Grow Food Not Lawn (The Making Of)

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

by Kevin Perron

When my brother, me and friends rented our first house, we were so happy to finally have some land to start applying all the crazy yet promising ideas permaculture had put in our minds. From books, videos, workshops and seeing other people projets really grew excitation on the subject within us. In moving from the city to suburbs, we realized the interesting differences between the two. The suburbs replaced concrete with lawn, and I mean literally, grass covers everything that is not already paved or housed. Yet, we can’t eat grass and it costs money to maintain and water rather than generate anything for us to benefit from. So when we moved in, we simply asked the landlord if we could have a few chickens and make some kind of a garden. He carelessly said yes. Let me tell you, he was quite surprised when he saw what we meant by that.

In the beginning there was lawn!

In order to put you in context, I made a little drawing, thanks to Google. Here is a simplified example of the first steps of permaculture design: observe and interact.

The image above is a simple analysis of the property. In red is the property boundary and in purple is the balcony. The blue circles are where the gutters direct water from the rooftop to the ground. The blue arrows indicate the slopes general direction (yes, we measured it with a homemade water level <-- click here to learn how to make one too) which tells us which way the water flows from the gutter away and off the property. And last but not least, south is down and as you can see with the green circles we have massive trees on both sides that cast a lot of shade on the property. As the growing season vanishes the house next to us also cast shade in our backyard.

The first thing we did was build the foundation for a world of abundance. Here is your list of materials: recycled pallet wood (taken appart with this neat little tool called a pallet paw), dark rich compost, recycled cardboard boxes, chickens with attitude, and most importantly, our generous and wonderful friends and family. (By the way everything except the compost and the chickens was absolutely free!)

Step 1: Build the beds. Start by measuring and marking with stakes in the ground where every thing will go and remember you need space to walk through your new garden beds. We made most of them 12 feet long, 4 feet wide and left pathways of 2 feet wide between all of them. We also made sure to make the main paths larger (3 feet wide) like the path that goes down the balcony stairs all the way to the fence, and the main path that crosses the entire backyard. Important to say that when you recycle wood, you have to remove those old rusty nails in them and make sure the nails don't fall in the grass. This garden must be bare foot safe. Align everything to the inches and you have some good old fashion feng chuiness automatically.

Step 2: Cover remaining inner grass with recycled cardboard boxes, and only use those basic brown ones, no waxed, plastic coated of any kind. Remove the tape, remove the staples, just use the bare brown cardboard. Make sure you overlap everything, so no green is sticking out. Maybe you wonder; why do we have to do this? Well, it's to kill the grass and any remaining weeds underneath. Also it turns into a fest for worms (they love the starchy glue used to hold the boxes together) which we are actually inviting in the party, thru this method. Worms are absolutely necessary in order to grow healthy plants.

Step 3: Fill with good compost. Then you have it! You can plant anything you want in there.

So we built a total of 17 garden beds. The beds are built on level and on contour, sort of like little terrasses, made to slowdown, capture and sink water and nutrient evenly into the ground, minimizing irrigation and maximizing yields. (Like the second law of permaculture design: catch and store energy.)


One little tip we forgot to do in the process which would have greatly improve yield and water needs in the first seasons: decompact the soil underneath with a broadfork or a pitchfork. This would have helped the plants grow deeper roots. Most suburbs with clay beneath the lawn make for a soil thats hard like pans and plants roots will most likely stop at the level of the clay if you don't decompact first, thus missing the water and nutrient thats further below. Of course over time worms and roots will create pores in the hard clay making it more permeable, but taking the time to loosen it first really makes a huge difference in how long the proces will take.

Now, you may wonder; what did they planted in these?, why so many garden beds? and what did the landlord say about it? All these will be answered, right here in the next post!

photo credits: Melanie Gagnon

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