If you don’t think that the backyard gardening movement has gone anywhere, consider this - in the realm of social media, the Grow Food, Not Lawns facebook page has over 650,000 followers. And REALpharmacy, which advocates for gardening, use of herbs and natural products, has over 700,000 followers.
The garden industry has grown considerably too, even though the population of new gardeners (mostly those over 50 years old, who garden after life is less hectic) has decreased. Mail order garden supply centers even report running out of seed for the most popular vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce. The downturn in the economy, concerns about healthy eating and the pressure on food budgets also fueled this growth in backyard gardening.
But, is tearing up the lawn and planting vegetables the only way to reduce your environmental impact and provide for your family? Maybe you don’t even have a lawn to tear up. Many condo and apartment dwellers are taking classes on growing food in small spaces, in pots, on vertical supports or in neighborhood pea patches. Pea patches, or ‘recession gardens’, are so popular that in Long Beach, California, the waiting list for garden space has quadrupled for a 312-plot community garden.
Pea patch gardens are reminiscent of the Victory Gardens which were popular during WWII and inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who planted one at the White House. At their peak, there were more than 20,000,000 Victory Gardens planted across the United States. They were responsible for producing 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the United States - more than one million tons of vegetables annually. This was particularly valuable because canned vegetables were rationed. Availability of produce was limited as well because trains and trucks had to be used to transport soldiers, vehicles, and weapons. The result was people turned to home gardens and pea patches for ready access to produce.The National Gardening Association estimates that a well-maintained vegetable garden yields a $500 average return per year. A study by Burpee Seeds claims that $50 spent on gardening supplies can result in $1,250 worth of produce annually. That can take a nice chunk out of your food bill every year.
Before we can talk about other options for lawn, you should know that lawns do have benefits - such as absorbing carbon, providing a root system that supports worms and a host of soil organisms, and it offers limited erosion control. Unfortunately, lawns can also be a huge drain on resources by requiring constant watering, fertilizers and chemicals (the latter two could potentially leach into nearby waterways). Additionally, lawns are a monoculture which means that as far as habitat for pollinators, small mammals and other critters, they are less than desirable. Having a lawn also means you need to purchase and maintain a lawn mower, take time to mow or hire a lawn maintenance company, and visit the garden store regularly for ‘keep it pretty’ lawn supplies. If you’re mowing a hillside or have lawn up to a stream, river or bluff, know there are better options, like native plants!
Sunny or Shady (aka - Embrace the Moss)
Reducing the size of your lawn, or eliminating parts of it, takes a little planning. For one, is the less-desirable lawn location in a sunny spot? If so, a vegetable garden, berry patch or fruit orchard may be a great alternative. Remember, a garden needs watering too, so having a water supply nearby is crucial. If it’s a shady area, why not embrace moss? It‘s a green year-round cover after all.
Ready to Roll?
So you have some free time on Saturday, and access to a rototiller, why not get started? You may not want to rip your grass up completely. You have the option of building raised beds over the existing lawn, which if deep enough, will smother out the lawn and leave the root structure in place. Newspapers, cardboard and burlap can deter grass, especially if covered by 4 to 6 inches of organic mulch and topsoil. If you are building a raised bed structure, you can set it right over the lawn and fill it with topsoil and compost. Once it’s full of soil, you won’t see grass popping up and lawn grass will decompose and provide nitrogen and food for worms, not to mention adding tilth to your soil.
If you’re building your beds in the fall, remember to seed them with a cover crop of fava beans, common vetch, Austrian field peas or a cover crop mix from your local garden supplier. This will protect your soil from blowing away, and provide nitrogen and other nutrients when worked into the soil in the spring. Your vegetables, and the worms, will love it!
Besides raised beds, what other options do you have? Maybe, if you’re like me, you have a garden area but have been battling a chronic annual weed (like dead nettles), have poor soil or an aversion to a hoe (bad back, lazy, busy summer, etc.). Consider a vertical garden, garden-in-a-bag, or potted veggies.
Looking for a Carefree Garden?
So, we all know that gardens can be a lot of work. Here are three options for lawns that don’t involve managing a vegetable garden or orchard.
1. Pollinator Gardens
Pollinator gardens are colorful patches of flowers and nectar-producing plants that help our pollinators thrive. These can be bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and some beneficial flies and wasps. There is a lot of information online about what to plant for pollinators. One of the best sources is from the Xerces Society, an organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. A fact sheet on the best plants for the Maritime Northwest can be found here. Remember that some pollinators (like monarch butterflies) require a patch of mud to provide salt and minerals from the soil (this is called puddling). Also check out the “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign to learn about efforts homeowners can take to protect pollinators.
2. Native Plant Gardens
Native plant gardens make use of our indigenous trees, shrubs and ground covers to provide a low maintenance alternative to lawns. They are especially important to wildlife, birds and pollinators as these plants are the species they are accustomed to. Native plants are also adapted to our soils and climate, so they flourish here and help make the urban environment more attractive to birds and pollinators. The Washington Native Plant Society has a great website and a plant list by county here. Most conservation districts in our state also host annual native plant sales each spring that provide a variety of native plants to homeowners.
3. Eco-Lawns and Yards
Maybe you’re thinking more along the lines of a prairie meadow or field of poppies for that mean hillside or weedy area that plagues you. Eco-lawns and yards may be just the ticket. They require less maintenance, do better without mowing and provide an eco-friendly sanctuary for wildlife. It’s also one way, as a land steward, to be part of the solution for some of today’s environmental challenges. Generally, once established, they flourish with little help. Eco-lawns, depending on the seed you choose, may need mowing once a month. This helps the grass stay in growth mode, rather than going to seed and putting energy into seed production. Keep in mind that if you live in an area with zoning restrictions pertaining to upkeep of lawns and yards, or in a homeowners association that requires trimmed lawn in front, this may not be for you.
Back to Food Production
If you still think replacing some or all of your lawn with vegetable gardens, berry patches or fruit trees is for you, keep in mind that you may not be able to go away over the summer. You will still need to water, harvest and prune at times, and putting the garden to bed in the fall will now be on your chore list. However, you will also reap the rewards of homegrown food, a freezer or pantry full of your efforts, food to share with friends and family, and perhaps a healthy activity and hobby to pursue.
Resources abound to help you learn about food production. One is Washington State University Extension Snohomish County and their Growing Groceries program. They offer online resources and regular classes such as soils and composting, what to grow in western Washington and small space and vertical gardening. Another is the Snohomish County Fruit Society and the WSU Research Station in Mt. Vernon. Snohomish Conservation District recently started a Lawns to Lettuce program (http://snohomishcd.org/lawns-to-lettuce) to help homeowners assess their sites, provide online resources and videos, and limited soil testing.
If you have a favorite garden or farm supply store, they may offer classes on starting seeds indoors, the best varieties for Western Washington, and installing irrigation. Your local library and book store offer a myriad of books on the subject of gardening, eco-yards, specialty plants and more. One of the best blogs/websites I have found is NW Edible Life, written by local author and chef Erica Strauss. She has a step-by-step guide to installing a raised bed in a weekend (http://www.nwedible.com/lawn-to-garden-in-one-weekend/) and ideas for backyard poultry, cooking and more.
So, garden on, and remember to water wisely!