Tag Archives: removing lawn

The Garden Resistance Movement – Replacing Front Yards with Gardens and Food Forests

Note: I have been composing this blog post for quite some time.  This past week, I received a letter from my township about the “state of my lawn” and now find myself in a similar position to those I was blogging about in composing this post.  I’m going to go ahead and post this entry about garden resistance movement and then later in the week, share my own story as it unfolds…


A garden that was once a lawn!

A garden that was once a lawn!

A movement is sweeping across America. Rejecting the traditional notion of the perfect lawn (which I recently blogged about here), Americans from all walks of life who live in urban and suburban settings are working to convert their lawns into vegetable and perennial gardens. From a sustainability standpoint, nothing could be better than replacing consumptive yard spaces with organic gardening practices. Organic gardening of any kind will allow a healthy interaction with nature, will produce food locally, and will minimize the consumption of fossil fuel and pesticide use (common in lawn “care” products). Beyond organic gardening, there are growing trends of people are integrating other aspects into their garden, such as keeping chickens.


While this sounds like a wonderful thing to anyone who is of a sustainability mindset, there has been considerable resistance to the idea nationwide. As I blogged about before, the fascination, or perhaps obsession, with the perfect velvety green lawn is incredibly strong in the USA. Any challenges to that established norm have been met with substantial resistance. Seemingly disregarding the fact that our country was founded on the backs of farmers (even many of our founding presidents were farmers), Americans are up in arms over the fact that their neighbors’ lawns are disappearing. Citing everything from “eyesores” to “declining property values”, farmer/gardener/homesteaders in suburban and urban areas are facing the wrath of angry neighbors, housing associations, township and city ordinances, and the like.


To give a sense of the range of events, here are just a few of the cases in the last few years:


Julie Bass, of Oak Park, Michigan (which is about a 30 minute drive from where I live) had her lawn ripped up when the city was installing some new pipes. She decided to plant a garden in its place.  City officials decided that she did not have “suitable” cover and fined her and gave her a ticket. She ignored such charges, and then faced up to 90 days in jail time.  While the charges were dropped and she never went to jail, the fact that the matter was handled in the way it was, and the fact that it turned into a national issue is worth considering.

Jason Helvenston planted a garden outside his house, which eventually drew the ire of an out-of-town property owner next door. The city again stepped in, and the verdict is out as to whether or not his garden can stay.


Derek Becker and Nicole Shaw literally sold their home and moved to a new area after increasing pressure (and a $20,000 financial drain in legal fees) to discontinue their backyard homesteading.  And more and more stories pop up like these three every day.  In February, at least one city has gone so far as to consider a front-lawn ban on vegetable gardens entirely (while it was defeated, I think it speaks to the climate in general concerning gardens).


Friend's garden converted from lawn

Friend’s garden converted from lawn

If we step back from the individual cases and consider this as a larger movement, I think we can consider a few trends occurring:


First and foremost:  the front-yard, stop mowing your grass and/or convert-your-lawn movement is growing in popularity as we gain more people interested in moving away from industrialized food and into more sustainable lifestyles.  The lawn is undergoing shifts as the predominant landscape feature, and that shift will take some getting used to for those who have spent their whole lives seeing the green velvety lawn as “that which is worth aspiring to.”


With that said, however, this converting the lawn movement is far from reaching its full potential.  Since reading about the Oak Park/Julie Bass story a few years ago, I have spent considerable time observing neighborhoods in the Detroit Metro area (where I live). While lots of urban gardening and community food movements are happening in the city center (especially in abandoned lots), the more wealthy the suburbs, the less of it there seems to be (especially front yard gardening).  I haven’t yet done systematic observations, but it does seem that the more wealthy an area is, the less likely you are going to see any kind of productive perennial or annual gardens.  I’m wondering if others have noticed the same.


The second thing this suggests is that challenging America’s relationship with nature, especially in high-population areas, is not going to be easy or quick. When city officials or townships are willing to physically tear out gardens after 1-2 complaints, I think we are a long way from seeing general acceptance of gardens.  With that said though, municipalities are making urban chickens and gardening legal in other areas, and some laws are even being overturned.  So the best thing that people can do is put that garden in and prepare to fight for it, if necessary.  I think that the recent social media campaigns, like the “Oak Park Hates Veggies” campaign that took place in Michigan, are also excellent ways of spreading the word and supporting those who are on the front lines of this movement.


The third issue that is coming up (including in some of the stories I linked to) concerns the idea of rights, rights that all humans should have.  Should it be a “right” to plant veggies where one chooses?  Do others have the right to determine what should occur with someone else’s property?  A lot of these regulations seem to specifically target the efforts of  self-sufficiency and sustainability (which makes sense, if our modus operandi is consumerism, and this is a direct threat to several billion-dollar industries). For decades, increasing government regulation and intervention have been interfering with homesteader/gardener’s abilities to grow their own food and live sustainably. I’ll again mention Joel Slatin’s fabulous book, “Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front” for at least one compelling story concerning government regulation; another one that has seen a lot of press is the Rawsomefoods Raids.


To me, it seems that if you want to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and so forth, you should be able to do this in your front yard, back yard, or wherever. I understand that many would take issue with such a statement, but, as a nation and as a world, we are facing increasingly serious challenges in global food supply, depleting fossil fuel resources, and so forth. Growing a bit of one’s own food is a good way to begin to address some of these challenges, at least in our own small way. It certainly has helped me cope with the increasing chaos in my own country. And this food growing shouldn’t be limited to rural areas like where I live–food needs to be grown where people eat it; which means it needs to be grown in cities, in suburbs, at schools, in parks, etc.


I do think there are limits to individual rights though–for example, one of my neighbors routinely sprays his lawn and sprays for mosquitoes–this prevents me from raising bees (my friends already had massive colony collapse due to mosquito spray and other sprays in their neighborhood a few miles away).  This directly threatens so much life.  Is it my neighbor’s right to spray for bees? Who protects the bees and other life that is directly affected by this spray?


These are hard questions that more and more communities face as we continue to slide further down Hubbert’s peak and see increasing strains on our world’s resources.

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!