A history of the lawn

In a recent New Zealand Listener issue, garden columnist Xanthe White wrote about the fascinating history of the lawn, a ubiquitous feature of the New Zealand urban landscape.

White explains that the origins of the lawn can be found in agriculture; specifically the task of scything of fields for winter feed. The clearing of woods and undergrowth from around dwellings and settlements also kept these inner fields relatively free from snakes and other potentially harm-inflicting creatures lurking in long grass or in and around woodlands.

The scythed field took a significant step towards the modern lawn with the advent of the ornamental lawn, initially a luxury affordable only to the upper classes. Landscape designers were employed to create rolling field-scapes. Closer to the main house, these would be scythed by hand, but the outer fields were grazed by livestock (usually sheep). The sheep-grazed outer fields were separated from the inner lawns through the use of the intriguingly named “ha-ha“,  a trench with a retaining wall [see below], which was obscured when viewed from main house, creating the illusion of a vast expanse of lawn.

During the Industrial Revolution a new movement in England led to the establishment of a national trust (the inspiration of New Zealand’s own QEII Trust), one of the key objectives of which was to preserve green spaces within cities to be enjoyed by all people, regardless of class. These parklands, such as London’s Hyde Park, were initially grazed by sheep and cattle. However, by the middle of the 19th century, this came to be seen as untidy and inappropriate in a city environment, so the animals were replaced by labourers who scythed the grass.

The first lawn mower was patented around this time, and over the decades to follow, labourers were gradually replaced by these mechanical mowers. Meanwhile, with the development of a growing middle class, the lawn (and the lawn mower) became widespread, driven in part by the historical fear of snakes, spiders and other “undesirables” in long grass.

In New Zealand, we a lucky to be free of both snakes and poisonous grass-dwelling creatures of any kind, but we have nevertheless developed an enduring attachment to the lawn. It seems that no matter how labour-intensive (or ecologically unsound) lawns may be, no New Zealand home is complete without one. Many hours of New Zealanders’ weekends are spent seeking a (generally unobtainable) perfection in our lawns, through myriad tasks, including mowing, watering, weeding, spraying, fertilising, edge-trimming, re-seeding, or re-turfing. Sadly, the frenzy of activity directed at the maintenance of lawns does not leave much time for the ultimate lawn-related activity – relaxing on them.

Notably, our infatuation with our lawns also inspired the name of a popular band New Zealand band of the 1980s – “The Front Lawn”.

See also: The lawnmower – the great New Zealand love affair.

Photo top left: Sheep grazing a “lawn”, Leyden Glenn Farm, near Boston, Massachusetts. Top right: The sweeping lawns of Broxwood Court, near Hereford, England. Above left: a ha ha fence at Houghton Hall,  Norfolk, England.

2 thoughts on “A history of the lawn

  1. Paul Knight September 16, 2011 / 5:03 pm

    Very interesting. I did always find it difficult to live in places where lawns were not considered essential and one of the greatest pleasures associated with return to N.Z. was and remains to walk barefoot on the lawn.

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