Eat Your Lawn

The idea of using edible plants instead of, or mixed with, ornamentals has been around for hundreds of years. Creasy notes that ancient Egyptians (considered some of the world’s first landscape designers) included figs, pomegranates, dates, and other edibles in their walled “pleasure gardens.” Persians combined edible plants with ornamentals from about 400 BCE through the 1700s, and medieval monastery gardens were planted with herbs, fruits, and vegetables throughout the Dark Ages.

In the United States, Colonial landscapes included fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables out of necessity, but vegetable gardening fell out of style as eating exotic out-of-season produce and the convenience of shopping at a grocery store became symbols of higher economic status. During World Wars I and II, the U.S. government introduced the victory garden program, which encouraged citizens to grow their own produce to aid in the war effort. USDA stats show that by 1943, 20 million victory gardens (planted everywhere from front yards and window boxes to empty lots and public parks) provided 40 percent of the country’s fresh vegetable supply. Once they were no longer promoted as a citizen’s patriotic duty, Creasy says, the gardens waned in popularity.

Back to the Land

Dervaes believes that a desire for self-sufficiency—spurred by food transportation costs, the economic downturn, and global warming—is motivating people to reevaluate the idea of lawns. “They’re actually taking matters into their own hands.”

Jean Schanen and her husband, Glenn Huff, agree. “We think having a local food supply is just real crucial for survival,” Schanen says. “As transportation becomes more costly and the food delivery system breaks down, people are going to need to grow their own food.”

The retired couple grow about 15 times as much food as they need on their eighth-acre city lot in Bremerton, a Navy town in Washington state. They’ve placed raised vegetable beds on top of their lawn; put peach, cherry, and apple trees in boxes on their carport; created a strawberry garden on the garage roof; and built a small greenhouse to sprout seedlings. They sell what they don’t eat at a local farmers’ market.

In Pasadena, Dervaes says he’s gotten requests to hold weddings in his yard, and folks stop by to take photos. “In the city if you can turn ordinary cookie-cutter lots to where people are saying they want to be married here, well, that’s special,” he says. Others use his yard as a model, bringing spouses by to see what can be accomplished. One man even told Dervaes that after visiting Dervaes’s garden, he couldn’t fall asleep. He was still up at midnight planting seeds in his front yard.