Why not turn your lawn into food?

Bernice Shepherd

According to Domain magazine, there are more than 4400 hectares under turf in Australia’s backyards.

And that doesn’t include parks and nature strips.

Most of this turf is around the coast, where land is fertile and rainfall is highest.

Although lawns reduce ambient temperatures in summer, they use a lot of water in dry years (at least 30mm a week), need constant mowing in wet years, and provide no food for humans or wildlife (except maybe lawn grubs).

But a garden full of fruit, vegetables and flowering plants uses less water (24mm a week or so).

And it reduces ambient temperatures and provides food and habitat for all of us.

Think how many air miles and carbon emissions would be saved if most of our food was transported from the backyard to the kitchen rather than across the world by truck and plane?

In a world where fresh produce is not getting any cheaper and water is a precious resource, growing your own seems like a better option.

So is it time to dig up our lawns and grow food?

For those having horrified flashbacks to the muddy mess that was Tom and Barbara’s backyard in The Good Life, the reality is that you don’t need to convert your entire garden to a suburban farm – a lot of food can be grown in a small, un-muddy space.

Starting a patch can be simple and inexpensive and winter is a great time to do it.

Start with a small patch, no more than one or two square metres. A small patch is manageable and is easy to extend if you want to.

Choose a spot that gets a reasonable amount of sun and preferably has some shade from the scorching western sun in summer (deciduous trees northwest of it are ideal).

Select a spot you can see from your window or door or you walk past every day.

The closer the bed is to your house, the easier it is to tend it on a regular basis.

If it is tucked away down the back, it is easier to forget about it for days at a time and it will be less easily managed.

There are a number of ways to create your garden bed and all of them involve getting rid of the gardener’s nemesis – grass.

Double digging

Double digging is an oldie but a goodie if you have a strong back and plenty of energy.

Use double digging to turn the soil over, pulling the grass and roots out as you go.

Add organic matter in the form of compost and/or manure and work it through.

To prevent grass from creeping into your crops, edge the bed with a small trench – grass cannot cross over thin air.

There is a good page on double digging on Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_digging

And there are videos on YouTube.

There is some debate over whether it is good or bad to dig the soil: it is true that digging deeply can adversely affect the soil structure, which is not what you want in a soil that is already healthy, friable and full of organic matter.

But if your soil has been under lawn for decades, it is probably very compacted, deficient in nutrients and will need some aeration and additions.

If so, digging is not going to hurt it at this point.

Make a no-dig bed

If the thought of double digging brings you out in a cold sweat, an easier method is to make no-dig beds.

This is great for very compacted soil that is a challenge to dig.

You can edge your bed with sleepers (best to avoid ones that have been used on rail lines – they can have asbestos from brake linings) or corrugated iron sheet or use a commercially available raised bed.

Or you can simply make your no-dig bed on the ground without containing it.

Put thick brown cardboard on the bed area to smother the grass and keep out light.

Place the edges of the bed on top of the cardboard.

If your bed is quite deep, build up layers with sticks and prunings at the bottom then straw, compost, manure and green material on top – like a garden lasagna.

If your bed is shallow or has no edging you can leave out the twigs and prunings.

Water your new beds to speed up decomposition. Add a splash of seaweed and molasses to the water. Sprinkle some blood and bone.

By spring it will have composted down, will be full of microbial life and, with the addition of a layer of garden mix to plant into, it will be ready to use.

It takes several years to break down completely – so the bed will need to be topped up every so often, with soil or compostables.

Grow vegies among your ornamentals

For those who wouldn’t mind having some food growing but balk at having a vegie patch, why not grow some food among your flowers?

Many vegetables are beautiful as well as delicious and can grow well in the spaces between your flowering plants, provided they have similar nutrition and water requirements.

Kale, chillies, carrots, fennel and cabbage add an interesting contrast in an ornamental border.

Lettuce, rocket, spinach and other leafies can benefit from the shade provided by other plants, especially in summer.

And herbs can add fragrant foliage and attract bees to flower beds as well as being medicinal for you and your plants.

Whether you want to become a backyard farmer, have one small vegie patch or just want to keep a supply of herbs for your cooking – if you have lawn, there is space for some food in your garden.

So why not save water and air miles, create habitat and reap the benefits of healthy, delicious food straight from the soil?

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