Turn Your Urban Lawn into a Garden

Transform unproductive sod into an abundant garden that will nourish your family on less water than a lawn.

article image
by Bix Firer
In the Treasure Valley, conventional wisdom holds that you can plant when snow is gone from Shafer Butte.

The sagebrush sea surrounding Boise looks much the same as it did in the early 19th century, when a band of travel-weary French fur trappers laid eyes on the comparably lush, tree-lined river valley. “Les bois !” they supposedly shouted, delighted to see shade. “The woods!”

This incident, immortalized by Washington Irving, is almost certainly apocryphal. But it’s easy to see how he came up with the idea. The adjacent country is a drab, sun-baked brown for most of the year, and approaching Boise on I-84 from either direction feels like being offered a cool glass of water on a scorching summer afternoon.

With 235,000 residents (and growing), present-day Boise is far from a cow town. But it wasn’t always that way. When gold was discovered in 1862, someone had to feed all those hungry miners. By 1877, engineer Arthur Foote had drawn up plans to divert the Boise River to irrigate the land south and west of Boise. The New York Canal was completed in 1909. Today, its system of lateral canals delivers water to 165,000 acres of farmland in the Treasure Valley, including my yard on the Boise Bench. My 736-square-foot house was built in 1946, just as J.R. Simplot’s potato-dehydration operation was beginning to make Idaho’s potatoes famous. For my husband and me, the 0.3-acre lot was the real selling point.

When we bought the property, most of the lot was carpeted in uniform, emerald-green grass. The previous owner was apparently fanatical about maintaining his lawn, which would’ve fit in better at the country club than next to our tiny, blue house, whose three layers of shingles are covered in spongy moss. A tree stood at each end of the lot, but not a single shrub or bush – just grass. I didn’t see a bee for three weeks after we moved in.

When we began ripping out sod, a few neighbors gave us sideways glances. As the summer wore on, the sod pile composting behind our shed grew. What remained of the lawn slowly turned brown, eventually succumbing altogether in the throes of an August heat wave. One week, another neighbor who shares the canal water – her turn is after mine on Thursdays – suggested that I could keep the water as long as I liked, since my lawn looked thirsty.

I gave her a bland smile and turned the water over to my raised beds, lawn be damned. Thanks to a bird feeder, a bee house, native shrubs, and a vegetable garden free of pesticides, I was soon spending my afternoons in the garden with all manner of songbirds, earthworms, and pollinating insects.

This was a significant departure from my upbringing in Arvada, Colorado, where my parents’ suburban neighbors maintain perfectly manicured lawns year-round. When I was growing up in the ’90s, everyone I knew had a lawn, and it was seemingly always a drought. It didn’t occur to me until much later that there might be a connection between the two.

A lawn requires a lot of water. It takes over three-fifths of a gallon to give a single square foot of lawn an inch of water, which means a 100-by-100-square-foot lawn consumes more than 6,000 gallons each watering. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that outdoor water use accounts for more than 30% of Americans’ total household use. In arid regions, that number jumps as high as 60 percent.

Curious how much water I’d be saving by letting my lawn die, I took an online quiz to calculate my water footprint. It included the standard questions: Were we taking long showers? Did we have low-flow faucets? Did we “let it mellow”? (No; yes; of course – we’re hippies.)

I answered according to my household’s habits, including watering between 100 and 500 square feet of outdoor space (our 150 square feet of garden beds) each day in summer. The calculator indicated that my household uses an estimated 2,747 gallons per day. This includes our “virtual” consumption; the water required to produce the fuel my husband uses on his commute to rural Caldwell, for example.

Then, I retook the quiz, answering the same way for everything but the lawn, which, when we moved in, occupied around 2,000 square feet. If we watered it every day in summer, our household water use would jump to 3,415 gallons per day. Even if we limited watering to three times a week, we’d be using an average of 2,985 gallons each day. For comparison, in its lifetime, a tomato plant that yields 20 pounds of fruit consumes around 140 gallons of water.

I’ll take the tomatoes over the lawn, in part because I believe there’s nothing better than a garden-fresh tomato (particularly compared with the sad, mealy iteration in the average supermarket in midwinter). Tomatoes are a cornerstone of our garden – I need enough, and in the right varieties, to ensure I can pluck them off the vine all summer and still have plenty to can for the tomato-meager winter months. Last summer, my favorite bed in the garden was home to ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘San Marzano,’ ‘Sweetheart’ cherry, and ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes.
My tomatoes’ success is somewhat variable. The delicate heirloom cultivars that make my mouth water don’t always do so well in our high desert climate. I’ll gamble with them each season, because one perfect ‘Cherokee Purple’ is worth it. Everything else in the garden requires some research (and trial and error).

Boise is thoroughly arid; average annual rainfall is just over 11 inches. We get long stretches of triple-digit temperatures. The growing season is relatively short: Conventional wisdom holds that you can put seeds and starts in the ground when the last traces of snow have disappeared from Shafer Butte, usually in May. By September, nighttime temperatures have begun their slow march toward freezing. If we want to eat well in summer and put up some crops for winter, we need hardy, heat-tolerant plants that mature quickly.

We grow what we cook with most: root vegetables, summer and winter squash, leafy greens, onions, garlic, herbs. Consultations with the Farmers’ Almanac and the local nursery have helped us determine which varieties of each would do best. We start a few (mostly heirloom) plants from seed, then supplement them with starts from the nursery.

Food is our top priority, but we’ve made non-grass use of the yard outside our garden too. Our second year on the lot, we purchased a mix of native pollinator plants and ripped out a section of sod to create a pollinator garden. The blue flax, bee balm, milkweed, and yarrow starts needed watering for a few weeks after being transplanted; since then, they’ve gotten by on rainwater. The gaps between plants are filled with mulch, and thus another section of “lawn” requires zero water. We also dedicated a section of our plot to perennial flowers, which are so low-maintenance that I generally forget about them until they push through the soil each spring.

A small flock of chickens has taken over a section of yard too. Up to six chickens are allowed by our local ordinance, and though our laying hens spend much of their time in their homemade 10-by-10-by-12-foot run, we fenced off the area between our house and a 6-foot privacy fence to let them range separately from our dogs. They did away with the grass, turning it into a nitrogen-rich addition to our compost pile. The only remaining grass is a section – about 25 percent of its original size, flood-irrigated with canal water once a week in summer and rarely mowed – we maintain as a nod to our two dogs, who like having a proper place to play fetch.

Late last summer, amid our fourth straight week of 100-plus-degree-Fahrenheit days, we got up before the sun to give the garden a drink. As I stepped outside, the neighbor’s sprinklers shuddered to life to water their grass, an unused lawn chair, and a handful of forgotten dog toys. Our drip system, on the other hand, sustained ‘Golden’ and ‘Chioggia’ beets, ‘Atomic Red’ and ‘Koral’ carrots, curly kale and rainbow chard, pole and bush beans in brilliant shades of purple, sturdy melons, juicy cucumbers, vines heavy with sweet pumpkins and zucchini, and the daffodil and tulip bulbs lying dormant beneath the soil, not to mention my beloved tomatoes.

I never missed the grass, but it wasn’t until our first winter on this property that I understood that its remains could actually help regenerate the soil where I grew my food. On a chilly February afternoon, my husband and I pulled the sod out of the bin where it had been composting since July. We piled compost onto a homemade sifter, shaking out the chunks of rock and grass, picking out earthworms and tossing them back into the compost bin, until we were left with a wheelbarrow full of rich soil. We wheeled each load of dirt over to the garden, avoiding a pair of hens pecking at what remained of the lawn, and spread it across each bed. The dark earth, which had once been our lawn, would nourish the next season’s vegetables – the food that would nourish us. It’s hard to imagine a better use of a lawn than that.

Emma Walker is an outdoor educator and aspiring urban homesteader. She is the author of Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors.

  • Updated on May 9, 2022
  • Originally Published on May 3, 2022
Tagged with: urban gardens