NY Times – Lawns Into Gardens

NY Times – January 29, 2013,


The seed catalogs have arrived, and for the roughly 15 percent of Americans who appreciate the joys and rewards of growing some of their own crops, this is a more encouraging sign than Groundhog Day or even the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training.

Yet several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando[1], where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables.

As if gardens were somehow an official eyesore, or inappropriate. (Jason Helvenston, my hero, said: “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”) If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers.

True, a lawn is a living, growing thing, a better carbon sink than concrete (though not as good as a vegetable garden or a meadow), and even more so if you leave the clippings in place, which also reduces the need for chemical fertilizer. And most people find a well-tended lawn pleasant-looking.

30bittman-img-blog427But when it comes to the eye of the beholder, weeds are the same thing as beauty: to a gardener, grass is a weed; a row of lettuce surrounded by dark, grassless soil a thing of beauty. To some gardeners,  including me, dandelions are a crop.[2]

The situation, then, is not black-and-white. A yard is not either unproductive and “beautiful” — as a lawn — or, as a garden, productive and “ugly.” Many of us can thrill to the look of dead stalks, and even enjoy watching them rot. This is a matter of taste, not regulation.

“In a way, that’s what these battles are about,” says Fritz Haeg, the Los Angeles artist who initiated Edible Estates and wrote the book of the same name (subtitled “Attack on the Front Lawn”). “They’re about reconsidering our basic value systems and ideas of beauty.”

They’re also about a relationship between us and nature. Lawns are an attempt to dominate and homogenize nature, something that hasn’t worked out very well. Gardens, however, especially urban ones, make visible “the intimate relationship between people, cities and food, constantly reminding us of the complexities and poetry of growing food and eating,” says Haeg. From which, just about everyone who’s thought about the subject agrees, we’ve all become alienated.

And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International[3] estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens “could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.”

Ten percent is optimistic; even 1 percent would be a terrific start, because there is a lot of lawn in this country. In fact it’s our biggest crop, three times as big as corn, according to research done using a variety of data, much of it from satellites. That’s around a trillion square feet — 50,000 square miles — and, since an average gardener can produce something like a half-pound of food per square foot (you garden 100 square feet, you produce 50 pounds of food), without getting too geeky you can imagine that Doiron’s estimates are rational.

Lawns are not exactly the enemy, but they’re certainly not helping matters any. (For a real anti-lawn rant, see Ted Steinberg’s book “American Green.”) When they were used for grazing sheep — sheep are the best lawn-mowers — they made some sense. But as ornamentation, only a few parts of the United States have the climate to sustain them. (Kentucky bluegrass is not even native to Kentucky, let alone Arizona.) In the remainder they’re horrible water-wasters and enormous users of chemical fertilizers[4].

I’m not going to argue that we should be limiting the size or number of lawns, though of course plenty of municipalities already regulate the amount of water you can waste on them. In the southwest, where water is harder to come by, there has been a gradual move away from the lawn and toward the xeriscape, which simply means a more environmentally friendly ornamental yard, one that uses amounts of water appropriate to the locale. In other words, you grow cactus. And some cities, as diverse as Santa Monica, Detroit and Portland, OR, help residents who wish to convert lawns to gardens.

Gardening may be private or a community activity; people garden together on common land, and most gardeners I know share the bounty freely. (In parts of England and France, people grow vegetables in their front yards and encourage their neighbors to take them.)

In any case there’s little question that a stronger kitchen garden movement would both produce better food and put more of us in touch with where food really comes from, and how. Michelle Obama was not the first First Lady to plant a garden; Eleanor Roosevelt did it in 1943, when 20 million “victory” gardens (out of a population of only 135 million people), produced 40 percent of our fruits and vegetables. I recognize that it will take a near-apocalypse to see those kinds of numbers again, I recognize that turning lawns into gardens isn’t a panacea, but I also recognize that hounding people for growing vegetables in their front yards is hardly the American way.

1. In 2011, for example, a Michigan woman was threatened with three months in jail for refusing to remove a vegetable garden from her front yard.

2. See my favorite seed catalog, Nichols. Need a recipe?

3. Check out their powerful garden planner, which I’m using this year.

4. As Elizabeth Kolbert points out in this 2008 New Yorker piece, the Scotts Company recommends you apply “Turf Builder” to your lawn five times a year.


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