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From Symbols of Wealth to Sources of Bounty: how your yard can work for you!

From Symbols of Wealth to Sources of Bounty: how your yard can work for you by LeeAnna Tatum

The ubiquitous expanse of well-maintained greenery that has become synonymous with suburbia - the American lawn. This quintessential symbol of the American dream along with the requisite white picket fence consumes more resources than any other single commercial agricultural crop. And in fact takes more acreage than the top eight crops grown in America combined. And requires more water to maintain than the seven thirstiest crops combined.

Grass gobbles up resources like: water, fuel, chemical inputs and labor. Americans use more chemicals on their lawns than are used in commercial agriculture. Dumping approximately 10 times the amount of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on yards per acre than are used in conventional farming.

It’s estimated that more than 17 million gallons of fuel is spilled while refilling yard equipment every year! Not to mention the amount of fuel that is actually used in the process of mowing, blowing and weed-eating.

When you take a moment to absorb these numbers and their implications, it suddenly makes sense that lawns - that great expanse of green grass - were first developed by French aristocrats to demonstrate their level of wealth. After all, only the very rich could afford to have that much land set aside to not grow food. Meanwhile, the poor were starving.

I made the decision two years ago to opt out of the green grass brigade. There were many reasons for this, several of them outlined above. The simple truth is I would rather have the property around my house work for me rather than me having to work so hard for it.

I still have to have the grass cut. This is South Georgia and if there’s one thing about our climate that we all know, it can grow grass fast! But I’m currently in the process of slowly but surely (and hopefully) crowding out the grass with what I consider to be much more useful plant life. I should also note that, at least for now, I plan to keep a small section of grass that would be easy to maintain in the front yard - my little nod to convention.

Where once only grass grew, I now have 11 fruit trees, 9 blueberry bushes and a multitude of herbs, flowers, and medicinal plants. My plan is to continue to add to those plants and to also sew a mixture of clover and sorrel where the grass grows to help crowd out more and more of the grass with plants that have a little something more to offer - whether it’s for me, soil enrichment, or for the wildlife I love to host here.

In this article we’ll explore some ways that you can help make your own yard more productive. Whether you want to go all out or just make a few minor changes, adding food-producing plants to your outdoor space can be deliciously rewarding.

Productive Yards: Edible Landscaping

Adding fruit or nut trees to your yard can do far more than provide a tasty harvest, they can also add to the beauty of your space and actually increase the value of your real estate.

Delilah Ann Gill, Environmental Consultant, suggests that if you’re looking to buy property that you look for existing fruit or nut trees, if you already have your property consider adding trees. “They’re going to add up to 10% more to your property value,” Gill said.

“If you already have nut trees established, you’re way ahead of the game because they take years to establish. You want pecan trees or walnuts or some kind of nut tree that’s already very well established and hopefully already producing.”

Gill suggests thinking of your yard design like building a house from the roof down. Taller nut trees make up the roof, smaller fruit trees are the ceiling, shrubs and bushes can be used like walls to divide the outside spaces, while grass, groundcovers and smaller plants make up the flooring.

Bushes and shrubs that bear edible fruit, like blueberries and elderberries; or nut producing shrubs like the American Hazelnut can be used to fill in the understory and can take the place of traditional hedges or accent plants.

There seems to be a prevailing sentiment that yards can either be beautiful or food-producing, but the reality is that a well-planned edible landscape

can be just as attractive as one planted only with aesthetic value in mind.

Fruit trees and shrubs produce attractive and fragrant blooms in the spring, colorful fruit in summer and fall, and some varieties’ leaves will change color in the fall, while others (including citrus) are evergreens; offering visual interest all year long.

Kerry Shay, co-owner of Victory Gardens in Savannah, suggests using fruit trees and shrubs as an attractive means of incorporating edibles into the landscape. Victory Gardens was founded on the idea that landscapes should be beautiful, bountiful and ecologically sound.

Kerry Shay of Victory Gardens in Savannah

“There’s lots of trees out there that look really nice. Rather than having an orchard, think of it like the fruit trees or berry bushes can be seasonal features to the landscape and they can look really nice and enhance the landscape and be productive,” Shay explained.

He also suggested that cold-hardy citrus trees work well in our southern climate and offer the advantage of being evergreen and having an attractive shape. Well-maintained pomegranates and blueberry bushes were other recommendations for an edible landscape.

Shay also suggests using ornamental plants like garlic chives and anise hyssop which aside from being attractive flower-producing perennials are also very good to eat. “These have a great edibility they’re perennial, they’re evergreen, they look really nice if they’re organized into a landscape,” he explained.

Productive Yards: Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture is defined as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Applied to your yard, permaculture principles can help you create a low maintenance outdoor space that yields food and medicinal herbs with very little inputs once established.

There are twelve generally accepted principles to permaculture, but basically they cover four broad topics: Use your resources as conservatively as possible, work with nature not against it, diversify, and be productive. These principles when applied to your own yard can really help you gain a new perspective and to begin to shift your outdoor space from draining resources to one that can be far more rewarding than simply growing food.

Use resources conservatively. This can apply to inputs going into your yard. Whether it’s water, time, labor, fuel or additives; design your yard, landscape and/or garden to need as few inputs as possible. This can be done by choosing plants which naturally do well in our local climate and soil, such as blueberries for fruit and native plants for flowers and supporting wildlife.

One way to conserve water is through rain collection. This can be done with the use of a rain barrel or something a bit more complicated like a pond or

“If you have the ability, using rainwater or well-water is a lot better than municipal water because it doesn’t have all the chlorine and other additives that are put in there for basically sanitising it when it goes through the water treatment process,” Shay explained. “Those things are great at what they do, but it also affects the microbial activity in the soil. If you can, set up a rain barrel and harvest that. That water is the best you can use because it’s clean and naturally filtered. It also has a little bit of nitrogen in it from the process of rain falling, it collects nitrogen from the air.”

Gill also recommends collecting rainwater when possible. She created a four foot deep pond where she collects rainwater from the roof of her home. It’s designed to overflow into a dry creek bed lined with rocks that flows downhill where it carries water to her fruit trees without allowing water to stand.

Gill suggests keeping plants that require more frequent watering closer to the house. You’ll also want to plant herb and vegetable gardens close to the house where they can be easily monitored and quickly accessed for cooking. “The further away from the house you get, the less maintenance should be required. That’s the principle behind permaculture - low maintenance, high yield,” she explained.

Work with nature, not against it. One of the ways we can work with nature in our yards is to provide plenty of food and habitat for insects that pollinate and also for those that prey on the insects that like to eat our crops. And it’s not just insects that we can help along, providing habitat for reptiles and birds is also a great way to reduce pest problems in the garden.

Allowing plants to go to seed is a great source of food for small birds which also hunt insects while they are in your garden. Lots of blooms (both in quantity and variety) are a good food source for pollinators. 

The key to working with nature is that we need to reconnect with the natural world around us. Pay attention to seasonal patterns, how the sun tracks across your property, rainfall amounts, and wildlife. What kind of insects do you see? What kinds of weeds are prevalent? Where does water stand on your property after a heavy rain? These are all ways that your property communicates with you, so pay attention to what it says.

Diversify. The greater variety of plant life you can include in your outdoor space, the better! Plants often work together to create the best yield. For instance, your vegetable garden will produce more and be less susseptible to pests if you have an array of native plants and flowers nearby to provide a healthy habitat for polinators and pest-predators.

Nitrogen fixers (pretty much any plant in the legume family) are great to plant alongside heavy nitrogen-users like corn. Having a wide variety of plants protects against plant disease and pests, can have a balancing effect on soils, makes yard space more productive (different plants do well in different environments), and helps create a healthier ecosystem.

Be productive. Get value from your plants. If it’s not giving you a beautiful flower to enjoy or fruit to eat, if it’s not improving the soil around its roots or enhancing the habitat for wildlife, if it is continually taking resources and not giving you anything in return; It’s ok to remove that plant and replace it with something of greater value.

As Gill put it, think of it as a piece of furniture that is no longer useful; regardless of how long you’ve had it, if it’s not doing anything for you anymore - get rid of it.

Gill grows a mixture of nut and fruit trees to make up the canopy of her yard and includes nut and fruit

producing shrubs in the understory along with grape vines. She has also incorporated a catawba worm tree in order to cultivate bait to use for fishing. And has sown sorrel in the grass. She has found ways to make the most of her space, filling it with plants that earn their keep and give her something in return for the inputs she provides.

Productive Yards: Gardening

For our purposes here, gardening will refer to growing annual fruits and vegetables. This is a great way to participate in your own food system by growing veggies at home! It’s also a great way to use space that might otherwise be taken up with grass for something far more enjoyable to harvest and eat.

“I think that trial and error is always a good place to start,” gardening expert Shay explained. “Start off by not being afraid to fail a little bit before you learn some things. Seek information if you find that things don’t work.”

Don’t be afraid to start small. Maybe you have limited space for gardening or only have a patio or balcony that gets plenty of sunlight. Or perhaps

you have plenty of room, but are a little intimidated about the idea of digging up your yard. It’s okay. Container gardens are a great way to get started.

Here are a few tips from Shay on growing successfully in pots.

Choose the right pot. Shays suggests that plastic pots that are light in color are perhaps the best choice for maintaining the right amount of moisture in the soil. Dark colored pots heat up more quickly, causing them to dry out faster and clay or terracotta pots lose a lot of moisture through the porous surface. Make sure the pots have good drainage holes in the bottom. Shay suggests layering gravel on the bottom of the pot, covering that with permeable landscape fabric and topping with a good soil mix.

Shay recommends choosing a slightly larger pot than the main plant may require. This will allow space for the root system to grow large enough that the plant can be watered less frequently. If there is too much bare space on the surface, simply add smaller plants that can fill the space. For example, one tomato plant with a scattering of lettuce plants which can be harvested by the leaf instead of allowing it to produce a head.

Choose the right location. Most vegetables require at least six hours of sunlight. Make sure you place your container in a sunny spot. You’ll also want to make sure it’s close to a water supply.

Think big. Shay recommends using containers as a great way to grow citrus trees that aren’t cold-hardy enough to be planted in the ground.

“Other than annuals, it’s fun to grow marginally cold-tolerant, smaller fruit species, like key limes, which are a shrubbier citrus,” Shay said. “...They look pretty nice (as a patio plant) and they’re not great to plant in the ground because they’re not that cold tolerant. That way, you can move them inside for a night or two if it gets too cold.”

Raised-bed gardening is similar to container gardening but on a larger scale. Raised beds can be made from a number of different materials and are usually at least two feet deep. You can purchase raised-bed kits, find DIY plans online, or hire professionals like those at Victory Gardens to build them for you.

Container garden built by Victory Gardens

Like container gardening, raised beds offer many benefits over in-ground gardening. It’s easier to control weeds and pests, once established they’re easier to maintain. If you have poor soil conditions, using a raised bed can eliminate the need to have to loosen the soil and add amendments.

If, however, you want to plant on a larger scale or simply want to plant in the ground, there are a few things you should do to help ensure a successful garden.

Find the right location. You’ll want to make sure you take the time to find the best spot for your new garden before you begin to dig. Observe the site you’ve selected over a period of time to make sure that it gets at least 6 hours of sunlight. Depending on the location of trees and buildings on your property, a spot that gets plenty of sunlight during one season, may get less as the sun’s path shifts. Try to find a spot that will get plenty of sun regardless of the season.

“You can get everything right,” Shay explained, “but if you don’t have sunlight, your plants aren’t going to produce properly.”

Prepare your soil. You need to make sure your soil has the right composition and that it contains the minerals your plants will need to grow properly.

“You need to think about your soil,” Shay said. “We have really challenging soil in our climate, it’s very sandy, it’s very low in organic matter in most situations. In a lot of situations, it’s acidic soil so the next step in evaluating your garden is getting a soil test and figuring out if you need to make any amendments to your soil in terms of ph or minerals. The most important ones are phosphorus, potassium and then calcium, magnesium and some of those trace minerals. And know that you’re going to have to regularly add some kind of nitrous to your soil because plants regularly need that to grow.”

Shay recommends collecting soil samples and having them evaluated through the local cooperative extension offices of UGA (every county has a representative you can find yours here.)

“Depending on how large your plot is you might want to get five or more random locations within your plot to get a rough accurate sample of what your soil profile is like,” Shay said “... all that information is available when you do your soil test. They’ll provide a graphic display of what needs to be added to your soil and if you have trouble interpreting that, you can reach out to the extension agent.”

In-ground bed that has been dug deep and covered with mulch in preparation for planting. 

In addition to any minerals or adjustment to ph your soil might need, the other additive to consider is organic matter. In Southeast Georgia, our soil is often either made up of too much sand or too much clay. Either way, adding plenty of organic matter is what is needed to improve soil composition.

“You can have all the nutrients right in your soil, but if it’s low in organic matter it’s not going to hold water well, which makes your plants more prone to diseases and stressed. So we tell people, plan on adding some sort of organic matter. Finished compost is the best thing you can add, but there’s other forms of organic matter you can add,” Shay explained.

Once you have all your materials to add to your soil, you can begin to dig. Using a garden tiller is one way to break up the ground, but Shay suggests that using a shovel can be more effective - a method called double digging.

“A tiller is probably not going to get it loose as deep down as you’d like,” Shay said. “But there’s some other techniques out there like double digging for smaller gardens. You’re basically flipping over about a foot of soil and getting it nice and loose and prepared for planting.”

Loosening the soil is necessary to allow the plants root systems the room they need to establish themselves. “The compacted soil will prevent the plants from being able to easily grow roots and absorb water and nutrients that they need. Also, loosening the soil allows for more oxygen in the soil which increases the microbes and all the beneficial things that help release and maintain nutrients in the soil so your plants can thrive,” Shay explained.

Bee Balm is a native plant that requires little care once established. It's a great plant for pollinators and also provides medicinal benefits... all while looking beautiful too. 

Plan for watering. “Next thing I would think about,” Shay said, “is what’s your watering situation? We get a lot of rain in the summertime in the part of Georgia that we’re in. But it’s sporadic and it’s heavy so that’s not always the best rain for a garden because when you’re planting gardens, the plants are really small, they don’t have deep root systems. And usually, when you first plant, the soil is pretty bare, it’s not filled in … so not all the water gets absorbed.”

“Sometimes you can count on rainfall, he continued, “but when it’s dry you’re going to need some kind of watering plan, especially when plants are new. Whether that’s setting up some kind of irrigation system or having a schedule of when you water, you’ve got to make sure things get watered regularly.”

Plant, Observe and adjust. Once you’ve chosen your site, prepared your soil and made your watering plan, it’s time to plant! Choose plants based on the season. We have an extended growing season here in South Georgia which allows us to grow and harvest practically all year.

While summer gardens are great and provide us with tomatoes and cucumbers and other backyard favorites, don’t forget about plants that can be planted in the fall and grown and harvested throughout the winter months.

“The brassicas are cold tolerant,” Shay explained. “Even if we have a freak winter for us, freezing temperatures for a week, they’ll stand up to a lot of that. Collards and kale, all those leafy brassicas, the sugars form more concentrated in the plants after a frost, so they taste better.”

Now is the time of year to plant brassicas like broccoli, kale, cabbage, collards and brussel sprouts. These vegetables are cold tolerant and do very well in our mild winters. Fall is also a great time for beginner gardeners to get started as their fewer pests, diseases and weeds to contend with.

“I think fall is a great time for gardening because we still have a lot of varieties of things we can grow and it’s easier, physically, to be outside and there’s less pest pressure,” Shay said. “You don’t have to be as finicky about watering because it’s not as hot out. It’s one of my favorite gardening seasons.”

“Think about seasonality,” Shay suggests. “People who are new to gardening think of tomatoes and squash and zucchini and those kind of things, but when people are first gardening they don’t know you can grow other things other times of the year. And you don’t want to plant tomatoes in June even though that’s the warm season, it’s really late in our climate because then you’re going to be fighting pests, and diseases; whereas if you plant your tomatoes in March, you have a window of time when they can get established and there’s not as many things that are combating their health.”

“UGA has some good information, Georgia Organics has some good information on their website about when to plant things,” he continued. “We’re earlier than most of the rest of Georgia because once mid-March comes around we don’t have many nights below freezing, so we can plant really early here which is nice.”

As problems come up, as they inevitably will, do some research, reach out to experts, and don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you. Every season and every year will bring a host of new lessons to learn. Even experienced gardeners will tell you that they are always learning.

Productive Yards: Finding What’s Already There

Sometimes getting a yield from your yard doesn’t require that you add anything to it, but that you make use of what is already there. Many of the plants that are considered weeds today are actually quite valuable in terms of nutritional benefit and even medicinal value.

Plants like dandelion, dollar weed, chickweed and wood betony (sometimes referred to as rattlesnake plant) can be easily found in most yards and offer a wide array of nutritional and medicinal properties. Some are even highly valued for their flavor.

It’s important to be able to safely identify any wild plants you harvest for food. And you should only pick plants that have not been treated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides commonly used in lawn products today.

I was excited to learn that a “weed” I have been pulling from my garden beds for years is actually highly edible from root to stem. Betony is a plant with a straight stem that produces small purple flowers and has a white tuberous root that is shaped like the rattle on a rattlesnake. According to Gill the tuber tastes similar to water chestnut and can be eaten raw or pickled.

Gill recommends purchasing a few of the small field guides that can fit in your pocket to help you learn to identify plants in the wild. The field guides are produced by Golden Books (designed for children), Peterson’s and Audubon Society.

“There’s no sense in spending a fortune on a library,” Gill said. “I recommend getting a couple of the little field guides, those are the basics.”

One of the greatest things to be gained by making your yard more productive is connecting with the natural world that exists right outside your door. When you rely on natural methods rather than chemical additives, you connect with nature in a very real way, becoming more aware of seasons, cycles and the ecosystem of which your home is a part.

Rosemary in bloom. Rosemary is an attractive shrub that is also a great herb for eating and medicinal purposes and a pollinator pleaser.