A Brief History of Lawns

It may be known by many names – turf, yard, green, sod – but there are three key elements that define a lawn:

  • It is an area of grass or mostly grass.
  • It is mown, instead of allowing the plants to reach their full height.
  • It is maintained for the benefit of people.

Lawns are not found in nature.  People create and maintain them – around homes, in parks, and many other public and private spaces.


Illustrustration from Bocaccio’s La Tesida (1460). Source: http://gallowglass.org/jadwiga/pictures/gardens/teseida.jpg

The first recorded lawns were in Europe in the middle ages.  In The Illustrated History of GardeningHuxley states:

“The first detailed account of preparing turf comes from a famous work called Opus ruralium commodorum, or The Advatages of Country Living, by Petrus de Crescentius, or Crescenzi….In this work the author recommends digging out all the weeds and roots, scalding the soil with boiling water to prevent further weeds germinating, and then laying turf brought in from the wild.  Then the sods are beaten with wooden mallets or ‘beetles’ (still used in laying turf today), and trodden with the feet until the grass is almost invisible, after which fresh, even growth should appear.  The resulting sward should, he says, be cut twice a year; if it got out of hand it was simply returfed, which usually occurred every three or four years.”

The first lawns were filled with wild flowers, and low mounds of turf were created for seating, which were sometimes planted with aromatic herbs such as chamomile.

In the early 17th century, lawns began to be mown more frequently.  The mowing was done by scythe, with shears used for edging.  The lawns were also “rowled”, or rolled with large iron rollers.  The 18th century brought the design of even more expansive parks and gardens in the estates of wealthy landowners.  If  you weren’t tipped off by the enormous manor house or castle, you would know by the vast expanse of lawn around it that the owner was very wealthy.  Lawns implied a staff of servants armed with scythes, brushes, rollers, shears, and edging irons.  Some expanses of lawn were rolled using horses with their hooves un-shod and covered with woolen mufflers.

The invention of the cylinder or reel mower in 1830 made lawn maintenance easier to acheive, but it wasn’t until the growth of the suburbs in the early 1900s that lawns became widespread outside of parks, golf courses, and large estates.  In modern America, lawns have become a cultural touchstone, a symbol of suburban living, and the passion of many homeowners.


Adapted from A Brief History of Lawns by the United States Arboretum.

Preventing Lawn Disease

By the time you see a lawn disease, it’s really too late to do much about it – at least in the short term.

Lawn diseases are caused by plant pathogens, usually fungi.  The fungi are almost always around, living off dead and decaying material in the soil.  You just don’t notice them because the grass usually fends them off. They are not dangerous to people.

But when the environmental conditions are right (usually plenty of moisture and the fungi’s favorite temperature) and your grass is stressed, the scale tips in favor of the pathogen.  The result? Check out pictures of these Common Lawn Diseases.

Preventing disease problems is the best strategy, because once symptoms are visible, chemical rescue treatments aren’t recommended for home lawns.  Prevention means maintaining a healthy turf through proper mowing, watering and fertilizing.  In particular:

  • Keep leaves dry.  If you water, do it early in the morning so that leaves dry quickly.  Avoid watering at night.
  • Avoid over-fertilizing. Too much fertilizer can stress plants and leave them vulnerable to diseases.
  • Plant disease-resistant grasses.  Choose the right grass for the site.
  • Improve drainage.  Poorly drained low spots are particularly prone to disease.
  • Increase air flow.  Lawn diseases are more likely where stagnant air collects.  Clear underbrush to improve air circulation.


Adapted from Cornell University

Snow Mold

Snow molds appear during cold wet periods around the time of snow melt.  Gray snow mold appears in roughly circular, bleached patched up to 2 feet in diameter.  Grass is often matted and surrounded by a white to gray fluffy halo of fungus.  While unsightly, it rarely kills the turf.  Infestations are worse after long, deep, compacted snow cover.

Pink snow molds appear similar to gray ones but have a pinkish cast.  They do not require heavy snow cover and may kill turf.

To prevent snow mold:

  • Continue to mow turf in fall as it grows
  • Avoid compacting snow on top of turf during winter
  • Rake matted grass in mold-damaged areas in spring to encourage new growth
  • If molds are a regular problem, reseed resistant varieties




The first signs of rust are yellow lesions.  Later, spores cover the blades.   They are usually orange but may also be yellow, red or brown.  Wind and rain cam carry the spores to cause new infections.

If the disease is severe, grass stands appear thin and discolored and the grass may eventually die.  All lawn grasses are susceptible.

To prevent rust problems, keep leaves dry by watering only early in the day.  Avoid stress from either too much or too little water.  Prune trees and shrubs to increase light and air flow.

Mow to the correct height.  Raking and removing clippings when the disease is present can reduce the number of spores to spread the disease.

Red Thread

Red thread occurs during humid periods in spring and fall when daytime temperatures are between 60 degrees Fahrenheit  and 75 degree Fahrenheit.  Fine-leaved fescues and some ryegrasses are most susceptible but it also affects Kentucky bluegrass and other fescues.  Slow-growing, nitrogen-deficient turfs are particularly vulnerable.

Look for water-soaked patches of grass that turn to a bleached tan as grass dies.  Patches may be round or irregularly shaped and from about an inch to a foot in diameter.

In humid weather, the fungus produces coral-pink to blood-red hyphae up to an inch long on the tips of the grass blades.  These red threads can disperse the disease to healthy turf by mowing and foot traffic.

To help prevent the disease, maintain soil fertility and, where red thread has been a problem in the past, lime to maintain pH at 6.5 to 7.0.   Avoid overwatering, provide good drainage, and keep grass blades as dry as possible by watering early in the morning.


Pythium fungi can infest all commonly grown cool-season lawn grasses.

When Pythium attacks foilage, the disease is called cottony blight, grease spot, or Pythium blight.  Outbreaks occurs most often during hot, humid weather and can spread quickly.  Pythium can also cause root and crown rots in cool, warm or hot weather with high moisture.

Look for small patches up to 6 inches wide where the grass looks water-soaked and feels greasy or slimy.  Patches often follow the direction of drainage or mowing.

To help prevent Pythium problems:

  • Use low to moderate rates of balanced fertilizers.  (High nitrogen favors the disease with the some grasses.)
  • Maintain soil pH in the neutral to slightly acid range.
  • Avoid mowing when the grass is wet.
  • Water early in the day so grass dries quickly.



Leaf Spot

Leaf spots are most destructive during cold, wet, overcast weather in spring and fall.  Look for gradual browning and thinning of grass.  Small, dark-brown, purplish or purplish-red colored spots appear on leaves from early spring to late fall.  As these lesions increase in size their centers may fade to a straw or light-brown color.  The spots are usually surrounded by narrow dark reddish-brown to purplish-black borders.

As the disease progresses in favorable weather, the spots run together and girdle the leaf blades.  As the weather warms, the crowns, rhizomes and roots may rot.  Plants lack vigor and wilt from moisture stress during the middle of the day.

Prevention includes:

  • Proper mowing.  Maintain lawn at maximum height and remove no more than a third of the plant when mowing.
  • Keep thatch less than 1 inch.
  • Don’t over-fertilize.  Avoid applications before late May or early June.  Avoid excess nitrogen, especially in spring.
  • Avoid frequent light waterings.  If you water during dry spells, apply enough to soak in 6 to 8 inches deep.
  • Choose resistant varieties.  Resistant varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and fescues are available.

Fairy Rings

Look for an arc or circle of lush green grass and/or toadstools or puffball mushrooms.  The rings may be as large as 60 feet in diameter, though most are less than 15 feet.  They usually occur in the same place each year, with the ring expanding outward.

The lush grass is from a release of nutrients (especially nitrogen) caused by the fungi.  Some of the mushrooms associated with fairy rings are poisonous and should be raked up and removed regularly if small children play in the area.

Fairy rings are more of an aesthetic nuisance than a threat to lawns.  Sometimes there will also be a ring of dead grass caused by the fungus.  More frequent mowing can minimize the difference in grass height.  More frequent fertilization and heavier watering can even up grass growth and color, but may worsen disease problems.

Dollar Spot

The name comes from the silver-dollar sized straw-colored spots this disease causes on putting greens.  On longer grass, the shapes are more irregular.

When dew is on the grass, look for a white, cob-webby fungus.  Blades of grass show straw-colored lesions with reddish-brown borders.  Of the common lawn grasses, bluegrass and fescues are most affected.

Prevention includes:

  • Proper mowing.  Maintain maximum height, if possible and take off no more than a third of the height when mowing.
  • Maintaining adequate moisture without overwatering.  Minimize leaf wetness by watering early in the day.
  • Avoiding excess nitrogen.  Dollar spot occurs less on nitrogen-deficient turf.
  • Choosing resistant varieties.

Brown Patch

Rye grasses and tall fescue are most susceptible, but Brown Patch also attacks Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescues.

Look for 6- to 20-inch diameter brown patches, sometimes with a purplish-gray “smoke ring” border or  a “frogeye” with green grass in the center.  Leaves show tan lesions with brown edges.

Prevention includes reducing thatch, proper watering to keep leaves dry, providing good drainage, and choosing resistant varieties.  Excessive nitrogen applications can increase the occurrence and severity of brown patch.