The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 21, 2013

Edible and environmental

Edible lawnscaping a sustainable, and flavorful, alternative to turf lawns

By Jean Lundquist Special to The Free Press
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Barb Church could nibble her way from one side of her lower North Mankato yard to the other, though she prefers to let birds and other wildlife enjoy that feast.

The one exception is the four tomato plants she tucks in amongst her flowers and shrubbery. She goes to great lengths to fence out interlopers who might try to beat her to the tomatoes.

Church didn’t set out to have an edible landscape, but thanks to some mulberry trees that were already there, and other plants that have been added over time – some of which she didn’t plant – Church has cultivated a food-rich yard.

Church’s yard has very little area that needs to be mowed. Most of it is a collection of shapes and colors that provides a very textured look.

Among the plants that have “volunteered” in a yard that she says attracts a variety of birds, butterflies and even rabbits, are a Canada red cherry tree, wild grapes, wild roses and milkweed.

“I look at the gardens by the Summit Center, and they are beautiful. But I don’t know how to do that, and it’s not really what I like,” she said of her landscaping decisions.

If Americans ate their yards instead of mowing them, there would be a significant decrease in pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gas-powered lawn mower running for one hour emits the same amount of pollution as a car driven 45 miles.

The US EPA also estimates that Americans spill 17 million gallons of fuel on the ground each year, trying to fill gas tanks on lawn equipment. That’s more than the 10 to 11 million gallons the Exxon Valdez spilled in Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska in 1989.

For Diane Norland, also of lower North Mankato, it’s a concern about land and water that have made her a vocal supporter of an edible landscape. The North Mankato City Council member says she doesn’t speak on behalf of the city, though her work has made her more aware of what is happening to the land.

“Soil erosion is such a big concern, and living next to the river, you see it.”

She said recently reported concerns about the depletion of aquifers we rely on for drinking water also cause her to rethink how we live.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that our green lawn obsession is not only unsustainable, it’s also a bad idea,” she said. “Although grass holds the soil (in place), it’s a waste of water and our resources. We just have to do a more sustainable job of managing our soil and property.”

Norland is a relatively new convert to the idea of edible landscape. She started this year with a small plot by her mailbox, where she grows a tomato, eggplant, Swiss chard and some herbs. She hopes to expand next year, “but I’ll take it one step at a time,” she said.

Her inspiration for the idea hasn’t come from others in the community with edible yards. In fact, except for Church, she doesn’t know of anyone who is doing it locally.

“Not a single soul,” she said, adding that her inspiration comes from her parents, who were stewards of the land. “I grew up on a farm,.”

Norland also extols the virtues of composting.

“You take the remnants, and turn them into soil and fertilizer.” Compost is a soil amendment that both holds water in sandy soils, and loosens heavy soils, allowing water to drain, rather than pond.

For those who say they’d rather look at flowers than vegetable plants, Norland notes that many flowers are edible as well.

“Nasturtiums are very tasty,” she said, with a peppery flavor. Borage plants have blue flowers that taste like cucumber, along with the leaves, and okra is a member of the hibiscus family, with showy blooms.

Norland says a large part of her yard is too shady to support edible landscaping, but there are other ways to avoid mowing. She intends to plant and permit ferns to flourish on the north side of her house.