Backyard Farming: Don’t feed your lawn — let it feed you

Picture a yard. Did well-fed grass accompanied by the drone of a lawn mower come to mind? You’re not alone. But when RI resident Jackie S. thinks about a yard, she pictures sunflowers and daylilies and hears the chirping of yellow finches, orioles and blue jays. In her yard, Jackie has created a space that challenges her fellow Americans. “I want people to look at their boring grass and think, ‘I can do better than this,’” she says. Each growing season, Jackie aims to fill her yard with as many veggies and flowers as she can, and lets nature take the reins as her landscaper. 

When asked what inspired her to create such an extravagant garden in lieu of the standard American display, Jackie recounts walking through her grandmother’s yard as a child. She describes the seemingly endless array of herbs, fruits and veggies growing in the small backyard as magical. “The best of who I am came from being in that space,” she says.

Jackie often talks about the animals and life that has come to the one acre lot since the garden has grown to its massive scale. A visit to the lot feels like entering a Disney movie — countless birds feast on seeds, and bunnies hide in every bed of lettuce. A family of snakes lives near the porch and the frogs and bugs know to keep clear unless they want to become a snack. The cherry on top is the hawk who watches over the whole garden, ready to catch any critters hiding in the numerous beds filled with food for everyone to share.

And Jackie has a duck. “I love my duck,” she says. “She’s adorable. But don’t ever get a duck unless you are a farmer.”

So why don’t more people do this? The idea of a grass lawn dates to 16th century England and France where royalty would showcase large crops of useless, yet healthy, grass as a sign of their wealth. Meanwhile, the peasants sensibly farmed their small bit of land because they literally couldn’t afford not to. This ridiculous display of excess has continued into modern day where everyone with a lawn has their own little mini kingdom of grass, and we have all become slaves to a useless crop.

Our country stands for freedom and diversity, yet we have standardized our dreams, symbolized by these well-groomed, yet fruitless crops. As Jackie puts it, “Anything is better then the monocrop we call grass; it doesn’t support diversity.”

But what about having a yard for our kids to play in? That is precisely what your kids will have in a garden like this. They will be free to learn and explore as they pull up potatoes and pick bowls full of berries or watch the bunnies nibble on greens. Maybe grass is better for mindlessly kicking a ball around, but that’s why we have the park. After spending time with Jackie, I’m a convert and no longer get the concept of a lawn. Perhaps a lawn is for — I don’t know — standing? What else can you do with grass? Watch it grow? Mow it?

The bottom line is that a salad made up of grass would taste awful, no matter how much ranch dressing you add. Jackie chooses to plant useful crops like tomatoes and fruit trees, along with actual salad greens. There is no feeling like cooking a hamburger, walking over to the organic garden to pick a fresh leaf of lettuce, rinsing it with the hose then plopping it onto the burger and enjoying it around a backyard campfire. That seems more like an American ideal we can aspire to, rather than a lawn with one single prominent crop where all the diversity is forced out with chemicals.