How Much Lawn is Too Much?

How much lawn is too much?

Near us sits a house surrounded by lawn with no trees or shrubs to mar its green covering.

I remember visiting Pittsburgh where I saw a lawn made of gravel. No green grass there at all. [below]

Gravel lawn in Pittsburgh

The question then is how much lawn do we need?

There is much discussion today about decreasing the amount of lawn in the home landscape.

The reasons are many including preserving water and offering plant diversity in the landscape to encourage pollinators.

At the end of the nineteenth century it seemed there could never be too much lawn.

In 1899 the Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning  who had worked previously for

Landscape gardener Warren Manning (1860-1938)

the Olmsted firm wrote A Handbook for Planning and Planting Small Home Grounds.

In the book he said that there should be “the largest available central lawn space, in which there should be but few single specimens of shrubs and trees and no formal beds of flowers.”

Thus he encouraged as much lawn as possible.

He cautioned not to spoil the look of the expansive lawn with too many trees and shrubs, and discouraged formal beds of flowers.

The lawn therefore became the central feature in the landscape.

Today you can find an array of different opinions about the lawn.

Since at the same time Manning supported the lawn he also encouraged the wild garden and using native plants, today he might look at the lawn quite differently.

He was the son of Jacob Warren Manning who owned a nursery in North Reading, a town outside of Boston.  Warren, in fact, worked at the nursery for his father for several years.  Therefore he knew a lot about plants

As homeowners graple with what to do with the lawn, there are many options.

No question the lawn still plays an important role in the home landscape.

The issue revolves around the questions of  how much of a lawn do we want and for what reasons.

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Defining the English Garden

Defining the English garden

The sweeping lawn of the English landscape garden developed in the 

Lancelot Capability Brown 

eighteenth century under the inspiration of gardener to the King Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

Tim Richardson writes in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England, and even across much of Europe and parts of America; it was primarily Brown’s example which inspired the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘English garden’.”

So we have Brown to thank for the lawn which has long defined the English garden both in Europe and in America.

Today the term ‘English garden’ is full of so many meanings.

When we use words that have multiple meanings, we tend to be on a higher level of the ladder of abstraction because we are not clear.

Academic and Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction, a concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolve from concrete to abstract.

Thus, for example, the more you want to confuse your audience, the more likely you are to use words that do not have a clear meaning.

You could say that such is the case with the expression ‘English garden’.  Because of its history it has so many meanings.

Which English garden do you mean?  From what period?

One thing we do know however is that the lawn has been an integral part of the English garden since the eighteenth century.

Here is Chatsworth, north of London, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Derbyshire. [below]

England’s Chatsworth 

Over the centuries several landscape gardeners provided its design, but it was Brown that installed the extensive lawn in the eighteenth century.

Today Chatsworth stands as one of his most famous English gardens, marked by his signature lawn.

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Public Relations Campaign Attacks Clover

Public relations campaign attacks clover.

The lawn has been a part of the home landscape since the eighteenth century.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both treasured the English lawn, the inspiration for all lawns American.

Clover in the lawn. [Courtesy of Today’s Homeowner]

Clover, the tiny four leafed plant we all love, has been a part of the lawn for decades as much as bluegrass.

Then in the 1950s a chemical company, to advance a weed killer, used a public relations campaign to declare white clover a weed.

Warren Schultz tells the story in his book The Chemical-Free Lawn. He writes that in the 1950s “a major producer of grass seed and chemicals launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover. Clover is a weed, the company declared. It doesn’t belong in the modern lawn.”

The goal of the campaign was to sell a chemical to kill lawn weeds, including clover.

Schultz says, “Its point of view carried the day, and now homeowners spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of this once-popular plant, blind to its fine qualities.”

Clover has long been a part of lawn seed mixes. 

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about the value of clover in 1878 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick said, “Kentucky Blue Grass, with a little White Clover, about a pound to the acre, and a few ounces of Sweet Vernal Grass, will make a good lawn.”

In 1936 Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening also noted the value of clover.

Under the name, white clover, or Trifolium repens, Taylor’s says, “It is the chief clover in grass mixtures and makes a valuable constituent of lawns.”

In the past garden books and magazines often said that clover was valuable for the lawn.

More recently in Pennsylvania the Lehigh Valley Master Gardeners wrote in their blog, “Clover is a legume, like soybeans, and it has the ability to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a form readily available to plants, including the grass it shares soil with.  People liked clover for this reason and it lessened the need for fertilizing the lawn.”

The public relations campaign in the 1950s was succesful. Today it is common for companies selling herbicides to consider white clover a weed.

In this time of frequent draught and renewed interest in native plants, why not reconsider the case of the clover, and even, as many people are doing, welcome it as an integral component of the lawn?

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Victorian Home Landscape Required Lawn

Victorian home landscape required lawn.

The lawn became an important part of the American home landscape in the nineteenth century.

The seed and nursery catalogs often featured a lawn in illustrations and offered the best method of laying out and cultivating a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  was no different. He often wrote about the lawn.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1878 he referred to the lawn as a jewel, an emerald.

He said, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment. A few beds of foliage plants or flowers, or vases, are like diamonds set in emerald, and the latter, especially, impact a graceful elegance which nothing else can give. They are infinitely superior to the most costly statuary, which is better suited to the hall than the garden, and quite out of place in such simple, unpretentious places as are most of the private gardens of this country.”

This illustration of ‘Home Grounds’ appeared in his magazine in 1880. [below] Notice the lines of the flowing lawn.

Home Grounds. Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1880 [Courtesy of the Five Colleges Depository at the University of Massachusetts]

It was the homeower’s duty to provide the lawn because it alone was the important setting for the home.

In February of 1879 Vick wrote, “Those who do not make home beautiful and happy are morally or intellectually inferior, generally both, but not always.”

It was as if there were a moral imperative to cultivate a lawn to demonstrate a homeowner had taste.

A  customer from Nebraska wrote Mr. Vick in 1880 and asked, “What is the best Grass for lawns, and also the best ornamental and shade trees for lawns? If convenient, will you give the plan of a lawn?”

 Every Victorian home needed a lawn.

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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Verbena Essential Victorian Flower

Verbena essential Victorian flower.

What is good about annuals is that they continue to bloom until the Fall, or even til the first frost.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) defined them as “those plants that live but one season.”

In the nineteenth century when colorful flowers became an essential in every garden, the verbena rose to become an important addition to the garden. Vick called it “one of the most showy and valuable plants of the garden.”

English horticulturist David Stuart wrote in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens, “The verbena was acknowledged, even by contemporaries, as central to the whole bedding movement.”

Bedding meant a design on the lawn, often a diamond, a circle, or a half-moon. Flowers and plants with colorful leaves made up the design. Weekly trimming and weeding followed for the season.

Vick, in an article called “Bedding Plants” wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November, 1881: “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

Today verbenas continue to be an important summer flower for the garden.

The plant grower Proven Winners offers a hybrid variety of verbena called dark blue superbena. [below]

Proven Winners dark blue superbena variety of verbena.

Though today we may not include carpet bedding in the landscape because of its high maintenance, in Victorian times bedding always depended on a well-trimmed lawn.

Vick offered a bit of caution to his readers about the lawn. He wrote,”This style of gardening [bedding] is admissible only with grounds kept in elegant condition; otherwise it would be like jewels in a swine’s snout.”

Even though we do not cultivate carpet bedding, we can still enjoy the Victorian summer flower called the verbena.

 

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Lawn Mower Became Essential Nineteenth Century Garden Tool

Lawn mower became essential nineteenth century garden tool.

The lawn continues to be important to many homeowners.

The ‘modern’ design of the English garden, as it was called in the early eighteenth century, included a lawn.

The house was to appear as if  “in a sea of green.”

The gardeners during this period used a scythe to cut the grass.  Eventually the lawn mower appeared on the market, first in England, then by 1850 in America.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) sold lawn mowers in his seed catalog.

Vick wrote in his company catalog of 1875, “Lawn mowers are now a necessity. As a general rule, we may say there can be no good lawn without this useful machine. Not one in ten thousand can use a scythe with sufficient skill to secure a good lawn.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad 

Vick recommended a lawn mower called the “Charter Oak”. He said, “Its workmanship, and the principles upon which it is constructed, we are disposed to think it is one of the best, if not the best Lawn Mower ever introduced.”

In an ad the manufacturer wrote these words about the ‘Charter Oak’ mower, “The machine is light and easily operated, beautifully and mechanically made and finished, leaving no essential point overlooked; has a three blade solid revolving cutter, preventing any appearance of ribbing on the finest English grass lawn.”

By the end of the nineteenth century the Buckeye lawn mower appeared on the market. [left]

The illustration seems to say “It is so easy to use, even a child could mow the lawn.”

Whatever a homeowner used was not as important as the goal of keeping the lawn in the home landscape trimmed.

Thus the American home owner could boast of a lawn in the long tradition of the English garden.

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Conflicting Eighteenth Century Lawn Advice

Conflicting eighteenth century lawn advice.

It is spring and that mean’s it’s time to look at your grass and figure out what level of maintenance it needs after the winter.

The lawn played an essential role in the landscape design of mid eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

By the end of the century another landscape gardener, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), looked at the lawn a bit differently.

The eighteenth century witnessed conflicting advice on the spot where the lawn begins in the landscape.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams, writes, “It was Brown’s rules to bring the lawns or at all events grass which might be rather meadow than lawn, right up to the house itself so that the house stood in a sea of grass and the first incidents in the landscape were at some distance.”

Then he writes about Repton’s idea of the lawn. Hyams says, “Instead of bringing the grass up to the house, Repton designed terraces, often with balustrades of stone piers or with urns carrying flowers, to link the house to the garden or park.”

Though both encouraged the lawn, it seemed more an issue of how close the lawn came to the house.

As happens in style and fashion, the Repton view continued into the nineteenth century and terraces became an integral part of the house architecture.

The lawn would come right up to the balustrades.

By the end of the nineteenth century seed company owners usually encouraged lawns. It was not a question of how close to the house, just as long as there was a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his seed catalog of 1872, “The space in front of the house, and generally the sides exposed to view from the street, should be in grass. No arrangement of beds, or borders of box, or anything else, will look so neat and tasteful as a well kept piece of grass.”

The lawn by then had become an integral part of residential landscape design, which across America followed the English garden tradition.

In his 1873 company catalog Vick wrote, “A place can never look well unless the lawn and walks are in perfect order.”

By that time the differing views of the lawn from the eighteenth century were long forgotten.

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Capability Brown’s Abbey Landscape Receives Funding

Capability Brown’s Abbey landscape receives funding.

We just finished celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

I have enjoyed reading the posts about the celebration in England that included many events during the year and even a video.

You can find news about the year-long celebration of Brown’s anniversary on the website simply called CapabilityBrown.com.

Brown influenced the development of the landscape garden in the mid-eighteenth century.

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden writes that a bit of formality in the garden initially marked the emerging new eighteenth century garden. He says, “An element of formality remained an important ingredient in even the most fashionable gardens until well into the 1730s.”

That lasted until the touch of Brown appeared on the scene.

Richardson says, “It was only in the second half of the century, and the advent of ‘Capability’ Brown, that the landscape of rolling pasture and naturalistic lakes became the norm.”

Brown emerged as the most signficant English landscape gardener at that time.

It was his lawn that became the mark of his work on any given landscape.

Milton Abbey, landscape designed by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century

The fourteenth century Milton Abbey near Blandford Forum in Dorset rests on a Capability Brown landscape apparently nicknamed “The Great Stare” by the great landscape architect himself. [above]

Recently the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Abbey over a million pound grant to repair the buildings, improve facilities for visitors, and enhance the connections between the Abbey and the five hundred acre landscape designed by Capability Brown.

Today the Abbey continues in the great Benedictine tradition of hospitality to all visitors. The grant will help the Abbey, its staff and volunteers to extend their welcome, and ensure that the Abbey and its  landscape are restored for the inspiration and enjoyment of generations to come.

The grant will support the rediscovery of historic walks, drives, and viewpoints in the landscape designed by Brown between 1763-83.

Brown’s historic landscape at Milton Abbey will continue as a living example of the English landscape garden of the mid-eighteenth century.

 

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Empress Josephine’s English Garden

Empress Josephine’s English Garden

The landscape garden of the early 1700s took the English garden in a new direction.

The garden assumed a less formal look, replacing it with a more natural scene, especially with the extensive lawn and curved walkways.

The reach of the new or modern English garden traveled beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Even the French enjoyed it.

France, which had given the world the grand formal look of Le Notre’s Versailles, adopted this view of the English landscape garden at Chateau Malmaison, the country estate of Empress Josephine (1763-1814).

In his book Jardin de la Malmaison H. Walter Lack writes, “[The previous owner] laid out the garden of great beauty in the English style, with a remarkable number of very rare and exotic trees and plants.”

This painting by the artist A. Garnerey captures the open grassed area at Malmaison. [below]

The open lawn at Malmaison, country estate of Empress Josephine. [Painting by  A. Garnerey]

Empress Josephine’s architect Louis-Martin Berthault (1770-1823) “created a large, slightly undulating lawn and had it planted with groups of trees; vistas were also created.”

The Malmaison Temple in the garden. [Painting by A. Garnerey]

Berthault built a little temple with six columns. [above] To include such a temple also reflected the new English garden style as seen in gardens of the 1700s like that of Stowe and Stourhead.

Josephine built her extensive botanic garden at Malmaison, introducing many exotic plants including the dahlia from Mexico.

The new trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals found a home in the perfect setting of this English garden on French soil.

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