Sarah Rich

How to Eat Your Lawn: Transform Your Wasteful Grassy Space into a Food Forest Garden

by , 04/30/14

Who ever imagined that lawns would go from epitomizing the American dream to embodying all manner of evil? Blaming both human and natural failings, many homeowners have embraced the idea of lawn-eradication, and the Food Not Lawns movement is growing on a daily basis. Lawns were originally cultivated by wealthy European nobles to show off all the land that they didn’t need for growing food, but in an era of droughts, climate change, and imminent food shortages, such wastefulness isn’t a trophy for the elite; it’s pretty much reprehensible.


Several organizations now exist that help people transform their lawns into edible food forests, and one of those is Edible Estates. This company is the brainchild of Fritz Haeg, who has made it his mission to replace the water-guzzling, pesticide-drenched grasslands of American front yards with functional, fruitful plots filled with all things edible. His philosophy on lawns vs. edible gardens is as follows:

“The lawn devours resources while it pollutes. It is maniacally groomed with mowers and trimmers powered by the 2-stroke motors responsible for much of our greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrocarbons from mowers react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to produce ozone. To eradicate invading plants, it is drugged with pesticides which are then washed into our water supply with sprinklers and hoses, dumping our increasingly rare fresh drinking resource down the gutter. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater and 23 have the ability to leach into groundwater sources.
The lawn divides and isolates us. It is the buffer of anti-social no-man’s-land that we wrap ourselves with, reinforcing the suburban alienation of our sprawling communities. The mono-culture of one plant species covering our neighborhoods from coast to coast celebrates puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity.”

For those of you who may be interested in growing food instead of grass, there are countless books and websites available to help you on your way. As a couple of examples, the Food Not Lawns book is a great start, and Paradise Lot is an ideal reference guide for those living in urban settings.

Below are just a few basic instructions on how you can transform your yard into an edible garden paradise.

What you may need:

  • A rented sod-cutter 
  • A rented roto-tiller 
  • Newspaper or other ground-cover as the base for raised beds
  • A truckload of compost, calculated to cover the size of the space you’re working with
  • Shovels, hand trowels and rakes
  • Friends and neighbors to help
  • Water
  • Stakes and string
  • Fencing material to deter animals
  • Selected vegetables, herbs, and fruits as seeds, seedlings, or trees; aim for those that are best suited to your region/growing zone
  • A composting system

*Note: Keep in mind that you can also build raised garden beds on top of poor soil rather than digging into it. Raised beds are also easier to access as there’s less bending and kneeling needed, so they’re ideal for the elderly and those with limited mobility.

Related: How to Maximize Your Growing Space with Keyhole Gardens

Some questions to think about when planning your edible estate:

  • Where is south located? Where are the shady and sunny areas?
  • How healthy is the earth? Does the soil test tell us that amendments are needed, or whether there are traces of lawn chemicals? 
  • Where should tall trees or lower groundcover go? Are there views to frame or obscure?
  • What do you want to eat from your estate? What can’t you get from the local grocery store or farmer’s market?
  • It is good to go vertical for higher yields and/or in small spaces. Do we have something on which fruits and vegetables on vines can grow?
  • How do you want to move through the edible estate? Where should paths go?
  • What kind of mulch to use? Straw, bark, compost, and leaves will retain moisture, block weeds and decompose into the soil. 
  • Is there an area in your estate for children, pets, and adults to play and relax?

Basic instructions to create your own edible estate:

  • Do a soil test to see what sorts of amendments might be needed or if there are traces of lawn chemicals.
  • Make a plan for your “edible estate”, and mark it out with stakes, string, and tape.
  • Use a sod-cutter to remove existing grass, roll it up, give it away, or find a new use for it. If you do not have Bermuda grass or another type of rhizomatic lawn, you may turn over the existing turf to keep the topsoil and nitrogen-rich grass in your yard. You also can cover any lawn with a series of raised beds or mounded plantings. 
  • On existing exposed soil, mix in a generous amount of compost, earthworm castings, manure, mushroom soil, and any combination of soil amendments that you may need or have access to.
  • During the first few seasons, experiment with plants, trying any edibles that are appropriate for your growing zone and establishing seeds, starts, trees, and vines according to your local planting calendar. You will gradually become aware of what does well on your land and what you like to eat. A diverse garden is a healthy garden.
  • Till the soil again to mix in the new compost
  • Mark out a plan for your edible estate with stakes and string
  • Plant your seedlings, starts, trees, and seeds according to the planting calendar
  • Water them thoroughly with a garden hose
  • Install an 18″ – 24″ fence to deter small local animals like rabbits or squirrels if you have problems with them
  • Set up compost bins and a rainwater catchment system.

Related: Rediscovering Perennial Vegetables

It’s also important to consider how much time and energy you’d like to put into your garden. Do your research on perennial vegetables and fruits in addition to favorite annuals (like tomatoes and peppers), and encourage the whole family to get involved in selecting the edible plants they’d like to grow. Tending a garden is great for your health, and if others in your community start veggie gardens as well, you have a perfect opportunity to socialize so you can swap seeds, trade produce, and even share tips and tricks that worked best for you.

+ Edible Estates

+ Food Not Lawns

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11 Comments

  1. grets June 16, 2008 at 12:33 am

    This is such a great idea! We are currently renters, living in a duplex on a small city lot. We have a small patch of vegetables in our front “lawn” (tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, bell peppers and strawberries) I am really looking forward to taking it to the next level when we finally settle into a permanet residense. How great would it be to be totally self-sufficient when it comes to produce!!! No salmonella on my tomatoes! :)

  2. matt May 16, 2007 at 10:02 am

    The spirit of this is right on the money. As some of you have said though, probably not for everyone. Personally, the work pictured isn’t that attractive to me (chicken wire is not my thing). That said there are many ways to make a lawn more green while keeping it attractive. There are quiet, efficient electric lawnmowers. There are alternative fertilizers. There are strategies for planting that involve no mow grasses and sedges. There are designers who can help find a gentle form of expression without sacrificing aesthetic. There are native perrenials… and on and on and on.
    For me, somehow some of the descriptive language in this piece creates a picture, maybe from my youth, of a “mean guy with a crew cut down the street who wouldn’t let any of the neighborhood kids walk on the lawn, fertilized hourly and was very proud of the mower patterns that showed in his lawn and thought the green folks were dirty hippies” etc. That’s just not how my neighborhood is.

  3. Inhabitat » EDIBL... May 16, 2007 at 12:42 am

    [...] Salinas, Kansas to the pages of the New York Times, Edible Estates, has had a big year. The combination of increased awareness around resource consumption, rising [...]

  4. Inhabitat » Blog ... July 31, 2006 at 6:28 am

    [...] The wheel is of simple construction–just plywood, mesh, fishing line, and sod–but it’s loaded with meaning. On one hand, it’s a playful protest to the lack of public green space in Halifax. On the other hand, using sod for their material offers a deeper critique on urban greenery. Sure, the grass feels good on the feet (you wouldn’t want to landscape this thing with cacti), but only in North America would a lawn with the personality of a military haircut be considered a traveling “garden.” Does rolling out a grass carpet really make a place more “natural?” [...]

  5. Ames Tiedeman June 26, 2006 at 2:16 am

    Do any of you use a Robotic lawn mower?

  6. Max January 14, 2006 at 9:33 am

    Between a lawn as front yard and an edible wilderness are many grades. If you need the lawn for kids to play for example, why not create a border around it, with dwarfing fruit trees and schrubs, soil covered with herbs. If your kids love to play in the front yard I bet they will be even happier if they can pick an apple or a handfull of berries whenever they want.
    Or pick a few spots in the lawn where you create little islands with one small fruit tree and a few schrubs underneath it. There are many ways to keep the frontyard light, open and ‘tidy’ and yet bring at least some nature into it.

  7. Nitin December 31, 2005 at 7:08 am

    Edible Landscaping in VA is a great source for low care fruitful landscapeing

  8. Bob December 30, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Well, few cities would have laws against this, I can honestly only think of two, both of which are so snooty that the people in them wouldn’t do this anyway, but no, and I mean NO homeowners gestapo, er… association would allow it, heaven forbid, a free thinking person who wants to do what they want with their yard!

    I’ve had to (formerly as a landscape designer, the kind with a pencil and paper, not a shovel) deal with dozens of homeowners associations before, some are so strict that they tell you what you can/can’t do with even your BACKyard, one was just shy of a cult, stating what color you can paint the inside of your house and how you can arrange your furniture.

    But I agree with you Scott on point 1 and VERY much so on point 2, no one wants an ugly front yard, lawn or not, but no one wants to WORK on them either, you wouldn’t believe the number of homes I’ve installed low/no maintenance lawn at, mow once a month, water lightly every week, sure they die back every winter, but no one has to mow them.

    Retaining walls, especially interlocking blocks, black weed mesh, and peagravel walkways, go for a terraced look, looks modern and clean and allows you to plant in “layers”
    I’ve done it a lot with flower gardens, this isn’t much of a change.

  9. Scott Messinger December 19, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    Interesting idea, but obviously not presented in a way to convert many suburbians. It’s not attractive and it’s maintenance intensive.

    If you really want this idea to take off, I suggest the following:

    1. make use of attractive landscaping materials. Use landscaping timbers or retaining walls to create an orderly appearance. Avoid the use of chicken wire. Make the yard look like a regular yard with lots of plants, rather than an overgrown lot. Remember, this is a FRONT yard. Appearances are not everything, but they do matter to most people.

    2. Emphasize gardening techniques that require little maintenance. Few people will give up their lawn for something that requires more work, even if it helps the environment and gives them fresh vegatables.

    3. Provide ideas about how to work within city and home owner’s association laws.

  10. man with kids December 19, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    I love this idea, but where do my kids run and play?

  11. metro dweller December 18, 2005 at 9:48 pm

    What about laws against such? In metro Kansas City, an earlier version of “alternative front yard”, not mowing, rank weeds, native plants, returning woodland, finally was deemed an “Urban
    Wilderness Area”, through 12 years court battles with city.

    It’s not edible, but beautiful, clean and natural.

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