I’ve long known the American lawn is a disaster, consuming water, chemicals and our free time on weekends keeping it mowed and weed-free. As a friend planned to move into a suburban home, we got the opportunity to transform the lawn.

Here’s what the front and rear yards looked like in May 2021, per the realtor listing:

We gained access to the property in mid-August 2021, by which time the morning glory was all over the front windows and the grass was quite high. After we trimmed some of the overgrowth along the long asphalt driveway, I walked around and began to list the species on this property. We may want to keep some of the plants, as we make room for plants we desire. When I didn’t recognize a plant, I pulled out my phone and used the SEEK app.

Permaculture is a strategic, systematic approach to changing our homes, gardens, and lives so that they regenerate, rather than annihilate, the Earth.

Our broad goal was to replace both the front and rear lawns with what’s called a Food Forest, based on Permaculture principles, which I am learning about via Heather Jo Flores’ Free Permaculture course. According to her,  “Permaculture is a strategic, systematic approach to changing our homes, gardens, and lives so that they regenerate, rather than annihilate, the Earth.”

A Food Forest is a Permaculture term, shorthand for perennial plants of different heights occupying the same space, all edible by humans or other local insects, birds and mammals. A Food Forest would include fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables. The plants are ideally all native. There is a movement called Food Not Lawns, based on a book by the same name, and some people use this term also. I prefer the term Food Forest since we’re thinking about more than growing annual vegetables on raised beds; we’re trying to build an ecosystem that thrives in our climate. Here’s a 4 minute video about Food Not Lawns in Eugene Oregon, where this concept began.

Having spent years in front of a screen, most recently on climate awareness and energy policy, I now wanted to learn to observe patterns of the sun, of how water flows, of soil organisms and other species, to absorb storm water runoff, to invite pollinators and, yes, to grow food. It seems my personal shift began during the lockdown in March 2020. That’s when I felt pulled to go outside to the garden. That’s when many of us across the country formed the Cooperative Gardens Commission. That’s when lack of land access meant I began guerrilla gardening at bus stops, and wrote Grow Hope, Not Fear. It was a virus that taught me that we need to make room for other species on our planet.

Another dream of mine was to learn about growing things high in calories and protein — think potatoes, corn, chickens, mushrooms. I also wanted to try my hand at inviting bees into our space, and possibly getting some of their honey.

Chickens offer multiple benefits (termed stacked functions in permaculture) such as eggs, meat and finished compost.

While we waited for access to this yard, I offered a minimal donation and started the free permaculture course. I highly recommend this online course, though if you find a local in-person course, it may be more fun, and you’ll be making local connections. The course suggested I observe the land. For example, I noticed that the outdoor compressor for the air conditioner creates a warmer microclimate around it. Perhaps some plants that thrive in warmer climate could be placed here.

I realized that I wanted to use my body more; and began to have an awareness of our own time and energy limitations (be they age or health related, or other projects calling for attention). I wanted to open up to intuition around the land and document our story. A time-bound goal was to setup beds, and have a fall harvest of greens and mushrooms.

Along the way, to bring along others in the family who had no interest in big words or online learning, we began playing the card game Ecologies and Food Forest.

Getting dirty

The rear yard was overgrown with invasive ivy such as Poison ivy, Morning glory, Honeysuckle, Ground ivy, Japanese knotweed and Chinese wisteria. I’ve learned that Honeysuckle offers habitat for birds and invites insects; that knotweed is a nitrogen fixer; that wisteria is medicinal — but Poison ivy? We also observed Sumac, Burdock, Jewel weed, Fireweed, Wineberry and Porcelain berry on the property.

Fortunately, Hurricane Ida blew thru town on September 1st, pulling down a lot of these. We followed Ida with pruners to discover a rear fence.

Compost pile for yard waste

Pruning back some of the overgrowth, we ended up with a lot of green matter on the driveway. One of my personal directives is to produce no waste. It’s also one of the lessons of permaculture. So, instead of bagging it up for the next trash day, we set up a compost pile just for yard waste, beneath the black walnut tree in the back yard. How? I spread out cardboard over a section of the lawn to define the space. Then came layer after layer of ivy and green matter, followed by more cardboard and/or lawn clippings. I tried to water each layer or waited for a rainfall between layering. The cardboard from the moving boxes sure helped!

We identified two tall trees — a Black walnut and a Horse chestnut, plus a Willow and Mulberry along a fence. These we would keep, and decide on a guild — shorter plants that could grow into their understory, replacing the lawn.

We lost a couple of weeks since some of the ivy included poison ivy, which got all over our bare arms and legs.

Despite the setback, within a month (by mid-September), we had moved onto the front yard, the sunniest space on this site. About 2 cubic yards of mushroom soil was delivered. The cardboard stash was dragged out of the garage.  And the sheet mulching began.

We decided that the bed closest to the house would have perennial herbs. Here went the store bought plants — lavender, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. And basil (not perennial, but we had a lot of plants in pots from our seed starts earlier this year).

The middle of the front yard would get fall veggies for now, and sun loving annual veggies next year. Here too, we opted for store bought plants for a near instant garden — arugula, cilantro, parsley, spinach, red onions, bok choi, kale, romaine lettuce and more. The parsley invited swallowtail caterpillars so we were glad we’d planted enough for us and for them.

By now, the compost pile for yard waste was sprawling and looking quite messy. So I resorted to my preferred compost bin — a 10 foot roll of hardware cloth, waist high, opened up to a cylinder and secured with cable ties. Quick assembly, and easy enough to open up when it’s time to harvest the finished compost. I kept adding yard waste and each week, the pile kept reducing, making room for more! Never fails to amaze me.

wire compost bins

There were so many black walnuts underfoot from the big tree way in the back yard that we were sure we’d sprain an ankle racing about this section of the yard. I decided to rake up the walnuts into a separate compost bin.

Why a separate compost bin for the black walnuts? Though this is a plant native to our region, it secretes juglone, which many of our annual plants can’t tolerate. I’ll be adding plenty of wood chips to this bin, hoping to break down the juglone by next season.

As of this writing, we’ve enjoyed the arugula, cilantro, parsley, basil, lettuce and bok choi. The red cabbage and brussels sprouts were enjoyed by visiting rabbits.