The history of the American lawn was driven by technology, desire for social status, and marketing. Its roots are in the estate gardens of the Middle Ages.

In the U.S., green, weed-free lawns were rarely seen before the late 19th century. Prior to this, the front yards of rural U.S. homes featured “gardens” of packed earth and small flowerbeds planted with edible and medicinal plants, watered by buckets (garden hoses weren’t yet invented). At the time, a green lawn in the American front yard was an idea promoted by wealthy travelers to Europe and England who became enamored with the classical Roman-style landscape architecture. This style of landscaping, seen only on the largest estates in Europe, featured enameled meads sloping away from sprawling mansions, much like the landscaping seen at the U.S. White House.

What is an enameled mead?

Green expanses of cultivated grasses first appeared about 900 years ago during the Middle Ages on royal estates in Great Britain and Northern France. Both countries have climates with mild winters and warm, humid summers, ideal for cultivating many different types of grasses. During this era, lawns weren’t always the vast swaths of green grasses we think of as lawns today – they were also “rooms” in a walled garden meant for entertaining or sitting.

An enameled mead is a landscaping technique dating to the Middle Ages in which low-growing perennial flowers are planted in and surrounded by mowed grass, in imitation of a natural meadow. It was none other than England’s King Henry II, who reigned from 1154 to 1189, who it’s believed, first ordered his laborers to slice up tracts of meadow turf and transplant them to his palace gardens.

Found only on vast estates that could afford the high maintenance, a flowery mead of the Middle Ages included areas of turfgrass from a local meadow with various native perennial flowers, planted methodically inside the grassy areas. An army of gardeners kept the grass mowed low with hand shears and scythes, or grazed by sheep. The flowery mead, often surrounded by hedges within a walled garden, contained elaborate lawns and paths on which people of wealth and royal status strolled, danced, and mingled.

Flowers in the enameled mead may have included lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, violets, daisies, or daffodils. Later, it evolved to include white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal, and other groundcover plants and grasses. The flower and grass plantings were called “enameled” because, at a distance, the effect suggested the look of enameled jewelry. This style of landscaping was still in practice on European and English estates in the 18th and 19th centuries and became the envy of wealthy travelers from the U.S.

How front yard gardens became lawns in the U.S.

In the U.S., having a lawn in the 18th or 19th century, much less mowing it, was not possible for most home gardeners unless they were extraordinarily wealthy. For instance, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was among the first to incorporate the European style of lawn on his estate at Monticello. Maintaining a lawn became possible in 1830 with the invention of the reel mower when an English engineer named Edwin Budding modified a machine used for cutting the nap on velvet in textile factories. Budding’s reel mower was less than ideal for mowing, as it dug up the soil along with shearing the grass. But others improved upon Budding’s contraption and eventually homeowners of more modest means could maintain a turfgrass lawn with their new reel mower.

With the technology to maintain them, lawns became more common in temperate parts of the U.S. But in drier areas, lawn irrigation was still a challenge until the invention of the garden hose and sprinkler in 1871. Even with these advances, the green, weed-free lawn was yet to take the place of the front yard garden.

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