EDIBLE ESTATES regional prototype garden #1: SALINA, kansas
See the video and the Edible Estates: Edition #1 informational brochure
Owners: Stan and Priti Cox
Location: Salina, Kansas
Commissioned by: Salina Art Center
USDA plant hardiness zone: 5b
Established: Fourth of July weekend, July 2–4, 2005
Front yard exposure: East
Size of front yard: 25 x 34 feet
The first edition of the Edible Estates project was established, symbolically, over the Fourth of July weekend, 2005, in Salina, Kansas, the geographic center of the United States. Local residents Stan and Priti Cox had eagerly offered their typical front lawn as a working prototype for the region.
Stan is a plant geneticist at The Land Institute, a world-renowned research institution founded by Kansas native Wes Jackson in 1976. The organization is working to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops. Priti is an artist originally from Hyderabad, India. The garden was planted with a wide array of edibles that would survive in the extreme prairie climate, including many herbs and vegetables to be used in Priti’s Indian dishes such as okra, green chilis, Swiss chard, curry leaf tree, eggplant, and tomatoes (a staple of Indian cooking).
The Land Institute Mission Statement:
When people, land, and community are as one,
all three members prosper;
when they relate not as members
but as competing interests,
all three are exploited.
By consulting Nature as the source
and measure of that membership,
The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture
that will save soil from being lost or poisoned
while promoting a community life at once
prosperous and enduring.
DESIGN, MATERIALS AND PLANTS
The design for the garden uses two simple elements to define the spaces, creating environments where people and plants can live together. On the left is a large mound that is rich with fertile compost. In it we planted annual vegetables and herbs that will be able to establish deep roots. Those that need well-draining soil are placed closer to the top, and those like more moisture are planted farther down. On the right and adjacent to the front drive and entry is a recessed circle for seating, which is mulched with bark. It is surrounded by a border of thyme and deciduous fruit trees; these will eventually enclose the space. The front of the garden was planted with okra during the first season, and it completely concealed the house just six weeks after it was planted. The steep slope has been planted with berries. Grape vines planted against the house will eventually grow up a series of trellises. The entire garden has been mulched with straw, which Stan can collect every year from The Land Institute. It will block weeds, retain moisture, and enrich the soil as it decomposes. -FH
I came in from mowing the lawn one hot May evening in 2005 and turned on the computer. By the time I’d finished reading the first e-mail message, I knew my mowing days would soon be over. The sender, Stacy Switzer, was curating a show on food and eating that fall at the Salina Art Center. In her message Stacy told my wife, Priti, and me that the Art Center had commissioned a West Coast artist, Fritz Haeg, to remove a front lawn
Without hesitating, Priti and I volunteered our yard. There was little reason not to do it. I’d been raising crops of lawn clippings in Kansas for two decades, with nothing to show for my effort. When Priti and I read Stacy’s e-mail and then looked out at the patch of Bermuda grass in front of our house, we knew we’d never even miss it. We had no idea what sort of botanical curiosity might take its place, but the lawn could go.
Not that our lawn was the archetypal green monster. We never watered it, never sprayed it, and almost never fertilized it. I cut it with a manual reel-type mower. (I did that because it was quiet and cheap, and I could use the exercise. But on occasion, a neighbor or passerby would feel pity and offer help: “Hey, I have a lawn mower if you want to borrow it!”) Bermuda grass is tough as barbed wire, so our lawn had held the soil through the extremes of Kansas summers, winters, and droughts, while easily fending off weeds—except for dandelions, which it had fought to a stalemate. With such minimal management, it posed little threat to nature. But it wasn’t good for much of anything either.
I have no quarrel with grass. As a crop breeder, I have spent my career working with food-producing grasses like wheat, sorghum, and oats. Before European settlement, most of Kansas was covered in prairie, which is predominantly grasses. Over the past sixty-five million years, grasses have co-evolved with grazing animals then with humans, always performing important ecological functions. But neither the shocking-green, nitrogen-gorged carpets of McMansionland nor the scruffy little patch of Bermuda grass that once lay in front of our house has much of anything in common with natural grass-covered landscapes. It’s lawns, not grasses, that are the scourge of suburbia.
Salina lies in a wide, fertile valley near the confluence of the Saline and the Smoky Hill rivers. The low hills to the east and west remain largely in native or restored prairie, some of it grazed, while the flat lands surrounding the city are sown to wheat, soybean, and sorghum. (The agriculture land closest to town is being paved over for industry, commerce, and suburbs.) Several years of below-average rainfall reached a crisis in the summer of 2006 with a drought severe enough to trigger strict lawn-watering and car-washing restrictions. The first day of a full ban saw the city's water consumption drop by half! Water has become a very big issue, with a series of town meetings. The main concern is competition for river and groundwater between agriculture and urban/suburban uses. It is exacerbated by a "plume" of industrial contamination that is spreading inexorably toward the city's groundwater source.
Fritz arrived on the Thursday before the July 4th weekend, and by Friday evening, with the help of local volunteers, he’d removed the lawn with a sod-cutter, traded it for partial credit on a truckload of composted manure, tilled the yard, and introduced some topography: a sunken sitting area and a small hill. Saturday we were to plant, and I had some serious doubts about that. Early July is just about the worst time to establish any sort of plantings in Kansas; the seedlings or cuttings that emerge can look forward to two months of heat—often in the triple digits—along with wind and drought, enlivened by the occasional hailstorm. But the Art Center show was scheduled for late September, so it was now or never. We needed a lot of green growth in the next two and a half months, and that meant a lot of fast-growing vegetables and herbs along with transplanted fruit trees, grapes, and berries.
Having come to town empty-handed, Fritz roamed Salina in search of plants and seeds while I gathered other specimens at my workplace. I’m on the staff of The Land Institute, a nonprofit that does research in natural agriculture, so I was able to bring in some wild and semi-wild edible plants and a load of mulch to cover the soil that we’d stripped bare. By Sunday noon, with a lot of help from friends, the Edible Estate was in place. A simple drip system kept everything alive and growing in the weeks that followed, without inflating our water bill too much. Fritz had pulled it off after all. The new front yard looked big and green, indeed lush, in time for its September premiere.
Since that fall we’ve maintained the trees and perennial herbs but replaced most of the annual plants with deep-rooted, long-lived perennials, to provide year-round ground-cover that takes care of itself; still, one sunny corner remains reserved for annual vegetables. Familiar perennials like strawberries, thyme, blackberries, and horseradish have been joined by plants that The Land Institute is developing as perennial grain crops of the future: intermediate wheatgrass, Maximilian sunflower, and Illinois bundleflower. The plants may be mostly perennial, but the yard is far from static. Unlike an industrial lawn, which is designed to look the same, or nearly the same, year round and year to year, our front yard is in constant flux; hard times for one plant species may be good times for others. The yard is beautiful even when it’s brown all winter, as are natural landscapes in Kansas at that time of year. In the growing season, its greenness is intense and never monotonous.
The first question people ask about our Edible Estate is either “Have your neighbors complained?” or “Has the city fined you?” Everyone, it seems, claims to like the new front yard, yet everyone expects others not to like it. Negative neighbor reaction has been the chief preoccupation of most reporters and film crews we’ve dealt with, including those from the New York Times and ABC’s World News Tonight. When we would assure them that we’d had only positive reactions, they didn’t want to believe it. I stood beside one of our neighbors as she told ABC’s cameras, “Well, when they started tearing up their yard last year, I thought, ‘What the heck’s going on over there?’ But once they got it done, I liked it.” When the report aired, all that viewers heard her say was, “What the heck’s going on over there?” Whatever the reality, controversy was the story.
Our new front yard has been welcomed because our neighborhood is not a place where phony “property values” dominate. If we lived in the posh district of east Salina known as The Hill (where there are no houses, only “homes”), we certainly would have faced stiff resistance. Individuals are free to judge the appearance of front yards based on their own likes and dislikes, but all of that goes out the window when homeowners and the housing industry join forces to defend property values. That has been truer than ever in the twenty-first-century debt economy, in which houses have served as piggy banks. From the curb, an unconventional front yard can easily look much better than a lawn, since a lawn doesn’t really look like anything. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to property values. It may sound like an aesthetic term, but “curb appeal” is a purely economic concept. When it comes to curb appeal, beauty is in the eye not of the beholder but of the broker.
In a 2003 study of the lawn-chemical industry, Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp, then of Ohio State University, drew a “fundamental lesson of the lawn”: that “such self-evident and noncontroversial landscapes are the ones most configured by socioeconomic force relations.” Serving as familiar, marketable packaging for “homes,” front yards are best kept in a noncontroversial state because standardized commodities are the easiest to mass-market. Robbins and Sharp noted that “property values are clearly associated with high-input green-lawn maintenance and use,” and “moreover, lawn-chemical users typically associated moral character and social responsibility with the condition of the lawn.” To toss all that aside and grow food in the front yard is an announcement that one has bought a house in order to live in it, not to turn around and sell it at a profit in two years. In the housing economy, such an attitude qualifies as moral laxity.
But front-yard vegetation isn’t always a matter of individual choice. Today 57 million Americans—approaching one person out of five—live in homes regulated by homeowner associations. Association members must sign documents called covenants that almost always mandate a front lawn and frequently contain provisions like these, sampled from covenants that are being enforced by associations in communities across the country:
- “Lawns shall be watered, fertilized, and sprayed for weeds and/or insects and diseases as needed to keep them healthy and green. They shall be mowed on a regular basis.”
- “Sprinklers shall be installed in the front yard of each residence. . . . [Front yard] shall include, at a minimum, the following: foundation shrubs, three (3) two inch (2”) caliper, container grown trees, ground cover and grass.”
- “Grass shall be maintained at a length not to exceed 4 inches. . . . Grass shall be maintained at a minimum of a medium green color.”
- Vegetable gardens are to be located between the rear property line and side lines of the house [and] must not exceed 8 feet by 8 feet.”
The simplest way to stay out of trouble with the property cops, of course, is to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have private covenants. Our city is like many in having some restrictive subdivisions but a much larger territory that remains free. Our house is in the covenant-free zone. We wake up each morning to the crowing of roosters that belong to neighbors across the alley. (The birds aren’t quite legal, but nobody complains.) A couple of streets over, other neighbors have painted the entire front of their house as an American flag. Our Edible Estate, which would probably give the typical homeowner association board member a case of the hives, doesn’t bother our neighbors at all.
In much of America, this live-and-let-live attitude is still the rule. Nevertheless, in writing about the lawn question, I’ve heard from less fortunate people in states from coast to coast whose unconventional yards have found easy acceptance among their neighbors but have offended the official guardians of property values.
You may have already thought to yourself, “This guy works with plants for a living. A non-lawn like that is going to be a lot more of a hassle if you’re a librarian (or trucker or district manager) like me.” On that, I can provide some reassurance. Plant breeders, agronomists, and others of our ilk are not avid gardeners or lawn-tenders. After a long, hot summer day in a corn, soybean, or Illinois bundleflower nursery, the last thing a good plant scientist wants to do is go home and toil in the front yard.
Early in my career, before I moved to Salina, a yardwork-averse colleague of mine in agriculture went so far as to promulgate a theory that the amount of energy spent on lawn care by a homeowner is always in inverse proportion to the time spent on sex. We kept that joke running for years (as in, “Say, your yard’s looking mighty fine lately, Jim. Everything OK?”). I’m just glad Jim doesn’t live in Salina, because our Edible Estate looks as if it takes much more time than it does. No, really; if this new yard were more work than what I’ve had to do in the past, you can bet I’d have seeded the whole place to a mowable grass at the first opportunity.
So for about the same amount of work as we’d expend on a lawn, we have a front yard that’s an identifiable place. In the old lawn, the only geographical feature was a trouble spot in the northeast corner that always turned brown in midsummer. Now every square foot is recognizable, by its elevation, by the plant species growing on it, or both. All around us the neighborhood fleet of mowers, leaf blowers, weed trimmers, and other gas- and electric-powered contraptions can make a quiet Saturday afternoon sound more like a Monday morning at the sawmill. But aside from digging a dandelion here and there, we can take it easy. The bonus, of course, is that at various times of year we can pick strawberries, chilies, thyme, peaches, grapes, basil, bitter gourds, saskatoons, blackberries, Swiss chard, rhubarb, sage, or other edibles.
Whatever the advantages of alternative yards, the industrial lawn isn’t going to just go away. Backed by powerful economic and ideological forces, the lawn culture that we inherited from England has evolved to the point that it’s as American as baseball, apple pie, and war. In 2005, when I was working on an article about the lawn racket, I spoke with Den Gardner, executive director of the lawn-and-landscape industry group Project Evergreen. In answer to my very first question, Gardner said he had a story. “And you’ll want to use this one, Stan,” he said. “I was boarding a flight in Atlanta and a couple of dozen troops with the 101st Airborne, just back from Iraq, got on the plane. They were all fired up about being home. I asked one soldier what three things he’d missed most over there. He listed—in this order—green grass, Domino's pizza, and beer. In that order! I'm telling you, Stan, in this country, with our beautiful lawns and parks, we take ‘green’ for granted.” And you can bet that the companies represented by Project Evergreen can provide a full range of products to create a green that’s a couple of shades deeper than anything nature can come up with.
But history hasn’t ended after all, and America’s circumstances are changing. We may soon find ourselves in an era when houses are valued more for shelter than for speculation, when soil provides more food for people than profit for the petrochemical companies, and when curb appeal isn’t enforced by the property cops. So beat the rush, retire your lawnmower, and rent a sod-cutter.
TEXT FROM EDIBLE ESTATES: ATTACK ON THE FRONT LAWN (Metropolis Books, 2nd Ed., 2010)
Commissioned by: Salina Art Center
Thanks to: Becky Atkinson, Pam Harris, Jay Heiman, Wendy Moshier, and Stacy Switzer, Salina Art Center; David Van Tassel, The Land Institute; Katie Bachler and Erin Marshel, for research and assistance; and gardener and volunteer Ted Zerger, Salina.
The Lawn Goodbye
Stan Cox (Salina Edible Estate owner)
It's May, and maybe you're looking out at your lawn, thinking that it needs a mowing. Instead, you might want to think about whether you need that lawn at all. The problem isn't grass. Humans first evolved on the grasslands of Africa, and until not so long ago, grasslands covered far greater swaths of this continent than they do in this century. But landscapes like those bear little resemblance to the industrial, shocking-green carpets that surround homes, workplaces, and public spaces today. Science has shown that lawn management without chemicals is feasible. Rugged plants -- including grasses -- that need little mowing, less fertilizing, and in drier regions, no watering, can be combined to make attractive home landscapes. High-input lawns, meanwhile, are boring, yield no useful harvest, and may rarely even be trod upon. But for growing a crop of hard cash, the synthetic grasslands of suburbia are proving to be fertile ground indeed. Toiling in America's front yards, homeowners and hired lawn-care workers produce two shades of green: the color of chlorophyll and the color of money. Replace all of that shallow-rooted, high-maintenance turf with something more resilient, and a $150 billion industry will go into heart failure. Lawn-care companies employ mostly immigrant workers, but even with the industry's low wages, labor costs typically eat up half of a firm's budget. That, along with their drive to process more yards per day, has hastened evolution in every species of lawn-care machinery. The commercial lawn mower has evolved most rapidly, coming to resemble a hybrid between a lunar rover and a La-Z-Boy recliner. And despite tightened regulations, it's still a serious polluter. For the homeowner, a little electric mower may seem clean, but its cord leads back, more likely than not, to a carbon dioxide-belching coal-fired power plant. A University of Florida study showed that battery-powered electric mowers have about the same environmental impact as gas mowers, if you account for manufacture of the battery. And other gas and electric contraptions like leaf blowers and string trimmers have joined mowers in making Saturday afternoon in suburbia sound more like Monday morning in a sawmill. Meanwhile, business is booming in the lawn-and-garden chemical industry. The Environmental Protection Agency says that home herbicide use almost doubled between 1982 and 2001 and continues to grow. Research shows that 29 of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are toxic to birds, fish, amphibians, and/or bees. Environmental groups have raised the biggest clamor over the herbicide 2,4-D, which, a growing number of studies have shown to be a health hazard. The industry's response? One company has developed a form of 2,4-D that doesn't have the chemical's notorious odor. That, apparently, allows lawn-care workers, neighbors, and passersby to inhale it freely, without undue concern. Hard times on the farm are partly responsible for bringing more chemicals to the suburbs. In a 2003 study, Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp of Ohio State University showed how "profits from agricultural pesticides have been low for years" and how that has "paved the way for increases in the sales of lawn chemicals." Last summer, my family and I removed our front lawn and replaced it with an "edible landscape", as part of a project by Los Angeles-based artist/architect Fritz Haeg and our local art center. We've been asked plenty of questions about that move, the two most common being, "What do your neighbors say?" and "Has the city fined you?" Our answers: "They like it" and "No". But fears like those keep many Americans from ditching their lawns. In their paper, Robbins and Sharp cited studies showing that to homeowners, "property values are clearly associated with high-input green-lawn maintenance and use," with the result that many Americans have "associated moral character and social responsibility with the condition of the lawn." How did a patch of ground that delivers fertilizer-laden runoff into storm drains, greenhouse gases and a terrible racket into the atmosphere, and pesticide residues into the neighbor's dog (and probably the neighbors) came to embody "moral character and social responsibility"? It's really no mystery -- as usual, all you have to do is follow the money.
Kansas State University Agriculture Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service
Organic Community Garden at KCK Urban Academy
Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education
Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, by Kelly Kindscher, University Press of Kansas, 1987
Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America, by Francois Couplan, Keats Publishing, 1998
Gardening in the Heartland, by Rachel Snyder, University Press of Kansas, 1992
Midwest Gardener's Handbook : The What, Where, When, How & Why of Gardening in the Midwest, by Jan Riggenbach, Cool Springs Press, 1999
The Rodale Book of Composting : Easy Methods for Every Gardener, by Grace Gershuny, Rodale Books, 1992.
Culture and Horticulture: A Philosophy of Gardening, by Wolf D. Storl, Biodynamic Literature, 1979.
Gardening: Plains and Upper Midwest , by Roger Vick, Fulcrum Publishers, 1991
How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, John Jeavons, Ten Speed Press; 6th Edition, 2002.
The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy, A Sierra Club Book, 1982. Also see other books by this author (This is the definitive book on the topic)
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