Do edible yards really save water?
The basic idea of xeriscaping—replacing water-sucking plants like grass with drought-tolerant plants and edibles—seems logical. Rip out lawn, save water. Yet, many people who’ve replaced their lawns with edible gardens still feel like they’re using a lot of water. After all, there they are nearly every morning, watering their tomatoes, their squash, their wilting lettuce. Are they really conserving water?
The Rosenbloom family in west Reno has been conducting an experiment of sorts on their 1.2-acre property, with half of that being plantable space.
In 2007, Gary Rosenbloom looked at the family’s water usage and found they were using over 1 million gallons of water per year. His son, Nate, was becoming interested in permaculture, a sustainable ecological landscape design system. So, in 2008, with help from the River School’s Tom Stille and permaculture enthusiast Neil Bertrando, the family began replacing 12,000 square feet of grass with food-producing plants and trees. They kept 2,000 square feet of their lawn.
“I’m enough of a suburbanite that I want some grass,” says Gary.
Much of the first year was spent improving the lackluster soil by adding manure and compost to it. They also converted their sprinkler system to drip irrigation. Then came raised beds near the kitchen, chickens, a greenhouse, water-conserving swales, and most recently, a large, walk-in hoophouse.
Spread throughout the property are more than 500 types of plants—each one selected to support the tree or plant next to it. Comfrey adds nitrogen to the soil while providing food for a tree or the chickens. Vetch attracts bees to pollinate the fruit trees and vegetables. A tall row of Jerusalem artichokes and raspberries provide a small windbreak for the nearby kitchen garden.
This isn’t a Better Homes & Gardens kind of garden. It has some personality, with some plants nearly unrecognizable as they bolt, flower and go to seed for the benefit of other plants, be it to deter pests, provide shade or sow seed for the next season.
“The concept is of a food forest,” says Gary. “Every tree out there has a purpose.”
Gary, an engineer, has kept meticulous records of the water used, the plants planted, the food harvested. He’s also a volunteer business coach for SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). “If you run a business, and you can’t document it, you can’t improve it,” says Gary.
It could be a valuable lesson for Nate, who’s now working on a farm in Washington and who wants to create a nursery business through Loping Coyote Farms, the formal name he’s given to his family’s “experiment.” His sister, Sarah, is also leaning toward a career path involving food production.
While the experiment is far from over, the initial results leave the Rosenblooms feeling good about replacing most of their lawn with food.
For starters, they’ve cut their yearly water usage nearly in half—525,000 gallons in 2010. And so far in 2011, they’ve used 18,000 gallons less than they did by this time last year. In return, they harvested 2,181 organic chicken eggs, 600 pounds of organic produce, added 275 units to their nursery, processed 123 pounds of organic chicken meat, and produced uncounted amounts of berries and forage for the chickens in 2010.
“We can grow a lot of food using a lot less water,” concludes Gary.