Tuesday, July 22, 2008

No Longer a Serf to Turf

Farming the Front Yard

The latest issue of The New Yorker, which raised so many eyebrows with the allegedly satirical cartoon of Barak and Michelle Obama on the cover, carried a different sort of heresy in its back pages. In an essay purporting to be a review of a book published in 1841, Elizabeth Kolbert asks, “Americans can’t live without their lawns—but how long can they live with them?”

The book is titled “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” by one Andrew Jackson Downing, whose family tree may or may not have a branch ending with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. The book is somewhat irrelevant to Kolbert’s discourse, except that Downing was the first proponent of well-groomed lawns. Kolbert then spends the next four pages debunking that idea.

She points out that every year, Americans spend forty billion dollars on lawn maintenance. She notes that many jurisdictions in the U.S. have laws or covenants required a regularly mowed lawn. All of this lawn care creates environmental havoc. Lawns don’t naturally get smooth and velvety—they require loads of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes. That in turn ends up in drinking water and also causes algae blooms that kill off most other life in lakes. Her assessment is that lawns are bad for us.

Portlanders don’t seem to need much convincing about that. My highly unscientific survey of the front yards of inner southeast Portland shows that nearly a third of them have no turf grass growing on them (Out of respect for privacy and my own safety, I did not survey the back yards). About a fifth of the front yards with a lawn had a very small one surrounded by other kinds of landscaping.

Personally, I’ve hated lawns since I was 10 years old. That was when my parents moved into a big brick ranch style house in the Gateway district. The house was on a huge double corner lot—116th Ave., 117th Ave. and Multnomah St. I spent my first summer there picking rocks out of the ground and pulling up weeds. Every summer thereafter, until heading off to college, I mowed the broad expanse on a weekly basis. It took well over an hour to do it my father’s way, which was to mow the lawn in one direction and then again in a cross direction.

Thus it seems odd that until this year, I put up with lawns in all of the homes I have owned. Being generally lazy, the prospect of digging up all that sod and then disposing of it seemed too much of a chore. That had to change in my current house, where I have lived the past two years. Last year, my back yard garden was almost barren, mainly due to some big trees that blocked all the sun. So this year, with some hired help, I dug up the front yard and planted it all in garden: raised beds of tomatoes, basil, peppers, beans and cucumbers, plus corn, squash and raspberries on their own. Had one of the back yard trees removed; it provided chips in front to keep the weeds down. Then I put up a low fence to make it a bit harder on veggie poachers and planted grapes along the fence.

Right now, the front yard is a lot more appealing than it was when there were just grass and a couple of hydrangas. I've met more neighbors in the past few weeks while working on my garden than in the previous two years. Some of them ask me for gardening advice and some of them give me gardening tips. We all talk about organic gardening, though I couldn't sell any of my produce as organic because the soil hasn't been farmed organically for the requisite number of years and I don't know where a lot of the starts or seeds came from. I haven't had any need for pesticides and the soil was amended (that's farmer speak) with aged compost from my Metro composter. When the chicken coop gets put up in the back yard, I'll have all the fertilizer I need.

The best part, other than not mowing a lawn, is eating from my front yard. I've already eaten four tomatoes, plus a few baskets of raspberries. The summer squash are just now big enough to pick and many of the peppers are also getting there. Which is amazing, since I didn't plant anything until after Memorial Day. Looks like a bumper crop this year.

My only concern is what the yard will look like in November, when the plants start dying out and the rains make a mess of the yard. I'm not worrying too much yet. Maybe someone out there in the blogosphere has a suggestion.


  1. We in the Pacific NorthWet are fortunate to be able to garden year round many years. Here is one place where climate disruption may work in our favor. I've had some better winter gardens than summer.

    There's a long list of winter veggies that can be harvested through all but the most nasty winter weather. Just for starters -- kale, chard, onions, cole crops (broc, cauli, cabbage, brussel sprouts), leeks, potatoes, carrots, lettuces, purslane, parsley, peas, spinach -- well the list goes on and on. The trick is planting most of these now (or in most cases putting in starts) -- cozying them in to an already crowded garden space.

    Actually, many of the "stronger" veggies taste better after they've been frosted, e.g. kale and cole crops. Eating seasonally and locally, i.e. becoming a locavore, makes sense (and cents).

  2. Thanks for the tips. I now have to figure out where to plant the broccoli and other fall/winter crops, as my garden already is overflowing. I'm definitely going to plant purslane for the chickens, since I hear it is high in omega 3 acids.