Think of all the yards in Edmonton and the billions of blades of grass that consume our time, our water and our space. Whether it’s Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue or perennial ryegrass, the goal of having a traditional lawn is the same — keep it green and free of any other species.
We even compete with neighbours to have the perfect patches of green. But while the grass may always seem greener on the other side of the fence, it’s never sustainable. Some parts of the world including Nevada, where drought is an issue, have taken note — and have restrictions on the amount of grass people can plant, as well as prohibitions on overwatering the turf.
Excessive use of water isn’t the only issue with lawns. Synthetic fertilizers deplete soil of nutrients; pesticides kill beneficial insects; and the lack of diversity leaves pollinators hungry. Meanwhile, homeowners squander valuable space that could add to local food production and create relationships in their communities.
“Lawns are the default option,” says Kazimir Haykowsky, owner of Spruce Permaculture, “Some new homes even have bylaw requirements that require lawns. So, now they’re the default not just in our society, but in law and legal agreements.”
But many Edmontonians see the possibilities in their own back (and front) yards. Haykowsky’s among them. His front yard overflows with cherry trees, silver buffalo berries, saskatoons and currants. He also created a hügelkultur — a mound of buried compost and wooden debris — that resulted in 15 pumpkins from a plant that spanned the entire space.
He uses the techniques of permaculture to design yards with plants, animals and insects working together as a unified whole. It’s the antithesis to the perfectly manicured lawn. With a lawn, you might use herbicides to eradicate weeds, but, in permaculture, some of the plants traditionally considered “weeds” are in fact native species, which are encouraged — even planted — rather than eradicated. And they intermingle with vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs.
Permaculture is just one option of many. Through organizations such as Food 4 Good, some homeowners share their yards with those who want to grow their own food. Haykowsky is also working with a local group of gardeners to start an organization that will use public and private lands for growing food. Another option is to grow native plants, including clover, which add nitrogen to the soil, require less mowing and provide food to pollinators. More diversity could be added by growing various native wildflowers, shrubs or trees.
For many, it’s hard to break away from the traditional look of a flawlessly green lawn. Often a more natural look is misunderstood as laziness rather than conscious effort on the part of the homeowner. It’s a matter of perception, one that’s been cultivated over centuries and even reflected in policy. The City’s bylaw 14600 states: “A homeowner may not have unkempt grass or weeds in excess of 10 cms.”
Native grasses and wildflowers far exceeded that height restriction in a yard that Liz Deleeuw, a board member and grower for the Edmonton Native Plant Society (ENPS), helped defend against the City. Since City staff rarely deal with native species, they weren’t familiar with the ENPS.
“Members of the Society were able to convince the city that the plants were native species and would not pose a threat in the sense of being weeds,” says Deleeuw. “More education is needed in that sense.” The idea that all native species are weedy is a common misconception, says Deleeuw. Some native species spread quite easily, while others do not, so it’s really a matter of knowing what types of plants work best for urban environments, says Deleeuw. But native species, even those that spread fairly easily, are not considered invasive or a threat to diversity.
The ENPS met with city staff to discuss how regulations could be revised to ensure native plants are legal in yards. The City now provides details about natural landscapes on its website and even included a Natural Yard category in Front Yards in Bloom in 2014.
Lady slippers grow alongside domesticated plants in Deleeuw’s yard; it’s a design that contrasts closely clipped lawns and vacuumed rocks in nearby lots. “I once had a neighbour comment: ‘Liz you have a lot of work to do,’” says Deleeuw. “And I’m like, no, not really.”
That’s part of the beauty of a more natural landscape. It’s far more diverse and complex than a lawn, but also less maintenance once established. In permaculture, for example, each plant adds something that helps the whole system function properly. So, lupins can fix nitrogen in the soil, silver buffalo berries attract pollinators — Haykowsky once saw five different native bee species on one silver buffalo berry plant — and hops could grow up an apple tree and discourage pests.
“As the fruit trees mature and shrubs grow they create less work and produce more food whereas, with a lawn, you’re still mowing and watering it the same amount or more as our conditions become drier,” says Haykowsky.
Native plants in many cases can actually thrive in difficult growing situations like gravelly hillsides or dry sandy prairies, says Dawn Watts of Medieval Manor Gardens, which sells native plants and offers workshops. Ironically, those who are accustomed to frequently watering and fertilizing may find them challenging to start as the plants often prefer natural soil conditions with less precipitation. However, once established, they are generally easier to maintain than many other greenhouse counterparts.
Watts says perfectly manicured yards don’t just create excess work; they can actually create cycles of imbalance. Quick fixes like pesticides might eliminate an aphid problem but also kill ladybugs, a natural predator of aphids, creating a bigger issue.
While some people don’t know the names of their neighbours’ plants, there are plenty that also don’t even know the names of their neighbours. Generally speaking, says educator and designer Kenton Zerbin, city residents have very few — if any — exchanges within their community when it comes to food production or anything that affects their daily existence. But growing food or even just being outside more can create opportunities for conversations between neighbours.
Haykowsky experienced it firsthand when he collected about 50 bags of leaves from his neighbours to spread on his own yard. He even learned about a local park that was being redeveloped. “I gave them some suggestions of plants that could be put in there and we’d have discussions and they were just amazed with what was possible with the food you can grow,” says Haykowsky. Those who want to experiment have unlimited options even in our climate including: Kiwi, grapes, black walnut, apricots and a native hazelnut tree.
But for most, keeping it simple is the key. While grass likely will still be a staple in many yards for years to come, more people are starting to change their perceptions. The initial work involved in creating a more natural landscape can result in less work and far more rewards in the long run.
Kenton Zerbin, an educator and designer who offers seasonal Edible Landscaping Workshop Series, says that many people no longer have knowledge of growing food or of species that naturally occur in our area.
“People are very disconnected from their landscapes. It used to sustain them. Now, we have very superficial relationships with them,” he says. As a result, many don’t know where to start when looking at trading in their grass for something more sustainable.
“I would advise people start with hardy perennials,” Zerbin says. It’s best to first observe one’s yard and the conditions that would serve different types of plants. Then, add a few key producers such as an apple or cherry tree before slowly adding other species. Adding elements like a fence or rocks around plants can help to create a more manicured look. Or, people can maintain some patches of grass and intersperse different species in certain sections to provide more diversity.
To maximize the harvest, some homeowners plant flowers amongst edibles to attract pollinators. Watts suggests growing a variety of native plants to feed these beneficial insects throughout the season. Prairie Crocuses are among the first to open in late March; Canada Violets bloom from May to April; in July, Red Columbine is a hummingbird favourite and Goldenrods blossom late in the season. The colour of the blooms can impact what you attract. Hummingbirds gravitate towards red and fuchsia, while bees can’t see colours in the red spectrum and instead prefer yellow, white, light purple and blue flowers, says Dawn Watts.
Liz Deleeuw suggests thinking about the origin of the plants you buy before adding them to your space. Sometimes, plants bought from big-box stores are sprayed at the original greenhouse with neonicotinoids, a systemic pesticide, cause a decline in the numbers of pollinators, according to an article in Science.