Our Love Affair with Lawns

Americans take lawn care very seriously, spending billions to keep their perfectly clipped grass green and absolutely weed free

The devotion that Americans exhibit toward their lawns, borders on the mystical. No other people of the world are quite so obsessed with installing and maintaining expanses of short grass — mostly around houses but also at schools, parks, golf courses, graveyards, freeway embankments and corporate headquarters. We spend at least as much on lawn care — estimated to be $30 million a year — as we do on books. Lawns in this country already occupy more land than any other crop, including wheat and corn. So why do we do it?

One lawn fanatic, Paul Thober of Ipswich, Massachusetts, explains his obsession this way. "It ties everything together, the shrubs and flower beds, the way a carpet brings together the furniture and walls in a room. It’s beautiful the way the ocean is beautiful," he says. "You look out at it and you feel at peace."

Grass itself has evolved and today the seed is a sophisticated industrial product. More than 600 new turfgrass varieties are now being tested around the country and the goal is to find the most disease-resistant, slowest-growing (less mowing), greenest grass around.

Perhaps the most dazzling example of turf science at work is the major league baseball field, where the perfect grass is mowed to form designs by grounds managers who compete among themselves for the most beautiful field. To balance the lawn obsessed, there is the national meadow-gardening movement, whose devotees believe that the perfect yard is a wildflowermeadow that draws birds and butterflies.

But weekend gardeners, with their lawns filled with pesky weeds and tenacious dandelions, are the most typical lawn enthusiasts, and any pleasure they receive from their labors must be found in their pursuit of the perfect American lawn.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.