The numbers factor in. Nearly 80% of US homes have a lawn — around 18 million acres worth — with 40-odd billion dollars spent every year on maintaining and “improving” them, comprising about three-quarters of the turf grass in the United States. And while a nice swath of grass to picnic on, or to feel beneath bare feet on a dewy spring morning, isn’t a horrible thing, it seems we might find a better use for all that land … or at least some of it.
Now is the perfect time to begin transforming your lawn into something edible. Most of us are quite aware of this new and truly useful trend: The slow and steady removal of expansive grass lawns, decorative and destructive, into splendid suburban gardens full of fresh, organic produce. It’s a beautiful thing, both figuratively and literally, and for all OGP Monsters out there ready to get to it, today is the day to start planning, maybe even putting that plan into action.
Step One: Start Collecting
One of the easiest ways to transform a lawn into a garden is using a method called sheet mulching, and one of the things that makes sheet mulching so nice is that it doesn’t require digging up the lawn, a back-breaking and messy job. Rather, the method utilizes heaps of organic material atop the lawn, creating in situ compost really. The beds are slightly raised, highly fertile, and completely appropriate for neighborhoods. In other words, sheet-mulched lawn isn’t tilled into those prototypical farm rows but rather appears like craftily landscaped garden beds.
The thing is that it requires a lot of organic material to make a bed, so it’s a good idea to start collecting stuff. A basic sheet mulch calls for just few ingredients: cardboard or newspaper, carbon-rich organic matter, and nitrogen-rich material. Most of these can be gotten for free. A good layer of cardboard or newspaper prevents weeds from sprouting up in the bed (less work for later). Raked up leaves, tree bark, wood shavings, old lawn clippings, straw or rotten hay provide bulk organic material, so just ask neighbors, local carpenters, tree-trimmers, or stables for a little help. They will often be glad to have somewhere to put all this stuff. Then, there is something nitrogen-rich like manure, compost, or fresh (green) grass clippings.
Step Two: Think Plants
The idea here is to replace the lawn with plants, trees, bushes, herbs, flowers and so on that provide something either edible, medicinal, beautiful or, better yet, all three of these things. An expanse of grass is a money pit, requiring lots of resources, loads of mowing and tons of attention, providing, in the end, nothing more than an unproductive space. A carefully crafted garden is just the opposite. Proper mulching absorbs and protects rainwater from evaporating, organic material from the garden and kitchen provides the fertilizer and the plants, well, they are the whole reason this circus started.
Choose plants wisely, considering the needs they might fulfill. Find out what kind of edible and medicinal stuff grows well in the area. Which fruit trees are local? What kind of nuts, berries, and vegetables will work? Are there medicinal flowers or herbs common to the region? Some places work better for certain plants, and choosing plants that are suitable to the location makes maintenance easier and success even more likely. Once a list is comprised, consider perennials (plants that are permanent) rather than annuals (that need to be planted every year). Perennial plants mean that once they are there, they are there. Annuals, most of the stuff with think of in veggie markets, are great, too, but they require a little more effort.
Step Three: Map the Space
Really observe the lawn. Are there existing trees or bushes that’ll be staying? Is there a fence that makes shade or a spot that is particularly sunny? Where does the water tend to flow on a rainy day, either across the land or from the roof? Is anywhere high and dry? Is there a low spot that tends to get saturated? Try to think of all of the factors that could affect how a plant grows, and put the plants in appropriate places for the sort of climatic factors they like.
Then, make a plan. Draw the lawn and decide what plants will go where (Existing trees and shrubbery are great places to start as they will benefit from the sheet mulch as well). Design paths through the beds so that it will be logical and efficient to harvest the food that’ll be growing. Zone the lawn sensibly, such that everyday crops like salad greens or herbs are nearer to the kitchen for quick access, or annual plants that demand a bit more attention are along well-trodden routes so they don’t require going out of your way to water, weed or trim.
And just go for it. Build one bed at a time and fill it up the plants you want. Mistakes will likely happen. Some plants probably won’t work, and that’s okay. It happens to even the most experienced of gardeners. Don’t fret. Try again with something different in that spot and somewhere different for that type of plant. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, and gardening beats the hell out mowing the lawn every Saturday morning.
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