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Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

How to Turn Your Lawn into a Food Forest

Demanding Lawns

There she is, needy, lush and green. Each weekend demanding that you pay attention to her, lest she grow wild. For those of you in drier areas, perhaps the city has limited water and she just lies there now dry, brittle and useless. Either way our lawns control us. Saturdays that could be spent harvesting berries and fresh greens are instead consumed in the toil of pushing a machine. Unless you are an avid yogi, baseball player or picnicker, lawns are a bit passé. And yet, we as a nation spend over $26 billion per year on lawns. How might we redesign our spaces to create edible abundance?

Not only are our lawns expensive and time consuming, they also are insatiably thirsty. According to the Los Angeles Municipal Water District, the average lawn requires the equivalent of 84 inches of rain per year. For much of the nation, that exceeds what nature brings. In drier areas such as California, where I reside, that disparity is striking. Dry brown hills surround green oases of lawns in the urban areas. The average Californian uses up to 130 gallons of water per day, of which half goes to the garden outside. If you are ready to transform your lawn and your outdoor living space, read on.

Step 1: Lawn Removal

The first step is to properly remove the unwanted lawn. Many permaculturalists claim that one can simply lay cardboard and mulch on top of an existing lawn and that this will eventually smother it. However, in my experience installing over fifty gardens, it is best to be thorough when breaking with a stubborn lawn.

Start by removing the grass the old-fashioned way, pick and shovel. Dig down 8-10 inches will to loosen a row of grass tops; first by picking and second by prying with the shovel. Then come back through and beat the grass loose of the dirt to retain as much top soil as possible.

Move on to the next row until you have separated the grass material from the soil. The grass can then be fed to the chickens who will enjoy the treat. Do not add this grass to your compost. This process is extremely laborious and I recommend hosting a garden work party. All who help will learn hands on experience and create good will with friends.As an incentive, rotate on consecutive Saturdays to others yards to help transform multiple gardens. This can be the new version of a barn raising.

After the lawn has been dug out, go back through and rake the soil back to level. Take care to go over any edges a second time as root sprouts near the edges of the planting area are likely to creep through the mulch layer and cause problems if not dealt with before hand.

Landscaping Suburban Driveway 

Step 2: Earth Works and Cardboarding

If your lawn happens to be on any sort of slope, now is your opportunity to create on-contour “swales” that will catch and hold rain long enough for the to be edibles to soak up. (Note: my next blog will be on “swales and earthworks” at the end of June.)

If no slope is involved the next step will be to lay cardboard. Cardboard serves several purposes in installing a new food forest.  It reduces weeds and retains moisture. As an area that was just a healthy lawn the possibility for lawn to resprout is probable. The cardboard helps to reduce weed penetration by up to 90 per cent.  I like to collect the large cardboard from appliance and bicycle stores, as the larger sizes are easy to install and readily available.

Before installing the cardboard, broadcast ½-inch of compost on top of the bare soil. Use ½-inch metal irrigation stakes to secure the four corners of each cardboard as you “Tile in” the whole area to be planted.

Step 3: Planting Your Food Forest

What is a food forest?  There are several ways in which a food forest differs from a conventional orchard. A food forest involves a diversity of crops. If your goal is to have a large, uniform apple harvest for example, then one type would suffice.

However, if your goal is to have home grown apples for as much of the season as possible, the harvest can be extended by planting several varieties, each with their own harvest time. A food forest has multiple layers which are able to coexist. Rather than have just the main fruit tree crop, a food forest is designed to have an upper story (large fruit trees), and secondary upper-story (dwarf fruit trees) a shrub layer (berry bushes) an herb layer (leafy greens and veggies) and a ground cover layer (strawberries and low herbs). In this way, one creates a dynamic polyculture that has diverse crops in production. This makes sense if our intention is to grow for our own community.

A food forest also plants the fringes. The gaps between production plants are great areas for nitrogen fixing beans and peas. These plants feed the soil and create a living mulch. The marginal areas can be planted in flowers and pollinator attracting native plants, serving as magnates that attract beneficial insects into the garden.

Arrange your largest fruit trees into your new space. These get planted first and will act as the structure of the lower areas. Cut a circle out for each tree through the cardboard and dig your holes, amending each hole with compost. Next plant your shrubs in the same manner. Each fruit tree basin can be then planted with annuals such as squash, arugula and carrots.

Sustainable Suburban Landscaping 

Step 4: Irrigate and Mulch

After planting, run drip irrigation throughout the planting.  Drip irrigation saves water as it targets direct to each plant. Finally, mulch with wood chips 4 inches on top and around the entire area that was recently a lawn. Be sure to not pile mulch up around the trunk of each tree.

This design approach works whether you live in Alpine, Mediterranean, Desert or Tropics. Choose plants that work in your bioregion and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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