February 24th, 2017
About a decade ago, a movement emerged called “Food Not Lawns.” This was a drive to replace the ubiquitous suburban lawn with a yardscape that yielded sustenance. You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that this created a minor firestorm in some neighborhoods, particularly those governed by “covenants” that the homeowners bought into with their home purchases. Almost uniformly, these covenants were about protecting home value by mandating a certain 1950s suburban pride aesthetic, with the manicured lawn as its most visible signifier.
Now, while it is possible to create a food garden that is also an aesthetic delight, it’s far from simple and a goal that is always slipping out of hand. If you edge your beds with lettuces, there will come a day when salad wins out over curb appeal. And for the kinds of families that are drawn to this reconfiguration of their yard, beauty tends to be found in the bounty which emerges from a patch of land that previously produced nothing but work.
The Lawns v Food battle continues, but it’s become more complex. In some neighborhoods, “planting strips” (the ribbon of grass often found between the curb and the sidewalk) are being reclaimed as a sort of linear farm. In others, vacant lots or areas beneath power lines are being used in the same way. Parks are increasingly sprouting p-patches, which inevitably have long wait lists. In short, the fringe notion of using closeby land to grow your own
food is mainstreaming.
Or perhaps I should say re-mainstreaming. You don’t have to reach far back into history to find the time when any habitation with so much as a patch of dirt would be growing food. In the rich and fraught history of slavery and the American diet, it is often forgotten that slaves largely had to feed themselves, and they did so from tiny gardens they kept in front of their shacks, gardens that they could only tend after they had spent all their daylight hours working to tend the plantation. Their “vegeculture” is an tremendous example of ingenuity under pressure and one that we would be right to celebrate.
It wasn’t just the slaves, of course, food gardening was standard operating procedure for anyone without an estate. That is not to say that there weren’t lawns. Grassy expanses spread wherever grazing animals were pastured. But the neat and tidy lawn that is the ancestor of the rows of front yards was something belonged exclusively to the rich. Imagine in your head a glorious English manor house. See the acres of lawn rolling up to it? That’s the great-great grandfather of the lawn mandated by neighborhood covenants.
There is a long and surprisingly elaborate social history of how the lawn became an integral part of American suburbia, invented after world War II. The nutshell version is that the claustrophobic megalopolises of the nineteenth century spawned a yearning for the countryside, which was then repackaged as acres of little houses surrounded by green. But there was a key invention that made all this possible, that fundamentally enabled suburbia as a concept and consigned the food garden to history, and that’s the lawnmower.
The reason that only the rich had lawns was because they could afford the staff to maintain them. Often that staff would take the form of shepherds or cowherds, trimming the green with livestock. But there were other ways of keeping the turf tidy without the use of animals. Groundskeepers with scythes, or even down on their knees with shears, would toil to keep the grass closely cropped. This was a mark of particular wealth, not just because of how labor was lavished on the grass, but because it sent a message to the other toffs: I’m so well off that I don’t care if this land produces nothing. It needs yield nothing but a view.
That’s the reason the lawn is out front, framing the manor house. No visitor can reach the steps without receiving the message about the lord’s daunting social station.
All this started to change around 1830, when the first lawnmower was invented. It was immensely expensive, heavy, and impractical, but the genie was out of the bottle and by a little after 1900, while fossil-fueled automobiles were still in their infancy, the gas-powered, ride-on lawnmower had burst into deafening, smog-billowing life. By the time the first true suburb, Levittown, rose from what had been potato fields on New York’s Long Island, the post-war industrial might of America was looking for something to do. The solution to all that unused productive capacity was to crank out ever more consumer products, with the small powered lawnmowers front and center, just like the lawns themselves.
This is the point at which we reach an exquisite historical irony. We – and by we, I mean the most of our forebears – began by growing food outside the door, the kitchen garden as it were. We did it because we needed it. The wealthy could buy food to supplement when the pickings were slim, but for most people it was do it yourself or do without.
The first lawns emerged in a world that was a world moved by the power of muscle, both human and animal. It was a world where energy supply and food supply were indistinguishable. Today, of course, we know those are two different things, or at least that’s what it seems like. Turns out that the average, modern, conventional American farm burns through 10 calories of petroleum energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy. It’s a stunning sort of statistic and one that was reversed (1 calorie of oil gets you 10 calories of food) as recently as 1940. But what really amazes me is that you can watch this transformation playing out right in the front yard.
Next time you catch sight of a zealous homeowner carefully maintaining his patch of green, take a moment to appreciate how the ease of the motorized mower transformed the world outside his door from a bounty to waste, and himself from serf to the lord of his own inedible estate.