In the United States there are millions of acres of lawns, many of which are chemically treated with fertilizers and herbicides. Those chemicals end up in our waterways creating pollution which destroys aquatic habitat and sickens aquatic life. There are other ways to maintain a yard, some of which entirely eliminate a mono-cultured lawn, in favor of gardens of various descriptions. One such method is a forest garden that mimics a natural forest or woodland. A forest ecosystem has seven layers (root, groundcover, herbaceous, shrub, understory tree, vine, and overstory tree) that create a huge amount habitat with niches for all manner of life, while also producing it’s own rich, dark soil. With intentional design and plantings, yards even with mature overstory trees can be incredibly diverse with plants for food, medicine, pollinators, fiber, and fuel. Such a yard is replete with interesting and beautiful sites, sounds and smells in contrast to the awful smelling, boring to look at, chemical soaked carpet of grass maintained by companies like TruGreen Chemlawn, such as the one two houses down from where I currently reside.
For the past year, my wife and I have lived in the home of a friend who maintains a wonderful forest garden. It is filled with medicinal plants that she uses as an herbalist and plants that attract many species of beneficial pollinators. There are perennial plants that come back year after year in pulses timed to ensure there is something wonderful to see each month of the growing season along with trees and shrubs that provide color in the autumn when the leaves turn. There is a glorious old oak tree that towers over the back yard and another in the front. There isn’t a single blade of grass to be mowed here which to me is a beautiful thing. A newly installed pond provides habitat for amphibians and water plants as well as a peaceful place to sit and simply be observant of all the life around the backyard. She also designed a labyrinth for walking meditation which I have availed myself of and find extremely calming. Birds of various kinds come to eat at feeders or glean from the shrubs that are planted. Squirrels chatter and argue with one another over space and acorns. There is a profusion of bright colors for most of the year and then in the wintry silence this beautiful forest garden rests waiting to re-emerge in the spring.
We could do an enormous amount of ecological regeneration by converting lawns to forest gardens, kitchen gardens, market gardens and mini-farms, or wildlife habitat. We could build community resilience and build relationships by sharing space and sharing the surplus food or medicine produced in these new gardens of Eden. We could create beauty and eliminate toxins from our suburban landscapes simply by going from having a lawn to creating a garden. We could make life a good deal more interesting too!
To learn more about designing forest gardens I recommend the following resources:
I hope the following photographs from this forest garden prove inspirational.