Imagine a typical suburban American house. We expect to see a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, a few bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as a few closets. And, of course, we expect to see a lawn in the front, as well as perhaps in the back. What could possibly be more natural than that?
It turns out, however, that lawns are far from being natural, and that having one is a fairly bad idea. Let’s begin by discussing the motivation for a lawn.
The suburban American house is largely modeled after the English archetype. In England, one frequently sees large meadows with houses sprinkled throughout. In some areas in the United States, this model has been followed fairly closely: in such places, there are no gaps between houses and no fences. Very quaint and communal.
More often, though, we see lawns punctuated and bookended by driveways. In typically overly materialistic American fashion, we have clear demarcations between what is ours and what is the neighbor’s.
One difference between the American lawn and the English meadow is that, in England, the grass serves as a backdrop for other flora. There are generally trees, shrubs, flowers, and other sorts of plants artfully positioned, with grass taking up the remainder of the space. Another difference is that, in England, the grass tends to be much longer, requiring (or at least utilizing) less maintenance.
So, what’s the problem?
For one thing, in certain areas of the country at least, lawns are environmentally problematical. In much of the country, it doesn’t rain enough to keep a lawn green year-round. That’s certainly the case in California. So, we use a tremendous amount of fresh water, which is rapidly becoming a dangerously scarce commodity, in order to keep up lawns.
Then, we have to maintain lawns in an aesthetically appealing manner. This requires mowing. While one can mow a lawn with an energy-efficient device, most people prefer to use an electric or gas-powered lawnmower. Not exactly an environmentally friendly object.
So, lawns are pretty bad environmentally. What else?
Once upon a time, especially in England, but also in the United States I imagine, the desirable caste of people consisted of those who did not have to work for a living, and who just idled around all day doing nothing helpful. To the modern person, this is a bit confusing. There are very few people who have enough money to live comfortably without working, and we find that to be a good thing. Those who are doing something — anything — to move society forward deserve to be the ones living the best. But back in an earlier time, it was those who worked (members of “the working class”) who were looked down upon.
I think one can draw a parallel here with our use of dirt. We could use it for a lawn, which is useless in the sense that it provides us with no food, or we could use it for a garden, which is helpful. Sadly, society is still at the stage of looking down upon those who must grow their own food, for the most part. And those of us who don’t have to grow our own food but still want to are, to some extent, seen in the same light.
But we’re really better off if we grow some food of our own. For one thing, it’s quite enjoyable to be in a garden with lots of interesting plants, and it can be inspirational to see an entire plant grow from just a seed. Then, the food tastes better. I am a big fan of eating fruit, obviously, but from time to time, other people give me fruit from the supermarket, and then I’m reminded why other people don’t find it as enjoyable an experience as I do. Thus, while I do not need to gather fruit from my yard, or from trees on Stanford campus, or off the ground as I go for walks, I do so because I get the tastiest stuff possible that way.
With all this in mind, Fritz Haeg started his Edible Estates project, of bringing gardens to typical suburban American front yards, in Kansas, California, New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts, as well as one in England. The reports were overwhelmingly positive in all cases. The families had a great time gardening and harvesting some of the food they ate, and the kids loved helping out and showing their friends and neighbors around the garden, teaching them about the different vegetables and herbs grown.
A constant worry that Haeg and the families he selected for the project had was that neighbors might not like the gardens. And, at first, that was generally the case, especially as they ripped out the grass carpets, leaving exposed dirt. But as vegetables and herbs started to grow, the neighbors invariably looked upon the project favorably. These gardens rapidly became conversation pieces: those who had planted them were frequently approached by neighbors and passers-by who were eager to share anecdotes about their grandparents’ gardens.
Of course, when one plants a garden, especially in the front where it is visible to all, it should be done in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Haeg designed the gardens with an eye toward maximal beauty. This is landscaping at its best, not just a bunch of vegetables and herbs planted haphazardly around a plot of land. The photographs in the book demonstrate this; who wouldn’t want a garden that looks like this one, from Lakewood, California:
Unlike lawns, which are uniformly boring and unimaginative, gardens allow people to display individuality and creativity. Since creativity and individuality are severely undervalued in American culture, we would do well to encourage them wherever we reasonably can, and the garden is as good a place as any.
There are a few other psychological reasons why lawns are a bad idea, ranging from concerns over property values to the idea of houses as commodities rather than living spaces to isolation that I could talk about, but I think I’ll finish here and let the reader find the rest of these points in the book, where they are explained nicely. This book is a fun and quick read, with lots of helpful information.