The hungry insurgent: Sustainable alternatives to lawn culture, and upcoming garden events

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The other day, I learned a new four-letter word from a naturalist: “lawn.” In her view, our yards contain an invasive species that has destroyed wetlands, wasted natural resources through frequent sprinkler irrigation, crowded out native species, and created pollution through fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

It is easy to see where she is coming from. The EPA estimates that we spend $40 billion each year on our lawns, using 70 million tons of fertilizer and 70 million pounds of pesticides. When we fill up our mowers during the summer, we collectively use 17 million gallons of gas (about 50% more than the Exxon Valdez spill). A gas-powered push mower pollutes as much per hour as 11 cars and a riding mower as much as 34 cars. Pollution from lawns annually kills about 7 million birds. In cultivating so much grass, we have allowed grass clippings to become our 4th largest crop, right after corn, wheat and soybeans, consuming 45 million acres of land, using 200 gallons per person per day of water in the process. (Statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Lawns are an anachronism, springing from the medieval grassed enclosures for communal grazing. Before 1830, lawns were a status symbol for the aristocracy or landed gentry, where they could flaunt their wealth by paying armies of gardeners with scythes. After World War II, the bizarre new phenomenon called suburbia, led by the Levittown development near New York, spread the concept of large empty lawns as symbols of health and civic pride. The monoculture of scalped grass lawns was key in creating the homogeneity of the suburbs, which extended to people. As late as 1960, there was not one African-American among Levittown’s 80,000 residents. A monoculture for a monoculture.

But what about now? We are rapidly diminishing the two main resources currently used to maintain our lawns: oil and clean water. And we are figuring out that we can’t “throw away” our wastes, that there is no “away” for our fertilizer and pesticide runoff to go without harming our lakes and rivers. Since Minneapolis won’t allow us to keep sheep in the city, what in the world can we do? The short answer: Get rid of our lawns, at least partially.

There are generally two approaches we can take. One is to interplant as many edible things as you can squeeze in. In my own standard Minneapolis-sized shady yard, for example, I have pear trees, cherry trees, plum trees, serviceberry trees, gooseberry bushes, blueberry bushes, a blackberry, aronia (chokeberry) bushes, lingonberry, hazelnuts, nannyberries, currants, and so on. I have filled my boulevard with daylilies (edible flowers) and I encourage strawberries to completely colonize a hillside. In the confined 6-foot width between my house and the neighbor’s, I have planted sunchokes and mints. In the deep shade beneath the crabapple tree, I am planting ostrich ferns for the springtime fiddleheads (which are delicious sautéed). And I am now up to three raised beds for herbs in the front yard (raised beds in front are now legal in Minneapolis), as well as a veggie garden in the back. You get the idea. It is getting a little crowded, but I have never been known for halfway measures. You might be more moderate.

Or you could keep the lawn look without the fuss and pollution of resource-gobbling grass. One alternative would be Dutch white clover, which has beautiful white flowers that the bees like, puts nitrogen in the soil and makes a mild salad green for you. Plus, it is low-growing, so you don’t have to mow it and the city won’t even cite you. Or you could go a slightly more flavorful route by growing chamomile or thyme or yarrow. English and French thyme both are fairly low-growing, as well as golden lemon thyme. Yarrow is a bit taller, but you could always put some edging around it, so the city inspectors would recognize your admirable character and civic pride, rather than considering you a slob with a neglected lawn.

Cultures change slowly. We seem to have created a monster in teaching people to love their lawns, and that will take some time to undo. But talk to your neighbors. Think of small ways you might demonstrate that your yard is the product of intention, not neglect. And slowly get rid of that wasteful invasive species you now harbor, tasting as you go along, to be sure you like what replaces it. You may find that it feeds your soul as much as it feeds your belly.

Now for the monthly gardening calendar, including some canning, pest management and compost info:

June 13, 7 p.m. $21. “Tending and harvesting your garden,” Marianna Padilla, 4416 Pleasant Ave. S., Mpls. 612-824-9467. www.casamarianna.com/Gardeni-ng_Class.html

June 13, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free. “Growing berries in Minnesota,” Rockford Road Library, 6401 42nd Ave. N., Crystal. 612-543-5875. www.hclib.org/pub/events

June 16, 2 to 4 p.m. Free. “Edible landscapes,” Sumner Library, 611 Van White Memorial Blvd., Mpls. 612-543-6875. www.hclib.org/pub/events

June 16, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Managing yard waste and composting,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave. N., Brooklyn Park.612-543-6225. www.hclib.org/pub/events

June 18, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Growing herbs in Minnesota,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave., Brooklyn Park. 612-543-6225. www.hclib.-org/pub/events

June 18, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $5, RSVP required. “Dealing with pests, bugs and weeds,” Urban Gardener Training Program at Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507. www.msmarket.-coop/events/

June 19, 10:30 to Noon. Free. “Growing herbs in Minnesota,” St Louis Park Library, 3240 Library Lane, St Louis Park. 612-543-6125. www.hclib.org/pub/events

June 21, 6 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Growing berries in Minnesota,” Pierre Bottineau Library, 55 Broadway St. N.E., Mpls. 612-543-6850. www.hclib.-org/pub/events

June 26, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP. “Rain gardening,” East Lake Library, 2727 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-543-8425. www.hclib.org/-pub/events

June 28, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Home composting workshop,” Community Ed Services Building, 2225 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-668-3939. www.mplscomm-unityed.com/

July 7, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Free. “Cooking with summer squash, zucchini, onions, fried green tomatoes,” Minneapolis Farmers Market, 312 E. Lyndale Ave., Mpls. www.mplsfarmersmarket.com/

July 11, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Growing and cooking with herbs,” Community Ed Services Building, 2225 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-668-3939. www.mplscommunityed.com/

July 16, 7 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP. “Managing yard waste and composting,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave., Brooklyn Park. 612-543-6225. www.hclib.-org/pub/events