April 2, 2010

DENIS THOET: Sacrificing half your lawn allows you to help feed world’s hungry

How would you like to be able to solve the world’s food problems?

Turn your lawn — at least half of it, anyway — into a vegetable garden.

Here’s the math: Americans have about 20 million acres of residential lawn. An intensively managed acre of garden can feed 50 families for half a year, or 25 families year-round. So year round, 10 million acres of lawn can feed 250 million families, or roughly the population of North America.

That’s a start.

And you still can keep the other half of the lawn on which to waste fuel (mowing), water, fertilizers and time.

Between 30 percent and 60 percent of all fresh water in the United States is used to water lawns; lawn mowing uses up more than 500 million gallons of fuel a year; a typical lawn mower gives off more pollution in an hour than a car driving 20 miles, and we are spending $5.25 billion per year on lawn fertilizers.

When I first came to Long Meadow Farm in 1998, it wasn’t a farm. It had a 3-acre hay field in front and 6-acre hay field in back, 17 acres of woods — and a 1-acre lawn. Now the front field is mostly garden, much of the woods have been turned into pasture, and the lawn is under relentless attack.

The former owners took their riding mower with them, so for a couple of years I labored with a noisy, polluting power mower. Then we built a chicken house and run, put in a 40-by-40-foot vegetable/herb/flower garden and accepted the donation of a rotary, human-powered mower. As almost everyone knows, even the best rotary mowers leave a lot to be desired, so last year, we bought a battery-powered mower that seems to be up to the task.

We have never wasted an ounce of fertilizer or water on the lawn, and it continues to thrive in its diminished state.

But the real attack on the lawn begins this year. Last fall, we got a lot of cheap landscape cloth and covered a 30-by-60-foot section of front lawn with it. After the ground thawed, we took off about half the cloth and began whacking away at it with pick-mattocks. The sod was surprisingly easy to break up. Soon, we will take off the rest of the cloth and dig up the full-sized bed.

With a lot of hay mulch, the soil will be perfect for this year’s potatoes. In fact, most of our lawn is better drained and more suitable for growing vegetables than our clay-bound front field that we have labored hard to bed up and keep from flooding each year.

My goal is to reduce that former acre of lawn to a 40-by-50-foot patch at the entrance to the house, and keep another patch about the same size on the west side of the house where the leach field resides. It would also make a good badminton court.

Another reason to turn lawn into garden is last year’s disastrous experience with late blight, a super-rainy June and July followed by two months of virtual drought.

That taught us that we are going to have to diversify our plantings — even on a relatively small amount of land — to protect against nature’s extremes.

Potatoes, tomatoes and beans suffered the most in our wet, clay soils. We planted 250 pounds of six different varieties of potatoes and harvested about the same amount. Perhaps we would have been better off sharing the seed with our Community Supported Agriculture members rather than spending all that time planting, hoeing up and harvesting.

But that was then; this is now. In farming, “Past performance doesn’t predict future events.” Why should we have a horribly wet summer again this year? Well, we just ended the wettest March in Maine history.

So, let’s save the world, one-half lawn at a time.

Denis Thoet and his partner Michele Roy own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner, longmeadowfarm@roadrunner.com

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