Lawnless and loving it
A southwest Reno family decided to eat their front yard
Before Keli and Shawn Brown bought it, their house on Patrick Avenue had one of the greenest lawns on the block. Its previous owner took care of lawns for a living.
So imagine what the neighbors thought when one of the first things the Browns did was let the grass die.
“They did look at us a little funny when we first moved here,” says Keli.
One neighbor told Keli of her maple, “You know, that tree is going to die if you don’t water it.” But that was exactly the point. The Browns replaced the yard’s water-sucking trees with less thirsty fruit trees, like cherry.
And all that dead grass in the front yard? Shawn, a former stonemason, crafted handsome raised beds made from river rock and filled them with soil in 2003. The Browns have amended the soil each year since with homemade compost. As for irrigation, they just converted the existing sprinkler system into drip irrigation. By the summer of 2005, this predominantly vegetarian family of four was able to get nearly all of their produce from their garden, with more to spare.
Less water, more food
On a recent spring day, daffodils nodded their heads at the walkway leading toward the house. A bee searched for pollen in a grape hyacinth. Lavender grew clustered by the doorway. White flowers from last year’s arugula stretched for the sun. Strawberry plants sprawled across the ground. Mustard greens tossed up yellow flowers. And yet, the Browns haven’t planted anything this year. Nearly everything blooming or growing on this day had been planted in previous years, including the full heads of Swiss chard, the leafy artichoke plants that overwintered, the rosemary, lemon balm, purple-headed chives and full-grown leeks. Tomatoes, tomatillos and lettuce also returned on their own last year, having self-seeded.
Planting perennials and self-seeders was very intentional for the Browns. “Ideally, it should be a self-perpetuating system,” said Keli. One that should, eventually, take less work than maintaining a lawn, with its fertilizing, aeration, regular mowing, and, of course, watering.
“If you’re going to use the water, to grow food seems like the most intelligent way to use it,” said Keli.
Shawn said he waters each section about five minutes a day. That means his garden uses roughly as much water in a week as the lawn would use in a day.
The Browns also don’t need the chemicals associated with maintaining a “healthy” lawn.
“We don’t fertilize,” said Shawn. “We compost and build good soil. You can’t have a lawn without fertilizer, and all that stuff runs off.”
Not that the Browns are anti-grass.
“I’m into grass as community space—open space,” said Shawn.
“But it’s just ridiculous in terms of water conservation,” added Keli. “Just knowing you can grow that much food and use less water, and it’s a healthy family activity.”
The Brown’s 13-year-old twin boys, Cassin and Tenaya, play in their grassless back yard, where their four chickens live. But they also spend a lot of time in this garden, either grazing on the goods, giving other kids tours of it, or doing a little gardening themselves, often without their parents asking them to.
Full frontal gardening
The Brown’s garden turns the idea of a vegetable garden on its head. A rectangular plot of dirt with rows of tomatoes and corn it is not. It weaves, curves and meanders. It flowers and blossoms, attracting bees and deterring pests while growing fresh vegetables. It smells great.
Perhaps if more vegetable gardens carried similar characteristics, fewer people would crinkle their noses at the idea of a front yard veggie patch. For some reason, while grass and flowers are well-accepted in the front yard, vegetables are banished to the back of the house. Some people think they’re not as pretty—have they seen the purple blossoms on an eggplant, multi-colored rainbow Swiss chard or peppers on the vine?—or they’re afraid someone will steal the front-yard harvest, or worse, allow their dogs to pee on it. (Passers-by have been quite respectful of the Brown’s front yard.)
There’s also the what-will-the-neighbors-think aspect. For that, the Browns say communication can go a long way. As the land was undergoing its transition from lawn to edible garden, they told the neighbors it would look bad for about a year but that, given time, it would be beautiful. When that promise came true, they shared the extra harvest with their neighbors, some of whom were inspired to start their own vegetable gardens. One even planted corn in their front yard.
“You don’t have to go big,” said Shawn. “We went big. You can start really small. If you have one tomato plant, and you harvest them, they might be the best tomatoes you’ve ever eaten, and it might inspire you to do more.”