“For my 50th birthday, I bought myself a gutter,” quips Janet Lancaster of Clairemont. She’s talking about a rain gutter, that is — the one that Lancaster and her husband Kelly installed on their roof to collect rainwater they use for irrigation. But not a drop goes to watering the front lawn because, for the past two years, the Lancasters haven’t grown a blade of grass in front of their house on Boxford Drive. As it turns out, they’re part of a local trend: locals who willfully kill lawns and replace them with edibles.
In San Diego, as in most parts of the country, an emerald-green lawn — uniform, lush, free from crabgrass, dandelions, brown patches, and other meddlesome irregularities — has long been deemed a marker of suburban success, or at least middle-class conformity. But a certain number of locals have decided to uproot their lawns in favor of food gardens, replacing the real estate salesman’s vision with a more agrarian and utilitarian one.
The Lancasters’ first foray into the world of “food not lawns” occurred in May 2009, when Janet took a course called “Goodbye Grass” (or, as she jokes, “How to Kill Your Lawn”), the first in a series of six weekend classes taught at the (then) Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas. As she recalls: “I’d followed the Victory Gardens San Diego website for a while, and Kelly and I had talked about it.” Kelly adds, “Around the time the city [of San Diego] announced all the water restrictions, we thought we could pitch in.”
Their house, like most of the others on the street, is an early ’60s vintage tract home. One story, it sits on a small lot in a slightly dilapidated area off Balboa Avenue, near the 805, not far from the used-car lots and strip malls that festoon San Diego’s mesas. In times past, it might’ve been termed a working-class neighborhood — not poor, but a little down at the mouth. So there seemed a bit of unselfconscious irony that, by the time the planting had wrapped up, the once-prosaic front yard would yield some rather trendy produce, including passion fruit.
Passion fruit in San Diego? Isn’t that the expensive Hawaiian import rarely seen around these parts except at places like Whole Foods? Well, the Lancasters have an entire specialty-produce section of them: the hedge abutting the street is 20 feet long, five feet high, and filled with shiny, smooth, dappled-green fruit roughly the size and shape of avocados on diets. In a couple of months, they’ll turn black and wrinkled; Kelly says, “When they drop to the ground, they’re ripe.”
Like many in the lawn-to-food set, the Lancasters have tapped into a loosely knit network of local not-for-profit groups whose emphases center around the notion of small-scale food production. Spearheading things locally are San Diego Food Not Lawns and Victory Gardens San Diego, both of which are sponsored in part by the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project, a grant-funded mélange of private and public sector actors. Started in 2006, Food Not Lawns describes itself as a “food justice organization committed to enlightening people about the problems with our food system and working to address those problems with creative solutions.” I asked one of the organization’s board members, Phillip Dunn: “What the heck is ‘food justice?’” He replied, “It has to do with providing wider access to good, healthy food, and advocating that grocery stores locate in low-income areas. It’s also pushing to streamline the neighborhood garden permit process.”
Notwithstanding lofty ambitions to effectuate “justice,” many San Diegans with whom I spoke are motivated not only by environmental concerns, but by the desire to cut water bills; access to cheap, ultra-fresh, organic produce is also high on the list, as is the simple pleasure of watching things grow, and the old gardening standbys of exercise and relaxation.
I asked Janet Lancaster what led them to make the change. “I guess you could call me a tree-hugger. I’m concerned about the planet.”
Whatever drives one to uproot a perfectly healthy patch of lawn in favor of bushes, vines, hedges, or small trees, it doesn’t hurt to have a green thumb or two. According to Bob Greenamyer, director of Victory Gardens, the latter attribute can be learned. (Lancaster claims to have a “brown thumb.”)
The Lancasters had planned to remove the grass in time for a fall “build,” Victory Garden argot for prepping a plot prior to planting. However, killing a lawn, in the environmentally gentle method preferred by the lawn-to-food folks, turned out to be more labor-intensive and time-consuming than they initially thought. “First, we starved it of water for three weeks,” Janet said. “Then, Kelly scalped it, mowed it as short as he could.” At that juncture, they were joined by a band of fellow turf-busters who helped them gather cardboard bicycle boxes they’d found behind stores in Pacific Beach. “We flattened out the boxes, took off all the tape and staples, spread them over the grass, and sprayed them with ten gallons of plain white vinegar.” Waiting in the wings was a 14-cubic-yard truckload of mulch, free from a local nursery, $100 to truck to the yard. This yielded a layer six inches deep over the 900-square-foot yard, which they again soaked with water. To allow the cardboard to break down sufficiently, they would need to give it more time and rain. “We spoke to a ‘master composter,’ who said we’d have to let it overwinter.”
By May 2009, the fescue was doomed, and the second part of the build was on. As they had the prior spring, a group of Victory Gardens volunteers converged. It was now time to build a raised bed, to turn the soil, remove the last vestiges of intact cardboard, and amend the growing medium with gypsum. Using handmade, rectangular screens fashioned from old lumber and chicken wire, they removed rocks and roots. By the end of the day, arugula, carrots, chives, green rhubarb, lima beans, radishes, snap peas, squash, and tomatoes luxuriated where grass had once gulped water.