>But come next year, we’re gonna be the coolest cats on the street!
I don’t keep a tidy lawn. It was fine this spring, when we had some good rain and grass was exploding from the soil, but in a couple week span in early July it dried out and turned yellow . . . and that is how it has remained. I decided that mowing and watering my lawn is a waste of time and energy. Most of my neighbors obviously think differently because we live on Anystreet, USA, where just about every lawn spends the summer nursed along under a sprinkler just to get tall enough to be whacked back in line under the blade of a lawnmower. I’m not willing to do that anymore. The pollution I produce driving my car to Billings is about equal to that produced running a gas-powered lawnmower for one hour. That’s a sobering thought. With a food crisis (supposedly) upon us, it is also sobering to consider that grass is our #1 crop in the USA, and that more pesticides are for private lawn care than in our huge factory farms. Finally, the average homeowner spends 40 hours a year gripping the handle of their lawnmower. I have better uses for my time than that!
So we decided to turn our lawn into a farm.
In all honesty, we are a year behind on all this stuff, as we planned to start last spring. Frankly, we got so busy doing other things that time got away from us. It’s no excuse, but with any big project there is a lot of talk before that talk becomes action, and we finally reached that point. I credit two books – The Urban Homestead – Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knudzen, and Edible Estates – Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg – for being the catalysts that really made me take all the ideas I’d been kicking around and put them into play.
A Little Background
My wife, Julia, and I decided several years ago that ultimately we wanted to devote our short term lives to downsizing. Downsizing everything – expenses (and therefore income), our house, our footprint, you name it – in order to improve our lives long term. It can be difficult, but every day we are trying to keep our eyes toward the Big Picture. That picture is really quite simple; reduce expenses so that a large income is no longer necessary and we should be able to spend more time on the things we love. We are cultivating the things we enjoy so that maybe we can make a large portion of our living from them – with our music, Julia’s dancing and clothing design, my writing, etc. Montana, Missoula in particular, seems a great place to achieve this, with a growing community of people who share our ideas. So in 3-5 years, once my son is out of high school, we plan to sell the place we are in and get a much smaller house. Or, ideally, a lot (preferably in town) where we can build our own little strawbale house. Julia built a 1000 square foot strawbale house in Tucson before she moved up here (she claims we did it together, though beyond some long weekends here and there I wasn’t around for the entire project). That experience proved that it is something we are capable of doing, and that strawbale is really a great way to build. It is a project we are looking forward to with a lot of excitement. Not only to build our home, but to improve on the skills necessary to pull it off. Because, worse case scenario, when oil runs out and the world economy collapses, we plan to be in a pretty good position to make a go of it.
The Current Situation
A critical component of our future homestead, and its accompanying goal for a measure of self sufficiency, is gardening, and that is something we are expanding with our current home (if a year behind). Right now, besides flowers in pots and random green and pretty things here and there, our garden consists of two water troughs we got from my folks, filled with dirt, and planted as raised beds. One is for herbs, and one is growing some tomatoes and peppers. We’ll harvest the apple trees this fall as well; that will include a foray into canning, which should be interesting. It’s better than nothing, and fun, but we intend to expand significantly.
We are basically starting with the front; our large backyard is the domain of the dogs, and they are destructive little ne’er do wells. The back will get some attention, but as part of phase two. I envision some hardy native grasses, some raised beds with tough plants in them, and maybe a couple beds of food plants protected by stout walls and wire (the main perpetrators of mayhem back there are a trio of jack russells, so the beds only need be raised so high).
In the front, we have a patch of lawn beneath a willow tree that gets pretty scorched by the sun, and buried with leaves every fall. When the leaves of the willow hit the ground this year, there will be no raking. They will provide a nice, thick layer of mulch that I fully intend to have kill the grass. Come spring, we’ll add some local, drought-resistant plants and groundcover, and maybe even some containers that can be moved around with the sun. The spaces in between will be carpeted with bark or cedar shavings, and the smell – which I love – will waft through the window of my home office that faces this patch all day, every day. If I close my eyes I can imagine that scent already!
We have a long side yard that runs the length of our house to the east. Half of it gets a fair amount of shade in the afternoon so the grass does okay. The rest is scorched, and right now it is a bloody battleground where war is being waged against knapweed. In this space I have already built two 4’ x 8’ frames that will be filled with soil to serve as raised beds. There is room for more, and we will probably add at least 3, if not 4, more frames between now and the first snows. There is also a metal container that contains four tomato plants, just planted a couple weeks ago. Our neighbor across the street saw the beds, asked if we were making a garden, and gave us some plants. Ah, the community of gardeners! I know she won’t need it, but I intend to gift her with the first fruit of these beauties.
There is a sumac tree in the side yard, and a couple in the back, but I confess we have decided to take them out. They cast some shade, but the runners they send up all over are an annoyance, and the space would be better served with fruit trees; we have a couple varieties already picked out. Coyne and Knutzen have a rule they adhere to that basically says if you have to water it, you better be able to eat it, and I am (mostly) inclined to agree! The spot the front sumac occupies would be perfect for sunflowers; last year’s crop showed us which way they face based on how the sun moves, and if we planted there we would have some beautiful, smiling faces turned to us every time we step out the front door.
The very end of the side yard where grass grows will be given a reprieve. This section of yard is where we like to spend our evenings. It is bordered on one side by the house, which provides excellent shade by late afternoon, and the west and south sides are bordered by the 6’ cedar fence we put up last year. We are going to erect a short, probably 4’ or so, strawbale wall to separate this part of the yard from the “garden” area, if only for a private little outdoor nook for chilling out in; this is where we threw our sleeping bags on the ground a couple times already this summer on particularly sweltering nights. Another fruit tree may go in this space to shade the area for the first part of the day, and we may put some strictly ornamental plantings here as well.
Is there a goal in the midst of all this “we’re gonna this!” and “we’re gonna that!” stuff? We certainly don’t intend to piss off our neighbors; they are all nice people, even though we tend to remember them based on the names of their dogs. It may not all look so great now, but as the project evolves I think the profusion of growth we envision will be far more beautiful than another generic patch of lawn we might half-heartedly maintain. I suppose some cynics may argue that trading lawn for garden may affect the resale value of our home when the time comes a few years from now, but I’m not too worried about that. I think we are going to have a beautiful yard; it is just going to be productive, not purely ornamental. If it were me, I would love to buy a house like that. Even so, if it means a little less money at the end of the line, so be it. I’m a musician – I’m used to compensation not being anywhere near effort!
It’s kind of ironic that I’m so energetically pursuing this now, with Lammas just past (or Lughnasadh, depending on your particular flavor of paganism), but I feel like I am harvesting the ideas I planted last winter, and it feels pretty damn good.