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Andrew Jackson Downing Considered the Lawn Essential

Now that the summer is over I don’t hear the sound of a mower running across a lawn for that perfect cut.

The past few months California with its water crisis has had to confront the very idea of cultivating a lawn in the home landscape.

According to Andrew Jackson Downing, nineteenth century New York nurseryman and landscape gardener, the lawns of England served as the model for the American lawn.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and the American Landscape Garden  writes that Downing “admitted that the sunny American summer did not, like the moist and humid conditions of Britain, favor fine lawns; nevertheless, Downing offered the perpetual softness and verdure of the English lawn as the ideal.”

According to Downing, the necessary conditions were simple: deep soil, the correct kinds of grasses, and frequent mowing. His own home featured a lawn. [below]

The home of Andrew Jackson Downing in New York, circa 1850.
Home of Andrew Jackson Downing in Newburg, NY in 1841

Major writes that Downing also specified that the mowing could be done only with an English lawn scythe with a broad blade “of the most perfect temper and quality.” His words appeared in print just a few years before the lawn mower in America.

Since Downing influenced America’s sense of rural art, or landscape design as art, it was no surprise that others especially seedsmen and nurserymen across the country also encouraged the lawn.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1861 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly, “The management and care of the lawn is of first importance. It is to the lawn more than to any other part that we owe the highest pleasures of gardening.”

In 1870 Ohio artist and landscape designer as well as Downing’s protegé Frank J. Scott wrote The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent which adopts a similar tone about the need for an English lawn. His  book went through several editions in the nineteenth century.

Downing’s early insistence on the need for a lawn influences the meaning of the home landscape to this very day.


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