Reclaiming yards – no dig

Lawns are a strange thing, are they not? They produce nothing of value, require lots of energy in the form of fertilization, watering and mowing, and yet literal millions of acres is devoted to it around the world, especially in North America and Europe.

When you dig into the history of lawns, they really are nothing but an ancient heirloom from a bygone era where medieval kings and queens wanted to show off how wealthy they were and perhaps also easily see whether or not an unfriendly army was headed their way.

Why do we spend so much energy, time, and money on green lawns? At least if they were allowed to turn into flower meadows they would provide much-needed nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, but we generally do not.

Grow food, not lawns!

Let me suggest an alternative instead. Grow food (and flowers), not lawns. In fact, there is a movement devoted to just such a cause!

But, you might be scared of the added work and time spent devoted to growing different plants rather than grass. At least grass is easy to maintain for most, a turn of the lawnmower 1-2 times a week and done!

But growing other things can be easy too, if you take the time to learn and plan your garden (or pay a consultant to help do it for you).

If you want to grow food, my absolute favorite gardener is no dig legend Charles Dowding. He has an expansive YouTube channel where he shows how to do no dig, how to grow many different plants and many, many timelapses and “where we are now” videos to show you the potential and possibilities at different times of the year. Here is his most popular video, but I really recommend giving his channel a visit.

The best thing about the no dig method is that you don’t have to till the earth and in fact, are discouraged from doing so! Simply collect clean cardboard (no shiny or very colorful prints), get a load of compost (you need a lot the first year, less in subsequent years). Charles explains it well again:

Forest garden

If you don’t like the idea of nursing your erstwhile lawn as a productive vegetable garden, perhaps give more of a forest garden feel a try? The goal of a forest garden is to emulate what a young forest looks like, and the main thing is getting plants that occupy all the different layers of a young canopy, such as trees, bushes, herbs, roots/tubers and climbers. The idea being that when you deliberately plant various perennials and self-seeding plants, there will no ecological room for any unwanted weeds to inhabit.

When done well and established, a system like this can require very little maintenance and provide a wealth of biodiversity for local wildlife, flowers, herbs, fruits and other goodies.

My favorite example is Robert and Robyn Guyton’s gorgeous food forest in New Zealand:

Start where you are

Obviously, establishing a no dig garden or a food forest (or bits of both! I am a big fan of both) is not done in a week or even a year. But just like Angela’s last post about baby steps to ecofrugality, we can do a lot by simply starting, doing a small thing and improving upon it the next year.

In the shared yard that we bought 2 years ago, large parts of the yard is still largely grass. We have started in a small garden by laying down cardboard and compost for a small kitchen garden about 3 meters by 2 meters, and we have bought some berry bushes and other perennials for planting in a slope.

I am very much in the beginning stages of my gardening career. It would be folly (and expensive!) of me to try to turn the entire yard into a productive garden in a season on top of a full time job. We don’t have the health or the money for such a venture for one, but I also think it is a recipe for disappointment to bite off more than you can chew, especially at the beginning. I hope that my small gardening and permaculture experiments in this garden will mean that I can convert more land faster when we do eventually find the homestead we want.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that plants move at their own pace. Start doing one thing and do it well, feel mastery and accomplishment, and then maybe add more things as you are able and have space in your garden.

Let’s grow some more useful plants!

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2 thoughts on “Reclaiming yards – no dig

  1. Perfect timing!
    I established a ‘no-dig’ garden bed in my old house and put an orchard on it. It worked beautifully.
    In this new house, I’ll be doing a similar thing in the front yard – I’m thinking a mix of food and flowers.

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