On Edible Estates

Fritz Haeg’s project entitled Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn was one I approached with a bit of skepticism, even trepidation. The first lines contained on the inside front cover of this book read (in all caps mind you) “EDIBLE ESTATES IN AN ATTACK ON THE FRONT LAWN AND EVERYTHING IT HAS COME TO REPRESENT!” This struck me as a radical attack launched on an unlikely adversary, one that I knew I had to read to fully understand. In essence, this project challenges the widely held notions associated with goodness of the American front lawn. Instead of the grass monocultures commonly found in front of most of our homes, Haeg and his colleagues encourage a new landscape rife with functional vegetable gardens. He considers this project a multi-faceted one that touches on local and global food production issues, urban land use, community art and outreach, politics, and intelligent landscaping. The implications of Haeg’s project are decidedly vast and he ends his front-cover intro with this statement (against completely capitalized): EDIBLE ESTATES IS NOTHING NEW; GROWING OUR OWN FOOD IS THE FIRST THING WE DID WHEN WE STOPPED BEING NOMADIC AND STARTED BEING “CIVILIZED”!”

Though some of the ideas contained herein are a bit radical and the picture painted of the ideal front lawn runs counter to our deeply entrenched proclivities toward well-manicured, buzz cut, kelly green monocultures of grass to grace the front of our homes, there’s much to be said for the issues raised in Edible Estates. Haeg touches on the history of the front lawn, how it came to dominate our suburban landscape, and what he thinks should be done about it. The bulk of the project is devoted to profiles of the prototype gardens which were located on the front lawns of volunteer families across the nation, as well as one across the pond in London. These gardens were planted in the beginning of the season and their growth, maintenance, and harvest were captured through photograph and video over the course of the season, in an effort to better understand, if not challenge, relationships between food, nature, and people. Others who independently fostered a front-yard garden also contributed their experiences alongside zone-by-zone planting calendars to help readers understand what and when to plant.

Though much of the book focuses on the project itself as it took place in the prototype gardens, I was feeling particularly inspired by the very notions contained in the premise of Edible Estates and wanted to discuss and work those out with the remainder of this post. I found the project fairly fascinating overall and encourage readers to check it out at the local library or bookstore, but the following will provide a somewhat comprehensive overview of the arguments against our current front lawn standard as presented by Haeg.

The existence of the front lawn has far-reaching implications that the majority of us (even those who don the environmentalist hat) largely overlook. Sure, there’s the environmental impact of mowing, applying herbicides, and the like. But what about the implications in terms of aesthetics, culture, community, economy, ecology, health, wellbeing? The ideal front lawn is composed of a monoculture of a single species of grass, an unnatural phenomena that would almost never occur in an untouched natural environment. Monocultures are less resistant to invasive species (think weeds!) and not as resilient as their more diverse counterparts. Since in the nature the strongest survive, those grasses that love water will thrive in the lowest areas of your lawn when rainfall accumulates, while the more sturdy species will dominate in higher and drier areas. But with the aid of chemicals, we have triumphed over nature in yet another sphere, bringing one single species to the forefront of lawn domination despite its natural proclivities to the contrary. Is this truly healthy for our lawns, our homes, and our lives?

As previously stated, a large segment of the book is devoted to gardening itself. I consider myself to be an accidental gardener of sorts, but have truly come to love exercising my green thumb, pushing the limits of my land, and savoring those comestibles harvested by my own hand.

My first forays into the garden were modest and fueled by my passion for food. When I found myself increasingly interested in cooking as a senior in high school, I loved having an herb garden in my parent’s backyard for adding fresh flavor to my meals. Though we attempted to add some more substantial components of a well-balanced meal to our garden, my soon-to-be-discovered passion for gardening was delayed a few years by the local wildlife. All of our tomatoes, squash, and peppers were thoroughly sampled by rabbits, deer, and other wildlife who called the woods behind my parent’s house home before any of us human inhabitants could call dibs on the fruits of our labor. It wasn’t until I moved out of my parent’s house post-college that I found and fostered a true love of gardening. When my new backyard was free of predators and my wallet couldn’t handle supermarket produce costs, I decided to try my hand at growing my own and planted a fairly extensive backyard garden, at least for a first-timer. Pretty soon this became an interest, if not a passion, further fostered by my job with the state park service, my dismal-looking front yard, my love of garden-fresh whole foods, and my desire to experiment with more and more produce! I wish I could pass on to others the anticipation that I feel with the approach of the last frost, the uncontainable joy that consumes me when I can finally break ground, and the overwhelming pride I have in eating my first harvest. My hope is that a project like Edible Estates can motivate some would-be gardeners to take the first step and discover the joy that is growing your own produce!

I am by no means a master gardener and much of the property surrounding my house is still composed of grass. Though I don’t use any chemicals, harsh or otherwise, to stem the tide of weeds, I do feel the need to mow to keep up appearances (and to keep my parents’, who are also my landlords, complaints at bay), my vegetable garden is hidden in the backyard, and I spend little time relishing the grassy greenery that composes my front lawn, as most Americans also fail to do. But Edible Estates raised some issues that forced me to question my relationship to and understanding of the land surrounding my home.

When did it become so offensive to host a wild and chaotic garden next to the well-manicured lawns of our neighbors? When did we start to look at life-sustaining vegetable and fruit plants as ugly and disdainful vegetation to be hidden behind our homes or relegated to the farm? Though the answers to these questions may not be concrete and responses would be far from constant across the population, they are important to consider every now and again. There was a time when at-home agriculture was popular (think victory gardens), when the front lawn more resembled a wild garden in need of tending which, in turn, required socialization with neighbors and fostered a greater sense of community. What have we lost in valuing the American standard of monotonous stretches of grassy green front lawns? Is it even worth consideration?

I would argue that, yes, these issues are of great import. Though the lawn may be one single site of a  multi-faceted larger problem, it has come to represent a whole host of values, ideas, and attitudes that have drastically changed American life, I would argue, for the worst. We don’t know our neighbors, we have lost our connection to the food that sustains us, we no longer understand or value nature, we fail to recognize the environmental impact of our actions, we focus on keeping up appearances rather than protecting our earth. Edible Estates does a great job of questioning the front lawn, suggesting alternatives, and challenging the damaging aesthetic that dominates American culture.

Though this project is not for everyone, I truly cannot say enough positive things about it and hope to see its notions take hold. Haeg challenged me to think of the natural world in a new way, to question yet another aspect of culture’s imposition on nature (a theme I find myself returning to with gusto again and again). Raising questions such as these is the first step in bringing about change, whether widespread or isolated, and in turn, identifying answers, solutions, and a new progressive vision.

Though I won’t be transplanting my vegetable garden out front (turning the land for it in the backyard was work enough!), new edible additions will be made to the front yard, including a thick hedge of lavender and other fragrant herbs to line the path to the front door, native bushes to replace the patches of grass directly adjacent to the front of the house, and hopefully even some fruit trees to reclaim even more of the current grassy areas while harnessing the sun’s life-giving energy. Mowing will become less frequent at my house, and it will start to occur at the hands of a manpowered, rather than fuel powered, mower. I will continue to abstain from the use of chemicals of all sorts, especially as my feelings toward the ivy that threatens to overtake a good quarter of my backyard turns more positive. I will welcome and even encourage the variety of native grasses, wildflowers and other plants that flourish in my yard, front and back. I will continue to challenge the grass monoculture that defines American front lawns and encourage others to do so as well.

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