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Edible landscaping: Turning sod into sustenance

Consider the lawn. It’s an integral part of most Alabama landscapes, providing classic beauty and function to yards, parks and other open spaces. However, it can be a hungry element of the landscape, one that needs a steady diet of attention, water and nutrients.

Now consider this: What if that lawn area fed you instead? No, I’m not suggesting you take up grazing; I’m just suggesting you explore using the tenets of edible landscaping — the science (and art) of choosing plants that are as appetizing as they are attractive — to areas previously reserved only for turfgrass.

The idea may seem odd, but it’s certainly not new. Out of necessity and for eons, humankind has grown food crops on any available patch of land. During World Wars I and II, turning lawns into Victory Gardens wasn’t unusual, it was patriotic — even Eleanor Roosevelt had a Victory Garden installed on the White House lawn in 1943.

And I’m not bashing lawns, which have also served us well for eons. Throughout human history, grassy areas have been sources of protection (open vistas better allowed humans to spot enemies as they approached), food for livestock and sites for recreation. Grass also helps control soil erosion and it just plain looks nice, so it’s difficult to think about giving up the lawn, especially the front lawn.

Back in 2005, however, an American artist named Fritz Haeg began to challenge the need for, and prevalence of, lawns through an eco-art project he called “Edible Estates.” Linking his art and design prowess with a passion for sustainability and nod to the tradition of Victory Gardens, Haeg advocated for replacing lawns — especially front lawns — with kitchen gardens.

His premise was that kitchen gardens would provide food while also being more sustainable than lawns because they require less water and fossil fuels. Over the next eight years, he turned 15 lawns, some on private and some on public land, into food-producing spaces that were as beautiful as they were tasty.

Is it a good idea for your landscape? Possibly, especially if an open lawn area is the only suitable space in the yard to grow sun-loving food crops. Keep in mind, though, that while kitchen gardens do reduce the need for mowing and watering, they may actually require as much, if not more, labor to maintain an attractive year-round landscape. Still, if you like the idea of repurposing the time and energy spent mowing and caring for a lawn into something that produces food for the table, it may be the perfect option.

Before you rip out the lawn, however, take time to research the concept. Start by asking local garden experts about the pros and cons of replacing lawns with kitchen gardens, and read up on the details. Lots of resources are available online and in libraries. The book Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy is considered a primary go-to source on the subject and you can also check out Haeg’s projects online at www.fritzhaeg.com or in his 2008 book Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.

The next step before you proceed is to run the idea past your local municipalities, utilities and neighborhood associations. There may be rules — even ordinances — limiting or prohibiting kitchen gardens, especially in front yards or more visible areas, and you don’t want to damage in-ground gas, power or communication lines when you dig.

Intrigued but still not sure if you’re ready to rip out the lawn? Test the concept by using edible plants in existing flower beds or in containers. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, herbs, culinary flowers and the like can be as ornamental as they are tasty and may be a great first step, or the only step you decided to take, toward an edible landscape.

And be open to sharing the process — and some produce — with your neighbors. It can be a teachable moment and who knows, you may soon have everyone eating off their lawns!

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.