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Lawns are getting a bad rap these days, and the truth is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The problem, perhaps, is that we have — as is oft the case — taken things a bit too far into the one-track mindset. While undoubtedly a huge patch of grass and little else is a complete energy, money, and resource sink, it doesn’t mean that our entire yard needs to be put to garden beds and dedicated to home food production. There is a happy medium that can provide food, biodiversity, and a place to spread a blanket out for a picnic.

Converting a lawn into a productive garden is a project best undertaken mentally first, with the physical changes being slowly developed as it makes sense. For one, taking on an entire yard, front or back or both, is a bit overwhelming. Secondly, it’s worth having a small piece at a time that gets special attention, until it is stable, before moving on to a new project. Success breeds success.

For those interested in converting lawns into a productive garden, there are some other things to keep in mind.

Choose Good Spots for Growing

How to Convert a Lawn into a Productive Garden

Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

Plants need sun, water, and soil to thrive, so it’s important that we allocate spots with these attributes for growing food. Sun should probably be the main factor when choosing where to place the productive parts of the yard. It’s also helpful to have a water source near to the garden because, if watering the vegetables means unrolling and rolling up a fifty-foot hose, we are less likely to do it. (Check out some tips on wasting less water in the garden). Lastly, raised beds are a great solution for any soil woes. Once in place, we just have to feed the soil with compost, organic mulch, and good stuff. (Check out lasagna gardens and double-dig beds.)

Begin Close to the House

One of the most likely ways to fail when making a garden is to put it in a distant corner or along the side of a house that’s rarely seen. Food-producing gardens need to be somewhere that gets attention: Along the front walk used every day or just off the back patio outside the kitchen windows or the beds at the front of the house. These are places that are easy to keep an eye on, so we are able to harvest stuff that’s ready or notice something needs water without going out of our way to do it. Make the vegetable gardening easy and let the grassy lawn have the hidden corners.

Don’t Forget Perennials

While many of us think of productive gardens as those filled with tomatoes and cucumbers, the fact of the matter is that perennial vegetables and edible evergreens, not to mention fruit trees and berry bushes, are much lower maintenance and still provide food. There are a host of culinary herbs that grow perennially (every year without cultivating anew), and they provide a tremendous amount of flavor and healthful elements to our meals. There are also perennial vegetables, like asparagus, rhubarb, Turkish arugula, and Jerusalem artichokes, that come back every year. Lastly, plant fruit or nut trees instead of a non-productive species, and plant berry bushes instead of purely decorative shrubs.

Ultimately, Let the Lawn Be as Small and Natural as Possible

As for those patches of grass upon which to picnic, enjoying all the fruits and food of the garden, there are some possible guidelines to doing it greener. Try to minimize them into useful spaces—a spot for a picnic that doubles as a clear area for children to play a game, a bathroom for the dog—and let them go wild. Rather than creating a monoculture grass lawn, let the weeds (many are edible) and such merge with the grass. It’s still green. It can still be cut regularly and look nice. But, wouldn’t it be more rewarding to spend most of that current grass-cutting and weeding-seeding time and/or money on a garden that’ll give something back?

The fact of the matter is that a yard largely designed into gardens, with a healthy number of perennial plants, is much less maintenance and costs than a grass lawn. Well-run garden beds don’t have to be cut once a week, don’t need to be fertilized very often (a bit of compost a couple times a year), and won’t suck the soil dry of nutrients.

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