Will Americans Abandon Their Lawns to Grow Food?

The article “Why Americans should opt out of lawns for growing food” appeared in the June 15 issue of the respected Christian Science Monitor. The provocative headline caught my attention and literally begged me to read the piece – which I did, of course.

The article alerted me to Food Not Lawns (FNL), a 16-year-old chapter-based organization, which is attempting to convince property owners to transform lawns into gardens. The FNL’s aim appears to be focused on converting public lawns into community gardens. However, the article leaves little doubt that the FNL would love to see fewer (many fewer) lawns in general. The FNL sees lawns as an environmental liability.

The goal of the FNL is laudable – fresh, wholesome, local food for the masses. Nevertheless, it misses the mark by a wide margin by denigrating lawns, which offer property owners a host of exhaustively researched environmental and life-style benefits.

My wife, Vicky, and I are avid gardeners. Each spring we load our small urban property (50 ft.-100 ft.) in our tiny town in northwest Ohio with colorful ornamentals and food producing plants. We grow strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, grapes, apples, tomatoes, peppers and an assortment of salad greens in containers. We grow most of the edibles for ourselves. It’s nice to walk out our back door and snip off a handful or two of fresh greens for dinner or dig through the straw and weeds for a bowlful of strawberries for breakfast. We do, however, grow enough rhubarb, strawberries and, in a good year, concord grapes to share with neighbors and friends.

But to the point of FNL’s avowed aim of turning lawns into gardens: Our small property also sports a lawn, actually two lawns – a tree lawn with an ancient maple that provides shade to our front porch and also a crescent of turfgrass (10-15 feet wide) in our backyard that provides soft green access to our ornamentals and edible plants.

My wife leaves the lawn to me. I’m the expert, right? At least she thinks so giving me too much credit in spite of my 30-year career writing and editing business and technical articles focusing on turfgrass management. In my opinion, unless you’ve managed turfgrass for a golf course, high-use sports fields or have consistently delivered attractive healthy lawns to demanding property owners, you are not a turfgrass expert.

Since I am familiar with turfgrass and the industry that sustains it, and also with growing edibles (not just on our small property but as a youth working on the family truck farm, too), I feel confident saying that FNL’s recommendation to replace lawns with edibles, while noble in spirit, is unlikely to gain much traction with U.S. homeowners.

Americans love their lawns and most of the folks in my neighborhood seem to actually enjoy mowing and taking care of them. Several of my neighbors are too busy with their jobs and families to keep up with their properties and rely upon lawn service companies to keep the grass looking nice. The idea of planting and tending vegetables and fruits is not something that seems to excite them. And even when property owners take the first step by scratching out a bare patch of soil or installing raised beds, their gardening fever subsides over time as they battle weeds, deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and insect pests. Urban gardening is more laborious than taking care of a lawn they discover.

As I walk the alleys of my community as the heat of summer arrives I see many properties with overgrown, untended raised beds and neglected vegetable gardens. These erstwhile gardeners have succumbed to the heat and humility attendant with growing their own fresh produce. It’s much easier to buy it at the local Kroger superstore.

Many homeowners, I’m sure, would appreciate having fresh produce growing literally at their doorsteps— assuming, of course, somebody does the work for them. Clever landscape pros may want to offer some edibles when they design and install clients’ landscapes, but I don’t see it as anything more than a courtesy or a niche service. If you feel differently, please let me know.

FNL’s goal of replacing America’s lawns with gardens on any significant scale, and especially at the residential level, seems pretty farfetched to me.

Read the Christian Science Monitor article “Why Americans should opt out of lawns for growing food” here.