The Grass Isn’t Greener…
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:
- eliminating the energy and toxins used to maintain the lawn, and
- 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.