It’s the voracious thirst of turf that sets off those who uproot grass in favor of grub. The anti-grass gospel centers around the inefficiency of cultivating an inedible crop — turf — in a climate that can’t support it year-round without irrigation. Janet Lancaster, who claims significant water savings since removing the front lawn, quips, “Grass is pointless. Brown grass is really pointless.”
By the time I visited the house on Boxford, the Lancasters were celebrating their second summer of harvests. As he showed me around the yard, Kelly referred to a succession of plants as “volunteers.” I didn’t understand at first. Pointing at a sprawling tomato bush as tall as my head, he explained, “We didn’t plant that one — it’s a ‘volunteer.’ When I made compost, a few seeds got through and grew on their own.” Volunteer or conscript, he’s not perturbed by the imminent bumper crop. “I could eat tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Perhaps the most striking aspects of the Lancasters’ lawn conversion aren’t the edible, but the accoutrements and methodologies in place. Take worm “castings,” for example; not only do these folks buy and propagate earthworms for their garden, but they harvest the invertebrates’ feces by collecting waste after it falls through the holes in the plastic worm boxes. “We make worm tea. It’s great for controlling pests. We take the castings, put them in a balled-up pantyhose and soak it in water. Then we spray the plants.”
The Lancasters also go to great lengths to conserve and recycle water. Kelly shows me a hand-printed roster of units and dollars expended via their bi-monthly water bill from the City of San Diego. It shows a 30 percent or so reduction from summer’s peak-season usage in 2008 to 2010 (numbers from 2011 are pending).
To increase water savings, they’ve harvested rainwater and recycled gray water. Here’s where the rain gutters (“the good ones, $1000 — seamless,” says Janet) come in, feeding six 55-gallon polyethylene drums that sit below. The drums, four at each corner of the house, are brick-red numbers inscribed in Greek and Italian. Vaguely amphora-shaped, they’re European, imported via the internet at $110 a pop. Between each gutter-spout and the drum is an old tube sock that serves as a filter. Kelly says the water, which they use to irrigate their edible crops, is good enough to drink, better than San Diego tap water, at any rate. Gray water, on the other hand, water recycled from their washing machine via a hole drilled in the wall, is used for ornamentals and for flushing toilets. It’s low tech: the water splashes into a big plastic trash can, and from there, it’s poured into smaller buckets that once held kitty litter for their cat Boots.
I visited Bob Greenamyer’s personal victory garden on a mild, sun-splashed afternoon in May. At first glance, there’s nothing about his front yard that stands out, nothing that says, “I’m an anomaly in Scripps Ranch.” It’s subtle, perhaps even elegant, in an understated fashion, with lavender in bloom, miniature citrus trees and drought-resistant shrubs; there’s also a cadre of blue-green artichoke plants, some with nascent, spiky globes. But what’s radical, at least for this neck of San Diego’s woods, is what’s not here — grass. Greenamyer (with a name like that, he quips, his avocation “just had to be”) doesn’t have the smallest patch of Bermuda or rye in his back yard, although there is a rather incongruous-seeming artificial-turf putting green.
After the retired elementary school principal shows me around a bit more, the plastic grass starts to make sense, not in terms of aesthetics, but as evidence of the water-conservation tie-in that many lawn-eschewers promote. Collecting and impounding rainwater, and using it in sparing fashion, are at the heart of Greenamyer’s approach. He admits that for the majority of lawn-to-garden converts, his irrigation setup would be impractical, as it entails two water storage tanks, 1000 and 700 gallons, which are filled with water directed by the rain gutters on his roof. At a cost of around $2000 for the system, it wouldn’t be possible to recoup the investment unless “the utilities were to charge the real rate for water.”
Other home-food gardeners with whom I spoke claim that one needn’t spend exorbitant sums to save modest amounts. In the case of the Lancasters, total expenditures on behalf of a front-yard installation, including the complementary water-harvesting/recycling system, have amounted to around $2000. Accordingly, with water usage cut in half, they’re no more than a couple of years away from breaking even, not counting savings accrued by limiting store-bought produce. (For the record, Janet Lancaster admits to having paid landscapers around $8000 less than a decade ago to have Marathon fescue turf and a pop-up sprinkler system put in.)
Greenamyer, who converted his lawn in 2008, and other lawn-to-food advocates say that the lawn-conversion trend in San Diego County has also been spurred by the “slow food” movement. “People are more concerned these days not only about healthy eating, but about where their food comes from. There’s a focus on eating locally and seasonally.” According to home-farming fans, eating what’s grown nearby is not only better for the palate, but, in the economic scheme of things, the most sensible and efficient method for getting produce from the ground to the consumer. Greenamyer says: “San Diego has the largest number of small farms in the state, and California has the largest number of small farms in the U.S. But 95 percent of the production goes out of California, while 95 percent of what we consume here is imported from other states and countries.”
Eric Chamberlin, a librarian who’s in the process of transforming his “crunchy and brown” front lawn to food, doesn’t like those numbers at all. “Every bite of food we eat has traveled an average of 1000 miles.” Being self-sufficient is “a matter of long-term survival…because we’re running out of oil.” Last year, Eric and his wife Ingrid bought a run-down but spacious foreclosure property in East Oak Park, near the College Grove shopping center. For the Chamberlins, fruits and vegetables are just the beginning, the first phase of an “overall lifestyle change” that will eventually include raising pygmy goats for milk. (They plan to petition the City of San Diego for permission to keep the goats on the property.)