Eco Yardening 2

Running with abandon down the slight hill in our backyard with my 4 year old is easily worth half hour of mowing a week-but the amount of lawn it takes for that is about as much as I need for about the most space intensive outdoor activity I can think of-setting up a volleyball net for a summer party. And that is about as much lawn in the back as I would like to get to. If you too are finding that you would like to reduce your lawn while increasing the enjoyment from your yard, there are several options-most of them easy, some of them cheap, and all of them beautiful.

More Gardens
You had to know that was coming… Perhaps the worst offender environmentally is not in the resources that the lawn takes, but in those that it doesn’t produce. We Americans spend a ridiculous amount of energy in meeting our everyday needs-exponentially more than we did even a generation ago. Remember the Victory Garden? People used to actually grow a good portion of their own food on their own property. Check out Grow More Vegetables for a great way to get your backyard plot going. 2 beds 4′ by 20′ with a 3′ path down the middle can produce literally hundreds of pounds of produce once established. Even if you just use the planting diagrams, which help you rotate up to 3 different crops in each bed every year, you will be off to a great start. This is how I started-and after tasting the first year’s tomatoes, I put in 2 more beds. And I have 2 more planned for this fall. That will be about 600 sq feet of lawn that is now making food for my larder and if I can figure out food storage-could relieve our family from going to the produce section for months at a time. Another great resource is the Four Season Harvest which teaches skills to extend seasons thru crop selection and cold frames. Gardens are also great for secondary functions-they are a great place to put your compost from all your kitchen scraps, they reconnect you with the seasons and weather, and they are great teachers-not only for my children who love to watch the garden spiders, but for me as nature teaches me what it needs to produce its bounty. Now if the city would just let me have some chickens…

Plant an Orchard
No I am not off my rocker. Okay maybe a growing amount of people think so, but orchards are suprisingly easy. Intimidated by Apples and Peaches? Then try small fruit! Raspberries and blackberries are so easy to grow that some cultures treat them as weeds. They are crazy cheap and need very little care other than some pruning each year. And don’t let the pruning scare you! Raspberries pruning is child’s play-at the end of the season if the cane is brown and barky its done fruiting so hack it off and compost it. Boom-you’re done pruning. Still too hard? Get an everbearing variety and cut all the canes down each fall. Simple as pie… really, really, good raspberry pie! And why are you afraid of Apples and Peaches? First read: The Backyard Orchardist to become an instant expert and then get going. Plant a dwarf variety and you don’t need a ladder to pick them, infact in an area about 20′ by 30′ you can grow at least 2 trees each of Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Olives (look for a future post as I try just that!) here in zone 4/5. 600 sq ft of lawn gone and even more food for your family! My orchard will be two rows of trees with strawberries as a groundcover and a meandering clover patch down the middle and sides for access, nitrogen fixing, and beneficial insect attraction. Last year I planted 125 strawberries. That sounds like a lot-and it is. In fact everyone thought I was loco, but eating a quart of fresh, incredibly sweet strawberries every day in June was perhaps as close to culinary heaven as I can get. Even though they are not very local or small farm-I use Nourse Farms for all my small fruit. They are crazy cheap, offer heirlooms, have good quality and, well, they’re crazy cheap. If you can find local fruit plants buy them!

Plant perennials!
We have 3 island beds and our house is literally surrounded by 4′ to 6′ of perennial beds. Of all the de-lawning we have done this has had the biggest impact in sq footage: over 2000 sq ft so far. By choosing hardy, drought tolerant plants (Mediterranean varieties do well both wet and dry as do natives) will cut your watering bill immensely. A trip to the library will help immensely with planting ideas to stretch the bloom across the summer, or get the Prairie Nursery’s Catalog for some great garden ideas. Putting in perennial beds can be expensive- there is no doubt. We went in big the first year, and are adding about 500 sq feet each year with splits and a few extras from the nursery that catch our eye. Local garden clubs often have plant swaps, or even better ring the bell of that beautiful house on the corner whose flowers you have always admired. For the price of some conversation you will almost certainly leave with more splits than you can carry, and will have made a human connection in your neighborhood. Gardeners love to talk shop! As perennial beds are often plant once deals, do the soil prep and weed prevention right-incorporate lots of oganic matter and compost, and lay some weed barrier (newspaper works great) and then mulch the dickens out of it: at least 4″, 6 would be better. Your village Public Works or utlity will almost certainly have a pile of free wood chips if you give them a call. If you want/need something more decorative put the free chips down 4″ deep and top dress with the ‘pretty’ stuff. Personally the free stuff looks fine to me. The added benefit of surrounding your lawn with gardens is that you can sculpt the perimeter to round off all sharp corners-drastically reducing mowing time. Perennial beds also don’t have to be all flowers-edilbe landscaping works. We have several fruit bearing shrubs in our gardens, and sunchokes are beautiful sunflowers in late summer, and a tasty potato substitute after first frost.
Eating beats mowing!

Garden Strutctures
You don’t have to mow a deck! To be eco-riffic find some sustainably harvested cedar or redwood for the deck, or if you are going for a patio use a permeable stone patio instead of a concrete slab. Not only does this drastically reduce water runoff, but you can also get very creative with the seams-plant some thyme in the sand between the stones to add some fragrance to your evenings. Also, you can go 3-D and raise an arbor over your patio-not only does this keep the sun off, but it also happens to be a great place to grow clematis, grapes or kiwi to not only keep you cool and shaded, but from getting hungry as well!
Figure at least another 250 sq ft gone.

There are numerous other ways to reduce your amount of lawn. We have planted a raingarden under every downspout (about 400 sq ft each), installed 100′ of wood chip paths along walkways that wouldn’t grow much grass anyhow, and we have even converted the back 10′ of our yard to a prairie plantation that is home to several monarch caterpillars.

Adding beauty and flavor, and utility to your yard is a fantastic way to reduce the drab, resource and time intensive American lawn, but having a right sized place to play with the family or dog is important too.

Next stop-lawn alternatives!

3 Responses

  1. Excellent stuff. I’m working on or planning many of these already. You’ve given me more ideas as well.

    A few comments:

    – Dwarf fruit trees rule. Especially disease resistant ones. I can’t wait for mine to start pruducing, which could be as soon as next year (though we’ve probably got one more to go).

    – Cold hardy olives? Tell me more!

    – You mentioned back yard chickens. We took a tour of an organic poultry & egg farm today. In a side discussion, somebody who lived in the city was saying she wanted to get a few chickens. Another person asked if that was allowed. Somebody responded that she thought city laws allowed up to four birds. And one of the hosts of the tour said, “You can do anything you want as long as nobody complains!” That got a big laugh, but there’s some truth to it. Just don’t keep a rooster!

  2. Please don’t encourage chicken acquisition! It’s for the good of the eco-home. That could be what sends the suburbian neighbors over the edge. So far they’ve survived no mow lawns, rain barrels, rain gardens, pririe, and crazy wild gardens everywhere. Chickens? Oy.

    I’m entirely kidding. I love our mini eco-village. I’m pretty sure Beo could get us in with the village board on having a couple cluckers in the back. After all, there are some right on the other side of the interstate. They DO have a rooster, and an insomniac donkey…

  3. Right. About the olives. I was basing this off a discussion I had had over the weekend and had not researched yet. The olives I was refferring to are infact Russian Olives, which, while edible, are not the olives we think of and are from a completely different family of plants-eleangus. What they give up in culinary they do make up in nitrogen fixing and as a nurse plant, so could still may have a spot in the orchard, though I would shift that spot in the guild to a Goumi bush to increase edibility.

    Alas, I have been unable to find a true olive anywhere north of zone 8.
    I will hope for better luck on the chickens!

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