America’s largest crop is a lawn. Could it be a garden?

Mark Bittman, the amazing cook and bold columnist for the New York Times, tries to restrain his temper as he reports on how some suburban governments are citing homeowners for transforming their lawns into gardens.

He grumbles

…several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando[1], where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables.

As if gardens were somehow an official eyesore, or inappropriate.

Of course not all governments are so homogeneity-obsessed. Here in the Southwest, in places like Las Vegas and Tucson and Ventura, cities are encouraging residents to transform their lawns to xeriscape or ocean-friendly gardens. But as Bittman points out, and a scientific team from the University of Montana (featured by NASA's Earth Observatory) has documented, the lawn is this nation's largest crop.

Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International[3] estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens “could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.”

Ten percent is optimistic; even 1 percent would be a terrific start, because there is a lot of lawn in this country. In fact it’s our biggest crop, three times as big as corn, according to research done using a variety of data, much of it from satellites. That’s around a trillion square feet — 50,000 square miles — and, since an average gardener can produce something like a half-pound of food per square foot (you garden 100 square feet, you produce 50 pounds of food), without getting too geeky you can imagine that Doiron’s estimates are rational.

Lawns are not exactly the enemy, but they’re certainly not helping matters any.

An especially striking picture from the University of Montana team, led by Christina Milesi, found a clever way to map lawn extent. See here:

Isn't it striking how wide-spread the extent of lawns really is, regardless of politics? The Bay Area in Northern California is really not so diffferent from SoCal, or even Texas, by that measure. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

3 thoughts on “America’s largest crop is a lawn. Could it be a garden?

  1. Quite honestly, I think that a lot of the resources used to feed lawns could be used to grow grasses on marginal areas for biofuel.


  2. Check out Dr. Bruce Dale’s ideas about how two argonomic technologies called AFEX and “Leaf Protein Concentrate” can make a lot of land that currently is used to grow animal feed, as well as double cropped annual grasses could easily be used to produce more ecological sources of fertilizer, more natural animal feed and a large supply of cellulosic biomass for fuel and electricity. With less water use and more nutrient reycling than the status quo and NO food vs. fuel issue.

    Another set of ideas is the work of Dr. Rakesh Aggrawal on how we can create a sort of “hybrid” between electrofuel (liquid fuels created from potentially renewable electricity) and biofuels and both get the most from limited biomass resources AND find ways to use renewables and low carbon energy (or even gas or coal plants with sequestration technologies) to create a liquid fuel.

    I’d say we could find a lot of “polluted” and degraded lands in most cities to grow grasses that might not be used for cow feed, but could be used for biofuel. We could depave some old roads or Wal-Mart parking lots to grow miscanthus, or prairie grasses. We could get find a lot of lots that would grow grass.


  3. I like the way you’re thinking…I know near Los Angeles there are several brownfields that are way too polluted to be of use, and are in the Superfund program, but which stand vacant or nearly so. I don’t know how the EPA would regard planting grasses on those kind of areas, but it might be interesting to find out. Thank you for thinking out loud about it.


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