Today the English Lawn in California Faces a Water Crisis

Scott-gardeners_monthly_1886-extraextrasmallWe all know that the lawn has long been a part of the home landscape here in the US.

The lawn, in fact, dates back to the beginning of our country, but really took off in the mid-nineteenth century when suburbs developed around large cities.

At that time the homes of California too just like homes across the country began to showcase landscapes that included a lawn.

California now faces a crisis of drought which puts the coveted lawn in jeopardy.

A Boston Globe article this past Sunday, April 5, called “Drought may reshape image of California” calls for some drastic measures to preserve water in California.  Of course, elliminating the lawn is near the top of the list.

Governor Jerry Brown says, “You just can’t live the way you always have.”

It is hard to give up the lawn since it has been part of America’s relationship with nature for so long.  That green space out front is part of American history.

It is the English that taught us how to landscape with the lawn.  In the nineteenth century America followed the Romantic English style of gardening, which, of course, included the lawn. In 1841 The Gardener’s Chronicle, an English garden magazine edited by horticulturist John Lindley, said, “Gardening is admitted to be better understood in Great Britain than in any other country, and the number of works on the subject prove the patronage it receives.”

A bit later English writer and landscape gardener William Robinson, referred to as the father of the English flower garden, wrote in 1870, “The lawn is the heart of the true English Garden.”

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The cover of Clifford Clark’s book Home illustrates the lawn as integral in the nineteenth century home landscape.

At the same time the American landscape designer Frank J. Scott published his famous book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds. By the end of the century the book went through several printings and by then had become essential reading for the middle class homeowner. Scott wrote, “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty in the grounds of the suburban home.”

More recently historian Margaret Marsh said in her book Suburban Lives, “Frank Scott did not want suburbanites to turn their grounds into miniature farms. Rather, he wanted to teach them to create communities that were also large parks, where passersby as well as residents could enjoy the beauty of each lawn and garden. Suburbanites, Scott insisted, have a public as well as a private duty to create a beautiful lawn and garden.”

Scott seemed to imply that the lawn was a way of building a sense of community with your neighbor.

Perhaps it is that view of the lawn that has motivated homeowners for so long in keeping that neatly trimmed lawn.

The Globe article ended by reporting that recently Palm Springs ordered a 50 per cent cut in water use by city agencies.  Thus, the city plans to use native plants for the summer months to replace the lawns and annual flowers that surround city buildings.

Comments

  1. Interesting….where my sister lives, in Tempe AZ, they had tax breaks to get rid of the lawn and plant sustainable desert plants.

    • Donna, sounds like Tempe is trying to preserve water. Sounds like a good move. I remember seeing rocks and plants like agave and cactus in the front lawn area outside a Phoenix home. It was a beautiful sight.

  2. Government policies have caused the water shortage, not just the drought. The reason there is a shortage is because there is no market for water. The majority of water out west is used for agricultural purposes — farmers are granted water rights with their land, but are not allowed to resell the water to towns or other farmers, so if they don’t use it, they lose it (so they keep using it). If they could sell the water, many annual crop farmers would either forgo farming in the short term or might purchase additional land in wetter areas more suited to water-intensive crops. Farmers who grow crops with a long-term investment such as avocado trees would probably choose to purchase additional water to get through the drought and protect their investment. Towns would have more than enough water if a market were allowed to develop. We have government to thank for the shortages. (And it’s also true that some people might choose to forgo lawns in the west, but there are new species of grass that are more drought tolerant that those who really desire one can utilize — but environmentalists don’t want to hear that, as their goal is to prevent us from making our own choices….).

    • Beth, I did not know that farmers play such an integral role in California’s water supply. “Towns would have more than enough water to get through the drought if a market were allowed to develop.” Can you recommend any book or artcle for further information on this issue? thanks for the insight.

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