Lawn grass is the largest irrigated U.S. crop. “Even conservatively,” notes NASA researcher Cristina Milesi, “I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.”
Wow, that’s a lot of ornamental grass — about 128,000 square kilometers worth, roughly equal in size to the state of Wisconsin. According Milesi, keeping all of that grass green requires about 200 gallons of fresh, typically drinking-quality water per person per day. (Interestingly, Milesi does find that lawns are net carbon sinks, but she doesn’t mention emissions associated with mowing.)
Happily, people are increasingly finding more productive — and delicious — uses for their little patches of land. From the Wall Street Journal lifestyle section:
As consumers balk at the rising cost of groceries, homeowners increasingly are cutting out sections of lawn and retiring flower beds to grow their own food. They’re building raised vegetable beds, turning their spare time over to gardening, and doing battle with insect pests.
The article cites evidence from all over the country that people are investing time, money, and yard space to veggie patches. For example:
At Al’s Garden Center in Portland, Ore., sales of vegetable plants this season have jumped an unprecedented 43 percent from a year earlier, and sales of fruit-producing trees and shrubs are up 17 percent. Sales of flower perennials, on the other hand, are down 16 percent.
The article profiles enthusiastic home veggie gardeners across the country. A woman in South Carolina explains the appeal:
You get a pack of seeds for a dollar or two, and you have got a whole bed of organic vegetables for a fraction of what you’d pay at the store. And they taste better.
It should be noted that this Journal article is describing a distinctly comfortable-middle class phenomenon: Homeowners, shocked at the price of fancy organic veggies, getting their hands in the dirt.
Laudable as the trend is, it’s not for everyone. As the above-quoted South Carolinian noted, she laid out $500 to get her initial garden going. That’s more than people living hand-to-mouth can afford — even ones with lawn access.
But that doesn’t mean the pleasures and benefits of veggie gardening can’t — or aren’t — being broadened.
First, there’s the burgeoning community-garden movement. Then there’s stuff like what I discovered last summer during a trip to Chicago, where I met with folks from a group called Growing Power at a garden site in Grant Park, near Chicago’s lovely lake front.
Eat your park: Growing Power in Chicago.
Growing Power exists to improve food security and build wealth in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago and Milwaukee through both urban farming and linking inner-city consumers to nearby farms.
And in one of its many programs in Chicago, the group had been hired by the city to create and maintain raised vegetable beds in Grant Park, an area normally covered in grass and ornamental landscaping. To do so, Growing Power provided paid jobs to inner-city teens who might otherwise be unemployed, working at McDonald’s, or caught up in various illegal trades. In the process, they bring affordable organic and truly local food into areas that lack access to supermarkets.
That seems like a much better use of a public jewel like Grant Park than maintaining a bunch of stuff that tastes like, well, grass.