The fifth of an acre where James and Mary Kniskern live in Arnold was about what you’d expect for a suburban dwelling: grass, azaleas, daffodils in the spring, pachysandras year-round. As you’d expect, it required the drone of a mower and sweat non-equity to keep it in shape.
“I didn’t like to mow,” says James.
But what was the alternative?
Less than a decade later, the Kniskerns are living the alternative. Their yard is like none other on their block. It’s the eco-gardener’s version of The Limbo Song. The How low can you go? part involves occasional weeding, plenty of harvesting … and no mowing.
Before the Kniskerns headed down the wood-chipped path to zero grass, they considered buying into an eco-village, so they visited several throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Each had its quirks, but what they really didn’t care for was the landscaping, which was not as tidy as what they were used to.
“It looked ugly,” James says.
But their desire to reduce their impact on the land propelled them.
“We just started sticking stuff in,” says Mary, of the “odds and ends of edibles” and fruit trees they planted in Arnold. Today, the yard supports at least 100 different varieties, more than half of them edible.
The Kniskerns knew nothing of Food, Not Lawns, a movement to turn grassy yards into food forests while building communities. They hadn’t heard of permaculture, or permanent agriculture, whose ethics are Earth care, people care and resource share. A member of Mary’s church heard about their early efforts and loaned them Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison. James read it cover to cover. Other permaculture books and more experimentation followed.
By mimicking nature’s patterns, permaculture aims toward landscapes resilient to the shocks of unfavorable weather or opportunistic insects. The principle is to make the energy expended in such a system — whether sun, water or human effort — go as far as possible. An example: watering with gravity-fed rain barrels.
The Mid-Atlantic’s native ecosystem, the temperate forest, is amazingly productive, second only to tropical forest in net primary productivity. Tropical forests can yield 9,000 kilocalories per square meter in a year; temperate forest, 5,850 kcal — way ahead of agricultural land at 2,925 kcal. So there’s huge potential for growing much more diverse food here.
Tapping that potential means letting go of grass. Unless grass is the sort grazed by animals that provide eggs, milk, meat or fiber, it “shifts the burden to the intervenor,” in permaculture parlance. The person who interferes in a stable system becomes responsible for maintaining its balance. With grass, this means adding resources: gasoline for mowing, chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides and water for keeping it green.
On its own, grass represents the earliest stage of forest succession in a disturbed space where, perhaps, a tree has fallen. The next colonizers are edible weeds such as lambsquarter or violets. Of a lawn is not maintained, the forest returns.
Permaculture takes advantage of the land’s own bent toward diversity and richness in those early successive stages by creating intermediate and long-range disturbance and using other ecological principles to grow food, create habitat, capture, store and use energy and ultimately, make the place resilient.
From Lawn to Garden
Giving up grass, as the Kniskerns did, means freeing your imagination from what you are conditioned to seeing as normal: a patch of grass, a Norway maple or a Bradford pear, a few boxwoods, maybe some flowers lining the walkway to a front door. In that mindset, you come to see Madame Nature as the Supreme Experimenter. Nature does not abide a void.
Following nature’s lead, the Kniskerns became experimenters. Aside from early maps plotting places where small perennials and fruit trees could take advantage of the sun, they have sallied forth to see what works where — and to enjoy the results. Or abandon what isn’t working, even if that means telling a non-producing plant, “This is your last summer.”
“It’s all learning,” says Mary.
With edible rewards.
“We enjoy eating what we get out of the garden,” Mary says. “You can’t match the flavor.”
Besides avoiding mowers and eating what they grow, the Kniskerns have tried to keep water at home and not running to the Chesapeake.
“The best place to store water is in the soil,” says James, who read a book about the process. So over the years, the whole Kniskern family has dug swales, created berms and added a small pond in back to keep water from flooding the house.
Building soil is another guiding principle.
The Kniskerns have brought in tons of horse poo, composted leaves gathered from neighbors who don’t use biocides and collected free wood chips to create paths.
Now, they have six to 10 inches of topsoil above what was all clay 10 years ago, Mary reports. The slope in front of the house “is getting there.” Up front, strawberries and mints hold fallen leaves in place to decompose and attract earthworms. There too grows a black cherry tomato that resulted from Black Beauty-cherry crosses the couple have let play out.
In a nation with 40 million acres of lawn under cultivation, the experiment does not look normal. It is, perhaps, more like what the first Europeans saw on these New World shores: dense, overgrown, well populated and oh-so-stable.
Past Shock to Satisfaction
The Kniskerns take the raised eyebrows and the opinions of disapproving neighbors in stride.
“You are going to have conversations with neighbors,” James allows. “You say, Thank you for your opinion.”
Step 1 to Cutting Out the Grass
With six to eight months of cool weather ahead, now is time to sheet-mulch beds for spring planting.
“You add, “Here, taste this tomato,” says Mary.
“The biggest thing is people getting used to it,” she adds. “I invite kids because parents get comfortable with it faster when kids learn from it.” Parents who can’t get their kids to eat green anything at home are amazed that their child will eat a leaf of this or that from the Kniskerns’ yard.
The Kniskerns have plenty to give away, and always time for a quick tour. James will hand you a leaf of Good King Henry or French sorrel as he talks of the turkey tail-studded logs that line the path. He’ll tell you about the pond and how the kiwis aren’t doing so well back there. He’s happy to show you his top-bar hive boxes, meant to mimic the hives built by bees in the wild.
As grass has given way to experiment, the Kniskerns have learned “to go with what the plants want” and not “freak out if something doesn’t work. Note it and move on; plant something else there.”
In return, the plants reward them. They harvested four gallons of Honeycrisp apples this year from a tree just in its fourth year. And harvested 10 pounds of potatoes this year — without planting a single one.
Beyond those tangible benefits, they’ve created a community with the plants and all they host: the spiders, the praying mantises, the frogs, the bees, the hummingbirds. Those creatures provide “rest and relaxation,” says James.
And “entertainment value,” adds Mary.
All together, the Kniskerns’ experiment “really tunes you into what’s going on in the physical world,” Mary says.
“It tastes good. It smells good,” James adds.