I spent a number of what you might call my “formative years” in Orlando, Florida and most of those in a vast (or what seems vast in memory) housing development called Conway Estates. All of the houses were single family, most followed the sprawling ranch-type silhouette and all were surrounded with lush, velvety lawns. My father, who wasn’t the most enthusiastic person in the world regarding yard work, did his part to keep our lawn up to the neighborhood standards, but he certainly didn’t do more than that. I don’t know that there was actually some sort of covenant regarding lawn upkeep in the neighborhood, but I do know that we were surrounded everywhere by identical swaths of emerald – weedless, wide open carpeting ideal for croquet or just impromptu gymnastics. As a kid, I thought it was pretty perfect. Of course, I wasn’t the one taking care of it. These days lets just say that I have a lawn and maybe leave it at that.
According to Ted Steinberg in American Green: the obsessive quest for the perfect lawn, there’s an estimated twenty-five to forty million acres of turf in the United States (this was in 2006) on which is spent about $40 billion a year. Of course, some of this grass is being used for golf courses or athletic fields but it still seems safe to say that a lot of Americans just love their lawns. Indeed, for many of my father’s generation and before a beautiful lawn has often been a badge of success…of having “made it” and for good reason. This thing that we call a “lawn” seems to have begun appearing on the estates of British aristocrats and quite naturally required more than a fair amount of hired labor to maintain. It’s easy to imagine that this verdant symbol of wealth and ease of living eventually migrated to this country as a highly desirable goal, especially once the suburban lifestyle became thoroughly entrenched and, supposedly, erased once and for all differences of class and ethnic origin. Ironically, the vast majority of the grass species that we cultivate as lawns in this country originated elsewhere – as did most of the people who live here now.
Now you may be solidly pro-lawn or very much against them or have no real opinion either way. While I firmly believe in the personal freedom of the individual and that we must each decide for ourselves what goals are worth pursuing, I do know that when my family finally moved to the country the summer I entered high school – and into a house surrounded by woods left emphatically unlandscaped – my father declared that “I never want to mow another lawn!” and as far as I know he never did.
These days though I still admire a beautifully manicured lawn, I tend to appreciate a clever or aesthetically pleasing combination of varied elements more than I do a large, well-regulated stretch of grass. In fact, most of my schemes for my own yard currently seem to currently involve having less of the grass and more of everything else. And a large part of that “everything else” includes fruits and vegetables. That’s one reason that I found this recent story from the NPR website about the Fleet Farming project so interesting and, given the number and content of the comments, I’m not the only one. I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I just love the idea of giving over some of the yard to edibles. Of course, the fact that a team of volunteers puts in and maintains these gardens no doubt makes it much easier for these homeowners to participate in the project since vegetable gardening can represent a significant expense of money and time. Of course, I think what most amuses me about the article is that this successful project originated, and is expanding, in Orlando, Florida which will forever remain in my memory as “The Land of the Lawn.”
As readers of this blog may know, I’ve maintained my own vegetable garden for several years, but more and more I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate edible plants into the existing landscape in a pleasing way. If you think you’d like to do the same, allow me to recommend these excellent resources from DCPL.
With its beautiful photographs and lush, poetic descriptions, Ivette Soler’s Edible Front Yard: the mow-less, grow-more plan for a beautiful, bountiful garden is definitely a great source for inspiration. No less inspirational but perhaps a bit more focused on the practical aspects of edible gardening is Foodscaping: practical and innovative ways to create an edible landscape by Charlie Nardozzi. For a more nuts and bolts approach, try Barbara Pleasant’s Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 no-fail plans for small organic gardens. While most of these terrific plans focus on the classic backyard vegetable garden, Pleasant includes plans for a Bountiful Border and a Front Yard Food Supply garden either of which look as though it would fit in beautifully to the more publicly visible areas of your yard. I especially appreciate that many of Pleasant’s plans are broken down to be installed over the course of three or four years so that you don’t feel as though you have to accomplish everything all at once.
Maybe you like your lawn just as it is or you don’t have one. If you have more limited space to grow, say a balcony, deck or windowsill – or you just appreciate (as do I) the look of containers check out Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Container Gardener’s Bible: how to grow a bounty of food in pots, tubs and other containers. And if the only space for your gardening is…well…up then I would urge you to take a look at the gorgeous and practical book Grow a Living Wall: create vertical gardens with a purpose by Shawna Coronado.
What’s your opinion on lawns? Would you choose a lawn over a garden or do you want both?