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by Rob Avis

If you’ve been following permaculture, then you’ve probably been hearing about Permablitz – the transformation of lawns into productive, abundant landscapes. (For those of you in our region, here in Canada, check out this site.)

You may be thinking: why food? Why not lawns?

Obviously, the bright green, manicured lawn is a human invention — Mother Nature certainly doesn’t use a lawnmower. So where did the grass lawn come from? Why do we work so hard to keep it green?

And why, after all this time, are we giving it up to plant other stuff?

Well, here’s a little story about the trouble with lawns, how the lawn came to be, and why the Permablitz movement is outgrowing the out-moded lawn.

The History of the Lawn

The front lawn is an icon. It is a monoculture; a form that does not exist anywhere in nature. The lawn was developed in Britain in the 1800s, and became a statement of the upper class, indicating one had enough wealth to grow for beauty rather than food production. When wealthy Americans travelled to Europe in the early 1900s they saw these vast, “flawless” green areas and wanted to recreate them back home. Replicating the lawn in North America turned out to be more daunting than expected, as there were no native grasses that would fit the bill. The U.S. Golf Association then set out to find grasses in Africa and Europe that would thrive here. Shortly after they established their desired grass mix the lawnmower was invented, followed by the invention of the combustion engine. It became a social requirement to grow a monoculture instead of food on one’s property for the first time in history when the American Garden Club stepped in and stated: “it is a citizen’s civic duty to grow a green front lawn”. Fast forward to the present, and North Americans currently spend over $30 billion a year maintaining a false ‘civic duty’, while much of our food is imported from out-of-country, at our expense.

Why Lawns are so Draining…

The lawn represents one of the largest misallocations of resources on the planet. In order to maintain the ideal lawn, we fight against nature, attempting to hold a completely alien landscape in stasis through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and a great deal of work. Natural ecologies do not remain static. In fact, the only thing constant about an ecosystem is that it’s constantly changing. This change is known as succession, the process whereby bare landscapes become stable, thriving forests over time.

To get an idea of the resources we drain in order to maintain our lawns, consider this:

In the United States, there are over 40 million acres of land planted to lawn, a figure approaching the 53 million acres planted last year to wheat. Since mowing one acre uses nearly 4 litres of fuel, the fuel consumption for cutting grass is astronomical. To mow all of this lawn just once uses over 160,000,000 litres of fuel. This is enough fuel to drive a hummer 884,466,556 km or 22,070 times around the earth. What a complete waste of fossil energy!

It is estimated that close to 3 million tons of fossil-fuel-based fertilizer is used per year in order to keep our lawns green, and another 30 thousand tons of pesticides and herbicides are used to keep them in a monoculture state. Because these chemicals are water soluble, they end up in our rivers, lakes, streams and eventually our oceans. They end up in the water we use to irrigate farm crops, in the rivers and oceans where we catch fish, and ultimately back on our dinner plates. It is hardly surprising then, that our society’s increasing use of toxic chemicals coincides so closely with our increasing rates of disease.

Finally, it’s estimated that the lawn consumes between 30% and 60% of the North American water budget. In a world where water scarcity threatens our future, what are we doing pouring 30-60% of it on the grass just to make it greener?

What About Food?

The idea of swapping lawns for gardens becomes even more attractive when you look at our current food system.

On average, for every calorie of food we consume from the grocery store, 10 equivalent calories were used in the planting, fertilization, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, harvesting, processing, refrigeration, transport, and retail processes.

By replacing the lawn with a productive food system (like a food forest, annual vegetable garden, chicken coup or greenhouse) we immediately solve two problems:

  1. eliminating the energy and toxins used to maintain the lawn, and
  2. reducing the immense energy used to deliver food from the farms to our mouths.

That’s without even considering the community and social benefits of bringing food production back into our neighbourhoods.

Since growing a garden in our own front yard we have met and connected with our neighbours more then ever before — whether we are hanging out in the front picking strawberries and raspberries, delivering surplus produce next-door or answering questions for curious passers-by.

This makes urban food production one of the most radical things we can do as citizens to reduce our negative impact on the environment and improve our communities.

While I was writing this article, a friend of mine told me about a heated debate he’d had with someone with a master’s degree in urban food sheds. My friend was arguing that a city could supply the majority of the food needed to feed its citizens with the sheer amount of space wasted for lawns, while the master’s graduate argued that it wasn’t possible. I did the math, and this is what I found:

From above, there is a little over 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. (per capita, Canada is on par), enough space to produce 76,160,000,000 kg of wheat, or 2.597 x 10^4 calories a year. This is enough food to feed 355 million people a 2000 calorie/day diet for one year. In short, on lawns alone, there’s enough space to grow food for the entire population of the United States. Of course, if we were using diverse permaculture systems instead of a relatively unproductive monocrop wheat system, we could produce even more efficiently.

Lastly, an intensively managed vegetable garden can yield about $1/square foot in the value of its produce and this is equivalent to $43,560/acre. A conventional farm is lucky to make $300/acre, which is 143 times less productive than intensive vegetable gardening.

Productivity through patterned design

So how do we turn our resource-draining lawns into healthy, food-producing ecosystems? Well, if left up to her own devices, Mother Nature would sooner or later reclaim your lawn on her own. And so, in permaculture design, we look to nature for inspiration — after all, she has 3.8 billion years of experience. When we bring this inspiration into our designs, we get resilience, soil creation, animal habitat, clean water, climate stabilization, economic stability, healthy communities and abundance.

Healthy ecologies do not have little garden gnomes running around spraying chemicals, pulling weeds and complaining about pests. Instead, they self-regulate. We can design our yards to do the same thing. By observing interactions in nature and facilitating them, we help create systems where different elements work together. Using examples from nature, we can design our houses and gardens back into nature’s network of self-regulating, self-regenerating systems. Just by understanding weather patterns and the physical properties of flowing water, we can effectively capture and store water for drinking, food production, and sanitation, without ever draining our vital city watershed. We can plant mutually beneficial plants that control each other’s pests, balance each other’s soil nutrients, and, of course, feed ourselves.

By transforming your lawn using permaculture design, you can eliminate the huge drainage of time, resources and energy it takes to maintain it. You can produce much of your own food for very little work, eliminating the social and environmental implications of its delivery, and save money.

What we have is a reinvention of that old phrase: the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence.

20 Responses to “The Grass Isn’t Greener…”

  1. Andy Macey

    Nice article, covers all the points for growing food over lawns clearly and succinctly!
    This is probably not news to many who read this page but would be brilliant published to a wider audience (hence my share on FB).
    Thanks for taking the time to research and write it!

    Reply
  2. Matty

    Hey Rob, what a terrific article.

    I would suggest that the lawn area could provide the calories, but growing crops alone depletes soils, as we know. Typically a crop requires the support of 2 to 3 times its land area in mulching material, or regenerating fallow to reinvest carbon and nitrogen into the soil. So 1 acre of veg needs another 2 or 3 acres of support (especially without animals manure in the equation). Your city lots will require a lot of compost or carbon materials to be brought in from outside the system. Some of the carbon can be supplied by waste newspaper, cardboard and food scraps etc.

    I did the math also on 1 acre of market garden and it is really more like $10,000 an acre since you must account for the fallow or carbon land required.

    If we also started converting boulevards, parks and golf courses, roadsides etc., I could imagine massive food production. Someone told me asphalt is non-toxic to grow above with sheet mulch! Or we could resettle back to the country.

    Matthew – Ottawa, Canada, zone 5b
    (I can grow mulberry trees! but raspberries are also perennial and taste way better!)

    Reply
  3. Mihir

    Rob Avis I’m greatly attracted to your articles. Thanks for posting this article. After seeing all the great destruction going around me I become greatly relaxed and happy after reading articles like these. Please continue with your great work.

    Also it is astonishing to read that 40 million acres of land in USA are covered in lawns. If this continues US will be greatly punished in the near future. A simple food forest can produce food for 400 million people. So clearly all of the food required by USA can be grown on lawns. This is a great thing. Also since it is a forest many ‘wild’ animals and plants can live in them.

    Reply
  4. rob

    Thanks Matty! All good points, I think that a lot of have carbon can come from tree systems (leaves) which can also provide calories in the form of nuts, fruit ect. Bill says that 25 – 30% of our polycultures should be in trees. Part of them could be coppice systems which could fee humanure systems. A topic that very few movements (besides the permaculture one) are talking about. Regardless, very good points, thanks for the kind words!

    Reply
  5. Justin

    If we cover our lawns in edibles where will the kids play? On the road.

    Reply
  6. Øyvind Holmstad

    @ Justin, don’t you know about PATTERN 73, ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND?

    “A castle, made of cartons, rocks, and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles, made for them in a factory.

    Therefore:

    Set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asphalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds – nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water – where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own.”

    See: http://vasarhelyi.eu/books/A_pattern_language_book/apl73/apl73.htm

    Reply
  7. Mihir

    Where did kids play before lawns? Where did kids play in tropical cultures?

    I feel sympathy for you Justin.

    Reply
  8. rob

    Justin, streets were not always only designed for cars. Check out the City Repair project in Portland.

    rob

    Reply
  9. Justin

    Oyvind, I had not seen that. Mihir, I can’t say I was looking for your sympathy. Rob, Portland have long been a poster child for progressive Urban Planning practice, I will look it up. The Victorian Govt has often borrowed from Portland, then stuffed it up.

    My comment was partly motivated by the fact that it does not need to be an “either or” situation. One of the obstacles in the way of the acceptance of permaculture by the broader community it seems to me is the almost fundamentalist zeal shown by some of its adherents. Telling people they must get rid of their lawns will put many off side and is not terribly helpful advice. It would be more helpful, imho, to suggest how lawns and permaculture/urban food production can better work together, and nudge people in the right direction. And how to maintain a lawn without herbicides, water, etc (it is possible, easily, at least in Melbourne).

    And we have approx 320sqm of permable surface, of which 280sqm is turned over the food production, compost heaps, water tanks, etc. The 40sqm lawn is a couch variety which needs watering only after an extremely long dry spell. When the kids are pretending to be WWE wrestlers, I need somewhere outside the house to send them before I want to kill them, and for that some lawn is simply indespensable.

    Reply
  10. Christian Douglas

    Thanks Rob, great article! One to spread out amongst the soon-to-be choir members.

    Reply
  11. Nick Huggins

    Nice one Mr Avis.
    I’m thinking of some other functions to stack once Cars are to expensive and oil is gone and we reclaim the streets.
    Lets bring the animals in (Cattle,Sheep,Goats and the rest) and keep some of those lawns let them turn to pasture, let the asphalt turn back into pasture. Which if you have ever seen a disused road, the road cracks up and the weeds come thru the secession takes over. Lets get some cell grazing going!
    Roads will become the lane ways/ paddocks and break off onto smaller blocks where the front lawn used to be.
    As the Shepard is going past, pick out your meat with the neighbours and slaughter it on the spot! Hows that for food miles!
    Grow the veggies in the back yard! Happy Days!
    When you look at the pattern in the photo above of the suburban streets it screams cell grazing. No fencing required just send the shepherd out with his hand held TOM TOM GPS plot his desination “In 100m take a left turn, At the roundabout take the cows thru the 2nd exit”! To bloody easy!

    Reply
  12. Aaron

    I generally disagree with this article.
    I am a landscaper and with the advent of drought the last 10 years the drive by homeowners to get pebbles, toppings or worst of all Synthetic grass to replace there lawn is huge. And very depressing for me.

    As much as i believe the Vege lawn is a great idea most are not going to do this, due to busy lives.

    Also, with the new hybrid Couchs and Buffalo grasses there is little problem of weeds and not as much watering…but some fertilising if you want to keep them very green.

    Id also add if one would like to purchase a grey water kit and get the lawn irrigated with the Grey water it has alot less impact on our water supply.

    So if i was you, i would be writing articles on stopping the scourge of Synthetic lawn and plastic weed matt with pebbles over it rather than pick on the old humble lawn.

    Reply
  13. Dean

    Aaron, as a horticulture student and someone who got there through permaculture, I know very well what sort of conditioning you have been taught. (I assume you went to college to learn landscaping through Hort). As to most people are not going to do it, well I suggest you read up on the many writings of Holmgren on what will be and are the driving factors towards a regenerative future. Your statement is made with the assumption that our resources are not on the decline and the way things are, will not change. Also, the writer has not outlined a plan for a pebble yard or synthetic future. He is outlining a biodiverse future beginning with our own yards. I would offer that since the GFC that there has been a greater interest in converting yards to food. Events like the GFC are some of the obvious driving factors in changes like this. We need look no further than the world of the 1930′s to see how this sort of change can be brought about. You sound new to PC, but with more experience in the PC world, you will quickly discover that Mollison always had a strong contempt for the lawn. I have a tape with Mollison from 1979, when he pretty much begins his talk with criticisms of lawns. As Rob, points out the lawn is the luxury of the wealthy. What if the wealthy are no longer wealthy? And, by wealthy, I pretty much mean all of us living here in Australia, with exceptions of course.

    Reply
  14. Jodie

    Pattern 73 Adventure Playgrounds mentions ‘grass’. I have just completed a permaculture design on our garden and had it assessed. My husband insisted on lawn for the kids to run around. Very embarrassed, I showed it to my very wise assessor who confirmed the importance of this for the kids and said it does not matter as long as it is serving a purpose. We discussed that when it is no longer useful as the kids grow up it can be planted on. Managing it in a sustainable way is important. Elimination of something useful is not. We have more than enough space to grow our own food on the rest of our 900 sq metre block. It is a much loved and used ‘social’ area of our garden. I guess the point here is that it is serving a purpose, not just acting as an empty void. Loved the polyculture lawn.

    Reply
  15. Carol Patenaude

    Wonderful article. Many statistics I was looking for. I’m just new to permicuture and am looking forward to experimenting on my farm.

    Reply

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