Erica Zerr sometimes gazes wistfully at the inches-wide strip of grass between the fence and the curb bordering the cemetery across from her house. She dreams of beans climbing the fence, beautifying the scene and feeding passersby with fresh deliciousness. Instead, that grass is weedwacked weekly and put to no good use. “I had an epiphany that grass is weird,” Erica said. “It feels awkward and out of place, and it uses a ton of resources.”
To help bring about a reimagining of Eau Claire’s green spaces, Erica and her husband Gabe Brummet have formed a local chapter of Food Not Lawns, pulling together friends, local farmers, and community leaders to help educate each other and their neighbors about unleashing the potential of the soil. Erica is quick to clarify that the movement is not against all lawns — the meeting itself was held on their own. But grass needs a ton of water (at least half an inch per week) and fossil fuels (through fertilizing and powering motors), making grass one of the less sustainable options for your yard and your pocketbook. The goal of FNL is to break down the conventional boundaries of what defines a yard and encourage people to devote that space to sustainably grow food crops and native plants.
Key to this movement is the idea that vegetables aren’t shameful plants to be hidden in the back, but should be celebrated in the front. “We’d like us all to test our personal boundaries,” Erica said. “If you till up your ground and plant something there, you’d be surprised how much you like it. And you won’t need to mow.”
Another key aspect is promotion of or ganic growing methods is no pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides. Erica is working hard to get this message through to the powers-that-be. “I have been running into quite a bit of trouble with the city, university, etc., as far as what they feel is OK to spray on our ground, in our air, and in our water.”
The national FNL movement began over a decade ago in Oregon. Co-founder Heather C. Flores’s book, Food Not Lawns, demonstrates how to create an urban garden using sustainable methods such as responsible tilling, crop rotation, composting, and water management. Although once considered radical “guerrilla gardening,” the book and its methods are becoming more accepted. Even governments in drought-plagued states are encouraging people to replace their lawns. Although Eau Claire isn’t currently experiencing the water shortages that haunt larger cities, Erica and Gabe think the city’s emphasis on developing sustainable food systems and the tight-knit community with groups like Master Gardeners, Foodlums, and Sustainable Eau Claire make this area perfect for a chapter. “It’s about getting all these groups together and talking about urban gardening,” Erica said.
This project has aesthetic advantages, too. “Rather than a cookie-cutter space, when people replace their lawns you get to see an expression of themselves,” Gabe said. Their neighbor Josh Zeug is working on replacing his entire lawn and chooses to express himself with massive sunflowers that greet passersby. His corn is doing pretty well, too. “I can’t eat it all,” he said. “I give it to the neighbors.”
Eau Claire’s FNL, still in the brainstorming stage, is welcoming ideas and members. Current goals are to establish a public teaching garden for demonstrations such as how to plant a potato or save seeds. It could also be used for field trips or as a public meeting space. They are also working on organizing an email system for people who need help with their garden to write to receive assistance with a project.
This article appeared in Volume One Magazine.