Go for an 'Edible Estate': The Case Against Lawns

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn from Metropolis Books.

The front lawn is so deeply embedded in our national psyche that we don't really see it any more, at least for what it actually is. What is that chasm between house and street? Why is it there? Or rather, why is nothing there?

I grew up surrounded by a lawn. This is a common American phenomenon. Perhaps the first growing thing most of us experience as a child is, indeed, a mowed grassy surface. How are a child's ideas of "the natural" affected by this? Of course, there is nothing remotely natural about a lawn. It is an industrial landscape disguised as organic plant material.

As a teenager I passed many weekend afternoons mowing the lawn and I loved it. The more overgrown the lawn, the greater the sense of satisfaction as you roar over it to reveal that crisp trimmed surface and fresh grassy smell. I suppose most of my outdoor time as a youth was spent on a lawn. It is the first defensive ring between the family unit and everything beyond. It is the border control that physically and psychologically keeps wilderness, city, and strangers at a safe distance.

The English Estate

The lawn has its roots in England and is the foundation for any proper English landscape. In spite of the unnatural repression of all other plants, a lawn of mowed grass makes some sense in England, with its regular rainfall and cool climate. Animals grazed, lawn games were played, and the wilderness had been civilized and kept at bay with the crisp line where the grass ended. The front lawn was born of vanity and decadence, under the assumption that fertile land was infinite.

The English estate owner in Tudor times would demonstrate his vast wealth by not growing food on the highly visible fecund property in front of his residence. Instead this vast swath of land would become a stage of ornamental green upon which he could present his immense pile of a house. Look at how rich I am!

Similarly, the plumage of the male peacock advertises well-being and virility, and when he fans his feathers, he shows he can spare the enormous energy necessary to put on such a phenomenal display. The better the display, the healthier the peacock, and the more likely he is to attract a mate. In the case of the English estate owner, the expanse of green signals financial health and power.

This obsession with the lawn is, I believe, almost entirely a male phenomenon. It is an enticing and toxic stew of male seduction, aggression, and domination. Whether intended to attract a mate, demonstrate wealth, impress his friends, or control every bit nature that surrounds him, the lawn is covered with the fingerprints of masculine tendencies.

Once that fertile farmland in front of the English estate had been turned into a sterile monoculture, where did the cultivation of food happen? Out of view, of course, hidden in a remote section of the property where visitors and the lord of the estate would never see it. This was perhaps the beginning of the notion that plants that produce food are ugly and should not be seen. Today the idea has played itself out at an industrial global scale, with our produce grown on the other side of the planet. The only landscape worthy of the public eye is made of ornamentals, trimmed within an inch of their lives, inhospitable to other creatures, always the same and never changing with the seasons.

The Birth of the American Dream

Even if you have never seen Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in the hills of Virginia, you know it well. It is still the de facto prototype for the American home. You may recognize its prominent features in many contemporary housing developments: the Palladian windows, the white-columned portico, the red brick facade, and the vast green lawn that dominates the landscape around it. Jefferson's house is very much in the tradition of the English estate.

Master of all it surveys, wilderness at bay, anchored on the lawn, the illusion of absolute independence-this is still the model for most Americans' real-estate fantasies. Jefferson had a well-documented love affair with his kitchen garden, which was really more like a small domestic farm. He kept a detailed diary of its growth and evolution through the seasons and years. He lavished upon it devoted attention and care. It seems to have been one of the great passions of his life. And yet, where did he locate it?

The house is clearly the focus of the site, on top of the hill and the center of all power. But his beloved garden is hidden from view, to the side and slightly down the hill. The lawn and flowerbeds are laid out in soft decorative curves, a pleasing complement to the house and obviously meant for pleasure. The hidden productive garden, however, is terraced on a long straight bed, divided into a grid, crops arrayed neatly in rows. With that binary division between sterile ornamental pleasure and pragmatic secluded production, Jefferson reinforced an attitude toward our national landscape that we are still living with today. Roll out the lawn and hide the crops!

Given Monticello's early influence, how would American neighborhoods look today if Jefferson had decided to plant his food in front of his house instead? The world wars left many farms across the United States short-handed. The federal government embarked on a campaign to encourage Americans to do their part by growing food on their own property. First called war gardens and later victory gardens, they quickly became popular across the country.

By the end of World War II, over 80 percent of American households were growing some of their own food. Within months after Victory Day this activity quickly subsided. With its demise went the widespread knowledge among most Americans of how to grow their own food. In Schrebergärten in Germany today we see some evidence of what a neighborhood of victory gardens might have looked like. These community gardens were first developed as a social program in nineteenth-century Berlin.

Residents were allotted plots in green belts at the periphery of the city, giving them the opportunity to seek respite from the confines of their urban lives by traveling a short distance to work in a food and flower garden. On each plot they would construct a small cottage, and many relocated to these tiny shelters after the city was bombed during World War II. Visiting these gardens, which can still be found throughout Germany, is like stepping into either some agrarian past or a utopian future.

Each yard is a diverse and abundant display of food growing. Most of the gardens are meticulously groomed and maintained to such an extent that it becomes clear this is not just about sustenance; they are also meant to be delightful pleasure gardens. In this otherworldly neighborhood of gardens, modest human quarters are subservient to the land that feeds the residents.

Back in the United States, the introduction of the leisure weekend, the abundance of fresh water, the production of industrial pesticides, the availability of the lawn mower and cheap gas, and the rise of home ownership with the explosion of new suburban housing developments in the 1940s and '50s all set the stage for the unfurling of the great American lawn as we know it today. Its puritanical aspects seem suited to the Eisenhower years of good manners. Is there a connection between landscape and hairstyles? Trimmed grass and crew cuts seem like obvious companions. Nature is not something you surrender to; rather, if you use enough industrial force, you can bend it to your will. This premise and the assumption that land and natural resources were in infinite supply are in part what gave us today's lawned landscape.

Hindsight and Foresight

It's easy to be the Monday morning quarterback when we evaluate what previous generations have handed down to us. Coming out of a depression and two world wars, our elders had every right to celebrate the comforts and conveniences of industrial progress. Its hidden long-term costs and a blind faith in its capacity to solve any problem created a sense that things could only get better.

This is an optimism we have lost for the moment, as we are coming to terms with the limits of our resources and land. Now that we know more about what constitutes a healthy life for future generations, it's time for some questions. Before we spread out farther, how do we want to occupy the space we have already claimed? Why do we dedicate so much property to a space that has so minor a function and requires many precious resources and endless hours to maintain, while contaminating our air and water?

The American front lawn is now almost entirely symbolic. Aristocratic English spectacle and drama has degenerated into a bland garnish for our endless suburban sprawl and alienation. The monoculture of one plant species covering our neighborhoods from coast to coast celebrates puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity. An occasional lawn for recreation can be a delight, but most of them are occupied only when they are being tended.

Today's lawn has become the default surface for any defensible private space. If you don't know what to put there, plant grass seed and keep watering. Driving around most neighborhoods you will see lush beds of grass being tended on narrow unused strips of land. In the United States we plant more grass than any other crop: currently lawns cover more than thirty million acres. Given the way we lavish precious resources on it and put it everywhere that humans go, aliens landing in any American city today would assume that grass must be the most precious earthly substance of all.

Yet the lawn devours resources while it pollutes. It is maniacally groomed with mowers and trimmers powered by the two-stroke motors that are 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 the lawn is drugged with pesticides and herbicides, which are then washed into our water supply with sprinklers and hoses, dumping our increasingly rare fresh drinking resource down the gutter.

Meanwhile, at the grocery store we confront our food. Engineered fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam are cultivated not for taste but for appearance, uniformity, and ease of transport, then sprayed with chemicals to inhibit the diseases and pests that thrive in an unbalanced ecosystem. The produce in the average American dinner is trucked 1,500 miles to reach our plates. We don't know where our fruits and vegetables came from or who grew them. Perhaps we have even forgotten that plants were responsible for the mass-produced meal we are consuming. This detachment from the source of our food breeds a careless attitude toward our role as custodians of the land that feeds us. Perhaps we would reconsider what we put down the drain, on the ground, and in the air if there was more direct evidence that we will ultimately ingest it. The garden began behind walls, a truce, a compromise, between human need and natural resource.

In most languages the word "garden" derives from the root "enclosure." The garden walls protected human cultivation from the wild threats in the untamed expanses. Now that a wilderness unaffected by human intervention no longer exists, the garden walls have fallen. The enclosed, cultivated space protected behind the house is no longer a worthwhile model. The entire street must be viewed as a garden, and by extension the entire city we are tending, and beyond. We have intervened on all levels of environmental function, and with no walls remaining we have taken on the role of planetary gardener by default.

Edible Estates

The Edible Estates project proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape. Food grown in our front yards will connect us to the seasons, the organic cycles of the earth, and our neighbors. The banal lifeless space of uniform grass in front of the house will be replaced with the chaotic abundance of biodiversity. In becoming gardeners we will reconsider our connection to the land, what we take from it, and what we put in it. Each yard will be a unique expression of its location and of the inhabitant and his or her desires.

Our Planet

Most of us feel like we don't any have any control over the direction in which our world is headed. As always, the newspapers are full of daily evidence for concern. Unlike the challenges of past generations, however, these struggles are no longer just localized or broadly regional; they are an interlaced web of planetary challenges. How, then, do we respond in the face of the impossible scale of issues such as global energy production, climate change, and the related political aggressions and instabilities that accompany them? One thing we can do is act where we have influence, and in a capitalist society, that would be our private property. Here we have the freedom to create in some small measure the world in which we want to live.

Our Climate

We grow a lawn the same way anywhere in the world, but when we grow our own food we have to start paying attention to where we are. We experience our weather and climate in a personal way: they have a direct impact on us. The subtleties of sun, wind, air, and rain are meaningful.

Our Government

A functioning democracy is predicated upon an informed populace of citizens who are in touch with each other. A democratic society suffers when people are physically out of touch. An Edible Estate can serve to stitch communities back together, taking a space that was previously isolating and turn it into a welcoming forum that re-engages people with one another.

Our City

There was a time when the effect of a town on the land around it was clearly in evidence within a radius of a few miles. For the most part the town depended on the materials, food, trades, and other resources that were available in the immediate region. The detritus of that consumption would stay within that same sphere of influence. Today the entire story of the impact of any city has become invisible because it is global. Cheap factory labor, foreign oil, circuitous water distribution systems, industrialized agriculture, and remote landfills all contribute to a general ignorance of the effects that daily human life has on the planet. What happens when you graft agriculture onto a city? The more we keep ourselves in touch with the byproducts of our daily lives, the more we are reminded of how it is all connected. Edible Estates puts that evidence back in our cities and streets, back in our face.

Our Street

Edible Estate gardens are meant to serve as provocations on the street. What happens when we share a street with one of these gardens? The front-yard gardeners become street performers for us. Coming out the door to tend their crops they enact a daily ritual for the neighbors. We get to know them better than those who have lawns. We talk to them about how their crops are doing. They often can't eat everything they are growing, so they offer us the latest harvest of tomatoes or zucchini. We go out of our way to walk past the garden to see what is going on. Just the act of watching a garden grow can have a profound effect. When we observe as seeds sprout, plants mature, and fruit is produced, we can't help but be drawn in. We become witnesses, and are now complicit and a part of the story.

Our Neighbors

What happens when an Edible Estate garden is not welcomed by the neighbors? Why do some people feel threatened by it? Anarchy, rodents, plummeting property values, willful self-expression, wild untamed nature, ugly decaying plants, and winter dormancy are some of the reasons that have been given. More to the point is a general sense that Edible Estate gardeners have broken some unspoken law of decency.

Public tastes still favor conformity when it comes to the front yard, and any sort of deviation from the norm signals a social, if not moral, lapse. The abrupt appearance of such a garden on a street of endless lawns can be surprisingly shocking, but after the neighbors watch it grow in, they often come around. Perhaps the threats evoked by this wild intrusion into the neighborhood will eventually be a catalyst for questions. How far have we come from our the core of our humanity that the act of growing our own food might be considered impolite, unseemly, threatening, radical, or even hostile?

Our House

Private property and in particular the home has become the geographic focus of our society. When we take stock of the standard American single-family residence, it becomes quite clear where the priorities are. It is within the walls of the house that the real investment and life of the residents occur. The land outside the walls typically receives much less attention, and can even become downright unwelcoming. Any activity in the yard will typically happen in back, where there is privacy. We are obsessed with our homes as protective bubbles from the realities around us. Today's towns and cities are engineered for isolation, and growing food in your front yard becomes a way to subvert this tendency. The front lawn, a highly visible slice of private property, has the capacity to also be public. If we want to reintroduce a vital public realm into our communities, those with land and homes may ask what part of their private domain has public potential.

Our Dirt

Just the act of spending an extended period of time outside with our hands in the dirt is a profoundly deviant act today! There is no rational or practical reason to do it. We can get anything we need at the store, right? The mortgage company refers to the physical house we live in as one of the "improvements" to the property. Pretty landscaping may be considered another improvement. But as far as the bank is concerned, the actual fertility and health of the dirt in our front yards has no economic value. Wouldn't it be great if a chemically contaminated lawn made a property impossible to sell, while organic gardening and thirty years of composting would dramatically increase our property values? Alas, today you can chart the exact economic stratum of any residential street based exclusively on the state of its chemically dependent front lawns.

Our Food

In the process of making the Edible Estate gardens I have encountered some interesting reactions from people on the street. Some actually find it strange and a bit unseemly to ingest something that has grown in your yard. Yet most of us don't think twice before eating something grown under the most mysterious of circumstances on the other side of the world.

What you don't know can't hurt you; out of sight out of mind. The act of eating is the moment in which we are most intimately connected to the world around us. We ingest into our bodies earthly matter that grew out of organic and environmental cycles happening all the time. We are all at the receiving end of dung and corpses decomposing, rainfall and evaporation, solar radiation, and so forth. What happens when the source of our food is far away and hidden from us? In moving food great distances, we pollute and expend precious energy, but perhaps more important, we lose visible evidence of our humble place in the big food chain.

Our Time

It is easy to romanticize gardening and food production when your life does not depend on what you are able to grow. An Edible Estate can be a lot of work! A lower-maintenance garden might be full of fruit trees and perennials well suited to your climate, but a more ambitious front yard might be full of annual vegetables and herbs that are rotated every season. Either way it demands a certain amount of dedication and time.

Do we have enough time to grow our own food? Perhaps a better question is: How do we want to spend the little time that we do have? How about being outside with our family and friends, in touch with our neighbors, while watching with satisfaction as the plants we are tending begin to produce the healthiest local food to be found? It may be harder to defend the time we spend sitting in our cars or watching television. But for those who just can't be bothered, what if all the front lawns on an entire street were turned over to urban farming teams? Each street would be lined in a series of diverse crops. The farmers would sell the produce, and give what was left over to the families whose yards they tend. When buying a house, depending on your taste, you could decide if you wanted to live on artichoke avenue or citrus circle or radish road.

Our Modest Monument

Edible Estates has no conventionally monumental intentions; it is a relatively small and modest intervention on our streets. The gardens are just beginning when they are planted and they continue to evolve. With just one season of neglect some gardens may disappear entirely. Politicians, architects, developers, urban citizens, we all crave permanent monuments that will give a sense of place and survive as a lasting testament to ourselves and our time. We were here! These monuments have their place, but their capacity to bring about meaningful change in the way we live is quite limited. A small garden of very modest means, humble materials, and a little effort can have a radical effect on the life of a family, how they spend their time and relate to their environment, whom they see, and how they eat. This singular local response to global issues can become a model. It can be enacted by anyone in the world and can have a monumental impact.

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