Every San Diegan lawn-to-food devotee I met to one extent or another views water conservation and recycling, along with organic farming practices, as an integral part of the movement. That’s not to say that they’re all community activists of the “Birkenstocks and bikes” mode. When I meet Charles Anacker at his rambling hillside lot in La Mesa, he is wearing a T-shirt bearing a Food Justice logo. He says, “I just liked the design. I’m not into the political stuff. You don’t have to be a leftist to do this. All kinds of people are interested, maybe even a few Christian fundamentalists.” For some, like Judith Griffith, 68, labels are irrelevant. Griffith, who recruited her grandsons to build a gopher-proof battery of four raised beds in her heretofore crabgrass-infested front lawn, says, “I have always been what is called ‘organic’; to us, it was just ‘natural.’”
According to Mel Lions, founder and board member at the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project, lawn-to-food locals are “limited to those people who eat food.” When I asked him if certain ideologies or demographics typify the trend, he replied, “It’s broad-based. Who doesn’t like fresh produce that you eat the moment it’s picked? There’s also satisfaction in knowing the history of your food.” Lions says it’s not mandatory to despise lawns. “They have a place. You can’t play baseball in a vegetable garden, for example. And a lawn is a nice place to play with your infant. But they shouldn’t be the dominant culture. The [lawn-to-food] movement isn’t so much a reaction against something as it is a proaction in favor of something else. Years ago, it was the norm to have a vegetable garden at home. We’re just going back to that.” He also touts the home-cultivation of edibles as a superior form of exercise. “Some people go to the gym and pay to use a treadmill. What do they get out of that? Nuthin’. But when you go out to your garden, you get fresh air, exercise, and a basket full of produce.”
Many San Diegans who’ve done the heretofore unthinkable plow-over of sacred turf got their know-how at one of the county’s five regional garden centers. Established under the grant, they’re located in a mix of urban and rural settings: City Heights, Encinitas, National City, South San Diego, and Spring Valley. According to Greenamyer, these “garden ed” classes fill up fast. “The demand is greater than the supply.” Even laconic Bob exults, “Interest is huge.”
San Diego offers a copacetic venue for the front (or back) yard farmer. Our benign climate gets high marks. Greenamyer says, “We have a Mediterranean climate here, so we can grow just about anything.” Given the breadth of his own plantings, it’s an accurate assessment. To wit: one part of the yard has rows of raised containers hosting beets, cherry tomatoes, onions, snap peas, zucchini squash, and a plethora of herbs. Another patch is given over to fruit trees, varieties of apples, apricots, and others that skirt the usual winter “chill hour” needs. There’s also a section dedicated to citrus, a gathering of red grapes staked to the side-yard fence, and near the back property line, edible nasturtium flowers.
Is the effort worth it? Even if one can harvest quantifiable (albeit modest) savings in the form of lower water bills, does it make economic sense to uproot a lawn and replace it with veggies? When I asked Greenamyer whether lawn conversions result in lower food costs for the home-grower, he was equivocal. “It depends on how you value your time.”
There’s a lot to learn after you’ve yanked the last stubborn plug of Bermuda grass. To that end, it’s imperative to educate yourself about sites and soils, micro-climates and drainage, the kinds of details that standard-issue, HOA-friendly lawns don’t bring into play. Among these factors, soil composition is deemed to be the most critical; the county’s predominant clay is reviled. Janet Lancaster declares, “We have the best growing conditions and the worst soil.”
If it’s soil quality (or lack thereof) that serves as a common lament, it’s the art of composting that offers earthly salvation. For the uninitiated, the manufacture of compost would seem no more involved than a simple tossing of “stuff” into a container and standing by for rot, but to La Mesa’s Charles Anacker, it’s an art.
I met Anacker on the steep driveway that snakes up his ramshackle hillside lot. Fresh on the heels of taking a master composting class, he talked about the joys of decomposition. He walked over to a series of barrels and dug his hands into the rich, near-black admixture he’d created. “Feel this. It’s amazing how hot it gets in there, up to 150 degrees.” It was hot, all right — and it smelled a little like old coffee grounds, courtesy of Starbucks’ “grounds for gardens” program. Next, he directed my attention to a pile of cut eucalyptus logs and spoke about “hugelkultur,” the creation of raised soil beds by burying rotten wood.
Anacker, a furniture designer by trade, recalls that when he and his wife moved to La Mesa in 1990, they “inherited a large front yard, an old gas mower, and lots of gophers.” Never a turf fan, Anacker says he “gave the mower to a local gardener and decided to dedicate my large front yard to becoming a meadow and natural habitat. I didn’t know where this was going to lead, but I knew I didn’t want to poison my soil with chemical fertilizers, poisons to kill the gophers, or sprays to control insect pests. We planted a few fruit trees and allowed the skunks, rabbits, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, foxes, black birds, field mice, and Mexican parrots to call our front yard home.”
The Anackers’ first, tenuous efforts at creating a food garden failed; because they were unwilling to sacrifice the shade provided by rapidly spreading trees, the first plants died. Nowadays, with some of the big eucalyptus felled, you’ll find cherimoya, guava (both standard and “pineapple” varieties), kumquat, orange, and quince trees. On another section formerly devoted to Bermuda grass (which Anacker alternately praises and curses for its tenuous rhizomes), he’s crafted two 19 x 12 plots. One of the pest-fenced gardens has three raised beds planted with bell peppers, spinach, and tomatoes. The other’s going to be dedicated to fava beans, primarily so that Anacker can use the greens to enrich the soil for a future, still-undetermined crop. “After we eat the beans, I’m going to cut up the rest of the plant material as a nitrogen-fixing mulch.”