Tag Archives: converting your lawn

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!

Reducing Your Impact on the Planet: Ten Tips to Get Started

As we quickly approach the most consumptive season of the year, I wanted to post about ways that you can reduce your overall impact on the planet.  I think its critically important that we, as druids and other earth-centered spiritual people, set an example for others to follow.  So when people ask, “what do you believe” you can instead respond with “this is what I believe and here’s how I enact it in my daily life.”  Without changing our own behaviors and practices, we can’t be that example for others to follow. So with that said, this blog post will detail ten ways that you can start reducing your impact.


1) Reduce your overall buying, and if you have to buy, buy used. I posted about this some time ago–and its critically important that we carefully monitor what we buy and how we buy it.  Each time we buy a product, we are sending a message to that company that says, “Hey make more of these, cause people want them.” So reduce demand not buying, or if you have to buy, buying used.  This creates less strain and demand on the whole system.


We all need space to grow!

We all need space to grow!

2) When you buy, pay attention to who you buy it from and what they stand for.  Each time we buy a product, we also inadvertently fund that company’s political initiatives, which after Citizens United, can be seriously ethically questionable.  Think of your dollars like a vote–each time you spend, you are voting in favor or against certain viewpoints.  In the last election, California’s GM-Labeling proposition was defeated by millions in dollars in spending from food companies.  We also have oil companies actively lobbying and writing their own policies, restaurants openly attacking gay rights, and phone companies supporting extremist tea-party candidates who are anti-environmental and anti-science.  If we stop buying from these companies, this sends a clear message and erodes their financial ability to support such environmentally and socially destructive policies.  A few years ago, after learning about AT&T’s funding of tea party candidates, we switched to Credo Mobile, a progressive company who openly and actively funds environmental and humanitarian groups. We also buy everything that we need locally, so that we keep money within our local area, rather than going to businesses that might not even be paying taxes in the USA.


3) Drive less.  When you have to drive, combine trips. Use public transportation if available. Unlike phone companies where switching to a different one is relatively straightforward, its quite hard (although not impossible) to avoid supporting big oil’s anti-environmental agenda.  To combat this, we carpool, combine trips, and drive a very fuel-efficient hybrid car.  But even these activities hardly seem like enough, although they are something.  We have virtually no public transportation in our area, unfortunately (Detroit, being “motor city” and all, has none), so we decided to invest in a very fuel efficient car to offset this lack.


4) Eat locally and seasonally.  I’ve also blogged about this before, and suggested six principles for local eating. The further your food has to travel, the more fossil fuels are burnt to create it.  Furthermore, when you purchase food from big agriculture, rather than from small farms, you are buying food that has been produced using fossil fuel fertilizers, fossil fuel machines, genetically modified crops, and various pesticides.  By shifting to a local, seasonal diet that is purchased locally from small, independent, organic farmers, you are reducing the amount of fossil fuel to get your food from farm to plate.  You are also supporting sustainable agriculture and a new generation of farmers.  Its a really good thing :).


5) Grow your own food.  You should also seriously consider starting your own garden.  I’ve provided numerous techniques on this blog for starting gardens, extending the growing season, and preserving food.  If you use organic methods, saving seeds from year to year and building your soil with what is on your property,  you can have lovely and delicious vegetables with virtually no carbon footprint.  If you are living in an apartment, you should check out R&DIY, which is a great site for window gardening in small spaces.


6) Reduce your meat (especially beef) consumption.  Beef (and other meat consumption) is very environmentally destructive.  Even if you don’t shift to a completely vegetarian diet, reducing your beef consumption (especially imported beef, from places like Brazil who are losing rainforest at an alarming rate to support the American Beef industry).  While this takes some shifting of your eating habits, you will find that there are many wonderful alternatives out there!  The other issue with meat is that it takes double or more the amount of corn/grains to produce a pound of beef–and those grains could be used for feeding people or using less available farmland.


Convert your lawn for wildlife!

Convert your lawn for wildlife!

7) Avoid other foods that are environmentally destructive. Foods you might not suspect also have a substantial environmental toll.  Most dairy (cheese, milk, butter) is tied up with the cattle industry, which also is responsible for alarming rates of CO2 as well as unethical treatment of animals. Fish farming has been demonstrated to cause substantial problems with coastal areas.   Palm oil is another food that is very environmentally destructive.


8) Reduce your energy consumption. Have an energy audit done in your home.  Reduce your thermometer by 3 degrees in the winter, and raise it by 3 degrees in the summer (or forgo AC entirely).  Wear layers of clothing, and focus on heating areas of your house rather than the whole house.  Turn off the lights when they are not in use.  Make sure that machines are unplugged when not in use.  If you have to buy new appliances, buy Energy Star rated appliances. There are lots of ways to reduce your energy consumption!


9) Convert your lawn to edible, wildlife-friendly gardens. The typical green American lawn is a huge site of environmental pollution and waste. Mowing the lawn requires heavy equipment and fossil fuels, more fossil fuels are dumped on it to keep it green and free of weeds, and the space is not habitat or food production for most wildlife or human life.  Not to mention the water stress that’s involved in watering the lawn to keep it looking nice. When we purchased our house, we had about 2 acres of lawn (of three acres, the rest was a pond and a bit of forest and the house itself).  I quickly took to only mowing paths through 2/3 of it and letting it grow as it saw fit.  I still did mow select areas in the front.  But over the last two years, I’ve been converting it to productive space one area at a time: a butterfly garden and stone path now takes up a sunny spot facing the south of the house; a huge vegetable garden now takes up much of the center area; and numerous fruit and nut trees have been planted and mulched. The next projects include a sunflower and sunchoke bed, a golden raspberry planting area, and an edible and walkable labyrinth.


Baby robins will thank you for your efforts!

Baby robins will thank you for your efforts!

10) Reduce your waste and start composting. Recycling is often the first thing that people think of concerning environmentally-friendly behaviors.  And yes, its a great start!  The problem with recycling, however, is that most of the waste in your products is not the products themselves, but the waste from producing the products (The Story of Stuff explains this quite nicely).  This is why #1 and #2 are so important on my list (and are #1 and #2, rather than #10).  Recycling and composting are excellent activities, but should be supplemented with other earth-friendly behaviors.

While this list is not exhaustive, I think this list can help get you in the mindset of reducing your environmental impact.  And getting in the mindset is key–once you have made that shift away from the status quo, its amazing how many things you can find to do each day that can help build a better world.