Go for an Edible Estate …the case against lawns
Why do we dedicate so much property to something that requires precious resources, endless hours and contaminates our air and water?Posted Jan 28, 2009
Hindsight and Foresight
It’s easy to be the Monday morning quarterback when we evaluate what previous generations have handed down to us. Coming out of a depression and two world wars, our elders had every right to celebrate the comforts and conveniences of industrial progress. Its hidden long-term costs and a blind faith in its capacity to solve any problem created a sense that things could only get better.
This is an optimism we have lost for the moment, as we are coming to terms with the limits of our resources and land. Now that we know more about what constitutes a healthy life for future generations, it’s time for some questions. Before we spread out farther, how do we want to occupy the space we have already claimed? Why do we dedicate so much property to a space that has so minor a function and requires many precious resources and endless hours to maintain, while contaminating our air and water?
The American front lawn is now almost entirely symbolic. Aristocratic English spectacle and drama has degenerated into a bland garnish for our endless suburban sprawl and alienation. The monoculture of one plant species covering our neighborhoods from coast to coast celebrates puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity. An occasional lawn for recreation can be a delight, but most of them are occupied only when they are being tended.
Today’s lawn has become the default surface for any defensible private space. If you don’t know what to put there, plant grass seed and keep watering. Driving around most neighborhoods you will see lush beds of grass being tended on narrow unused strips of land. In the United States we plant more grass than any other crop: currently lawns cover more than thirty million acres. Given the way we lavish precious resources on it and put it everywhere that humans go, aliens landing in any American city today would assume that grass must be the most precious earthly substance of all.
Yet the lawn devours resources while it pollutes. It is maniacally groomed with mowers and trimmers powered by the two-stroke motors that are responsible for much of our greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrocarbons from mowers react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to produce ozone. To eradicate invading plants the lawn is drugged with pesticides and herbicides, which are then washed into our water supply with sprinklers and hoses, dumping our increasingly rare fresh drinking resource down the gutter.
Meanwhile, at the grocery store we confront our food. Engineered fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam are cultivated not for taste but for appearance, uniformity, and ease of transport, then sprayed with chemicals to inhibit the diseases and pests that thrive in an unbalanced ecosystem. The produce in the average American dinner is trucked 1,500 miles to reach our plates. We don’t know where our fruits and vegetables came from or who grew them. Perhaps we have even forgotten that plants were responsible for the mass-produced meal we are consuming. This detachment from the source of our food breeds a careless attitude toward our role as custodians of the land that feeds us. Perhaps we would reconsider what we put down the drain, on the ground, and in the air if there was more direct evidence that we will ultimately ingest it. The garden began behind walls, a truce, a compromise, between human need and natural resource.
In most languages the word “garden” derives from the root “enclosure.” The garden walls protected human cultivation from the wild threats in the untamed expanses. Now that a wilderness unaffected by human intervention no longer exists, the garden walls have fallen. The enclosed, cultivated space protected behind the house is no longer a worthwhile model. The entire street must be viewed as a garden, and by extension the entire city we are tending, and beyond. We have intervened on all levels of environmental function, and with no walls remaining we have taken on the role of planetary gardener by default.
The Edible Estates project proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape. Food grown in our front yards will connect us to the seasons, the organic cycles of the earth, and our neighbors. The banal lifeless space of uniform grass in front of the house will be replaced with the chaotic abundance of biodiversity. In becoming gardeners we will reconsider our connection to the land, what we take from it, and what we put in it. Each yard will be a unique expression of its location and of the inhabitant and his or her desires.