Rethinking their green lawn as a food source, some gardeners turn to ‘foodscaping’

Our love affair with a perfect, putting green lawn is beginning to wane.

Fans of more eco-friendly modes of garden maintenance bemoan the constant summertime drone of lawn mowers and leaf blowers; and the endless cycle of feeding, weeding and watering exacts a high cost on the pocketbook and the planet, with insect and bird life taking the brunt of it.

According to most lawn-care sites, to stay lush and verdant a grass lawn needs between one and two inches of water each week. That works out to running a sprinkler for 60 to 90 minutes every seven days, which is a lot of potable water to lavish on something purely ornamental, and that’s just the water. Grass lawn devotees also use tons of weed killers and chemical fertilizers, which eventually make their way into the ground water or nearest lake, wreaking environmental havoc.

The City of Toronto moved to restrict the use of lawn chemicals in 2004 and, in 2009, Ontario introduced a complete ban on all “cosmetic” pesticides; Still, lawn care is a multibillion-dollar industry. And Ontario leads the country in turf sod sales at 39.7 per cent of the national total.

But there’s a move afoot to ditch the perfectly edged, well-watered lawn in favor of something called foodscaping. It’s landscaping, but all or most of the plant material is edible and it still offers curb appeal, with hard landscaping and attractiveness a priority. It isn’t the same as parking a little raised bed veggie patch on the grass, and it’s not to be confused with an overgrown front yard of wild flowers or weeds. A great deal of thought goes into the design of a foodscaped lawn, with paths, water features, retaining walls, rain gardens, but little to no lawn and mostly edible plants.

Based in St. Louis, Mo., Matt Lebon founded Custom Foodscaping in 2020, and recently offered an online summit. “This was our very first year doing this,” said Lebon. “We didn’t even know if there was going to be a market, but we were blown away by the response; 200 people signed up and the discussion rooms were poppin’ with lively discussions; our two live panels went almost two hours and the questions continued to come in. We have gotten such incredible feedback from attendees already about how much they needed something like this.”

Many of Lebon’s attendees joined in from Ontario and are working to bring foodscaping here. One attendee was Hamilton’s Laura Buckley, founder of Wild Carrot, who sees grass lawns and balconies as opportunities for creating productive, edible landscapes. Removing patches of grass and replacing it with lush vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees and shrubs is her specialty. With a degree in international development with a focus on agriculture, Buckley designs, builds, maintains and even helps to harvest foodscaped yards.

“Growing your own food is an action that helps to mitigate climate change, gives access to healthy and local food, teaches about seasonal eating and reduces food waste,” said Buckley.

Specializing in vegetable garden design for urban areas, Buckley employs small space growing techniques such as vertical growing, succession planting and season extension to maximize harvest in yards. Buckley’s aim is to create a network of yards that grow food instead of grass. “Lawns require gas-powered mowers and water resources for little to no environmental and social benefit,” said Buckley. “While gardens that feed people and pollinators are more environmentally friendly, engage the community and increase food security. Small transformations throughout our communities can create a happier, healthier society by connecting with others through growing and eating.”

Foodscaping isn’t just for residential spaces. Jane Hayes, co-founder and director of urban gardens and permaculture at Hoffmann Hayes, grew and maintained a two-year foodscaping project at an asset owned by Desjardins Global Asset Management, on St. Clair Avenue West. Colliers manages the building and garden project.

Imagine city streets snaking through neighborhoods filled with fruit trees, berry bushes, hedges of raspberries and low borders of rainbow chard, Russian kale and purple tufted artichokes. Sounds idyllic, but in a city such as Toronto, home to about 12 raccoons per square kilometer, “Foodscaping can be nothing but heartache,” said master gardener and East York resident Veronica Callinan.

“I plan my food in containers on my deck,” said Callinan. “Raised beds or containers on decks reduces the risk of veggie predation; containers can also be moved around to catch the changing light as the summer progresses.

“Toronto is a beautiful city full of ravines and parks and nature,” said Callinan. “Which we love and strive to protect, but we also have so many raccoons, rabbits and other critters that eat vegetation. Foodscaping is a great idea, but losing the fruits of our labors makes us find different ways to grow food.”

There are ways to mitigate the damage though. “To discourage rabbits, I added white clover to the lawn and keep a large pot of dandelions available for them. The clover helps the lawn by fixing nitrogen into the soil and the bees love it. Finding dandelions to pot up for the rabbits is easy, no trip to the garden center needed. The rabbits still take a meal here and there from my veggies, but spend most of their time in the lawn.”

Not ready to foodscape the entire lawn? Virginie Gysel, landscape architect and founder of TreeMobile, would like you to consider at least adding a few fruit trees. Since 2010, TreeMobile, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run initiative, has been selling, delivering and even planting climate-appropriate food-bearing trees and plants for homeowners and community organizations in the GTA.

Ultimately, Gysel’s goal is to increase access to high-quality local food, bring more nature to the city and reduce food miles, all while building a more sustainable community with the Edible Community Garden Grant through Orchard People.

Critters be damned, Buckley’s first foodscaped lawn was in Hamilton’s Delta East neighborhood and included: strawberries, broccoli, kale and Swiss chard; herbs and flowers. “We lived on the corner,” said Buckley. “We really wanted the house to be a showcase for an edible landscape. It’s all about reimagining a lawn!”


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