Anyone familiar with suburban living is surely familiar with the ritual of yard treatment companies that drive their hyper-branded pickup trucks through nice neighborhoods, tanks of chemical fertilizers sloshing in the back, as they spray down yard after yard with toxic grass food. Helpfully, they'll usually leave a guide on your door (that doubles as a legal disclaimer) instructing you that your yard is now off limits to kids and pets for 24 hours or so, you know, because of the poison. But after that it'll be fine for both to just roll around and eat it and pretend the grass naturally looks like that. If the kid gets a painful rash or something, just hose him down! Sometimes they'll even leave little signs stuck in the grass near the street to let your neighbors know who sprays your yard. And for this, you pay some silly amount so your grass is a little greener than the next guy's.
Weirdly, this is now normal, but growing some lettuce or carrots in your yard no longer is.
Well, John Robb at Resilient Communities has much better idea for our yards: farmers should make house calls!Noting that in the US there are an estimated 50,000 square miles of lawns and the landscaping industry is a $30 billion business, Robb sees a future where we put these yards to use:
Of course, since most people in the developed world don’t know how to grow food anymore and many of the methods and tools used to grow high quality food are still being developed, we are going to need to some help.
One great way to do that is to join a local foodscaping program.
This type of program is like a food subscription at a CSA. However, in this program, the farmer comes to you. He/she converts your yard into a high performance garden and teaches you how to garden it successfully.
This seems very smart to me.
Usually, it follows a familiar pattern. One neighbor decides a boring yard don't make sense compared to the potential for growing food, so he or she plants their own front yard garden. After things start to grow (or heaven forbid become a little overgrown) the neighbors complain to the city and it becomes a legal matter. Too often, the "tradition" of uniform, manicured lawns wins out and the citizen has to destroy their garden and replace the useless grass.
I think this idea of a farmer making house calls could solve some of this neighborhood tension.
Here's why: Part of what, I think, is going on when people suddenly put in a front yard garden is it is seen as rebellious or anti-social behavior, like painting your house an unusual color, in the sense that it is being intentionally "different." When one yard is growing food and the rest are traditional lawns, I could see how it could make people feel like this was non-verbally saying, "oh, you just have stupid grass, while I have a productive garden." It creates resentment. When everyone has the same kind of yard, people feel normal.
Which is why I think making front yard gardens a thing you can hire someone to do could be a real solution to this problem. First, services like this would expand access to gardens for all, which is great. They would help people that have a hectic life and don't have time to garden or just don't know how to get started. Secondly, by making it a business and not just an issue of which neighbors are ambitious or not, it creates the potential for food production to become a status symbol, in other words, like the artificially green lawn already is.
When you think about it, that's what is really driving all the hyper branded fertilizer trucks and the signage and the whole ritual. It is a way to show your status.
A hyper green yard is telling the world: "See, neighbors, even during this drought I have an artificially green yard! This big expensive truck is parked here spraying my yard because of my money! This sign he left there shows he was here! This greenness of the grass represents my wealth, like the bills in my wallet!"
And to complete the cycle, the landscaping or fertilizer companies will often leave ads on the doors of the neighbors telling them that they too could have what he has. "Want to compete with Bob next door? We'll hook you up, too. You're as good as him, right? Prove it by calling us!"
It's crazy wasteful, but this social pressure is what leads to many or all of the yards in a nice neighborhood getting house calls by the toxic chemical fertilizer companies.
So, maybe businesses that create a beautiful garden for you and farmers doing house calls could be a more sustainable and useful way to put all this crazy neighborly competition into a productive direction. Rather than competing for the greenest lawn, you could see who could grow the best crop. It seems promising!
Thankfully, this model already exists, but it needs to grow! Back in 2010, Jaymi wrote about Farmyard, which is an Arizona company started by two sisters that does just what I was envisioning above. You can pay them to come in and convert a portion or all of your yard to food production. Then they come by once a month to help you maintain things.
This business model also sets a standard for aesthetics and maintenance, which could be helpful in getting neighbors to see the gardens as orderly projects run by professionals, instead of overgrown chaos that may hurt property values. Wild and free gardens can work fine, but I can see how they could annoy neighbors. Farmers and gardeners making housecalls to tend nice looking gardens could be a good middle ground to help transition us away from lawns.
Robb concludes his post by saying maybe in 10 years we'll be spending more money on foodscaping than landscaping. I hope he's right. Lawns are one of the least sustainable habits we've formed as a society, so like anything unsustainable it can't last forever. Growing food right outside your door makes much more sense, so I hope it takes off. Read the rest at Resilient Communities.
UPDATE: Loren Foster from The Local Gardener Ohio wrote to tell me that farmers DO make house calls. If you're in Ohio and want someone to help you install a gardener, check out their site!