The scent of freshly cut grass and the sound of a lawn mower trigger many childhood memories of summer, but the history of lawns goes all the way back to our origins in Africa.
As far as historians can tell, our African ancestors maintained areas of low-growing grasses around their homes to make it easier to see predators before they got too close. That same train of thought continued well into Medieval times, when grand expanses of lawn exposed enemy armies as they approached. England’s 12th and 13th century nobility decided that lawns provided a great place for sports that eventually evolved into tennis, croquet, and golf. The less wealthy commoners also maintained grassy areas, but that was to feed their sheep and cattle.
Those grand expanses of greenery are easy to grow in England. Adequate moisture, fertile, well-drained soil, and lots of overcast days allow turf grasses to thrive. Plus, it’s much easier to find a sheep to keep your lawn neatly trimmed. Not so, here in the good ol’ US of A. The seed and sod originally brought to the U.S. was from plants native to England and cooler parts of Europe, which are completely unsuitable to our Bay Area climate. Also, lawns are work - ask any greenskeeper. Most home owners did not have the time or resources to maintain a lawn ‘just for show’, until the invention of the lawn mower, in 1830. Making it easier to maintain a neatly trimmed ornamental lawn, lawn mowers played a big role in making lawns popular among the poor and middle classes. In 1952, a man named Abraham Levitt created the first planned suburban community, complete with established lawns, and the American Dream, as we know it today, was born. (I’ll bet you thought it was a lot older than that, didn’t you? I did, too.)
Modern lawns are commonly grown from sod. Sod is squares of soil with the grass already growing in it. Lawns can also be grown from seed, but grass seed isn’t cheap. Either is sod, for that matter.
You can get warm season grass and cool season grass. The seasonality refers to when those particular grasses do the most growing. Bermudagrass, St. Augustinegrass, zoysiagrass, and kikuyugrass are popular Bay Area warm season grasses that stay green all summer (if watered regularly), but they tend to have a dormant winter period. Our fall grasses include bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, and perennial ryegrass. These stay green year round. Each region has its own characteristics that make one variety better suited than another. Grasses are generally categorized according to water needs, disease resistance, salinity tolerance, shade tolerance, traffic tolerance, and maintenance needs. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Office for recommendations for your area.
Lawn pests & diseases
Lawns, or turf grasses, have very few insect pests in the Bay Area. Cutworms, grubs, crane flies, masked chafers (white grubs), and chinch bugs may cause some problems. Birds, raccoons, and moles may cause further damage by hunting and digging up the insects. Lawn diseases are equally rare. Leaf spot, rust, anthracnose, Fusarium blight, fairy rings, and other fungal diseases can occur, but these are usually the result of frequent, shallow watering.
The key to a beautiful lawn is good cultural practices. Cultural practices that ensure a healthy lawn include:
Weeds are the bane of every lawn aficionado. The list is long and the battle never ends. Some of the more common Bay Area lawn weeds include:
If you live in Santa Clara County, Ca, you may be able to take advantage of the lawn replacement program designed to reduce water use. I did it and received a check for $960! Instead of grass that required watering, fertilizing, weeding, mowing, and edging, I now have CA native blackberries, a dwarf pomegranate, a pineapple guava tree, and an artichoke. Soon, CA native hazelnuts will be added to the mix. Once these plants are established, they require little or no care at all, plus they provide food. Many other counties and municipalities are offering similar lawn replacement rebates to encourage home owners and businesses to step away from the wasteful lawn habit, to replace it with more suitable plantings. I encourage you to investigate your options.
There are many low-growing plants that use far less water and fertilizer and mowing and edging to look and feel nice. Oregano, yarrow, mint, chamomile, and creeping thyme all provide the added benefit of being edible. Lawns can also be replaced with rain gardens and rock gardens. For the sake of all things living, do not install a fake lawn. The plastic off-gases chemicals of dubious health and, honestly, they look like crap.
If you must have a lawn, give it the care it needs.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!