Lawns in the U.S. cover more than 50,000 square miles of soil and consume more chemicals than all those used in U.S. food related agriculture combined. Maintaining lawns involves mowing, watering, and often fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, that contribute to the watershed pollution.
Lawns in the U.S. also consume approximately 270 billion gallons of water a week — enough to water 81 million acres of organic vegetables- and all of this water is expensive.
In water scarce areas, like southern California and Las Vegas, municipalities have in the past offered rebates to residents who replace their water guzzling lawns with drought resistant landscapes. To help people kick their lawn addiction, Larry Santoyo, has been helping homeowners convert their lawns into gardens. Larry started this project, which he calls “Swan Song for the Lawn,” more than two decades ago in 1986. These Swan Song projects, where the lawn makes a final appearance before it is transformed into an edible or native plant garden, are organized by Larry’s Permaculture firm, Earthflow, at no cost to the homeowner.
Larry converts lawns into edible gardens to solve multiple problems
Larry was motivated by the resources that were lost on lawns. For most homeowners, after the kids were old enough to stop playing on their lawns, no one in the household really used the lawn anymore and it was just a green visual.
Larry was also troubled by how dependent we are as a society on a few big farmers for most of our produce and he is worried about our food security. He worked to ameliorate both of these problems with the Swan Song program, by having people replace their lawns with edible gardens.
How is the program free for homeowners?
Larry provides the service free to homeowners, with the only catch that the homeowner must agree to grow organically, help organize an educational workshop around the lawn transformation and, when the time comes, give away surplus produce from the garden. He wanted the homeowners to be able to demonstrate to their neighbors that they could grow a good portion of their food and even have surplus.
Larry’s company, Earthflow, designs the garden design and organizes volunteers around a workshop to help the homeowner build a food garden. He is able to provide this at no cost, because the labor is performed by volunteers and by students in Larry’s permaculture course, who use these projects as hands-on experience. The Swan Song workshops also serve as job training, as some of the students are training to become edible garden landscapers as opposed to traditional gardeners or landscape designers.
Santoyo's Work at the Muse School
I decided to check out one of Larry’s workshop today at Suzy Amis Cameron’s Muse School in southern California. Larry has been working with the Camerons and his company has managed all of the permaculture at the Muse School.
What started as a lawn that had been allowed to die out, was, over the course of a day converted by using cardboard, chicken wire (to prevent gophers), mulch and soil, into an emerging garden with fractal circular beds made out of concrete from broken pieces of sidewalks, planted with strawberries and thyme, and more plantings were to occur the next day. The garden will be tended by schoolchildren from the Muse School, which has a mission of sustainability and interconnectedness, the kids will also use the gardens as educational classrooms.
If you don’t have a lawn to convert, you can still help by donating materials, plants, money or your time and tools to the program. Larry doesn’t have any business cards and doesn’t really market his service, but you can find more information on his website.
In addition to getting down and dirty, and learning the basics of permaculture, Larry also teaches classes on sustainable living and community economics. He is based in LA but also teaches courses in Haiti, Mexico, Ecuador, Hawaii and Detroit!