History of Lawns

Kentucky Bluegrass Lawn is not Environmentally Sustainable

Large expanses of mowed blue-green turf grass are costly to maintain in Calgary.  This is because Kentucky Bluegrass - the standard grass variety used in sods and most seed mixes sold in Calgary -  is not hardy in the Calgary area.  So most of our current lawns and many of the City’s green spaces require a lot of water and a lot of fertilizer to look lively and healthy.  This in turn takes a lot of labour in care and then in mowing. And because Kentucky Bluegrass doesn’t grow that well here, it’s more likely that weeds will grow in the grass. Then people tend to use chemical pesticides which kill the soil micro-organisms, making the grass even less healthy, so more fertilizers and water are needed.  This cycle is not environmentally sustainable in the long-term.

Water-wise Landscaping is the Way of the Future

During the droughts of the 1970’s, the xeriscape movement began in the western United States. Xeriscapes are landscapes that use little water - mainly through using local (native) and drought-tolerant species of grass and plants. Xeriscaping, also called water-wise gardening, can be done with a wide variety of lush-looking plants as well as with plants like cactus.

From “Creating the Prairie Xeriscape” by Sara Williams.

In 1981, the Colorado government, universities, and the landscape industry came up with steps the landscape industry could take to reduce the effects of future droughts there. By 1990, programs were in place in many area of North America, often with the Municipal water supply as a key partner. In Calgary, the City has the water-wise program. (Click here and here for more information from the City on water-wise gardening)  
The Kentucky Bluegrass lawn is no longer advised for Calgary. Grasses that need less water, or other water-wise landscapes, are advised. The City of Calgary has been successful in promoting water conservation methods so our water use doesn’t exceed our supply. With Calgary’s growth rate and current trends in climate change, it is likely that water use on yards will be restricted in the future.

Landscape use generally takes 40-70 % of the treated water supply and half of this watering is either wasted or not needed. Spending money on water treatment and distribution facilities for landscapes that need lots of water is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars.

The late 20th century convention of a blue-green Kentucky Bluegrass lawn is being replaced by a new variety of landscapes that are friendlier to the environment and to our wallets. Grasses used are more adapted to the local climate. Some people are growing native flowers in their lawn and using low ground covers instead of grass.  Much more variety is welcomed now - lawn, shrubs, trees, flowers, patios, water features, decks, vegetable gardens.

Public views on landscapes are changing - in late August, 2007, the CBC Radio program Sounds Like Canada had a week-long listener vote on the worst weed in Canada - Kentucky Bluegrass was the winner!

History of the Lawn

Lawns began as a way to protect castles, then became status symbols in Europe as only the very wealthy could afford to pay for all the work it took to build them and maintain them. The influence of a few urban planners and landscape designers made the high maintenance lawn a desirable status symbol for the middle class too.

Castle Protection Becomes Status Symbol
Lawns began in Medieval Europe when grassed areas around castles were kept scythed so that attackers could be seen. Serfs were used to cut the grass with scythes.

Formal gardens with clipped lawns became fashionable among the aristocracy in 17th century France and then in England. In the 18th century, some English landscape designers went further, cutting trees and leveling large areas of land on country estates to create vast expanses of grass. Only the wealthy could afford to build these lawns and hire the labour to maintain these lawns by hand.

Lawns Come to North America

Wealthy North Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, brought this fashion of leveled turf areas to their estates, even though North American conditions are not as favorable as in England for grass. Thomas Jefferson, like many other wealthy Americans had slaves to tend his lawn. 

Urban planning in North America started to involve larger front yards for city houses and common areas for lawn sports like croquet and tennis. The lawn came to be viewed as the centre of family recreation. The invention of the lawn mower in the late 1800’s enabled more people to maintain a lawn.  Grass varieties were imported from overseas as local varieties had been depleted by overgrazing - Bermuda grass was brought in from Africa, and Kentucky Bluegrass from the Middle East.

Kentucky Bluegrass Lawns - Trend Becomes the Convention

Then in the 1870’s, Frederick Olmsted, the influential landscape architect who designed Mount Royal Park in Montreal and Central Park in New York, started planning suburbs and writing about the ideal look for these - open expanses of lawn. Other designers followed suit and lawns became the convention.

In the early 1900’s garden clubs began forming to promote well-maintained gardens and lawns. The post-war boom of the 1950’s along with the expansion of the suburbs, the invention of the power mower, and the growth of home and garden magazines, meant the situation was ripe for marketers to promote their pesticides, fertilizers, mowers, and other tools as necessary to keep up with the neighbours with a well-trimmed green lawn. The lawn was now the convention for North American landscaping, even in Calgary where the typical grasses used in these lawns (mostly Kentucky Bluegrass) need lots of water and added nutrition to be green and healthy. (Click here for information on better grasses for Calgary)

Now, other kinds of lawn and landscapes are becoming the new norm - landscapes that are kinder to the environment and to us.  On our Yards page, you will find information on how to overseed your lawn to gradually replace the grass type to hardier grasses. You can also find resources and information to help you plan and install a variety of landscape types. Read more . . .

Click here for information on how to use natural landscaping practices in your yard.

Click here for actions you can take to support a pesticide bylaw.


Thanks to
Liz Primeau, Front Yard Gardens - Growing More than Grass, Firefly Books, 2003 for much of the history information in this section.  
Sara Williams - Creating the Prairie Xeriscape - Low-maintenance, water-efficient gardening, University Extension Press, University of Saskatchewan, 1997 for the xeriscape and water use information,