Gardening · Homesteading · Urban Homesteading

How To Grow Food Not Lawns And Make Your Urban Neighbors Happy

Today’s ramblings about grow food not lawns come from a Facebook post of a friend awhile back, who talked about her love of green grass. Which, I will give to her: I do get the love of it. But I can’t say it upsets me when most of the Pacific Northwest lets their lawns go dormant every summer. However, I grew up rural and we never had a lawn. We had fields. And now, after a 15 year urban break of living in a town, we have….fields, once again. I joked to her that the only “grass” we have is the septic field, and since it is green, the deer hang out eating and pooping on it. Probably not the “roll on the grass” people fantasize about. Especially since it has blackberry vines and weeds growing in it, that I pathetically try to mow over.

Years ago I first saw the slogan Grow Food Not Lawns pop up on early Facebook. It was one of the first times it clicked in my mind that maybe we could have something else. When we moved to an actual town, we had bought a standard house with a patch of lawn out front, and a lawn in the back. It was a typical town lot. Just enough grass to walk on, but not enough to overwhelm one. I dutifully mowed it, hating every second of it. At least we had an electric mower (then later a solar charged battery one), but listening to neighbors with their smelly, and very loud gas mowers wasn’t relaxing. All so you could have the luxury of pouring vast amounts of water and chemicals on non-native grass. To try to keep it green I wondered about it enough that I read up on it. Kirk and I started fundamental changes that would influence and change our lives.

It’s easy to say to people “Grow food, not lawns” and post memes on Facebook, or hashtag that on Instagram. Sounds simple enough, right? Just make that decision, and start ripping out your sod. Soon your yard will look like that dream on Pinterest, am I right?

But yet….it is a huge chasm to get there, if you live in an urban setting in a town or city. Or even worse, you are under an HOA’s governing. Your ability to take that lawn and turn it into something productive – for you, for using less water, for the environment – may be strangled by HOA and town rules/laws. In some towns the city can force you to tear out gardens, no matter how attractive they are. HOA’s can fine you exorbitant fees if you don’t conform. And force you to return it to grass – and pay those fees on top of it. When we lived in our previous town, it was very hard to find houses not under an HOA. Towns love HOA’s, because it takes the burden off the city and onto the homeowners. For example, street lights are billed to the HOA, parks are maintained by the HOA, not the city. The first one we lived in, for 10 years, was very relaxed and during the recession it became almost too relaxed (sadly, many houses went into foreclosure in it). Our last home we were at for 4 years. It was a new-ish development, so had a more conservative HOA.

I have a friend who has faced issues with the city she lives in, being told her plants are “too tall” and must be removed. If a bureaucrat can find something to argue about, they will. In most cases if you have happy neighbors, you won’t have trouble stirred up for you.

Advice if you are in an HOA:

• Meet your neighbors. Feel them out and let them know you love gardening. This alone will show you if you will have an uphill battle. A neighbor who believes nothing but solid green grass in August and who applies Round-Up liberally will be a hard sell.

• Join the HOA board. Become part of the solution. If things are not looking your way, get on the board and use your influence to change punitive measures. I got on ours the first year, and stayed there till we moved, making my way to President for 2+ years. I took a highly punitive board and mellowed it out. Solar panels? Sure, as long as you get it signed off by the board. Remove your lawn and put in rock gardens? Why yes! Lawns allowed to go dormant all summer? Of course! But I have to think my style was not common in boards. I got interesting feedback, but most were positive. If I wasn’t getting people to see it my way, I always presented the environment benefits, and people would often then agree.

• Buying a home with an HOA will limit you no matter what, but you might have a fighting chance if you get involved.

• Read the by-laws carefully. A few times. Some boards will claim things that don’t exist in the actual printed laws. Always have a copy of the by-laws in case trouble stirs up. Often boards will “interpret” the rules.
• Before doing anything major or permanent, petition the Architectural Control Committee (ACC) for permission. For example, as part of our last house, to remove vast swaths of lawn, I petitioned, and was granted an approval to remove and replace. Just detail out what you are hoping to do, and how long it will take. And get it done. They don’t want to listen to neighbors complain about your muddy front yard that is half done for a year.

• Always have it in writing. Because often boards change yearly, and a new member may decide they don’t like what you are doing. Having signed off ACC paperwork goes far.

Advice for living in a town/city:

◦ Meet your neighbors. Feel them out and let them know you love gardening. This alone will show you if you will have an uphill battle.

◦ Read the laws for the area, and know what you can and cannot do. In progressive areas chickens might be allowed (usually no roosters), but you might be told you cannot do an urban farm on your front lawn or have goats.

◦ Know that if your neighbors complain to the city, it will cause issues for you. Be polite, bribery with fresh produce goes far.

◦ Don’t store stinky items near fence/property lines. It’s common sense for sure, but not storing manure by Neighbor Bob’s patio makes friends. Store your tools after using them and keep your yard from being an eye sore. If you want that, move to the country.

The converting:

▪ Before you dig out even a bit of grass, sit down and think about what you want. It may be hard to picture it, and things change over time. But more, that if you are removing all the grass, you will want to have a plan to start on.

▪ Semi dwarf fruit trees on one side? Raised garden beds? Walk paths? Compost bins? A work area for prepping produce and plants?

▪ Do you want to convert your back or side yards? Also the front? You will need to chart the sun exposure

▪ Do it in small amounts, so it isn’t as noticeable, rather than ripping out all your lawn at once. Neighbors are often nervous when something changes quickly. The fear you won’t finish it, property values going down.

▪ Keep things below fence height. In most neighborhoods fences are about 6 to 7 feet high, though in older areas, they can be 3 to 4 feet high. The less that is visible, the less likely people will complain. If you don’t have a fence, and you can swing one, put it up! Fences make good neighbors.

Finishing it:

▪ Urban gardens/farms will have less issues if it looks finished. Spend the money/time on filling in pathways with mulched wood, beauty bark or crushed gravel. Make it look like a park, rather than Beaufort’s Hillbilly Pea Patch. And frankly I have tried to remember that gem even living in the country.

▪ Add in features like benches, seats, a table, bird baths, trellis, and so one. Garden decor for walls and fences also helps with a finishing look.

Running it as an urban farm:

Keep in mind that people tend to be more lenient if it is a garden, rather than being run as a farm. Read up on city/town laws and if in an HOA, know if you can run a business from your home. Some HOA’s outright ban it. An increase in traffic will get you noticed and you may not be allowed to put out a sign. Always have a business license if required in your area – anything you do wrong, or cut corners on, someone will find out if they don’t like what you are doing. Also research if doing this will be an insurance issue. Some home insurance companies won’t cover accidents if you are running a farm, be it urban or not.

We ran ours as quietly as possible and didn’t have open “farm days”, nor did we advertise our address. Those who were customers knew where we were. This way our neighbors were appeased,

And I won’t lie…it was a pushing reason to go rural and not have to worry so much.