Before the invention of mowing machines in 1830, lawns were managed differently from today. Lawns belonging to wealthy people were sometimes maintained by the labour-intensive methods of scything and shearing. In most cases however, they were pasture land, maintained by grazing with sheep or other livestock. Areas of grass grazed regularly by rabbits, horses or sheep over a long period can form a very low, tight sward which is similar to a modern lawn. This was the original meaning of the word ‘lawn’, and the term can still be found in place-names. Some forest areas where extensive grazing is practiced still have these semi-natural lawns. For example, in the New Forest, England, such grazed areas still occur commonly and are still called lawns, for example Balmer Lawn.
Lawns became popular in Europe from the Middle Ages onward. The early lawns were not always distinguishable from pasture fields. It is thought that the associations with pasture and the biblical connotations of this word made them attractive culturally. By contrast, they are little known or used in this form in other traditions of gardening. In addition, the damp climate of maritime Western Europe made them easier to grow and manage than in other lands.
Lawns do not have to be, and have not always been of grass. Other possible plants for fine lawns in the right conditions, are camomile and thyme. Some lawns, if grown in difficult conditions for grasses, become dominated by whatever weeds can survive there; these include clovers in dry conditions, and moss in damp shady conditions.
mowing, to cut the grass regularly to an even height
scarifying and raking, to remove dead grass and prevent tufting
rolling, to encourage tillering (branching of grass plants), and to level the ground
top dressing the lawn with sand, soil or other material
spiking, to relieve compaction of the soil
watering, to prevent from going dormant and turning brown
herbicide and pesticide application to manage weeds and pests
A number of criticisms of lawns are based on environmental grounds
Many lawns tend to be composed of a single species of plant, or of very few species, which reduces biodiversity, especially if the lawn covers a large area. In addition, they may be composed primarily of plants not local to the area which can further decrease local biodiversity.
Lawns are sometimes cared for by using pesticides and other chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment.
Maintaining a green lawn often requires large amounts of water. The use of such large amounts on plants that are often unsuited for their environment puts a strain on water supplies (especially during drought years), requiring larger more environmentally invasive water supply systems. Grass typically goes dormant by turning brown during hot, dry summer months, thereby reducing its demand for water. But this appearance may be unacceptable to the lawn owner.
In the US and some other areas, lawn heights are generally maintained by poorly tuned gasoline push or riding lawnmowers, which use an excessive amount of fuel and contribute to urban smog during the summer months.
Lawns use up vast areas of arable land often obtained through the expropriation of farmers from their land to make room for suburbs in North America.
However, using ecological techniques, the impact of lawns can sometimes be reduced. Such methods include the use of local grasses, using only organic fertilizers, and introducing a variety of plants to the lawn. In addition to the environmental criticisms, some gardeners question the aesthetic value of lawns. One positive benefit of a healthy lawn is that of a filter for contaminants and to prevent run-off and erosion of bare dirt.