Edible Landscaping

Eating your way across your lawn provides the ultimate in local food. Photo: TheGardenBuzz via Flickr.

Lawns are such a staple of the American landscape today that it may come as a surprise that such devotion to a mere patch of manicured grass isn’t something with deep historical roots.

Originally lawns were communal grazing plots of small villages, largely managed by the animals, who in turn transformed sunlight captured by grass into energy for transport, work in the fields, or meat and dairy.

Later, lawns became a decorative feature of the estates of the nobility, a sign of such copious wealth that the lord of the manor need not cultivate crops or plants there, but could instead enjoy a sea of perfect turf, ideal for walking or gazing upon.

Ultimately, as the rise in wealth of the industrial revolution allowed us each to have our own mini-manors, lawns trickled down to the common person, complete with a bed of otherwise unproductive grass that the owner tended to meticulously in an effort to “keep up the neighborhood.” Imitation of the nobility was thus complete.

Resource intensive and unproductive

Lawns can, of course, be beautiful.

But grassy lawns not intended for animals also require a lot of work and use a lot of resources (water, energy, chemicals) to provide little more than beauty. And, putting all of America’s lawns together, they’re one of the top sources of pollution and runoff in the form of chemical pesticides and herbicides. This damages topsoil and reduces fertility, imperiling future harvests while making our food and water toxic today.

At a time of fossil-fuel decline, environmental degradation, and global warming, the 2.2 billion gallons of oil used annually on American lawns for mere beautification and manicuring becomes wasteful and harmful in the extreme.

You are what you eat (or what you grow)

Fortunately, there’s an alternative, and it’s one that more and more people are taking up. It’s called edible landscaping, which is really the perfect storm of a solution in a world facing compound problems in economy, ecology, and energy.

There’s a wonderful new book, The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden, that provides guidance on how to turn even the smallest home space into a food production zone. Whether you landscape with containers, or all over an expansive yard, using edible plants, berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, and seasonal vegetables, it can help get you started.

But if you’re like me, sometimes talking to someone about it is even better. That’s why I was so glad to have Michael McConkey of the Afton, Virginia firm Edible Landscaping on my radio program — Real Life with Jennifer Till — this past Saturday.

Michael is an old friend of mine and I couldn’t be more privileged to know someone of such an optimistic disposition who is so enthusiastic about living a life in balance with nature. It’s inspiring and impressive that Michael and his family have been promoting the edible landscape since the business opened it’s doors in 1979.

Visitors to McConkey’s nursery can certainly be forgiven if they find themselves thinking “Wow, this looks good enough to eat!” Because everything is! Everything you see from flowers to bamboo trees is meant to be consumed.

But if you don’t live near Afton, you can navigate their website you set a sense that this is about more than just planting things you can eat. It’s about our relationship with our bodies, with the earth that sustains us and with one another.

McConkey’s rich wisdom and experience in cultivating plants, as well as how to make any outdoor space a food producer rather than exclusively ornamental, is the kind of advice and insight anyone who gardens — or who is curious about the movement toward more local foods — will want to hear.

Even if you are not a gardener, but you like eating and living in harmony with the natural world, you’re not going to want to miss a minute of the next hour. Listen to the show here.

–Jennifer Till, Transition Voice