Lawns are traditional icons of the American dream.
Many people are bound to their lawns, not so much because of what they give back, but because of what those green squares represent: Home ownership. Status. Aesthetic beauty. Order. We edge the green square. We mow the green square. We water the green square. We spray chemicals on the green square.
“It’s like you’re doing a duty to the green square,” said Mari Keating, a Cleveland Heights-based certified permaculture designer and organic gardener. But what has your lawn ever done for you? “A lawn is a huge waste of resources,” she said. More than that, they’re barriers to reversing climate change and improving food security. When you put all the green squares together, the bigger picture is jarring.
“Lawns are treated with more pesticides and insecticides per acre than any other crop in the U.S.,” Keating said. “Fifty-eight million Americans spend $30 billion a year to maintain 23 million acres of lawn. U.S. lawns consume 270 billion gallons of water per week.”
The rituals of past generations coupled with a consumer-driven society that convinces us to spend lots of money to maintain lawns have turned many of us complacent, or oblivious, to the ways in which these residential borders are closing us off from our communities and draining finite resources.
But if we change our perspective, lawns can represent an opportunity to co-exist intelligently with Mother Nature and our neighbors.
A fledgling segment of city dwellers, suburban homeowners, and farm-steaders are embracing the “Grow Food, Not Lawns” movement, repurposing their unproductive plots and residential exteriors into edible oases. Some efforts are a little more esoteric (hugelkultur beds, for example: self-hydrating raised beds meant to mimic a forest floor). But many elements are simple, like compost piles, raised beds, edible bushes, fence-trellised green beans, gutter gardening, and aeroponics.
Entire communities have embraced the movement, which fosters civic engagement, environmental stewardship, and local economies.
The movement began in earnest with Bill Mollison, the so-called father of permaculture, who in 1978 published “Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements.” Permaculture is a holistic landscape practice that combines agricultural ecosystems, land use, social dynamics, economics, and other indigenous assets to create a self-sufficient landscape. Food, shelter, energy, ethics, climate, water and soil are the building blocks for ecological and sustainable living.
Mollison’s book presents ways to design a food-production system around a cultivated ecology suited to one’s surrounding environment. In other words, working with nature, instead of against it. His argument is convincing:
“Every society that grows extensive lawns could produce all its food on the same area, using the same resources, and . . . world famine could be totally relieved if we devoted the same resources of lawn culture to food culture in poor areas,” he writes. “Most lawns are purely cosmetic in function. Thus, affluent societies have, all unnoticed, developed an agriculture which produces a polluted waste product, in the presence of famine and erosion elsewhere, and the threat of water shortages at home.”
In his book “Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist,” author Michael Judd proclaims edible landscaping as the new American garden.
“It cross-pollinates a desire for tasty food with nostalgia, greater food security and a need to stop mowing so damn much. At heart, edible landscaping is about re-enlivening the adventure of creating useful landscapes,” Judd writes.
Fritz Haeg, author of “Attack on the Front Lawn,” launched in 2008 a series of Edible Estates projects that replaced domestic front lawns with edible landscapes in cities throughout the U.S. and, eventually, all over the world. His book contains personal testimony from homeowner-gardeners looking to inspire others to forge their own Edible Estates.
In Northeast Ohio, an increasing number of urban and suburban residents are becoming more conscientious about the purpose of their yards, said Keating, founder of Food Not Lawns, a Cleveland nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting suburban permaculture. The group conducts periodic workshops on seed exchanges and plant swaps. Participation has grown from about 15 during the group’s launch in 2011 to about 100 at each event. The organization also assists homeowners in converting their yards into biodiverse landscapes.
“Growing our own food is personally empowering, creates thriving human and animal habitat, radically alters our relationship to the land where we live, reduces our carbon footprint, increases our health and well-being and creates community resilience, one yard at a time,” said Keating, citing the nonprofit’s mission statement.
The group’s most recent lawn conversion demonstration, held April 30 in Cleveland Heights, involved sheet mulching, which is easy to implement and creates an immediate gardening space. Sheet mulching (also called lasagna gardening or composting in place) is a no-machine method that replaces grass lawns with a diverse, ecologically designed planting scheme that sustains humans and wildlife.
“We’re eliminating the monoculture that no one spends time on, or nothing lives on except maybe Japanese beetles, and replacing it with an ecosystem that feeds everything that’s a part of it,” Keating said.
The process involves layering organic materials —woodchips, compost, newspaper, and lawn waste — to create porous, fertile soil, then planting mixed beds of flowers, herbs, and perennials atop it.
“We want a complementary and mixed environment that attracts all kinds of life forms,” she said. “We want to integrate elements with different functions to create checks and balances in the ecosystem.”
The Bebenroths applied the same approach to the yard of their former home in Broadview Heights, substituting needless morning glory and other invasive species with perennials, currants, rhubarb, blueberry bushes, arbor-trellised raspberries, and other low-maintenance, cold-hardy crops. Green beans threaded through a tunnel fashioned out of fence post and wire.
“It was a cool adventure for the kids,” said Ben. “They could harvest the beans from inside and out.”
Ben’s grandfather’s Italian red garlic moved into the homestead as well, which also served as a natural deterrent to deer. “It’s offensive to them, so they don’t stick around to eat anything else,” Ben said. “It’s a great border for your yard. Garlic is flavorful and medicinal. There are many layers as to why you’d want to grow garlic.”
A growing number of us are buying food from people we know, or growing it ourselves on our patios or in little backyard gardens. As Judd points out, we can easily graft designs suited for the micro-habits of the urban landscape, scaled up to lawns of a suburban home or acreage of a farmstead. Myself included.
I just acquired a small lawn after living for past seven years in a suburban Cleveland cluster home with only a deck and the woods as my backyard. Our plan is to slowly covert our sod into a food-productive space (once we figure out how to keep the wild hogs that shuffle through our backyard at bay).
Want to join the movement too, and think outside the box — er, green square? Start simple: potted gardens, DIY compost, and raised beds. And stay tuned here for more how-tos, stories, tips, and recipes that take advantage of the growing opportunities within their green spaces, porches, and patios.