From the Dallas Observer, 9.30.15
Link to article and comments.
My first inkling that America’s lawn obsession might not be terribly healthy came around 1995. We’d just moved into a new house in Far North Dallas, and 10- or 11-year-old me decided that the next-door neighbor’s lawn — green and smooth and as flawless as a golf-course fairway with manicured grass to cushion falls — was the perfect spot for football. The neighbor, a hard-nosed high school track coach, promptly ran us off and upbraided my father for letting me trespass. This struck me as backward. What good was such cushiony grass if not for play?
At the time, I chalked this up to my neighbor being an uptight jerk, an assessment I stand by. But that explanation is incomplete in that it overlooks the bigger picture: Lawns are awful.
This conclusion is admittedly self-serving. Two years ago, in one of those compromises a married person with two small children and two large dogs sometimes has to make, I agreed to swap our cramped apartment just south of White Rock Lake for a three-bedroom house in Richardson, but I was decidedly unenthusiastic about once again having a yard. Since then, I’ve waged a half-intentional campaign of aggressive neglect. We haven’t watered since we’ve been there. I own a lawnmower, but it’s one of those human-powered reel contraptions and it’s no match for the shin-high bluestem that seems to spring up overnight. Sometimes I borrow a gas mower from my fall-prone, 70-something-year-old neighbor, but between work and kids, this can be infrequent. The other day, I peeked outside the window and found that 70-something neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow our front yard. It’s not something I’m proud of, but my wife and I figured it’d be best to retreat quietly from the windows. We wouldn’t want to startle him and make him fall.
But the awfulness of lawns is something close to an objective fact. Maintaining them is time-consuming and expensive. They suck up ungodly amounts of water. When it rains, their fertilizer-heavy runoff pollutes waterways. They pit neighbor against neighbor’s kids. They are decadent and unsustainable totems of middle-class prosperity.
For several centuries, lawns were the exclusive purview of very rich Europeans, people who were wealthy enough to keep large swaths of land out of productive cultivation and afford the labor required to keep the grass neatly scythed. European-style lawns began to take root in America in the mid-1800s after Andrew Jackson Downing recommended expanses of “grass mown into a softness like velvet” as part of a popular gardening treatise he published in 1841. His ideas were later incorporated into the broad lawns of New York’s Central Park and lush, pre-automobile suburbs like Riverside, Illinois, which were aped in subsequent decades by the developers of less exclusive suburbs. “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns,” declared Abraham Levitt, whose name would become synonymous with the post-war explosion of inexpensive, mass-produced suburbs. In post-war America, lawns became a standard feature of the single-family home.
The cumulative size of lawns is vast. By acreage, turf grass is the largest irrigated crop in America, according to a decade-old NASA estimate, covering three times the area devoted to corn. Clumped together, it would more than cover the state of Mississippi.
Since the non-native grasses that compose most lawns can’t be kept green with rainfall alone, and because water and sunlight make the plant grow, lawns require intensive intervention, sucking up a total of about 9 billion gallons of water per day in aggregate and costing the average homeowners about 70 hours of labor per year. Lawns tend to be punishing for the environment as well. In addition to the ecological effects of runoff, which can overwhelm water bodies with excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, there’s the act of lawn-mowing itself. According to National Geographic, one hour running a gas mower can pollute as much as driving a car for four hours.
Lawns are particularly troublesome in arid cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, where it’s a challenge to find enough water for people to drink, much less keep a bunch of ornamental grass verdant. The water crunch in a place like Dallas is less acute, but the principles at play are the same. There isn’t nearly enough available water to sustain the population long-term without intensive conservation efforts or massive infrastructure investment. North Texans remain attached to their lawns, though recent price hikes for water may spur many to reassess the value of a green yard.
There really aren’t that many good reasons for lawns. Responding to a Wonkblog piece describing lawns (accurately) as a “soul-crushing time suck,” Turf magazine editor Ron Hall critiques the author for failing to mention “the economic value that nicely maintained lawns add to properties. It doesn’t hint at the good will and sense of civility lawns engender in our neighborhoods. But, the biggest omission in the piece is its failure to mention the well-documented environmental pluses lawns contribute to our communities — capturing dust, their cooling effect, reducing runoff, etc.”
But nicely maintained lawns only boost property values and engender civility because that’s what decades of increasing suburbanization has led people to expect, not because of some virtue inherent to a well-tended piece of grass. On the latter point, whatever environmental pluses are associated with the typical American lawn would be matched by yards of native plants and grasses without most of the damaging effects.
Lawns aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. They are effectively part of North Texas’ infrastructure, there for however long the house it surrounds stands. But at the very least people can water a little less, rely on native plants a little bit more. If one simply must have the perfect golf-course lawn, at least let some kids play on it. Finally, if you see a lawn that’s a bit overgrown or rough around the edges, don’t call code enforcement; congratulate the neighbor on taking a principled stand with their forward-thinking mowing and irrigation policies.
Hello to the Farm My Yard community. Albert has very graciously invited me to share information about an amazing irrigation technique—called an Olla—with all of you.
First of all, I should introduce myself. My name is Luisa and I have a company called Plug and Play Gardens, which offers earth-friendly solutions to organic gardeners.
Second, I should answer the most frequently asked question, “What’s an Olla?” An Olla is a porous clay pot. Using an Olla is really simple. You bury the pot in the ground, fill it with water and then plant flowers and vegetables around the pot. The Olla slowly releases water into the surrounding soil, irrigating your plants slowly over time.
There are lots of reasons to use Ollas especially here in Portland where we have long, dry summer. Putting Ollas in your garden means that you’ll use less water and that you’ll have to water your flowers and vegetables much less frequently. You can use Ollas directly in the ground, in raised beds or in very large containers.
Here in Portland I use one Olla in the middle of a 4’ x 4’ raised bed. And even during the driest part of summer last year, I was filling my Olla only once every 4 to 5 days. Using an Olla freed me from watering everyday. Best of all, using an Olla keep my veggies happy and healthy all season.
You can read my Top Ten Reasons to Use Ollas on my Website at PlugandPlayGardens.com. It will be gardening season soon, and I invite everyone in the neighborhood to check out the Ollas I’ve installed in my front yard…or just come by to say hi!
New T-Shirt Design for Farm My Yard
We started with a neat design (see original below) and are now down to picking from these 6. If you have a favorite, please leave your comments in the comment section below. I hope to have t-shirt available for ordering by the end of 2014 or start of 2015. Thanks to Kevin of KMF Illustration for his incredible work on this design!
“Hi all — I’m sending along a little promo for Rogue Farm Corps’ experiential on-farm internships available for 2015 on family farm operations in Oregon (including our new Portland-area chapter). If you know any individuals or groups/lists that might be interested in this, please pass along as you see appropriate. Many thanks in helping to spread the word about these opportunities for aspiring farmers!” -Matt
New Farmers Needed. Be one in a million— Join Rogue Farm Corps in 2015! Applications are now open for positions throughout Oregon.
FarmsNext is an entire season of hands-on training and skill-based education in sustainable agriculture for aspiring farmers and ranchers. This immersive on-farm experience combines field training with a mentor farmer, classroom learning with agricultural professionals and expert farmers, tours of local farms, and opportunities for farm-based independent study. Positions available on a diverse network of commercial family farms in four communities across Oregon. No experience necessary to apply. More info here.
FarmsNOW is a two-year advanced training program designed for the student who has a solid foundation of farm experience, and the goal of managing a farm operation. This program will propel beginning/intermediate farmers to the next level of planning, designing and running integrated farming systems. FarmsNOW is for those seeking mastery in the art and business of farming. Candidates must have two years, or equivalent, of vegetable production experience. More info here.
Rogue Farm Corps trains the next generation of farmers and ranchers through hands-on educational programs. Our host farms are located in four cluster around Oregon: the Rogue Valley, the Portland Metro Area, the South Willamette Valley, and Central Oregon. For complete program descriptions, information on our host farms, and applications, visit our website: http://roguefarmcorps.org
Summer 2014 Update
This is a great way to find land in Oregon available to farm! It’s called the iFarm program! Enjoy!
How iFarm Works
To contact any of the landowners or farmers on iFarm, you must first complete a questionnaire describing your opportunity (for landholders) or your goals, experience, and plans (for landseekers). Once completed and approved, this information is entered into our online database (online and pdf questionnaires are below) and you may then contact any of our iFarm participants.
To search our database, click on the link above, then select the type of iFarm participant you are looking for and click either “View Listings” or “Advanced Search Options.” “View Listings” displays every listing in the category that you’ve checked and “Advanced Search Options ” allows you to narrow your search by region. Listings are displayed in order from oldest first to newest at the end.
To contact a participant, go to their listing and click on the words “click here” at the bottom of the page, under the “Tools” heading. That generates an email to iFarm@friendsoffamilyfarmers.org. We will then give that participant your contact information and let them know that you would like to speak with them. It is up to them to contact you back.
Qualifications: Anyone who is serious about finding or offering land to farm may participate, so long as we understand that they do currently, and intend to continue to, abide by all applicable ordinances and laws.
Confidentiality: iFarm never displays our members contact information publicly or shares it with other organizations, and we do not give out this information to other participants without your express permission.
Current Listings: All listings on iFarm are active, to the best of our knowledge, regardless of the date they were created.
Fee: iFarm is a free service, although we encourage participants to become members of Friends of Family Farmers.
Either fill out this online form, or print our pdf application form in English or Spanish and mail it to ATTN: iFarm * Friends of Family Farmers * PO Box 1286 * Molalla, OR 97038. You can also request this form in an editable Word Doc by emailing iFarm@friendsoffamilyfarmers.org.
Check out additional resources that will help you to start farming.
Also find out about FarmON!, the Oregon chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, on Facebook.
Either fill out this online form, or print our pdf landholder application and mail it to ATTN: iFarm * Friends of Family Farmers * PO Box 1286 * Molalla, OR 97038. You can also request this form in an editable Word Doc by emailing iFarm@friendsoffamilyfarmers.org.
Dacha Gardens, by Sara Pool
Russia has an amazing model for urban agriculture, obtaining over 50% agricultural products from family garden plots. The backyard gardening model uses around 3% arable land, and accounts for roughly 92% of all Russian potatoes, 87% of all fruit 77% vegetables, and 59% all Russian meat according to the Russian Federal State Statistic Service.
The term Dacha comes from the term “landed estate,” and generally refers to an urban garden. Dacha gardens have been around since the Bolshevik Revolution, and have been feeding Russians for over 1,000 years. Since these urban plots are too small for farm machinery, all these gardens are hand tilled, often using crop rotation and solely organic methods, and are ‘intensive’ out of necessity.
This model is not just meant for feeding one family, but is an important part of the local market economy both rurally and in urban areas. 31% of rural gardeners reported their garden was their major source of income. This percentage is lower in urban areas, where excess food is often bartered or traded for services and cannot be accounted in simple economic terms, though is not less valuable. Remaining produce is simply given to neighbors and friends out of a sense of abundance, and accounts for a national sense of food security.
Another advantage of neighborhood food production is the impact it has on lowering inflation for food prices, since large scale agriculture is competing with a local food market. Farm subsidies, food importation, and pesticide/antibiotic use is also lowered with this method, not to mention the social impacts backyard gardening provides to Russians. For more information, check out this comprehensive report on Russian Dacha Gardening.
Welcome blog writer, Sara Pool to the fold!
Sara Pool’s parents swear she was born under a cabbage patch, and has spent most of her life in the garden or wandering around in the woods. A former journalist and landscaper turned mushroom hunter and forager, Sara continues to raise rabbits and grow vegetables wherever she can. She moved from Idaho to form her own company in 2008 with a few packets of seeds and a dream. She has since designed and built what feels like a zillion gardens, conducted workshops, and led tours all over the West Coast. Sara also served on the Portland Multnomah Food Policy Council and co-chaired the Wild Foods Work Group.
I’ve realized all along that each Farm My Yard connection is going to be different. Some will be fantastic, some will not be. Here is one from SE Portlandia that was so-so. But I think it’s important to note some of the outcomes so we all become more aware of the types of situations that can arise. Albert, Farm My Yard
“I didn’t take pictures of the garden. I just hired last year’s “share cropper”, today, to plant for me, so I can take pictures of the new garden, but it isn’t part of the original deal of her share cropping with me. I don’t feel comfortable about a radio interview for a number of reasons. But, mostly, because it didn’t quite work out perfectly. The woman who decided to share crop with me had one major goal, to plant a corn crop. But, it turned out there wasn’t enough sun in the yard, so, after many hours of working on the rest of the garden, she gave up the project. I paid her for her time and gave her some produce and then got someone who wanted to take over the watering from there. It turned out to be fairly expensive for me, between buying the plants and watering and paying for her time. She had a good time and put a lot of extra time and love into it and we became friendly. So, it was a fine situation, but not ideal and not exactly what I had intended. If I had a more tight budget, it could have been a hardship for me, but I was able to pay for her time and it was nice to have the garden. (although, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend that much money to bother putting in a garden if I had known it would turn out that way, up front). I didn’t want to have to be caring for the garden, and it could have been abandoned, but, it turned out that one of my own flute student decided that he wanted to take over the care of the garden. He took it on as a meditation and daily commitment. He didn’t even take much produce from the garden. He just enjoyed coming by to water. So, it all worked out okay. If the sun had been right for the corn crop, I’m sure my original share cropper person would have continued caring for the garden. But, as they say “life happens” and things change.
We were on the telly this week – an interview with KOIN – CBS Channel 6 in Portland. The story has been picked up by CBS affiliates all over the country which has led to a lot of attention! Hurrah – let’s go urban farming revolution!