I got to do something to postpone my least favorite chore: mowing the damn lawn. And weeding, trimming, watering. And everything else that has to do with all that miserable vegetation around my house. So I'm writing to you. Who is the jerk who invented lawns? If I put in Astroturf or green cement, I know the neighbors would have me arrested. What's wrong with weeds anyway?
-- R.B., Solana Beach
Not a thing wrong with weeds, R.B. It's an old Grandma Alice adage that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place. If it makes you happy, grab a beer, sit back, and watch the turf die. Soon enough you'll have a low-maintenance dirt yard with a nice stand of weeds. Ignore those neighbors when they threaten you. Ignore the residents' committee when they declare that the only acceptable homeowners are those who are lawn lovers. They're just status-seeking conformists with no sense of independence or imagination and a deadly fear of their home prices being depressed by your bad attitude. In fact, they sound like just the kind of people who had something to do with how lawns became the tyrannical things they are.
Lush green lawns were originally an obsession with the English upper classes in the 18th Century, but wild grasses have been part of the domestic garden scene since the days of ancient Greece. For the most part, grasses were used as background elements for gardens, not things to be admired on their own until the English nobility decided it liked lawn bowling. The game requires a very neat and carefully groomed grass court, and this seems to be when things took their insidious turn and a tidy lawn became the hallmark of class. It also indicated that the homeowner didn't have to plant his lawn to survive; he could live very nicely off others' labors. The British, of course, in the 18th and 19th Centuries had two things we Californians don't have much of: rain and servants. The duke, unlike you and me, didn't have to postpone his fun to go out and mow the estate.
Middle-class American homes in the 18th and 19th Centuries generally didn't have lawns. They were built close to the road and were surrounded by trees, veg gardens, wild grasses, and livestock. Late in the 19th Century, though, new homes were set back from the road, and a lawn filled in the gap for every right-thinking, status-seeking American. Around 1920 somebody developed a weed-free grass seed, then somebody else invented the gas-powered lawn mower, and our fate was sealed, even though a green grass lawn in California is just a big water waster.