Mari Keating’s suburban street is like many others across the country, lined with front lawns of straight green blades and beds that hug homes with hydrangeas, black-eyed Susans and an assortment of other flowers. Then there’s Mari’s yard. Her focus is not maintaining perfectly manicured grass. Instead, she devotes most of the space to a garden bed. Five-foot tall magenta stalks of amaranth, pretty pink cosmos and citrus-colored marigolds grow beside plump cherry tomatoes, dark-green kale, cucumber, broccoli and a handful of herbs. Nestled among the food and flora is a sign that includes three short words that explains it all: Food Not Lawns.
Mari once grew all of her vegetables and fruit in her fenced-in backyard, where she keeps her rain barrels, bee hives and compost bins, private from and out of sight of her neighbors. But while she was working on her permaculture design certification, Mari discovered Heather Jo Flores’ book, “Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community,” and realized she had hidden the best section of her yard.
“It was very obvious that all of my values were expressed in the backyard,” says Mari, who now runs the Cleveland chapter of Food Not Lawns. “And the front yard was that perfectly anonymous little green square that said, ‘Please like me.’ When I saw that so clearly, in conjunction with feeling that I needed to bring my values more face forward, that’s when I decided to plant the front yard.”
Now her lawn is a conversation piece, a gathering place and inspiration for other neighbors — blueberries and more are now popping up in front of other homes on her road. She now knows more people who live on her street than ever in her 15 years of residing there. She recalls one particular neighbor who used to walk her dog by Mari’s lawn.
“Every time she would walk past my house, she would stop and fill up her pockets with cherry tomatoes and eat them on her walk with her dog. And I love that. I always grow them next to the sidewalk so people can help themselves. I even put a sign out at one point, inviting people to please help yourself to the cherry tomatoes,” Mari says. “Because that’s the other message of [Food Not Lawns]. What if we all grew food? What if everywhere we walked there were trees dripping with fruit? To have the experience of being able to pick something and eat it as you walk, I felt so happy that I could give that to her. I could contribute that little piece to her happy walk with her dog.”
And that’s exactly the kind of community Heather Flores envisioned when she started Food Not Lawns.
Mari Keating grows dozens of vegetables, fruits and herbs in her front and back yard, mixing together marigolds and kale, cosmos and cucumbers and more to create a beautiful, edible garden
Spreading the Seeds
The idea for Food Not Lawns started while Heather was working with Food Not Bombs, a group that cooked free meals in the park using surplus produce donations from grocery stores, farms and other businesses in Eugene, Oregon. Heather, along with a small group of activists, decided to supplement what they were making and grow their own food, and at first jokingly referred to it as “Food Not Lawns.”
“We wanted the people who were eating Food Not Bombs to realize the food was growing in the ground, that this is a thing you can actually grow yourself. It was kind of like the whole idea of, give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime,” Heather says. “A lot of folks who were coming to the servings weren’t necessarily homeless. They were people who had houses and could have been gardening. ”
The first Food Not Lawns chapter started in 1999 in her kitchen. She posted a flyer on a refrigerator in a home she shared with a half a dozen others. Tobias Policha and Nick Routledge quickly joined her and helped her create a garden in their neighborhood, and they spread the word and expanded the group the old-fashioned way — through face-to-face conversations and local meetings. They started handing out plants instead of produce.
Heather doesn’t dictate how the now more than 60 Food Not Lawns chapters across the country handle their individual groups. Her only request is that leaders organize a seed swap each year so that members can gather and share plants, and that people “get off Facebook and get into the garden.”
“We can social network until we’re blue in the face, but then we would have no food,” Heather says, noting the trend of people who spend more time typing than planting.
Heather, who was raised on fast and processed food, like many Americans, first saw a vegetable growing from the ground in her mid-20s, and realized how powerful it was.
“The main thing that really surprised me at first was how much [food] there was. Sure, getting a garden started is a lot of sweat, but once we got stuff in the ground, it was like, ‘Oh my God. There is so much food.’ Having grown up around people who are poor and struggling and the culture of the inner city, and realizing what an illusion it was that food is not abundant and so expensive was meaningful to me,” Heather says. “In Eugene, we were really working on a neighborhood scale. We were working with a community of about 2,000 people, and that’s what I really advocate. Start with your neighborhood and spiral out.”
Sharing the Idea
Word of Food Not Lawns started to spread. The group organized free local workshops about food gardening, and Heather received a grant from Eugene to help create a neighborhood-wide permaculture course for just $40. Then she began receiving messages from people in places like Montreal and Michigan who wanted to start their own Food Not Lawns groups. After a dozen or so emails, she decided to write the book, and chapters began sprouting up across the country. Before the book came out in 2006, there were about 10.
The book teaches people how to start their own front food lawns, creating healthy soil and a beautiful design all while encouraging biodiversity, how to turn barren, forgotten land into a garden and how to foster community using the gardens by organizing events. She emphasizes the importance of the seed swap.
“It attracts a wide demographic. You’ll get all sorts of people from all over town. Religion or politics or race, none of that matters at all,” she says. “It’s just the gardeners, and the seeds represent this incredible biological diversity and it represents the diversity of us as a species.”
And the other goal, of course, is encouraging people to put the food in front.
“We put food in the front lawn so our neighbors can see it, and I’m really into having it beautiful in the front lawn. If you want to have a crazy, messy, weedy jungle of a garden with tons of food in it, that’s awesome. It’s an invitation,” Heather says. “But I think it’s even more powerful when people make it beautiful. That is radical. People who are mowing and fertilizing then say, ‘My lawn is a waste of time.’ Lawns have this weird aesthetic to them that we love, but the neighbors have peaches falling off the tree, and it’s inspiring.”
7 Steps to Starting a Local Food Not Lawns Chapter
By Heather Flores
1. Do the research. Read a bunch of books, websites, and articles before you start gardening and organizing stuff. Even if you are a seasoned activist, but especially if you are not, it helps to clarify your plans and build a functional collective. Check around locally and see who else is doing these types of projects. Go to their events, read their newsletters, and see how the new Food Not Lawns chapter can best serve the community.
2. Develop an infrastructure. Set up a contact point such as a website and email address, a post office box, phone number, or all of the above. I use my personal phone number as a contact point for public projects all the time and have never had any problems from it. The originator of a new group must accept the spokesperson role at least until the first meeting, but consider electing additional contact people early on. This invites a deeper level of participation from new people, and gives the budding project a fuller and more visible existence. Post your contact info at FoodNotLawns.com, and I will add it to the International Directory.
3. Initiate the group. Choose a time and place for an initial meeting. Make a flyer, write a press release, and promote your group for about a month before the first meeting. Tell all of your friends about it, and ask them to tell their friends. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper. Make announcements at other community events. And use the internet; that’s what it’s for. In this day of rampant self-promotion via internet social networks, you should be able to reach a large portion of the people in your town in a short amount of time. If people volunteer to help you, ask them to put in a few hours spreading the word. With each new individual you contact come limitless possibilities. The more you reach out, the more people, resources, garden sites, seeds, plants, and possibilities you will find.
4. Delegate tasks. At the meeting, brainstorm about potential projects, garden sites, sources of plants and seeds, etc. Most small-scale urban garden projects only need a few people to tend them, so it often makes sense to split a large meeting into small affinity groups of people who live in the same neighborhood and/or want to do the same specific projects. I strongly recommend a task-based organizational structure, in which the group brainstorms a list of tasks without much discussion around each one, and then each individual takes on those tasks which they are willing to complete. Any leftover tasks are then either scrapped or contracted out to someone outside the group. This system works perfectly for this type of project. Start your list of tasks with the rest of these steps.
5. Locate resources. Get donations from farms, seed companies, and local businesses. Write a letter about your project and ask people to donate surplus seeds, plants, tools, soil, and money. There are free plants all over the place where you live. Train your eye to see them. Some garden nurseries get new stock every week and will allow a regular pick up of donations throughout the growing season. Most seed companies only send out donations once a year, in the Fall or Winter. The Cascadia chapter of Food Not Lawns organizes an annual seed swap, and our first couple of events included huge giveaway tables of donated seed packets from several popular organic seed companies. Now the people who come to the seed swaps bring their own homegrown seed, and we don’t need the donations anymore, which is excellent news—more for you!
6. Educate each other. Depending upon what types of things you can find for free, you can take any or all of several angles at this point. You can host a weekly seed and plant giveaway session, perhaps even at the same time and place as your local Food Not Lawns meeting. You can find garden sites and grow your own gardens or nursery stock, then give away the surplus or sell it to raise money for new projects. You can find people who want to turn their lawns into gardens, but are for some reason disempowered to do so, and help them get started. You can organize educational workshops, conferences, or other events. Or come up with an approach of your own. But first and foremost, to grow Food Not Lawns, at some point you must…
7. Grow food not lawns. If you don’t know how to garden, organize a series of classes and find a local expert or three to teach them. Basic gardening is easy, and even advanced techniques can be learned in a short time. Most experienced gardeners love to share their ideas with others, so tap the flow of experiential information in your direct community. Knock on doors where lush gardens grow and invite the inhabitants to join your group. Go to the library and devour the gardening section. If your library doesn’t have books on organic gardening, ecological design, or permaculture, request some. Don’t worry about the details, just start gardening and the knowledge will follow.
Changing and Growing
Right now, Heather is running the organization and the website alone. Her goal is to create a better infrastructure for the group and to visit all of the Food Not Lawns chapters starting next summer, organizing workshops and asking people what they need. Also in the works is another book that teaches people how to create a Food Not Lawns chapter, so that “people realize they can do this themselves.”
Mari takes the first book to Cleveland Food Not Lawns meetings, and has more on hand for people who want to purchase them. Her dog-eared copy was resting on a patio table beside a bowl of fresh-picked tomatoes, another container with juicy peaches and a garlic head outside in her garden oasis that includes pears, aloe plants and lettuce.
Mari knows some of the statistics about lawns by heart — there are more than 45 million acres of lawn in the U.S., spaces that don’t “feed anybody or anything,” that require watering, cutting, chemicals and more to manage. Growing a variety of plants and flowers not only feeds her family, but helps support native animals and insects.
“These habitats we can create in our front yards have an impact. I’ve often wondered how long the hummingbirds and monarchs that stop at my flowers have to go to get the next one,” she says. “When you grow food on your land, even if it’s one tomato, it completely changes your relationship to where you live. It anchors you. Growing food, which nourishes you and sustains you, on your property, really changes who you are and your commitment to that place.”
For more information and a how-to on starting a seed swap, visit Food Not Lawns.
Photos by Michelle Simakis, with the exception of the photo of Heather Jo Flores