There is a story that some Americans were visiting a grand public school that shall remain nameless. While admiring the immaculate lawns they called over an elderly gardener using a reel mower. One of the them said to him – “Hey, tell me buddy, how do you get that there lawn so damn beautiful?” The gardener looked the American up and down and then replied – “mow it for 500 years, Sir.”
This story raises the question of lawn mowing. When did it start and how was it done in the past? The story is an interesting one.
The first references to areas of grass in gardens occur during the Middle Ages. People during this period, roughly between 1000 and 1500 AD., used grassy fields, kept short by sheep, for dances and sports. They admired natural meadows for their wild-flowers and perhaps recreated these areas, called ‘flowery meads’ in gardens, as we might today with a wildflower mix. They also used turf to make raised garden seats, using a raised rectangular box shape, filled with soil and topped with sods. We don’t know how (or if) they cut this grass – They probably used a large scythe.
Toward the end of this period, and into the next centuries the game of lawn bowls became popular. This was played on natural and later specially grown areas of short turf. As well, paths of grass – called ’turfed walks’ – were popular between flower beds. The grass would not have been free of other plants, indeed some, especially Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) were prized additions to a lawn, creating softness and giving off a pleasant perfume when trodden on. The lawns at Buckingham Palace still have a large amount of chamomile in them.
In the eighteenth century there developed the style of gardening usually called the Landscape Style. This involved large sweeps of lawn, clumps of trees, lakes and looked rather like well-groomed countryside. These large areas of grass could only be maintained by keeping sheep – which added to the picturesque quality of the landscape – but sheep around your front door was not very desirable. Ditches were often put around the house to keep the sheep back – these are called Ha-Has, perhaps because that was what was heard when someone stumbled into one.
However the grass near the house needed cutting and this was done with scythes. The skilled mower advanced across the lawn flanked by boys who swept up the clippings with twig brushes, which also kept moss out of the lawn. It required a great deal of skill to cut a close lawn with a scythe. Around this time too, gardeners began to collect grass, either as seed or sod, from fine-leafed types to create finer lawns.
In 1830 a man called Edwin Budding invented the first lawn mower. It was a reel type and he got the idea from seeing a machine used to trim the surface of heavy woollen fabrics in weaving factories.
The machine was heavy and required several people, or a horse, to pull it. There is a story that at a certain Lunatic Asylum (as they were then called), the poor patients were harnessed to the mower to cut the grass.
The main advantage of this machine was its ability to cut wet grass. Scything could only be done well if the grass was dry.
Although this is clearly a great advantage in the British climate, Budding’s invention was slow to catch on, mainly because it needed no skill and gardeners were reluctant to hand over their skilled work to labourers. However over time, and with refinements to the design, the lawn mower took over from the scythe.
The first gasoline mower was invented in 1900, which made it easier and quicker to mow large areas. The rotary type of mower was invented around 1950 in Australia and because it did not require careful sharpening and setting, soon became popular, even though the quality of the cut was inferior.
At first lawns were top dressed with mixtures of manure and soil. This was labour-intensive and was gradually replace with artificial fertilizers. Interestingly, the first such fertilizer – sulphate of ammonia – was originally used to kill weeds. Gardeners noticed that the grass was greener where it had been used, and started to use it as a fertilizer.
So when next you become tired of mowing the lawn, think of what it must have been like to wield that scythe.