Ah grass lawns. That classic vision of the American Dream: a white house with a red car in the driveway, 2.2 kids and a dog, and a white picket fence surrounding a manicured grass lawn. And all up and down the block it all looks exactly the same.We think that vision is more like a nightmare than a dream (for many reasons, but we’ll focus on the lawn for now).
Lawns are notoriously unproductive land.
They produce nothing of value and actually require tremendous energy and resources to maintain. The amount of gasoline, motor oil, machinery, and time required to upkeep all of America’s lawns is astronomical, and for what?
The modern grass lawn has its roots in the 18th century English aristocracy.
Prior to the mechanical mower, lawns had to be maintained by scything, a laborious task. Only the wealthy elite could afford to have their servants maintain these lawns, and only the wealthy elite could afford to sacrifice productive agricultural land to these notoriously unproductive lawns.
With the invention of the mechanical mower, it became affordable for middle-class families to maintain grass lawns in emulation of the aristocracy. It is thus clear that lawns are a symbol of status and wealth. It is exactly their lack of productivity that made them popular as symbols of wealth and dominance.
The trend caught on, and what was once a symbol of status became an assumed feature of every home. It is even the case that many municipalities have laws prohibiting any use of land around a house except for a lawn; how absurd!
Permaculture teaches that we should obtain a yield, use & value diversity, and use & value renewable resources;
all things that traditional grass lawns fail miserably at. Lawns are often seen as too small to be useful, but that area adds up, and permaculture teaches us to value marginal spaces like these.
Here we present an alternative to the grass lawn that is highly productive,
while still maintaining a similar aesthetic and functionality as a space for play and relaxation. By replacing the grass in a lawn with the following plants you can provide edible and medicinal herbs, improve soil quality, increase biodiversity, reduce pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, and reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels, all while saving time and money! With so many benefits, it’s a wonder more people aren’t already doing this!
Don’t go ripping out a whole lawn tomorrow to seed it out to the plants listed below. That would be excessive work and, unless you have a use for all the sod, would be very wasteful. Instead, let these plants take over slowly by providing them with favorable conditions.
Many of these plants are likely to already be present in any given lawn (unless you spray herbicides; if you do, you should stop), and can easily be encouraged to spread.
Try reducing the frequency of mowing to allow the seeds of violets, plantain, and dandelion to develop and take hold. We have found that violet and plantain populations increase quite rapidly after a year without mowing.
Collecting seeds from the area, in parks or on the side of the road, and then sowing them in another lawn can be a great way to convert that lawn into a more productive edible lawn. If you need help finding seeds, contact us and we’d be happy to help!
Another good strategy for converting to an edible lawn is to choke out a small area of grass with a potted planter. A bucket filled with soil can be placed on the lawn and used to grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables. At the end of the growing season, move the bucket to reveal a bare circle devoid of grass. This is the perfect place for seeding out some of the plants below or transplanting in established plants.
Even is most of a lawn has already been converted into a garden, these techniques for edible lawns can be implemented on the pathways to add additional productivity and diversity!
Incorporate the following plants for a more productive, lower maintenance lawn:
Arugula is a tasty vegetable that is extremely easy to start from seed and will re-seed itself year-after-year if allowed to grow to maturity. It grows well in compacted soils and will easily take even if sown on ground already established with grass. It produces tasty leaves from early spring through late fall. Arugula can get get fairly tall when bolting, so to maintain a more traditional lawn aesthetic be sure so harvest frequently or walk over it to keep it close to the ground.
Clovers come in both annual and perennial varieties, with most annual varieties capable of self-seeding. They provide nitrogen to the soil to feed the rest of the edible lawn and attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Leaves, seeds, and flowers are edible, and flowers may have medicinal value. It can be walked on without worry of damaging the plant.
Creeping thyme is a flavorful and aromatic perennial herb that grows in low-lying clumps along the ground. It is useful in soups and other dishes, and also provides habitat for beneficial insects. Creeping thyme is not the strongest, however, so it should be planted along the edges ot the house or other areas where foot-traffic is low.
Dandelion is probably one of the most misunderstood plants. The entire plant from root to flower is edible and highly medicinal, offering anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agents, among others. The bright yellow flowers also offer bursts of color to an otherwise boring lawn. Dandelion thrives on poor, compacted soils and will happily set root in areas established with grasses. It can be walked on without worry of damaging the plant.
Onion grass is not technically a grass, but a small member of the allium family. While it looks like a round grass to an untrained eye, its strong onion/garlic smell and taste are sure to give away its true identity. It also has bulbs that look like tiny onions just below the ground. This easy-to-transplant herb helps maintain the traditional lawn aesthetic while providing flavor for soups, dishes, or just a quick nibble on the way out the door. It can be walked on without worry of damaging the plant.
Plantain leaf is common in urban and disturbed soils due to its ability to de-compact and enrich poor soils. The leaves are edible at any age, but get tough and stringy when old. Seeds are also edible. Leaves can be used medicinally for topical ailments like cuts, rashes, and insect bites. Plants can be walked on without worry of damage.
Violets are an herbaceous perennial with edible leaves that are similar to spinach and tasty flowers. They spread fairly quickly via seeds and rhizomes and transplant easily from established plants, making them a good plant for phasing out grasses. The plants stay low to the ground and so require no mowing, and the flowers that bloom in early spring and late fall provide beauty unmatched by any grass lawn. They can be walked on without worry of damaging the plants.
The above list is certainly not exhaustive; if you have suggestions for plants or techniques for an edible lawn, please let us know!