Poaceae or grasses make up some of the most important plants to humanity. It is the fifth most abundant with 12 000 species including rice, wheat and maize which make up 70% of all crops.
But why do we have lawns? We don’t eat it, nor do our pets. We could pave it or plant vegetables. If we would like kids to play on it, we could just use sand or a synthetic material.
Looking at suburbs around the world, not all have homes placed on plots surrounded by lawns.
History of lawns
Clearing the area around a defensive position became a more worthwhile exercise with the rise of archery as weapon. Having enemy troops creep through the undergrowth to sneak up to the castle walls was not ideal, having them easy to spot as they make their way over open ground was much better.
Castles belonged to the rich and powerful and when the fortification type construction gave way to the mansion, the clearing around the building allowed it to stand out. Keeping the cleared areas neat and tidy or arranged into organised squares and rectangles probably help create a sense of mastery over nature.
Homes may have got smaller but as the working class became more wealthy and more people moved to cities so too did the desire to keep the manicured patches of grass.
This was a European ideal. In Asia the emphasis appeared to be blending in with nature or simply grouping lots of people into a small area and building parks for recreation.
But in countries that were colonised by Europe the idea of a lawn spread with it.
First, again, only for the wealthy. But in time it came to be a symbol of success and wealth, and even a small property could have some lawn.
Nowhere has that trend been greater than the US. The big lawn surrounding any suburban home is almost a cliche.
How much is used?
Because there is so much of it, and because Americans also border many of their highways with grass, they actually have figures of how much of the US is lawn. By water consumed, it is the most widely grown crop, 178 000 square kilometres of it.
Not only is it very popular, it is popular in parts of the country that should never have had it, the dry states plan housing with the same size lawns as the wetter states.
The severe droughts are starting to get people wondering if it was a foolish way to demonstrate wealth and so might prove to be the curse of the middle classes, or rather another one, swimming pools can be just as bad an idea.
So what about the alternatives?
History of astroturf
Synthetic grass was surprisingly created by a subsidiary of Monsanto, Chemstrand. When Houston, Texas’s former mayor got the licence for a baseball team, the Astros, he set about building the first indoor field, the Astrodome. The light was not enough to keep the grass alive so he needed an alternative. It was only two years after the invention and so the ChemGrass soon changed to become known as Astroturf. The name stuck and though that was in the 60s it was never a real challenge to real grass.
That has been changing, especially as California and other dry regions still want the look of grass but can’t sustain the water use.
Images from Google Maps
Whether you call it fake grass or artificial turf; there are two compelling reasons to consider it.
The first is the water saving; the second is the absence of fertiliser.
Fertiliser run-off is becoming a major issue as more of it is used to maintain deep green colours. Water saving is a big plus although the artificial turf can also get very hot. A spray of water is a solution, but hardly ideal if you had spent the money to not use any.
Older types had some reports of health issues from the materials, although the increase in demand has seen quality, safety, availability and look all improve while costs are falling.
As things continue we may see even more natural turf replaced by the alternatives, but perhaps a better long term solution is redesigning our gardens and planning our neighbourhoods to allow more people to live affordably, albeit in smaller homes, rather than pushing the ideal of a garden home further and further from the city centres.
The innovation that once provided protection from marauders may finally be assigned to the history books and our long obsession with a non-essential crop may finally end.