By Pam Denholm.
Embrace sustainability by transforming your lawn into a mixed-use vegetable garden.
Did you know that the biggest crop under irrigation in the United States, covering more acreage than any other, is the residential lawn? A statistic created by the millions of enthusiastic home gardeners lured by the promise of a green Eden to the garden aisle, where there’s an arsenal of weapons to annihilate any opposition to lawn perfection: grub killers, ant, snail, slug, beetle, bug, and cricket killers, chemical fertilizers, and weed killers. Product names like Terminate, Home Defense, and Deadline promise victory in a never-ending war we must wage for a prize lawn, which cannot be achieved without firing up the mower at least every week during the summer.
You know what else we are using to wage this war? Literally, our wages—our hard-earned cash. The annual lawn-consumables market is valued at $20 billion and growing, and new auto-ship lawn care products are exploding onto the market, delivered right to your door at the very moment in the season that you need them. Cash is not the only cost: a study from Purdue University found that dogs exposed to lawns treated with weed killers had a three-and-a-half times greater risk of bladder cancer. So the question is, when we conquer the weeds, do we really win the war?
A New Season Begins
Thankfully, how we use our gardens is changing, which in turn is driving new landscape design trends. Green is still the color of the season, but textured layers, food gardens, and outdoor living areas are in, and large swathes of pristinely manicured two-and-a-half-inch pile are out. We live in the age of information access, so we know we are also in the age of climate change, and the age of the dying honeybee and the disappearing Monarch butterfly. We are finally beginning to understand the impact our lawn fixation has on the world around us. Did you know that lawn mowers emit as much pollution as 11 new cars every hour they are run? Collectively, we spill more gas refueling our mowers over one year than all the oil ever spilled by Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska. We are losing biodiversity; our water use is excessive; and we are loading our streams, lakes, and ponds with chemicals from garden rainwater runoff and causing an alarming decline in the population of our smallest (but arguably our most important) neighbors, the pollinators.
At the same time, we are also eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking more, and grocery stores are expanding and upgrading produce aisles. This trend can be seen in our gardens too—be it in a container on the deck, a raised bed, or on a quarter acre, so many people are growing their own food that seed companies struggle to keep up with the demand.
Veggie gardens themselves are becoming a design feature. “We are seeing a resurgence of the Rectory garden,” says George Stanchfield, who has decades of local landscape design and gardening experience and shares his encyclopedic knowledge with gardeners on Facebook. Rectory gardens date back to the 18th century, when at the heart of most English villages was a church, and alongside it a house where the rector lived. Many of these houses had a space for a kitchen garden with an accompanying greenhouse, orangery, orchard, likely a chicken coop, and a pleasure garden—and it is this kind of structure that is becoming very popular again today.
George’s gardens are masterpieces. They are inviting, mindful spaces where he balances careful curation with nature’s own wild abandon. “We need to work hand in hand with nature to grow food, and to have beautiful natural places that are unpolluted and uninterrupted. A healthy food supply starts with a healthy ecosystem,” George maintains. I asked him what his secret was, “Observation,” he said. “It is the most useful tool a gardener has. Really look, and listen, and you will see all kinds of things going on in your garden. If something is working, do more of it, if it isn’t, don’t force it, try something else. Break the rules and grow vegetables in flower beds. Why not? Kale has beautiful foliage, and parsnips left to overwinter grow into three-foot-high feathery ferns that make gorgeous backdrops for lower plantings. If you are waiting for a rose to grow up a trellis, plant cucumbers or pole beans alongside them; they can exist happily in the shared space.”
Having a vegetable garden no longer means having a large, open square of bare earth for half the year. Mix up the ingredients of permaculture, modern landscape design, environmental enlightenment, and the resurgence of this idea of the kitchen garden, and you get highly productive food-growing spaces that are also beautiful to look at, offer cut flowers for the vase, and are welcoming spaces for pollinators, beneficial insects, birds, and amphibians.
Kimberly Russo, owner, chef, and gardener at Just Right Farm, was raised in eastern Kentucky where growing your own food is a way of life. She is a big proponent of making gardening accessible. “Just put a plant in the ground, it’s all an experiment,” she says, “the most common mistake I see people make is that they don’t give plants enough space— they need room to grow and be healthy.”
Kimberly’s gardens are an enticing mix of vegetables and flowers. “Tomato plants are not very pretty, but red cabbages? They’re beautiful, I plant them in my flower beds, same with fennel,” she says, “and celery and parsley are my favorite greens to include in flower arrangements.”
If you’ve been thinking about reducing the footprint of your lawn, you could start with some raised beds. Debbie Bosworth, a floral designer and owner of Dandelion House Floral Design, started with eight raised beds. This summer she added two more. With her husband’s help, her raised beds were made with wood frames and reclaimed stone tiles for the sides. “They’re easier to weed,” Debbie says of raised beds, “you can build your own of any size with a trip to the local hardware store, or you can use salvaged materials to create unique beds that suit your garden designs.”
Debbie has been an influencer in the slow flower movement for years and shared some low-maintenance and flower suggestions for newbie gardeners to include in their vegetable landscapes. “Zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos are some of the easiest cut flowers to grow. You can direct sow them into your herbaceous borders or raised beds after the danger of the last frost, and there are multiple varieties of each, so even in a small space in your garden or raised bed you can have a great variety of flowers to cut all through the summer, and bees love them!” Debbie also shared her favorite seed sources—Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Botanical Interests, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds.
Divide and Design
“Another way to reduce lawn,” says Debbie, “is to create smaller garden ‘rooms’ for intimate sitting areas, alfresco dining, or backyard bonfires.” Debbie also suggests planting a wildflower meadow or consider adding large mounds of earth for a grouping of trees, shrubs, or perennials.
George is also a fan of dividing spaces in the garden by using arbors, fences, hedges, or trellises, which also add height interest. George makes attractive natural wattle fences using woven hardwood saplings, a technique that harks back to Victorian England. Winding pathways that lead you on a journey of discovery are also a good way to break up landscapes and are essential for access in vegetable gardens, “so put those in first,” he suggests, “and include some birdbaths or other sources of water. You can create a very simple water feature by burying a tote to ground level, adding some rocks and aquatic plants, and a small pump to keep the water moving.”
Vegetable gardens don’t have to be confined to rows of plants. They can be diverse landscapes bursting forth with delicious fresh food, abundant life, and creative design elements. “It’s your garden,” says George, “make it a space you like to spend time in. I sometimes grow pumpkins just because the huge leaves make me happy.”
Our role in our yards is changing from autocratic dictator to custodian and nurturer. We are on a collective path of discovery, relishing the many surprises this change is bringing. Harvesting good food from abundant landscapes bursting with life offers a balance to our lives through a deep connection that is innately satisfying. It also connects us with our neighbors as we compare notes or share our harvest. You can’t grow vegetables without growing gardeners—when you tear up your lawn to grow lettuce, you inspire others to do the same. Let’s start a revolution and watch a network of organic gardens and flowering landscapes bloom before our eyes.
“Just do it,” Kimberly laughs, “see what happens.”
Facebook: South of Boston Gardeners with George Stanchfield
Pam Denholm has a medium-sized garden and a variety of fruiting bushes and trees. She has a deep fondness for things that will not be tamed, like dandelions, and likes her garden to be a welcoming “live and let live” sanctuary for all things.