Lawn Order

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Lawn Agent:
What I’ve done is fill this out. I’ll leave it on the door so that the owner is aware of the fact that we made a visit. And that they need to take care of the lawn. They may not even be aware of the fact that the City of Gainesville has an ordinance that prohibits excessive growth.

Roman Mars:
In communities across America, lawns that are brown or overgrown are considered especially heinous. Elite squads of dedicated individuals have been deputized by their local governments or homeowners association to take action against those whose lawns fail to meet community standards.

Sam Greenspan:
Call them lawn enforcement agents.

Roman Mars:
Producer Sam Greenspan. This is his story.

Sam Greenspan:
In 2008, a lawn enforcement agent stopped by a home in Hudson, Florida outside of Tampa. Maybe the agent snapped some photos, maybe there were some boxes ticked off a checklist, whatever the agent’s field methods, he or she went back to lawn enforcement HQ and sent out a letter.

Joseph Prudente:
They send out letters stating that you know, “Your lawn’s not up to par. You have a lot of bare spots. You have a lot of weeds.” My sprinkler system was busted and I didn’t have the money at that time to repair it.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Joe Prudente who, with his wife, Pat, owns the home in question. Lawn enforcement thought that the Prudente’s lawn was too brown, too weedy and not well-maintained. This was not the first such letter that the Prudente’s had received.

Roman Mars:
But Joe Prudente says he is no deadbeat. Over the course of a few years, he had tried to keep a clean, green lawn as best he could. He watered it. He put down grass seeds and grass plugs. He even dug up and completely replanted the grass in his front yard three times over.

Joseph Prudente:
I’ve done it three times. The first time, I had a company do it. They charged me like $1,200 and I said, “I’m not doing this every time it dies.”

Sam Greenspan:
Joe met with his homeowners association but they were not cutting him any slack.

Joseph Prudente:
So then, finally, they did some ruling that if I didn’t put sod down the whole place, a law firm was sending it to the judge to the court and see what would happen. I said, “Go ahead. What are they going to do? Lock me up? They’re not going to put me in jail for not putting grass down.” I said, “That’s crazy.”

Sam Greenspan:
Short thereafter, Joe got another letter.

Joseph Prudente:
It was a court order to turn myself in or get arrested. I didn’t want everybody to see police come into the house, carting me away for… They’d probably go, “Oh, look at this guy. He’s probably robbed a bank.” You know how neighbors are. So I did it the quiet way. I turned myself in.

Roman Mars:
At 66-years-old, Joe Prudente, an otherwise law-abiding retiree from Long Island, presented himself to the Pasco County Jail wearing a Grandpa Gone Wild T-shirt. He was apprehended on allegations of failing to properly maintain his lawn to community standards.

Joseph Prudente:
There was no bail, no bail until the sod was done.

Roman Mars:
Now, fortunately for Joe, the local paper had written about the arrest and detainment of a senior citizen for having a brown lawn. Word got around and dozens of people came to help dig up and resod the Prudente’s lawn. Joe was released from jail the next day. Most cases of homeowners brushing up against lawn enforcement do not end in jail time.

Sam Greenspan:
But Joe Prudente was not the only person to have ended up behind bars because of a landscaping issue. Frank Yoes of Grand Prairie, Texas did two days in jail for having an overgrown lawn.

Roman Mars:
And Gerry Suttle, a 75-year-old former city council member of Riesel, Texas, had a warrant issued for her arrest until some neighborhood kids came by and mowed the lawn that she had been unable to take care of on her own.

Sam Greenspan:
There’s a paradox to the lawn. On the one hand, it is the pedestal on which sits the greatest symbol of the American dream: the home. And homeowners are independent and free and have domain over their own little corner of the world.

Paul Robbins:
And yet, and yet, the lawn is the least free will-controlled landscape insofar as people are constantly pressured, either by formal or informal institutions, into managing it just like their neighbors.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Paul Robbins:
And I’m the author of the book “Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are”.

Roman Mars:
Grass may be a plant but a lawn is a designed object.

Paul Robbins:
A lawn is an entirely designed object. That kind of imaginary, nice, clear, green lawn, that’s an entirely engineered landscape.

Sam Greenspan:
And the reason we maintain this landscape, says Paul Robbins, is about everything except the grass.

Paul Robbins:
It’s about everything else. It’s about community. It’s about proper moral behavior. It’s about participating in the life of a community.

Sam Greenspan:
Even in the beginning, lawns were always about something else. The lawn, or really the idea of lawns, began with art.

Paul Robbins:
The Italians, for a while, were painting these sort of pastoral scenes.

Roman Mars:
Scenes full of grasslands and hedges, grasslands and hedges that didn’t actually exist.

Paul Robbins:
No. I mean, these are pastoral images out of somebody’s imagination of what the landscape should look like.

Sam Greenspan:
And these paintings got popular among Great Britain’s landed elite. They liked the paintings so much that they wanted to live in them.

Paul Robbins:
What the British were doing is designing their landscapes to look like what was trending in Italian painting. So life definitely followed art in this case.

Sam Greenspan:
A style of English garden developed, where a prominent feature is a green lawn. And right away, everyone recognized that these soft, verdant grasses were more than just a nice place to walk around barefoot outside.

Roman Mars:
A lawn was about power.

Sam Greenspan:
A lawn was a way for these English elites to show off they were so wealthy that they didn’t need this land to grow food. They could afford to let their fields go fallow.

Paul Robbins:
And could afford to keep grazing animals and scythe-wielding peasants to keep it short.

Sam Greenspan:
When European colonists set sail for the new world, they took grasses with them. But lawns were still mostly for rich people and eventually public parks.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, with the first suburbs, that lawns started appearing around the homes of the middle class. And here is where the lawn shifts from being about the flagrant display of wealth to a moral force for the good of civilization.

Sam Greenspan:
Andrew Jackson Downing, considered by some to be the father of American landscape architecture…

Roman Mars:
… who is slightly older than the other guy considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. I know you’re thinking it, nerds.

Sam Greenspan:
Downing wrote in 1850, “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.”

Paul Robbins:
There was kind of a social message which is that if you make it look like this, we will make better citizens. As opposed to living in squalor and the urban areas are considered evil and miasmic and problematic.

Sam Greenspan:
A well-maintained lawn, in other words, is the opposite of a broken window.

Paul Robbins:
Exactly. It’s precisely that. Most people think, “Whatever’s going on outside the house – if it’s civilized, manicured and well-maintained – reflects something that’s going on good inside the house.”

Sam Greenspan:
With the start of the great American suburbanization in the 1950s, suddenly middle-class people were owning larger and larger swaths of land. So covering it with grass was partly utilitarian. You have this big piece of land…

Paul Robbins:
… you got to do something with it.

Roman Mars:
But this connection between lawn and order only grew stronger and our lawns got bigger.

Paul Robbins:
We did an air photography study and used tax assessor’s data for Franklin County which is Columbus, Ohio so it’s a very typical American city. And we found that about 25% of the entire county was turf-grass lawns. That doesn’t include football fields. It doesn’t include golf courses. 25%.

Roman Mars:
A quarter of the entire city of Columbus is lawns. Grass living a completely unnatural life-cycle.

Sam Greenspan:
We don’t let grass grow tall enough to go to seed but we also water and fertilize it to keep it from going dormant. We don’t let it die but we also don’t let it reproduce. The author, Michael Pollan, wrote that “lawns are nature purged of sex and death.”

Roman Mars:
Feed, weed, cut. Repeat.

Sam Greenspan:
Paul Robbins interviewed dozens of people about their lawns for his book. People told him that if their grass got too long, neighbors would come by and ask if their lawnmower was broken, if they needed to borrow one. People who wouldn’t mow their lawn might find an aggressive neighbor had done it for them in the middle of the night or while they were out of town.

Paul Robbins:
You mow because everybody else does. The free market, American free, neo-liberal subject who does as he or she pleases would just say, “To hell with my neighbors. I’m just going to let my lawn grow.” But instead, they do the communist thing, which is collective management of what is essentially a moral commons. It’s not your lawn; it’s the whole community’s lawn and you’re responsible for this part.

Sam Greenspan:
Deviate from acceptable community norms and your community goes to war with you, which is how you get cases like Joe Prudente being thrown in jail for failing to keep his lawn up to “community standards.”

Joseph Prudente:
One of the guys in my cell, he says, “What are you here for, Grandpa?” I said, “Grass.” He said, “Smoking it or selling it?”

Roman Mars:
But as much as the lawn seems to be rooted to the American landscape, we may be seeing a transition. At least here out West.

Jerry Brown:
We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action. It’s for that reason that I’m issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reduction across our state.

Sam Greenspan:
California Governor, Jerry Brown, declared in 2015 that our state would need to cut water use by 25%.

Jerry Brown:
We’re in a new era. The idea of your nice and green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.

Sam Greenspan:
Here in California, the lawn is perhaps the most visible symbol of the drought. Water restrictions allow people to water only two or three times a week. Down from four or five or even more. In California and Arizona and Nevada, governments are actually paying people to rip out their grass. Prices range from $1 to as much as $4 per square foot of turf removed, which homeowners could then use to buy artificial turf or use it for xeriscaping, which is landscaping with things that don’t need water like rocks.

Roman Mars:
Some people are also choosing to put native plants in their yards which, theoretically, should grow with rainwater only and would help restore the ecosystem that had been there before.

Sam Greenspan:
Or you can just let your lawn go brown. California has a bunch of public service announcements that are all like…

PSA 1:
Get down with brown. We’ll get through this drought just fine. Even our lawns.

PSA 2:
Join the movement to help fight the drought. Get down with brown.

PSA 3:
Brown is the new green. Do your part to help California fight the drought.

David Bartlett:
Nobody bought a home in this country to have a brown lawn. This is America. We have green grass for a reason here. That’s the American dream is to have a green lawn so invest a little bit in our service and you can have a green lawn during that drought season.

Sam Greenspan:
This is David Bartlett of Xtreme Green Grass. He is decidedly not down with brown.

David Bartlett:
I’m David Bartlett with Xtreme Green Grass and we are turning her brown grass green.

Roman Mars:
And he’s doing this by literally painting a customer’s lawn green.

David Bartlett:
We are spraying on an all-natural, earth-friendly product that we manufacture called Xtreme Green Grass. It’ll last three to six months.

Sam Greenspan:
When we got there, the customer’s grass was golden-brown. It hadn’t been watered in six months. David uses a spray wand attached to a tank full of a liquid which he swears is non-toxic. And as he’s spraying, it’s like magic, like he’s transforming a wheat field into a soccer pitch, except the grass is still crunchy.

David Bartlett:
Yeah. The crunchiness doesn’t change unfortunately. If I could change that process, I would be rich.

Sam Greenspan:
You do anything besides green?

David Bartlett:
Yeah. We do white at Christmas season. Looks like you got a snowy yard. Kind of looks like you went up and got some snow from the mountains.

Sam Greenspan:
Anything like pink or purple, orange?

David Bartlett:
Pink? I would do that for you, bro.

Sam Greenspan:
David got into this line of work after a friend got him a similar service for his lawn as a gift. David had been working in landscaping and thought he could do a better job than the other companies he had seen.

Roman Mars:
Lawn painting is actually not new but if you’ve never heard of it, it’s because it’s generally only been used on golf courses and pro sports fields. It’s only since this most recent drought that lawn painting has come home.

Sam Greenspan:
When I first heard about lawn painting, I had assumed it would be scoffed at by the lawn-obsessives, the kind of people who had Joe Prudente thrown in jail. But a lot of Xtreme Green Grass’s clients are homeowners associations. Lawn painting is becoming accepted by even the strictest lawn enforcement agencies. It kind of makes you wonder if we, as a society, are beginning to question the supremacy of the perfectly-kept lawn. Maybe we can finally quit lawn-shaming each other.

Roman Mars:
This is America. We can always find ways to shame each other.

Paul Robbins:
I think it’s very, very interesting to see what’s happening in California with people getting on each other’s case for having green grass after all these decades of getting on each other’s case for not having green grass.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Paul Robbins again.

Paul Robbins:
Now, we have a case where the drought has inspired people to really wack one another on the internet or whatever else, sort of shame people for putting water on their lawn.

Roman Mars:
See Twitter #droughtshaming.

Sam Greenspan:
Paul says it’s good that people are looking to conserve water but the moral architecture of drought-shaming is a little too familiar.

Roman Mars:
It’s just the newest trend on how people police each other’s lawns.

Paul Robbins:
It’s just another version of the same thing. Moral outrage that people are not doing their share is sort of a natural response to people’s land management just like it was for keeping the lawn green.

Sam Greenspan:
And so if David Bartlett does his job too well, makes lawns look too much like they get tons of water, his customers might get drought-shamed by people who have gotten a little too down with brown.

Roman Mars:
As they say, the grass is always greener, even when it’s browner.

Credits

Production

Producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grasses Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are; David Bartlett of Xtreme Green Grass; and Joseph Prudente, a homeowner in Hudson, Florida. The “lawn enforcement agent” heard at the beginning of this story came from the film Gimme Green by Isaac Brown and Eric Flagg. A must-see for those wanting a deeper insight into the emotional world of lawns. Thanks to Sharon Hall and Kelli Larson for providing background on the environmental impact of lawns.

Music

“Theme of Law & Order” – Mike Post; “Toys” – Amon Tobin; “Fading” – OK Ikumi; “Redwood” – Liquid Fist; “Rode Null” – Hauschka; “Water” – Matmos & So Percussion; “the view” – lullatone; “I Fought the Law” – Clash; “Sifting in Sans”- Set in Sand

Sponsors

SquarespaceTeePublic and Tiny Letter

Comments (11)

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  1. Matt

    Thank you from putting a finger on what I hate about lawns: the social pressure, “moral” outrage, and public shaming centered on something that’s so unnatural and ultimately pointless.

    On the list of issues to worry about, between institutional racism, sexism, etc., this aught to be somewhere way down at the bottom of the list near things like “Are tall or short socks more comfortable?”

  2. Craig Berry

    Welcome to desert life California. You’re now in the same position that all of us here in New Mexico have been in for many, many years. Scheduled watering times, watering amount and time limits, etc… Just get used to really great xeriscaping in place of traditional lawns.

  3. I love you guys, but Xeriscaping is NOT just “rocks and stuff” as this episode suggests. A cursory look at the wikipedia page might help:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xeriscaping

    The article talks about the problems with public perception. Xeriscaping does not need more misinformation about it being decimated, it already a big problem. Xeriscaping can be quite beautiful. While so much of the world is struggling with massive drought, we should be advocating low-water landscape done right instead of dismissing it as “rocks and stuff”.

    Getting off my high-horse now, thanks!

  4. Dan

    This episode came out about a week after I was served a lawn enforcement notice. Excellent timing.

  5. bigtimetopbanana

    thank goodness the good people around where I live in Seattle have absolutely no problem with everyone letting their lawn go brown during the summer. In fact, it’s almost a reverse. Shame on those who water their lawn during the summer. Probably the same people put fertilizer on their lawn, and then it all washes down in the the salmon rivers.

  6. A good episode as usual but, boy, did you guys miss the forest for the trees (or the lawn for the blades).

    (1) Prior to the ’50s there was no traditional grass lawn. There was green ground cover. Then Scotts created an ad campaign that designed this tradition in order to sell grass seed, just as DeBeers’s ads created the tradition of giving diamond as a sign of love in order to sell their rocks. You could do a whole show on designed “traditions” that are, in fact, just successful advertisements.

    (2) The key phrase in the story is “homeowners association.” The guy doesn’t live in an organic community. He lives in a designed, autocratic enclave where the standards are written into the bylaws and must be obeyed regardless of circumstances in the real world. They are becoming increasingly common, and their ways will no doubt be transferred to the rental housing (at least at the lower levels of homes) that will surplant the so-called “tradition of homeownership” (itself brought about by companies and banks trying to create an incentive, a mortgage, for unionized workers not to strike).

  7. Why not use greywater to water whatever ornamentals are growing. Just use enviro friendly soap and collect water from handwashing, showering and laundering. Do not use greywater that may contain bleach, salt, oil. Do not use greywater on edibles.

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