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Map of the Week: The English Lawn

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Mark Easton | 15:32 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009

With the start of Wimbledon fortnight, one of England's proudest boasts is once again showcased for the world - the perfect lawn.

The grass court exemplifies not just a horticultural phenomenon but a cultural one: within its striped symmetry is a display of power as emphatic as a column of North Korean tanks.

But is the lawn's appeal now in decline, its potency failing in straitened and troubled times?

The small, rectangular sward at the centre of the championships is as famous and influential as any of the sports stars who have graced it.

Centre Court, Wimbledon

Here, embodied in London SW19, is the Englishman's claim to have authority over nature; not just the triumph of good (grass) over evil (weeds) but an exhibition of how order may defeat chaos.

The English lawn was invented in the early 17th Century as a way for the Jacobean gentry to assert their superiority. Hugely labour intensive, only the wealthiest and most powerful could afford to maintain the immaculate turf.

The traditional use of sheep or other livestock to graze pasture lacked the precision to create the closely-cut finish that amazed the rival gardeners of France and beyond. The perfect lawn was hand-produced by scything and shearing the grass.

So began an obsessive relationship between man and plant. And it does tend to be a man - there is something decidedly male about the botanic and geometric totalitarianism involved.

With the invention of the mowing machine in 1830, the lawn escaped the bonds of England's great estates and became a key component of the Victorian enthusiasm for games, sports and pastimes.

Croquet, cricket, bowls and lawn tennis required immaculate grass playing surfaces and the art of lawn-making was developed and exported around the world along with imperial expansion.

However, domestic dominance was largely retained because a key component of a soft lawn is soft weather - drizzly English rain.

In the 20th Century the United States, in keeping with its acquired super-power status, mobilised the masses to defy this metrological handicap and strive for global lawn domination.

The American Garden Club convinced its members that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful lawn: "a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green and neatly edged".

A battery of fungicides, insecticides and herbicides were deployed. Ten million sprinklers sprinkled.

In suburban Britain, no garden was complete without its square of striped green, tended to within an inch of its life. The lawn had become a ubiquitous part of the English landscape, as this map of Wimbledon from 1933 shows.

Wimbledon, 1933

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club had only moved to its Church Road site 11 years before, but the courts were encircled by other examples of professional lawn construction - the bowling green, the cricket square, the golf greens on the Wimbledon Park course.

Gardens of homes to the south of the club would almost certainly have boasted lawns front and back - framed by a few roses, perhaps. This part of SW19 was lawn central.

Is the English love-affair with the lawn fading, though?

At the Chelsea Flower Show this year, not one of the show gardens featured a lawn. "I would advise someone with a small garden to use artificial grass if they insist on a lawn" presenter Alan Titchmarsh tells me.

This strikes me as cheating, missing the point.

"We like our stripes", he concedes. "There is something therapeutic about the repetition involved in caring for a lawn. We mow it today knowing that in a week we will have to mow it again. People like that."

But his fellow presenter Joe Swift articulates the anti-lawn argument. "Lawns are basically mono-cultural - they really are not that great for biodiversity." He could have added that they consume huge amounts of water and for most gardens are almost impossible to maintain without chemicals.

Joe tells me how he feared a lynching a few years ago when he advised the Islington Gardening Club to dig up their lawns in favour of something more interesting. But I wonder if the reaction would be as negative today.

With US First Lady Michelle Obama ploughing the White House lawn to plant organic vegetables, with climate change making lawn maintenance more problematic in Britain, with the fashion for the natural and with a global economic downturn, it may be that what was once a status-symbol is now a little bit naff.

The pampered lawn looks increasingly like an unsustainable relic from an era of excess.

The most pampered of all, of course, is the golf green. In an academic paper published in 1993, Professor Wolf Grossmann explained how a survey of 52 golf courses on Long island in New York had revealed that "collectively they applied 21 different herbicides, 20 fungicides, and eight insecticides annually, totalling around 50,000 pounds of active chemical ingredients".

He quoted the Chief of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation Joseph Okoniewski: "If you scraped a golf green and tested it, you'd have to cart it away to a hazardous waste facility".

That said, I was out with my mower this weekend, decapitating the daisies and skidding on the moss that approximates for turf in my postage-stamp garden. It is a pretty sorry excuse for an English lawn, but I did feel a slight sense of pride as I inhaled the summer-sweet smell of fresh-cut grass and sized up my stripes.

The image of Centre Court in 2009 is courtesy of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. You can see the full map in 2D and 3D format at the Wimbledon website. The image of Wimbledon in 1933 was provided by the London Borough of Merton.

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