replacing the grass because it’s so expensive, and it’s over $10,000. So that part is the part that makes me frustrated the most, of course,” she fretted.

I have seen the occasional story of thievery and lawns but it is hard to know how common this is. Even if lawns are sacred to many Americans, who might have the resources or interest in collecting data on this? (Lawn seed companies? Anti-crime groups?) It would take some work to develop this into a pressing social problem though it would be interesting to know whether such crimes are geographically clustered.

The traditional lawn is not very portable as it would require either a lot of labor or specialized machinery to dig up large pieces of sod. Alternatives, on the other hand, often are more portable. Sod can be picked up. To some degree, plants and greenery can be moved. The sorts of accoutrements that help homeowners distinguish their green piece of paradise from someone else’s might be easier to move.