America's Love for Lawns

Departments - Business Management

How you can profit from our nation’s historic lawn care obsession.

February 17, 2009
John Torsiello

To say Americans have an unabashed love affair with their lawns would certainly not qualify as an understatement.

It’s estimated that some 60 million Americans manicure their lawn to varying degrees, and around half of that number hire lawn care professionals to keep their grass, shrubs and trees healthy, green and and tidy. Lawns in the U.S. are also said to cover an area about the size of New York State, and lawn care is estimated to be a $59 billion annual industry.

However, the history of the well-maintained lawn is a relatively short one. The English, especially those owning large estates, are credited with imbedding the image of a stately lawn into the psyche of the world. Some historians believe that desires for lawns originated in the 17th Century when royal families found them ideal for showcasing massive castles, manor homes and for flaunting wealth and importance. Soon, the land around a home became a status symbol rather than a place to plant gardens or trees.

As early as 1841, Andrew Jackson Downing published a landscape-garden book aimed at the American audience. The Newburgh, N.Y., nursery owner saw landscaping as uplifting to the human spirit, and labeled it a civilizing factor that a still rough and tumble American society craved.

Soon after books and journals showed Americans what is was like to live in luxury, a lawn craze started sweeping the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Beautiful lawns were touted as essential for a person that wished to make style and wealth statements. And with the advent of the push mower around 1870, anyone who owned property could have a lawn.

At the turn of the 20th Century, various groups and organizations (most prominent among them being the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Golf Association) conducted research to find an ideal grass seed with which the growing homeowner class could plant to help “green” America.

The USDA finally settled upon a mixture of seeds from around the world, including Bermudagrass from Africa, bluegrass from Europe and a mix of fescues and bentgrass that could withstand America’s multiple climates.

Such inventions as the rotary mower, garden hose and sprinklers gave Americans more tools to establish and maintain lawns, and the desired home-centric, post-World War II lifestyles spurred lawns to even greater acceptance in American society. Homeowners in Levittown — the country’s first planned communities that sprouted up in New York and Pennsylvania in the late 1940s and early 1950s — were shining examples of tasteful uniformity. Indeed, the owners of the communities agreed by pact to mow their lawns two times a week between the months of April and November.

The relative peace of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration in the 1950s further enhanced the image of lawns as part of the “American Dream.” Pictures of dad mowing the lawn, mom weeding the flowerbed, kids romping about the yard and backyard barbecues were etched into the national consciousness. Further lawn support came from the first color telecasts of professional golf events, which spurred more fascination with large, manicured green spaces.

The advent of two-person working families and subsequent attempts to manage ever-expanding lawns and landscapes in the 1970s and 1980s led Americans to turn to lawn care professionals for the maintenance of their prized outdoor possessions. These individuals had the time, know-how and tools to properly maintain yards and landscape.

But despite this positive, progressive history of lawns, there have been detractors to the lush emerald carpets that homeowners adore.
In his book “American Green,” author Ted Steinberg virtually likens the desire for a perfect lawn to an obsessive-compulsive disorder – all while railing against the perfect lawns that are now commonplace.

Yet while attracting media attention, these books and studies seem to be merely interesting sidebars in the never-ending saga of lawns. A study by researchers at Ohio State University estimates that the space devoted to turfgrass in the U.S. is growing at a rate of almost 600 square miles a year. Other studies have shown that money spent on maintaining and enhancing a lawn is one of the best investments a homeowner can make.
“A properly cared for lawn and landscape helps build curb appeal,” says David Klemm, president of Connecticut-based Klemm Real Estate. “Very often, the first impression a potential buyer has when approaching a house is lasting. A well-groomed lawn and landscape is a major selling point, and lawn care professionals and landscapers can help create that curb appeal that is so important to a home’s overall value.”

In a Money magazine report, landscaping results in a whopping 100 to 200 percent recovery value per investment, topping such investments as kitchen and bathroom remodeling and the addition of a swimming pool to a property.

“Americans love their lawns,” says Jim Fetter, Bayer Environmental Science sales manager. “Many people take pleasure working in the yard, while others simply enjoy the activities that can take place on the lawn.”

In a recent Bayer Lawn Care Institute (LCI) study, 40 percent of those surveyed said they have far less time now than they did five years ago. Another LCI study showed that a staggering 90 percent of homeowners prefer using experienced lawn care professionals for turf and landscape issues, pointing out the glaring fact that, while homeowners want beautiful lawns, maintaining them by themselves is becoming increasingly difficult.
This is why lawn and landscape professionals need to understand how to properly utilize Americans’ love affair with lawns.
“Two of the most compelling reasons that homeowners hire a professional lawn care provider are convenience and expertise,” Fetter says. “When we saw the results of our surveys we encouraged lawn care operators to promote that the hiring of a professional will result in more free time and to communicate this statement through marketing materials, such as invoice stuffers, door hangers and newsletters, or simply mentioning it when talking to current or existing customers.”

In a nod to current concerns over the use of chemicals, he added that LCOs should also promote their expertise in safely and effectively treating lawns.

Because many LCOs have college degrees in horticultural science or certifications related to lawn care, they also have the expertise and knowledge to protect homeowners from new invasive pests – such as the Emerald Ash Borer and Chilli Thrips – from attacking expensive and sometimes irreplaceable trees and ornamentals.

“Expert service providers are important to protect a homeowner’s landscape investment. Most homeowners lack the expertise to identify and address these challenging issues. LCOs should promote their credentials whenever possible.”

Dan Rothermel, vice president of the Lawn Care Association of Pennsylvania, strongly believes in what he calls an ideal “passive marketing tool” that can help lawn care professionals spread the gospel of the ideal lawn.

“One of the best marketing tools you have is the neighbor’s yard next to a home that you service. The lawn you are caring for is nice and thick, green and weed free and the lawn next door may have a lot of weeds and be off color. In the world of keeping up with the Joneses, it is a strong passive marketing tool.

“Another tool we use in marketing is telling potential customers not to take our word for it, but rather take a look at the five or six other homes that we care for in a neighborhood. It’s visual proof of what  lawn care professionals can do to make a person’s lawn stand out.”

With a fledgling economy, many homeowners are tightening their budgets and putting off vacations or new car purchases. But one item Americans likely won’t scrimp on is their lawn and yard, says David Hofacre, president of the Ohio Lawn Care Association.

Hofacre says LCOs should take the opportunity to point out that having a well-maintained lawn can be a rather inexpensive pleasure.
“People will always have pride in where they live,” he explains. “The economy may be slipping, but keeping one’s home and yard looking nice is something people won’t give up. And people will likely be spending more time at home this year so they will want a nice looking yard, even more than in the past.”

While homeowners may begin the year trying to do more of the yard work themselves, Hofacre says that will wear off. 

“By the time summer rolls around and there are so many things taking up homeowners’ time, they need professional help.”
Lynn Luczkowski, owner of L2 Communications, says that a slow economy can provide opportunity for LCOs.

“Especially now, during economic uncertainty, lawn care professionals can market to customers the importance of preserving what matters most – a person’s own home and yard. If someone is going to spend more time at home, they should make the most of what they have.”

Luczkowski adds that LCOs can orchestrate contests, promotions and “makeovers much like the popular reality television shows.” Moreover, they can take photos and personalize how they turned a “grubby looking yard into a paradise.”

Jackie Beck, owner of Beck Communications in Old Saybrook, Conn., says lawn care professionals need to have a strong communication plan in place at all times in order to reach out and touch American’s love affairs with their yards.

“Lawn care professionals should offer seasonal tips via their Web site, e-mail blasts or direct mailings, all while incorporating their products and services. This is a great way to keep in front of current and potential customers on an ongoing basis. When it comes to needing services, your company will be on the top of the list for a quote.”

But Rothermel says LCOs should be careful not to promise customers a lawn that is too perfect.

“The image some people have of their lawn looking like a golf course is not always realistic because the typical lawn is not maintained like a golf course,” he says. “Explain what a customer’s expectations should be and that a lawn is not something that you can carve out of granite. It’s always changing and dependent on variables such as weather and use.”

However, Rothermel says, be prepared to go the extra mile if a customer wants to seek perfection.

“Offer different levels of service. If someone wants one dandelion pulled, then offer that level of service. You have to remember that these types of people are often your best customers and that they will talk to other homeowners.”

Fetter also advises lawn care professionals to not downplay the desire of many homeowners to be more environmentally sensitive.
“Show concern for what products are being used on their property. It’s critical that LCOs take time to educate their customer on the safety of the products and how using them as-directed actually benefits the environment.”

He adds that homeowners are becoming increasingly interested in improving the quality of their lawns and landscaping – not just from a cosmetic standpoint, but also in terms of their lawn’s ability to resist stress and use less water.

“LCOs need to adapt to this new type of customer and ensure their service matches up to the demand.”

Says Beck, “Make sure your marketing and advertising is truthful. Unsubstantiated claims can backfire on a business and customers will question the validity of your company.”