Victory Gardens for the 21st Century

What does the lawn represent to you?  To many it is a word like yard or garden, that space in which we try to work the elements of nature into our own private ecosystem.  To others, it is the expanse of regularly cut turf, born into our landscape aesthetic in 18th century England; however, there and then, the lawn was an artifact of a working landscape, shaped by grazing animals and the climate.  As Europeans came to the New World, so too did this desire for open pastures interspersed with trees, shrubs, and flowering borders. A recent article titled “Lawns Into Gardens”, written by Mark Bittman for the New York Times, discusses the growing debate as to the place for the American lawn in the 21st century. Turf covers more acreage in the United States than any crop, and we can’t even consume it.  In fact, lawn does most of the consuming, requiring regular maintenance and large inputs of water and chemicals.  I will not degrade the lawn, because whether it’s been programmed or not into my psyche, I must admit a smooth lawn, when in contrast with rich, diverse plantings, is quite a beautiful thing, albeit perhaps a future relic of a time in which resources were considered endless and connection to our agrarian roots could be outsourced. As Bittman states in his article, “My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers.” I think he is being overly optimistic, but I digress.  

The roof garden on the Green Learning Station; a diverse garden in the most improbable location.
The roof garden on the Green Learning Station; a diverse garden in the most improbable location.

Mr. Bittman’s debate: that the conversion of lawns to gardens, and the required sea change in our own relationship with lawns, represents a positive evolution away from the ‘perfect lawn’ and its disregard for growing water shortages as well as financial, health, and environmental costs. In the article, Jason and Jennifer Helvenston face fines concerning their front yard that has forsaken the lawn for edibles and flowers.  The past half century of automated machinery and artificially inexpensive fertilizers and chemicals has enabled the embrace of lawns over all other aspects of the landscape, but the Helvenstons are merely doing what was common for Americans during and before World War II, growing a portion of their own food.  During the war, the Victory Garden movement pushed Americans into growing around 40% of their own food in order to channel as many resources as possible toward winning the war.  America continues to pool many resources toward conflict, but newer, more dubious threats exist, such as the separation of many from the food production chain, with great social and health costs; and the growing alienation between humans, gardens and nature.  Would there be less stress on the honeybee and pollinator populations if more of our landscape contained nectar sources and less grass?  What would the benefits be in decreasing the great gap between farm and table? These challenges represent new battles, and gardens such as the Helvenstons’ represent 21st century Victory Gardens, tools in the effort to see beyond the lawn and its demands.  The lawn is not, by any means, the enemy, but in its current state, it offers very little in addressing these challenges. 

–Bennett O. Dowling, Horticulturist at the Civic Garden Center

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