The future of the immaculate British lawn is under threat, claims a new report from the Royal Horticultural Society: rising temperatures will deliver a triple-threat of dryness, weeds and pests that gardeners will have to navigate if they want to maintain their manicured emerald rectangles. Some reports have even suggested we do away with lawns altogether and just substitute them with fake green turf (gasp!) to avoid the inevitable hassle.
But will it be worth it? Let’s be honest, what do lawns really do, anyway—other than satisfy that odd part of the human ego that thrives off the sight of evenly-clipped grass? In fact, how about we really shake things up and just turn our lawns into vegetable patches, instead?
That’s the idea behind Fleet Farming, a group of amateur farmers in Florida who are slowly transforming people’s lawns into food gardens in the city of Orlando. “Land is scarce and it’s expensive, but in America we have more than 40 million acres of lawn,” says co-founder Chris Castro, who is also Orlando city’s sustainability director. “So that’s an enormous amount of food that potentially could be grown.”
Their approach is simple. Homeowners contact Fleet Farming (or vice versa) and offer up their lawns for conversion. They have to show that the land has been pesticide-free for two years before they can turn it over. A suggested donation of $500 covers the start-up costs—though it’s not obligatory, and homeowners can pay in instalments if they wish. Then the organisation orchestrates a ‘Swarm Ride’, in which volunteers cycle en masse to the plot, where they till the soil, plant seeds, and care for the farm.
At harvest time, a portion of the produce goes straight to the homeowner, and the rest is distributed via neighbourhood markets and local restaurants into the surrounding community. This system of farming and sale has allowed the organisation to be financially self-sustaining, Castro says.
So far, they’ve transformed 21 Orlando lawns into ‘farmlettes’, with a handful of others sprouting up also in Jacksonville Florida, and in California.
A project of environmental solutions incubator IDEAS for Us, Fleet Farming is founded on the concepts of urban farming, and inspired by the pioneering movement for ‘Food Not Lawns’. But what makes it unique, Castro claims, is that it integrates all the major components of a food system at the neighbourhood scale. Fleet Farming wants to build an agricultural system “within neighbourhoods, not just within cities, to do it by bicycle, and at the same time empower the community to help build, maintain, process, and sell goods to local restaurants and farmers markets.” It’s what Castro calls “a hyper-local solution.”
The particular problem they’re trying to help solve extends well beyond the scope of urban farm plots. “Food systems are incredibly unsustainable,” Castro says. “We’re transporting our food 1,500 to 1,800 miles per person, per plate, per day. And in addition, we’ve seen that almost a third of global emissions is coming from the industrial agricultural complex.” Fleet Farming sees its smallscale land-use changes as a way to help steer agriculture towards a decentralised, localised and lower-impact future. “The heart of what we’re trying to accomplish is a zero-carbon agricultural program,” Castro says.
It’s also giving lawns an eco-conscious makeover. In a 2005 study, researcher Cristina Milesi worked with Nasa scientists to reveal, using remote sensing, that lawns in America cover an estimated 40 million acres. In another study, Milesi then calculated that there’s a potential 16 to 23 millions acres of irrigated lawn, specifically, in the US. “That puts irrigated lawn area next to, or just behind, irrigated corn area,” says Milesi, who is now the scientific director at the Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Palo Alto, California.
The disadvantage, of course, is that these blank green spaces don’t produce any food. Add to that the plethora of pesticides showered onto lawns, which can seep into soil and water systems, and the expulsion of biodiversity as the grass monocrop replaces flowers, shrubs, and trees.
On Fleet Farm plots, these problems are replaced with rows of vegetables: kale, cabbage, radishes, potatoes, spinach, cowpeas, and pumpkins now carpet former lawns.
Arguably, the initiative is better suited to the many-lawned neighbourhoods of suburbia, rather than the inner-city environments that would probably benefit the most from its promise of food security. “One thing that worries me is that in the largest inner cities there are not that many lawns to be replaced,” says Milesi, who however applauds the effort and thinks that the vacant lots that pepper high-density urban areas could instead be repurposed as farms.
The organisation is also taking concerted measures to extend beyond the bounds of trendy urban farming utopia, into lower-income neighbourhoods where the lack of fresh produce creates food deserts.
Recently, they got a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up farms in Florida’s low-income Parramore neighbourhood, along with a local farmers’ market so that produce gets directly to residents. They’re trying to forge a different path to many other organisations who have historically been weak on community engagement, and watched their efforts fizzle out as a result, says Lee Perry, Fleet Farming’s director.
By working alongside local neighbourhood businesses, churches, and non-profits, “our organization aims to rally people together before the construction of their first farmlettes,” she says. The idea is that this helps to weave it into the fabric of a neighbourhood, after which fleets of local volunteers will provide the momentum to keep the project alive.
With fewer than 50 lawns converted, Fleet Farming is still working at a relatively small scale, planning to build up gradually to create a sustainable, self-supporting network of neighbourhood farms, says Castro.
But people are eager to see it spread: in Orlando alone, there’s already a waiting list of more than 400 people who want to volunteer their lawns. “In fact, 724 communities have signed up to branch Fleet Farming into 20 other countries,” Castro says. “We’re seeing this as a global opportunity.”