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A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part V: Nature Reciprocity

The principle of “seven generations” comes to us from the Iroquois nation, where is considered to be the “Great Law of the Iroquois.”  This principle said that each decision that was made needed to consider not just the immediate future but the 7th generation, those yet unborn. This principle has become closely tied with modern sustainability movements, where there is a growing understanding that for any society and ecosystem to endure, they must be treated in a way that nurtures and sustains, rather than pillages and depletes. This is a fairly radical idea to a Western culture, where concepts like manifest destiny and the relentless pursuit of growth that have driven westerners literally spent centuries pillaging the land, colonizing new places, driving out native peoples, stripping forests bare, and so forth. This idea of recirpocation is essentially foreign to most growing up in the shadows of that exploitative past.

 

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Of course, those living nature-based spiritual paths, like druidry, are struggling with the dissonance between this cultural path and finding a new relationship with nature.  And so, going to connect with nature deeply, however, and we come from a cultural heritage where the kinds of behaviors I listed above are normalized, and where we benefit from them, whether or not we want to, then reciprocation becomes even more critical to understand and embrace.  In the last few weeks, we’ve been delving deeply in to the different ways that druids and other earth-honoring individuals can connect with nature. We’ve looked at nature wisdom, how to learn about nature in various ways and nature engagement, where we can learn to use nature to build value and connection. We’ve also considered nature reverence last week.  This week, we think about reciprocity, where we learn to give more than we take, and create a sustaining and regenerative relationship with the living earth.

 

Reciprocation

Inherent in the use of nature (which we discussed two weeks ago) and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. The term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves in time (with or without human help). But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good and it doesn’t necessarily take the view that humans have taken too much.  Here in the USA; white settlers to this land found it full of incredible richness and abundance–all the while omitting the people and practices that made that abundance happen–these lands were carefully tended Native American tribes for millenia. In a few short centuries, the old forests are gone, the extraordinarily productive food forests are no more, and many species are dwindling.  It is for this reason that it isn’t enough to “sustain” what exists, but instead, give more than we take, help regenerate and heal, and do good on the land–all the work of reciprocation.  I believe that this kind of work helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs–and ultimately, our own survival.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

The principle of reciprocity with nature:
Conserving life and natural spaces;
Regenerating and healing ;
Making offerings within and without

 

Conserving Nature

I honor the conservationists of the 19th and 20th century in the US as ancestors: each time I am able to visit wild lands, public lands, and national parks, I see the tireless work of their hands and hearts present in each stone placed upon the path, each tree that was protected and not felled, each natural wonder that is still present and public for me to witness. And so, one way to connect through nature and do the work of nature reciprocation is through conservation activities.

 

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Multiple schools of thought exist within the larger conservation movement; the US National Park service offers these two different definitions: conservation focuses on protecting natural resources and regulate the sustainable use of nature; preservation focuses on protecting landscapes and protecting nature from any use and eliminate human impact entirely. As druids and nature-spirituality oriented people, part of our own ethic and interaction with nature must come to terms with these two perspectives, and perhaps, seek a third perspective that is more fitting with our own ethics and path. For me, neither of these perspectives deal with the inherent sacredness of nature or reciprocation, and so in the end, I find both to be lacking for various reasons. I don’t have a better word than “conserve” nature, and people know what I mean by that, so I’ll set this debate aside (but its good to realize that this debate exists when using the term!)

 

Conservation can take on many different forms from independent individual action to getting involved in groups to donating to causes.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Sanctuaries for Life. If you own land, you can work to create and maintain various sanctuaries.  Organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Monarch Watch, as well as possibly your State Extension program (if you live in the US) offer tools and information to help you establish wildlife sanctuaries, butterfly habitats, and so forth.  I have found that doing this kind of work has several benefits: one, it is educational for you as you learn more about these practices; two, once you gain the signage, it is good information for neighbors and others who may be wondering why you are doing something obviously different with your land; three, it is excellent “awareness raising” for those same neighbors, who ask questions and want more information. Finally, it supports good organizations doing additional conservation work.
  • Join a local organization and participate. Nearly everywhere, local organizations are dedicated to helping conserve and preserve the natural ecosystem.  Where I live, there is a lot of work being done on rivers, and one of the organizations I frequently donate to and assist is an organization called the Evergreen Conservancy, who has funded several large projects to clean up acid mine drainage from local rivers (including one that I now enjoy kayaking on). I love the work this organization is doing, it is local to my county, and I can easily get to know folks and participate.  You can physically see the results in the clean flowing water.
  • Learn about a species or two and focus your energy. Another way of thinking about conservation is to focus in on a few species, or one species, and learn about how to protect that species. I’m really interested in some of the species that United Plant Savers works with, particularly, Appalachian herbs that are so quickly disappearing from the ecosystem like American Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Trilium, and more and I’ve been focusing my energy on those herbs.
  • Attend Clean ups and other events: Often, communities, parks, and local organizations will arrange for various clean up activities–river cleanups, trail cleanups, tree plantings, removing invasive species, etc.  They often need a lot of volunteers, so this is another way to engage in conservation.

These activities are only some options–there are so many more out there! are about establishing and engaging in relationship; by working with healing any part of the land, you are working to reciprocate.

 

Regenerating and Healing Nature

The above conservation activities are based on existing ecosystems–protecting them, making sure they remain in good condition, offering care. But many of our landscapes are not pristine or in need of conservation–they are in need of regeneration and healing. And so, taking a more permaculture design perspective, we might think about reciprocation as land healing work–both physical healing as well as spiritual/energetic healing, as both are necessary. Usually, these places are right outside of our doors: the lawn, the little strip of abandoned land between the road and the back of your workplace, the recently logged forest behind your house.  I’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog detailing this practice already, so here are a few of my favorite

  • Making and Scattering Seed balls: Scattering seeds of rare species (such as those on the United Plant Savers’ list) using seed balls, or planting species out in places where they are needed. This work requires quite a bit of knowledge (as you want to make sure you are planting native plants, not spreading ones that may cause harm). As part of this, I have developed a “refugia” garden that are designed to produce seeds and cuttings that I can then propagate elsewhere.
  • Lawn Regeneration and Yardens: A second regeneration activity is working to create ecosystems in place of lawns.  Lawns are often places of consumption; they offer little to wildlife or insect life.  By converting some sections of lawns to various gardens (pollinator-friendly gardens, even with good eats) you can help develop more robust ecosystems for birds, wildlife and insects to thrive.  Here is an example of a larger site using permaculture principles (my former homestead in Michigan).
  • Carbon Sequestration: Home-scale and community-based carbon sequestration This is something that is only beginning to be talked about.  We already know that forests are one of the best carbon sinks–so planting trees and allowing trees to grow is one way to contribute. In Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, 1/10th of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe their work with carbon sequestration – through composting initiatives and biochar, they calculated that in a few years, they had sunk about 400 lbs of carbon into their soil.  Increasing soil fertility often increases the carbon in soil.
  • Composting:  A lot of active healing of the land focuses not only on planting things but on keeping the land we have healthy. Landfills are a serious problem, both in terms of land space and land use, but also in terms of what goes into them.  By starting a composting pile or joining a composting initiative, you can divert some of your food waste and turn it into productive soil–that can then be used to convert lawns to gardens, grow tomatoes, and more!
  • Larger Initiatives that regenerate and heal: There are a lot of larger initiatives that are worth considering–many of these would fall under “regenerative activities”.  One that I’ve been interested in lately is stormwater runoff.  Stormwater is a huge problem for most of the temperate places in the world that have roofs, parking lots, roads, etc.  Most communities, counties, or states have laws that govern how stormwater must be handled before it goes into rivers and streams–but many of these laws are not upheld. By working in groups and as communities, we can install rain gardens, more friendly surfaces, living roofs, and other ways of protecting and keeping waterways clean from further damage.

 

Using permaculture principles and practices, and using sound judgement, we can land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health.  I have primarily focused on the things you can do in the mundane/outer world in terms of healing and regeneration; next week, we’ll talk more about inner things you can do that also focus on reciprocation and blessing. I also want to note that if the above kinds of things appeal to you, consider studying permaculture design further–I found this to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done, and it really helped me shift my own mindset and know that I could be a force of good and make a difference in terms of healing the land. There are permaculture design certificate courses that you can take all over the world, including some totally free ones that can be done virtually.

 

Offerings to Nature

Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. In some cultures, failure to make such offerings had dire consequences for those who depended on nature for survival–famine, pestilence, and so on might occur.  For other cultures, offerings were more symbolic in order to help facilitate a good harvest. And so, while first two areas with regards to nature reciprocation are things you can physically do, the final area is much more energetic and magical in nature–it is primarily a gesture of goodwill and honoring nature.

 

There are lots of ways that we can build offerings into our practice as druids and nature-centered spiritual practitioners.  Since the tradition doesn’t have a specific way of making an offering (as other traditions may), the choice of offering is very much up to you.  I wrote more specifically about sustainable and meaningful offerings here, so I’ll only briefly summarize in this section and offer some suggestions.

  • Offerings of physical things: The general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  Many things that can be purchased are problematic because they put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging, etc).  I believe it is better to either gather your offerings, make them, or grow them.  They could be as simple as acorn caps that you have gathered in the fall and painted a symbol on (I used something like this for many years).  I currently use a sacred offering blend that I grow myself; I posted a recipe on my blog for my sacred herbal offering blend this not too long ago.
  • Offerings as Rituals: Offerings don’t just have to be physical things. Many offerings can also be ceremonial in nature; like a land blessing or healing ceremony.  A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of a ceremony that enacts the principle of reciprocation, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.
  • Offerings as Time/Life Energy: The above areas (conservation and regeneration) are also offerings–they are offerings of your time and life energy.  If done with sacred intent and intentionality, I believe these are some of the best offerings you can make to the land and her spirits.
  • Offerings of Creative Gifts: You can make an offering by playing music (which plants respond to), drumming, or dancing as well.  These can be gifts offered to the land itself, or gifts shown to humans in honor of and inspired by nature.

When it comes to offerings, I think that your intentions are what matters most–that you are genuine, that you have given the offering considerable thought, and that you offer something that is meaningful.

 

Conclusion

As the Great Law of the Iroquois, the law of seven generations, suggests, reciprocation can be not only an activity for individuals, but also a cultural value, something that a group of people accept to be right and true.  If the earth is sacred, we can treat her in a sacred manner that does not deplete her, and practice reciprocation in our interactions with her. To me, reciprocation is at the core of what nature spirituality can offer, what it can aspire to be, and what its potential is–creating life-sustaining and life-affirming values, people who live those values, and someday, perhaps, life-affirming and nurturing societies.

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

Converting Lawns to Gardens: Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Urban Farm

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm – Beautiful, biointensive, productive.

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change for ordinary Americans and others in the Western industrialized world. Not only can the lawn be transformed from a consumptive space to a productive one for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers to benefit humans and other life, but it can be a site of personal reconnection and healing with our landscape.

 

This is because the lawn is the single piece of nature that the bulk of people, living outside of big cities, encounter on a daily or weekly basis. If we can transform the lawn, we can transform ourselves.

 

This is why I am so excited about this post–through the example of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a new creation of my dear friend, Linda Jackson, I will provide an introduction to how to convert a front yard to a vegetable garden using permaculture design principles. This is Linda’s story, but she’s asked me to report on it for you here to get the word out. I’ll also say that I’m only telling part of the story now–I’ll provide more updates later in the year and talk about what she planted and how its all doing–and more responses from the community.

 

Impetus for Change

Linda was a certified organic farmer, a farmer’s market board member, a board member of a state-level organic farming rganization, and a horticulture teacher for many years. Last summer, through some trying life circumstances, she was displaced from her farm and ended up in a small home in a suburban area in a town called Lake Orion (in South-East Michigan). Linda moved from 10 acres to a tiny 100×200′ plot (with a 50′ x 50′ growing area in the front yard; back yard is full shade). Linda used her background in farming and permaculture design to convert her plain, everyday lawn into not only a place to grow some great vegetables, but also a place of community change and empowerment. Here’s how she did it.

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

Before one begins to convert one’s yard, the legal aspects must be considered and weighed. As my own run ins with township ordinances have attested, and as protections of small urban farms have been removed in Michigan in the last 12 months (and the legal battles everywhere raging about front-yard farming), Linda decided to take no chances with her plan. She went directly to the township supervisor and spoke with him about her design and plan for her front yard. He told her that as long as she wasn’t growing “weeds” it wasn’t a problem.  She also read through the township ordinances thoroughly to learn what could and couldn’t be done. We are still crossing our fingers that, now that she’s gotten the garden installed, that this will hold true. But so far, so good!

 

For those of you thinking about converting your own yards–do keep legal ordinances (and homeowner’s associations) in mind. They can really sink (and fine, and bulldoze) your hard-earned efforts.  And even a statement like “don’t grow weeds” is tricky–my township, for example, designates common milkweed as a noxious weed (when its a beneficial native plant).

 

Linda at her new farm

Linda at her new farm getting ready to plant some radishes!

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

Before Linda designed her farm and set into action, she created a list of goals to help guide her efforts. She knew farming her front yard in the urban setting was going to be quite different than farming her quiet ten acres in the country. Given this, her goals were as follows:

 

  • Do away with mowing, herbicides, pesticides, traditional lawn maintenance
  • Build a balanced farm ecosystem using permaculture design
  • Grow quick annuals and perennial fruits, herbs, flowers
  • Allow farm to turn a profit by selling produce and farm goods a farmer’s market every two weeks
  • Grow biointensively and organically; use small space gardening and vertical gardening to maximize yield
  • Use my plot as an educational site for community
  • Generate curiosity and excitement in the community
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing, unique space

 

Her triple bottom line was: ecological, social and economic sustainability.

 

Design and Observations

Linda examined her specific site over a period of weeks (she could have waited and observed longer as permaculture design principles suggest, but winter was coming fast and she wanted to get her hands in the soil and start growing first thing in the spring). So waiting a year wasn’t an option!

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

During these observations, she created a plan of action. In observing her site, she paid attention to the light (recognizing the need to take out several trees); the rainfall (including where water pooled and where it was dry) and the slope of the land and elevation changes.  She also noted the microclimates near her house, where the sun reflected from the house siding and onto the soil, keeping it dryer and warmer than other areas.

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

Two ornamental fruit trees (that did not produce fruit) and a silver maple were first removed to produce full sun on the site. These produced 15 yards of chipped mulch, which Linda put to good use as pathways in her garden. After the trees were removed, Linda also ordered 10 yards of compost from a local compost company and set to work (and she worked full days, 4-5 days a week, for 5 weeks to finish her site).

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Linda knew she wanted her farm to be aesthetically pleasing and mimic patterns in nature (another permaculture design principle). To do this, she used a hose and the natural contour of the land and laid out her beds and pathways.  She had the idea of “flow” in her mind as she designed, creating a series of soft waves.

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

After this, Linda laid down brown recycled paper to create a weed barrier (similar to the sheet mulch techniques I shared several years ago on this blog).  Then she laid down her thick mulchled pathways (about 6″ of mulch) and added more weed barrier compost for the beds themselves (eventually making it to 10″ after a neighbor blew leaves all over her farm and she laid down a second layer!). Here are some photos of the transformation as it took place.

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

Nearly complete as of October 2014–the front area there is a rock garden and rain garden since water pools there often.

 

Some Spring Planting

After the snow melted and the temperatures warmed up this spring, Linda installed drip irrigation lines and began her finishing touches on the garden and the soil composition before planting. I visited her this past week, and together, we planted kale, radishes, and chard: the first of the spring crops able to go into the ground. Linda impressed me with her organic pest control techniques: each kale seedling got a healthy spoonful of cayenne pepper and each chard seedling was popped into a toilet paper tube to protect it from rodents, slugs, and possible frost damage (and this was a good thing, since its really chilled down recently). Here are some shots of the current garden. I was also impressed that we planted nearly 80 kale seedlings in her space, with plenty of room for many other delights! I think she’ll have no problem having plenty of product to take to the farmer’s market and to put on her plate.

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

As Linda put her garden in in the fall and as the weeks passed, the neighbors watched the yard’s transformation and anticipation in the community grew substantially.  Here was someone doing something unique, different, groundbreaking, and exciting. The important thing to understand about this kind of public growing space is that people will talk. They will ask questions, they will be curious, and interest (of several kinds) can take place. I experienced this firsthand when we were planting kale, chard, and radishes this past week.  Multiple people stopped by, took a look, asked what we were up to. We cheerfully told them and they smiled and said they were thinking about doing it themselves.  So far, Linda has been lucky as the response in her community has been incredibly positive. Several people have asked her to put in gardens for them–but Linda wants to empower them to do their own work, not do it for them.

 

Given the above, Linda decided to be proactive about promoting her space, and in addition to talking to the township prior to starting, she decided to create some marketing materials. She went to my friends at Roots to Fruits for some snazzy graphics to share and feedback on her designs. I also helped her create a Powerpoint presentation that she shared in over the winter at a few local and regional events.  I also worked with her to create a brochure that she can give to people who are passing by that explains both the purpose of the garden and resources to get started. The brochure will be housed in a “take one” box on her mailbox so anyone who comes by can learn more about the site.  I’m including the brochure in jpg format here as well (you can click on it to see it full size).

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

I think the proactive approach to marketing and community engagement is really the key to a successful front-yard garden, especially one that will stand the test of time.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be checking in with Linda later in the summer on a visit back to Michigan to see how things are going!

 

Conclusion

In many ways, the typical lawn is a reflection of our own strained relationship with nature. Its poisoned and modified (as is much of the food we eat), it is unsustainable (as much of our lifestyles are), it has an appetite for chemicals and fossil fuels (as many of us do), and its generally barren with little activity or diversity of life (as nightly TV addictions can attest). Transform the lawn, and in the process, we can transform ourselves, our communities, our world.

 

I’ve seen this transformation in my friend Linda, who left a very difficult situation scarred and wounded. Through installing this front-yard farm, Linda was transformed and healed. And now this lawn, transformed, is transforming the community. Linda tells me of two neighbors on her street that are considering converting their front-yards to veggies and fruits as well, and I suspect that many more will follow the trend in the years to come. Since she’ll be selling veggies at the farmer’s market, she will inspire so many more who might not walk or drive down her street with her story, and most importantly, her delightful edible goodies.

From Consumptive Spaces to Productive Spaces: The Lawn as a Site of Change and Growth

Front yard wonderland with the rabbit!

Front yard wonderland with the rabbit!  I haven’t mowed this or weeded it all year!

In America and many other industrialized nations, one feature dominates the landscape, especially in the suburban areas of the great cities–the green, pristine, velvety lawn.  The lawn is so ubiquitous in American culture that a huge industry of chemicals, tools, and machinery are purchased and used each year to keep it looking nice. The idea of the pristine lawn is embedded into our cultural consciousness–a lawn that is a bit wild is labeled “overgrown” or “out of control”–but is it really?

 

The ecological impacts of the lawn are seriously problematic.  The University of Vermont studied the impact of lawn fertilizer runoff and found that it caused substantial pollution and algae blooms in groundwater and surface water (rivers, lakes, streams). Another researcher examined the issue of where lawns could actually be grown “naturally” in the USA and found that they really can only grow in a few areas without irrigation, further straining our water supplies, especially in water-starved places like the Colorado River basin and surrounding areas). Yet another researcher found that the lawn is the most cultivated plant in the USA–more than all farmlands and gardens combined.  But, by far, the most disturbing thing concerning the lawn is simply to look at the statistics for chemical and fossil fuel use (and I’ll list a few from this site):

 

  • 40.5 million acres of lawn in the USA
  • $30 billion dollars spent on lawn care each year
  • 800 million gallons spent on lawnmower fuel
  • Pesticides include known/suspected endocrine disrupters (13%); reproductive toxins (22%), banned/restricted ingredients in other countries (41%), possible carcinogens (53%) and more.

 

Flowers I discovered in the unmowed lawn!

Flowers I discovered in the unmowed lawn!

The plants that appear in the lawn are another consideration. The plants labeled “weeds” in the lawn that are often the target of such pesticide/herbicide use are often the most medicinal (plantain, dandelion), delicious (wood sorrel, wild strawberry, dandelion, and lamb’s quarters) and beneficial to the ecosystem (dandelion breaks up compacted soil; clover fixes nitrogen; grasses provide important nutrients to birds if allowed to seed, etc.).

 

Animal habitats and food are rare in the typical lawn–it encourages monocultures rather than polycultures, it doesn’t provide good habitat for birds, bees, and other beneficial insects, not to mention larger animals and wildlife.

 

Lots of medicinals growing in front!

Lots of medicinals growing in front!

The spiritual side of the “care” of the lawn also needs to be considered.  We are what we surround ourselves with–we reflect our external practices deeply.  If we spend our time outside driving around loud, fossil-fuel guzzling equipment as our primary interaction with nature, what does that do to our relationship?  If we continue to keep the land around our homes in an unnatural, harmed state, what does that promote?  If its more of a chore to go tend the land than simply enjoy it, how does this change our interaction?  If we take the time we would spend investing in mowing the lawn to something else, like the act of gardening, how would that change our interaction with the world? In my experiences, shifting shifting how we view–and tend–our own lawns and lands, we can allow us to change great deal of ourselves in the process. The act of tending goes from tedious to regenerative/transformative.

 

To show this complex relationship with the lawn in action, let me talk about my own evolution and thought processes.  I started with reading Gaia’s Garden several years ago, and got to the part about the history and origins of the lawn (which, for Americans, was a strong desire to emulate rich Europeans).  I had really never thought about the lawn as an agent of consumption nor class, but there it was, clearly laid out for me.  At the time, I was in my first year being in Michigan and living in a condo where the lawn was done by hired professionals.  I remember trying to tuck little pepper plants into the bushes, only to have them ripped out. I watched them “care” for these places by using chemicals on every dandelion, cutting the grasses short, and spending inordinate amounts of time driving heavy machinery over the grass, even when it didn’t seem to need cut. And a curious transformation took place in my mind–I saw that lawn for what it was; a sad attempt to shape and tame nature to an unattainable ideal.  In many ways, the lawn is the antithesis of nature allowed to prosper and flourish.

 

Chickens enjoying the tall grass!

New Peeps enjoying the tall grass!

When I purchased the land here a few years ago, I had TONS of lawn space–almost 2 full acres if I wanted to mow everything.  I decided on a series of paths in the spaces behind the house and then still mowed the front yard so that the house looked lived in.  As I went, I converted the sections closest to the house to gardens–herb gardens, butterfly gardens, and so much more. I also converted a ton of the backyard into my organic vegetable garden.  This work is ongoing, but at this point, I am quite pleased with my progress, probably converting close to 2500 square feet into garden spaces, walkways, and other more permanent features that require very little maintenance when planted with perennials and well mulched.  This year, I’ve decided that I’m only mowing paths for walking (and some of these will be done with a hand mower) and I’m going to put up some signage explaining my lawn philosophy to curious neighbors.  Luckilly I live on a dirt road with no homeowners association or pesky city ordinances (there have been numerous attacks on front-yard vegetable gardens and other attempts to remove lawns in more urban areas).

 

When I stopped mowing entirely, a magical process began to occur.  The lawn grew more and more wild and more and more beautiful!  Flower I never saw before peeked out; grasses grew tall and bent in the breeze, and medicinal plants grew larger and more vibrant.  And as this was happening, I was undergoing a parallel transformation in regards to my own healing work.   The photos in the blog are photos I took recently of the beautiful lawn–and it really is a thing of beauty, of growth, and benefits everyone much more than before.

 

If you are interested in converting your lawn, realize that it will be a long process, but the benefits are worth the work!  And remember that many hands make light work.  The sheet mulching techniques that I described in depth a few years back on this blog are particularly well suited to quickly getting rid of lawn quickly.  I’ve also found that asking around to friends and neighbors can yield a wealth of good plants in fairly short time.  This year alone, I’ve been given or traded for many plants including: french sorrel, fennel, mints, perennial garlic and onions, blue vervain, rue, Valerian, strawberries, hazelnuts, gooseberries, currants, and much more.  A lot of this has been due to our efforts to exchange plants and seeds among our Permaculture meetup members.  I’ve also done some trades and offered plants of my own–its a wonderful way to get plants to replace the consumptive lawn!  You can usually find free materials if you look around–from leaves in the fall on the street corner to municipalities giving away free compost and wood chips.

Awesome grasses!

Awesome grasses!

 

You might also see if you can join a group to learn more about the process of converting your lawn.  In a broader move away from the lawn, in our Permaculture Meetup, we are starting an event called the 100-Yarden Dash.  We are asking 100 people in the area to sign up their “yard” and turn the yard into a garden or expand their current garden–hence, the “yarden” name.  At this point, we have over 200 people signed up to do just that, and we are excited to see how far this idea can go!  I hope that as we educate others, we can begin to shift our cultural consciousness and our ideals of what a beautiful outdoor space can be!