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Food Not Lawns: Reasons to grow food in your backyard

Updated on September 24, 2012

The Food not Lawns Movement

A lush green carpet trimmed to perfection, the lawn is the space filler between stoop and sidewalk for most homeowners.

The term 'Food not Lawns' - a play off of the Food not Bombs initiative - was first officially used in Eugene, OR by food activists who were inspired to increase access to sustainable, healthy food. Food Not Lawns International now has chapters in many towns. But even before the term was coined, gardeners were already participating in this urban agriculture movement to tear up turf grass and replace it with vegetable gardens, berry bushes, fruit trees, chicken coops, herb patches, or any other food production scheme!


A highly productive front yard in Victoria, BC. So much food grown in so little space.
A highly productive front yard in Victoria, BC. So much food grown in so little space. | Source

Lawn Obsession in America

People trace America's obsession with the lawn back to the rise of suburbia in the 1950s and the image of the cookie cutter house with a white picket fence as the ideal home. The verdancy and trimness of one's lawn was (and is still) a sense of pride in American culture. It is a reflection on the state of one's home - after all, if the lawn isn't manicured then what else could be falling asunder inside the home?

America grows more lawn than food. Here are some statistics on just how much space is used for cultivating this purely ornamental herb.

  • 80% of all households in the US have privately-owned lawns (Templeton).
  • North Americans currently devote 40,000 square miles to lawns, which is more than the amount of land used for wheat or corn (Fulford).
  • The average size of a lawn in the United States is one-fifth of an acre (Vinlove and Torla) to one-third of an acre (Templeton).
  • Space devoted to turfgrass is growing at 600 square miles a year (Kolbert).

Source

Environmental Hazards of Lawns

Lawns are highly unnatural ecosystems that require high amounts of resource inputs. Here is why, for the sake of the Earth, it's worth replacing them:

  • Lawns are monocultures. Grasses found in natural fields and pasture always contain a variety of wild grass species, whereas the turf we grow at home is a single species of non-native highly selected for grass. The species most commonly used are Bermudagrass or Kentucky Bluegrass. These are perhaps America's most grown crops.
  • Lawn irrigation accounts for almost half of US homeowner water usage (NRCS). Much of America does not have the water resources to sustain this level of consumption. Yet the lawn is so entrenched in American culture that even Los Vegans go to great pains to keep their patch of green blades lush.
  • 74% of all US households use industrial fertilizers and pesticides on their lawns and ornamental gardens (Robbins et al.). Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers lead to a multitude of environmental ills: (1) They contaminate drinking water. (2) They end up as "run-off" in lakes, rivers, and the ocean, where the fertilizer creates algal blooms and dead zones in which no aquatic life can survive. (3) Pesticides are poisons and when applied to the lawn can especially be a health hazard to children, pets, and wildlife.

Why Replace Lawns with Food Gardens?

Turning to organic lawn care, or using native, natural flora is a good alternative to the over-manicured lawn.

But growing fresh food right in your own backyard has so many benefits. Top among them: if you're going to put time and energy into growing anything, why not something you can add to the dinner plate?

Raised beds are a good method of frontyard/backyard food gardening, especially if you don't have a lot of space.
Raised beds are a good method of frontyard/backyard food gardening, especially if you don't have a lot of space. | Source

Add Fresh Nutritious Vegetables to Your Diet

Ever get really turned off by the wilted, yellow leafy greens at the supermarket? Or the frost-bitten green beans? Or the tasteless and mealy supermarket tomato?

Growing your own vegetables will remind you what fresh produce is supposed to taste like!

When they're in your yard, just waiting to be picked, your vegetable or fruit intake is likely to increase - just the doctor's orders. Have trouble getting your kids to eat their veggies? In my experience when the children are involved in the planting and harvesting, they're much more likely to try a new vegetable. Plucking the most recently ripe cherry tomatoes and scaveninge for delicious snap peas becomes a rewarding game.

Furthermore, research has suggested that the fresher produce is, the more nutrients and vitamins it retains. The longer a vegetable or fruit sits on the shelf, the more nutrients it loses. So the food you grow and eat at home soon after harvest is actually bite for bite better for you.

Lower the Carbon Footprint of Your Food

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that food travels on average 1,500 miles before it reaches the consumer's plate. This takes into account the transport of the seeds to the farm, the food from farm to processing and packaging plant, plant to supermarket, and supermarket to the consumer's household. This all entails the burning of fossil fuels - a nonrenewable resource, and the addition of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere which contributes to climate change.

A way you can reduce your food's carbon footprint, is thus to buy local and organic. By growing it yourself you know exactly what went in to the production. And what's more local than a few steps from your door!

Good fences make good neighbors...and so do good gardens.
Good fences make good neighbors...and so do good gardens. | Source

When the Neighbors are not Appreciative

Some towns or housing units have codes that prohibit the growing of food in yards, due to its "unsightliness." This is wildly frustrating to food activists, who see it as backward and blocking the progress of a sustainable food culture in America.

It may take Americans some time to redefine what an attractive yard means; sprawling tomato plants certainly are less orderly looking than a trimmed lawn. And if you don't keep up the weeding it can start to look a bit 'jungly' as any farmer will admit.

Some edible plants however can be made to look quite attractive. This is often called Edible Landscaping. For example, rhubarb and chard have brightly colored stalks that add a splash - I've even seen some towns use them in public spaces like roundabouts. Berry bushes or fruit trees also blend in nicely with most landscapes and can produce lovely flowers.

Or...Get Someone to Start it For You!

Landscaping companies like City Grown in Seattle install and maintain food gardens in the yards of private homes. Different systems exist; in some cases the homeowner may pay the landscaper and keep the harvest, in others the landscaper may 'pay' to use the homeowners space by leaving them a share and selling the rest at farmer's markets.

Get Started!

Tear up that lawn! Or a section of it, if you prefer - understandably so - to not convert your whole yard (kids and dogs need places to run after all, and big gardens do take work). Urban Garden Magazine has a good article that outlines the steps: How to Turn Your Lawn into a Garden. Have a potluck or pancake breakfast and turn it into a work party with your friends and neighbors. They know they'll be reaping the benefits come harvest time.

What would you do?

Would you convert your lawn into a food garden?

See results

Sources

Templeton, S.R., D. Zilberman, and S.J. Yoo. 1998. An economic perspective on outdoor residential pesticide use. Environmental Science & Technology 2: 416A-423A.

Fulford, Robert. 1998. The Lawn: North America's magnificent obsession. http://www.robertfulford.com/lawn.html (accessed 4 January 2011).

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Turf Wars, The New Yorker 21 July 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/21/080721crbo_boo ks_kolbert (accessed 1 April 2011).

NRCS (National Resources Conservation Services). USDA. Lawn Irrigation Guide. http://plant-materials.nrcs.usda.gov/pubs/idpmsfs5464.pdf (accessed 1 May 2011).

Robbins, Paul, Annemarie Polderman and Trevor Birkenholtz. Lawns and Toxins: An Ecology of the City. Cities 18 (2001): 369-380.

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Tara, what an ideal concept for this movement. I love the sound of it. Thanks for sharing this novel idea. Voted up for interesting!

    • dennisbruckner profile image

      Dennis Bruckner 3 years ago from Salt Lake City, UT

      It's so incredibly rewarding to grow all of your own food. I bought a small plot 2 years ago...it wasn't my "lawn" but it was still one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I haven't had the same luck with my produce since then, but I'll keep trying. :D

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Pete Wolfe, thank you for reminding us of One More Reason to grow your own food - exercise! And goodness knows a lot of North Americans could use it. I guess pushing a lawn mower does take work, but gardening is much more involved.

      Mama Kim thank you for sharing your experience - it's a perfect example. While many homeowner associations do have rules for the front yard, the backyard is usually a safe place to take over. I think some Food Not Lawn activists promote the front yard for growing vegetables also as a way to visibly spread the word: "Hey, I'm growing my own food and you can too!"

    • shermanblake profile image

      Blake Sherman 4 years ago from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

      Love this topic! Very nice!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      I live in Eugene, OR... and I'm totally on board with this. Our homeowners association does require a lawn in the front yard... but we've reduced it considerably and added other plants like blueberry bushes to the front. Our backyard on the other hand has no lawn. Half of our pretty big yard is a garden with 90% edible plants and the other half is cement and gravel for the kids and dogs.

      Fantastic hub!!! I just love how it's written and laid out and the content is something I'm passionate about so I greatly appreciate you writing it. Voted a bunch and shared!

    • Pete Wolfe profile image

      Pete Wolfe 4 years ago from NJ

      "food not lawns" YES, i love it. If you grow you own food then you won't have to pay those high prices at the supermarket. Besides, most people would be getting off the couch, turning the tv off and getting some exercise. Oh, and eat a little healthier. Thank you

    • TheWaverly3000 profile image

      TheWaverly3000 4 years ago from Morgantown, WV

      Great article! I plan on growing my own food when I buy a house. I wish this was the common practice, because it could really make a difference. And nothing beats fresh fruits & veggies!

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Seafarer Mama that's so great you're thinking about making it a discovery garden for your daughter. One more benefit to turning your lawn into a garden - a secret educational/discovery site for our children. It certainly gets them closer in touch with the food they eat and the nature around them than a lawn does. Having worked with kids in gardens myself it's really amazing and inspiring how excited they get to grow things. And some kids just LOVE weeding.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen Szklany Gault 4 years ago from New England

      Great hub, and I do plan on adding more garden space to my back yard as soon as the financial resources are gathered for the effort..

      I know that the amount that more garden space will add to our budget in terms of less buying at the store will eventually render the project a bonus for my family! We will make it a discovery garden for our daughter...with steps, and garden sculptures, etc.

      Love the inclusion of the stat you took the trouble to research.

      Voted up, up, up, and up!

    • Thundermama profile image

      Catherine Taylor 4 years ago from Canada

      Fan-freaking-tatstic hub! I hope this is the way the world is heading. I for one and ready to kiss my ridiculous lawn good by and thankfully live in a village that supports it. Wonderful hub, great info, voted way up and sharing.

    • Marsei profile image

      Sue Pratt 4 years ago from New Orleans

      I loved this hub! Thanks for bringing this movement to everyone's attention. I have been interested in this since it began. We have always had a garden in our backyard, which is huge, and we don't need the front lawn for planting. But for those who do, I think this is marvelous. We are entirely too caught up with appearances, neatness, rigidity, monitoring that everything is exactly the same, which speaks to a lack of individuality, to me. My son lived in Michigan before moving to England and he talked a lot about this trend. To me, the trend is a good thing. I've always loved the theme song to "Weeds." "Pretty houses, all in a row; and they're all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look the same." Let's get some tomatoes and cucumbers in those yards!

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Wow! idigwebsites and whowas you are getting me even more pumped to start gardening! I live in DC and have a "yard" the size of a thimble, but there's a vacant grassy lot my neighbors aren't doing anything with nearby...In this case it would be a Food Not Weeds endeavor. =)

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      Superb idea, superb hub. I have been advocating this since forever and I'm so delighted to see you doing such a fantastic job of promoting this in your writing.

      One visible consequence of the current economic downturn in Europe is that you see every day lawns or sections of lawns being turned over to cultivation. Probably not always organic but it is a wonderful sight.

      Lawns are such nasty, sterile environments and some of them are HUGE expanses of wasted earth. Dig! Dig! Dig! :)

    • idigwebsites profile image

      idigwebsites 4 years ago from United States

      I don't understand why some people in the 'hood don't like the sight of a vegetable garden. I find no earthly reason for that. Gardens and lawns are great and pretty, but vegetable garden is definitely better. And you can be sure the handful of crops you get are more nutritious than the ones that are store-bought.

      Voted up and useful! :)

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      B. Leekley that's excellent to hear what Kalamazoo is doing! And you're completely right - none of it is new. Yet it's becoming "trendy" and thus catching the bigger public's eye.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Thank you, Tara, for the excellent and timely hub. Down with insipid lawns! Time for those who want local food and to live in communities that are friendly to the air, water, land, climate, and future to organize and get elected, appointed, or hired to positions of influence in government, companies, organizations, and institutions.

      Here in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as I go for walks in my neighborhood, I see some front yards that are beautiful arrangements of foods, wild and cultivated flowers, ground cover, bird feeders, ornamental plants, etc.

      Also here in Kalamazoo there is a land bank that rescues properties that the city got when the property tax wasn't paid and then couldn't sell. If such a house is in beyond repair condition, then it gets torn down and cleared away and in some situations the land is offered for sale to the next door neighbors to use for $20. In another program the land bank gets people to adopt a vacant lot for free and creatively develop it, such as grow a garden. See: http://www.kalamazoolandbank.org/

      Lots of towns and cities have community gardens.

      How about a related hub about the victory garden movement during World War II?

      Related issues: Zoning laws, building codes, and town planning should encourage walking and bicycling, home and community gardens, truck farming, and green living. Communities should encourage, not forbid, hanging washed laundry to dry.

      None of this is new. It is how I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes progress is going back to old ways.

      See also: http://www.backyardharvest.org/

      Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Who wants to eat them indeed, Lipnancy!

      I guess the trick is also getting people more interested in gardening, or convincing people that don't have a lot of free time that it's worth putting in the effort.

    • Stephen Govoni profile image

      Stephen Govoni 4 years ago from Coastal Massachusetts

      Awesome!

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      I think gardens are a great idea for everyone. Who wants to eat all those icky vegetables from the grocery store with all their nasty pesticides? Voted Up and Shared.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

      I hadn't encountered the phrase "food not lawns" before it. Love it, and love the concept! Thanks for the introduction- and here's hoping it catches on!

    • MummyDearest profile image

      Eileen 4 years ago from Kildare, Ireland

      What a great hub and I am one who believes in sustainable living. I've only been converted to a greener life style recently after joining a green social network site for the fun of it. But if it means, taking a small step on our part to a greener, healthier lifestyle and good for the earth..why not? Voted and thanks for sharing.