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Finding New Roots: Switching a Lawn to a Food Forest and Pollinator Garden

The Way We Manage Our Yards Can Help Reverse the Loss of Biodiversity in Our Immediate Surroundings

~by Jonathan Cloud, October 2022

Last year we bought a small house in Brighton with a quarter acre of lawn. I knew right away what I wanted to do with it, especially after the first time mowing it. So we sought some help from a local permaculture designer, Patty Love, and she showed us how to turn the entire lawn into an enriched planting bed for fruit trees and native pollinators.


The process is called sheet mulching and starts with a dumpster dive for large cardboard boxes (check behind appliance stores). The boxes are then laid out flat in order to completely cover the grass. The boxes are then covered with eight inches or more of leaves. We actually cruised our own and several other neighborhoods, grabbing those big leaf bags that homeowners put out on the curb, collecting a couple of hundred bags in the process.

On top of the leaves, we spread fresh wood chips, which landscapers are happy to dump in your driveway for free rather than having to take them to a landfill and pay the tipping fees. The wood chips hold the leaves in place and provide a walkable surface, especially after being pressed down by snow during the winter.


We did the sheet mulching for about eighty per cent of the yard, leaving some grassy areas in the front and rear of the house—first, so as not to upset the neighbors and second, to give us a place for barbecues and family gatherings. One large area in the rear we fenced with rabbit wire, chicken wire, and deer netting as a vegetable garden, using mostly 6’ bamboo stakes. To establish paths around the yard, we skipped the leaves and put wood chips right over the cardboard.


We did most of the work in the fall, and then in the spring we planted fruit trees and berry bushes and hazelnut shrubs and as many compatible companion plants as possible. Permaculturalists refer to these as “polycultures” or “guilds,” the idea being that certain plants assist the trees by providing nutrients, repelling pests, and so on.


We’ve also started converting the grassy edges between the sidewalk and the street to native pollinators — with the surprising but welcome blessing of the town, which has embraced the work of Doug Tallamy. This is what our own “lawn conversion” has been about — restoring the vitality of the soil, the rich organic medium achieved by sheet-mulching the land, and then adding compost to everything.


The New York Times says, “Kill Your Lawn, Before It Kills You:”

While the lawn may be a powerful symbol of American post-war prosperity, it’s also an ecological dead zone that’s sucking the nation’s aquifers dry. In this video essay [the creators] argue that it’s time to kill your lawn, not just to save the planet, but for your own health and sanity too.


America’s love affair with lawns should have ended long ago. But most Americans still do not realize that:

  • the quantity of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers we’ve poured onto the land,

  • the amount of fossil fuels used and often spilled in mowing them.

  • the fresh water used and sent to storm drains; and, indeed,

  • the utter waste of resources used to create compacted soil, which is an environment inhospitable to life, in order to achieve an illusion of English turf

The absolute minimum we need to do to restore enough of the Earth’s surface to health so that it can carry humanity through the era of climate and biodiversity collapse, (that is already occurring in many parts of the world) is to recognize our responsibility:


We are fortunate to be living in a climate refuge area (close to 20% of the world’s fresh water, rarely impacted by severe storms and floods, or heat waves and forest fires); and seen from this global perspective it is our duty to preserve and enhance our bioregion, to make it a carbon sink rather than a carbon source.


It is in this context that the need to start replacing our lawns with food forests and pollinator gardens becomes clear: to restore the bioregional diversity and help heal the climate. Each of us has a responsibility to steward the land we have borrowed from our grandchildren. It may be a small lot or a grand estate; it doesn’t matter, because every yard contributes its capacity to flourish or its barrenness to the neighborhood, and from the neighborhood to the community, and from the community to its region of the living Earth and from the region to the planet.


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