This year, I'm back to work on healing the land, one square foot at a time. After I bought my house over a decade ago, and before I had a child, I created and maintained an ambitious food garden in my back yard. That practice was satisfying, productive, and educational. It fulfilled my desires to grow organic food, carry on beloved family traditions, and reduce the size of my suburban turf lawn. I'm one of those people who feel that domestic lawns (unless you are actually using them for activities like touch football or something) are obsolete relics of a time when most people weren't aware or didn't care about their impacts on the natural world, including whether they were poisoning their own air, water, and soil.
I have enthusiastically joined the movement toward replacing lawns with more beautiful, functional, and healthy landscaping that supports and enhances all of life (human health, floral abundance, native pollinators, birds, butterflies, etc.) without requiring endless filthy, death-dealing chores. As the wife and mother of people with asthma or serious allergies triggered by air pollution, it's personally urgent for me to avoid gas-powered lawn equipment whenever possible. While I can't control what my neighbors do, I can "tend my own garden" and set a good example.
This spring, I've begun tearing up a good portion of my front lawn, which is already bordered along two sides by a little "grove" of three apple trees (whose trunks are surrounded by mostly violets and clover instead of grass that needs mowing) and decorative garden beds filled with mostly-native perennials. My back yard is no longer suitable for vegetable gardening due to the growth of large, gorgeous, shady, nut-and-fruit-bearing trees (that I want to keep, of course!). Also, when I dug my garden beds back there in the past, it was extra difficult due to the heavy clay soil thickly embedded with ancient river rocks and--weirdly enough--trash (old bricks, cinder blocks, concrete fragments, broken pots, rusty knives, corroded lighters, liquor bottles, etc.) because, according to neighborhood lore, my house was built on a filled-in gully that was used as an unofficial dumping site when my suburb was a rural area more than a half-century ago. Lovely! I've been curious about whether the earth in my front yard might be less... trashy.
The front yard certainly receives more sunshine throughout the day, and it's somewhat more protected from deer and other garden-gobbling wild animals, who make themselves at home in my back yard but don't tend to linger in front, near the noisy street. As I've begun slicing into my front yard, I've found that the topsoil looks wholesome and rich with happy earthworms, thanks in part to more than a decade of us not using pesticides or other toxic chemicals on the grass. Just underneath that layer, though, there is--a whole lot of trash. It's amazing how much trash. Seriously, my land would make a great archaeological dig one day. About a foot and a half down, I can hardly get a shovel into the earth due to all the rubble and glass bottles and gigantic sheets of half-rotted plastic. I'm half relieved and half disappointed with every trench that I dig and don't find a human skeleton.
This only makes me feel more determined, however, in my mission to clean up this land that has been trashed and abused for so long, one little square foot at a time. So far I'm not finding any electronics waste or containers that might have held hazardous materials (just food and drink containers), so I'm not too worried about growing food crops in my front yard. That said, I am playing it safe by amending the soil generously with compost and only planting crops that pose a low risk of taking up pollutants into their edible parts. I'll plant the street-facing edge with big, happy sunflowers, which are champions at cleaning toxins from soil and will also serve aesthetic and pollinator-feeding purposes. Rows of heirloom sweet corn will fill most of the bed, and its northern edge will support a row of cornstalk-climbing, locally developed Potawatomi beans (magenta and white spotted lima beans) traditionally grown in this area of Michigan by, you guessed it, Potawatomi people (who have mostly been forcibly relocated to other states, where the local seed company I bought my beans from sends a portion of their annual seed beans to tribal programs for reclaiming traditional food growing practices. In addition to the value of sending seeds to the original people who developed this crop, it is also valuable to return some of the beans to their own native soil. (It's horrible that those two actions must be taken separately, but here we are.) Plants that evolved in a particular local environment tend to grow better in their homelands, requiring less water and other resources and providing greater benefits to the flora and fauna with which they have developed symbiotic relationships over hundreds or thousands of years.
I feel like there are so many seeds of restorative justice in every shovelful of earth I'm turning over, cleaning by hand, amending with organic compost, and planting with earth-nourishing flora. And there is even more restoration in the wild areas I keep in my back yard to support my gardens--the compost pile, the stick piles, the wildly overgrown borderlands that provide habitat for snakes, toads and frogs, gnarly spiders, pest-snarfing birds, and other helpful wildlife. It is good, in a world that can be chaotic and tragic, to be a good steward of my little ark.
Already, I'm hearing a lot of questions from neighbors hollering at me from their own properties or the sidewalk across the street about what the heck I'm doing. At this stage in the process, it looks absolutely insane. And so I answer,
Breaking the lawn! Breaking the lawn!
I'm living that punk ass, bog witch style, rock-moving, sod-rolling life out in the fresh air, and you can too!
Whether or not you're interested in growing food crops, there are many ways to transform a boring, noxious lawn into an enchanting garden that requires less maintenance than a wasteland of turf in the long term. Even if you live in a fancier neighborhood with strict rules on how you must groom your property, there are ways that you can make improvements to your curb appeal, personal health, and environmental footprints by following the links in this post for a variety of alternatives to a midcentury-style Hank Hill lawn.
Power to the people! Praises to the Earth!