The Well-Dressed Garden: Are lawns worth the trouble?
There's no need to defend your turf: A carpet of lawn -- even if it includes clover, violets and a smattering of dandelions -- is a beautiful, time-honored tradition, sweeping back to the age of village greens. For lots of people, lawns are all there is to gardening. But lawns are also the gentle background to the angles and architecture in our residential landscapes, the soothing green swath around a home. Patches of lawn knit our neighborhoods together. They frame our flower gardens and give kids a place to play.
"There is something about our vision of home -- lawn is attached to that," says Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., where a gigantic indoor lawn of artificial turf was the centerpiece of the museum's summer installation. "Developers are putting more homes on less land," she says. "People are willing to have a smaller lawn, but they still want a piece of it."
Working with the Rockwell Group's LAB, a professional architecture and design studio, the museum created a lawn that became much more than a great expanse of grass. Hammocks and deck chairs were scattered everywhere. Virtual fireflies lit the scene at night. Crickets chirped in the soundtrack, and the bell of an ice cream truck could be heard in the distance, along with the gentle roar of lawn mowers. Visitors felt right at home, says Cathy Frankel, the museum's vice president of exhibitions and collections. She was pleased to see kids rolling in the grass: It seemed to come naturally. A lawn is "a place to take your shoes off, relax and create memories," she says, and visitors took the exhibit's cues without hesitation -- they spread picnic blankets, played lawn games and simply hung out.
Lawns are big business. Americans spend billions of dollars every year on lawn care -- including the cost of buying and maintaining lawn mowers and investing in seed, sod, hoses, sprinklers, irrigation systems, fertilizers and pesticides. The average lawn takes up 20% to 30% of most home lots, says Ben Hamza, director of technical operations at TruGreen, a national lawn care company.
If you mow your lawn yourself, you're probably committed to doing the job once a week during the gardening season, and if you pay someone else to do it, you're probably paying $30 to $80 or more, according to lawn research data for 2019. "The desire to maintain a healthy outdoor living space has not changed" over the years, Hamza says, "but more people are busy, and they don't have the time or knowledge to take care of their grass. More people are looking for help."
Neighborhood teenagers who cut the grass for pocket money are a vanishing breed: They're being replaced by pros. About 100,000 landscaping companies mow and maintain residential lawns across the country, and the industry is growing. TruGreen handles lawn, tree and shrub care for about two million residential customers in the U.S. and Canada.
Healthy turf is the best defense against lawn problems, Hamza says. A healthy lawn out-competes weeds, helps control erosion on your property and limits runoff into overburdened storm drains. Proper mowing -- don't scalp your lawn -- encourages grasses to put down a deep and thriving root system that doesn't demand constant watering and tolerates droughts with ease.
Lawn-care customers wish to be good stewards of the environment, Hamza says. They want environmentally safe and sustainable solutions to the challenges of maintaining a good-looking lawn. Protecting pollinators, including bees, is a priority, Hamza says, and, when pesticides are called for, customers expect lawn professionals to use them responsibly and with discretion. Lawn care products should also be safe for people, as well as for pets.
It takes time, effort and an investment for a lawn to thrive, but the consensus is obviously that it's worth the effort. A lawn doesn't have to be very big, and it doesn't need to be as meticulously groomed as a golf-course fairway. And it always works: Large or small, front or back, secluded or wide open, lawns never go out of style.
-- Your local university extension office, and master gardeners who volunteer for extension services, are great sources of information about lawn care in your area. Search for "lawn care" and "extension" and your state to find advice, bulletins, lawn care calendars and more.
-- TruGreen is a national, professional lawn care company. For lawn care basics and more information, see trugreen.com.
-- The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is a museum of architecture, engineering and design. The summer exhibit Lawn, and other exhibits at the museum, explore our relationships to our homes and to the landscape. For more information, visit nbm.org.