I’m old enough to remember my mother squeezing into a girdle every morning, the first layer of the uniform she put on before she went to work. And I remember her relief in the 1960s when girdles – the last gasp of the corset – were finally deemed unnecessary to control and rein in the human figure. We like things a certain way, until we don’t like them that way any more.
When I visit family in Burbank, California – a dense suburban community that developed around the major film studios – I am always struck by how many of the small but affluent front gardens have been converted to useful vegetable patches. The median property value is $500,000, there are excellent supermarkets featuring a bounty of fresh produce within a five minute drive of any home, and yet people are growing their own. And very prettily, too.
So I was surprised to see this New York Times article about how some communities are deeply attached to the 20th-century vision of community beauty, to the point of banning vegetable-growing on front lawns if the patch takes up more than 25% of the lawn area. I spent part of my youth in pristine suburbs with lush, uniform lawns and I know that a messy lawn was taken as a sign of a messy character, a lack of control and perhaps even loose morals. Still, what could better demonstrate a desire for order and continuity than a well-tended produce patch?
I understand the appeal of a lawn, whether it surrounds a university building, a monument, a stately home or forms the heart a large park. There’s something impressive about tending into abject submission grasses that might otherwise reach up to our hips and wave wildly, hiding rodents, weeds, snakes or potholes if we didn’t keep them clipped almost down to the ground. A grand lawn provides a wonderful stage for human activity. And after all, maintaining a lawn is a kind of gardening, if very specific.
Not everyone is a born gardener. Burbank has plenty of front gardens that are virtually plant-free collections of pathways and colored stones. Not great for absorbing and dissipating the sun’s heat, but I get it. The pretty home lawn, though, is starting to strike me as old-fashioned, a passing ideal, a sign of development that was important at the time but which no longer serves the requirements of most people. From the waste of water and chemicals to general lack of productivity to the sensitivity of lawns to climate change to mounting food insecurity issues, the simple lawn might be an aesthetic whose time has come and gone.