Article from the Good Times Weekly. Written by Amanda Martinez Wednesday, 26 September 2007
For decades, a lush, verdant lawn has been a source of pride for the American homeowner, a measure of success, a symbol of discipline and mastery over ones property. This vanity lawn stretches out like a carpet, identical green blades standing at attention like a crew cut, exactly the same height, unblemished by weeds or insects.
It also represents a constant chore of maintenance and is a huge bane to the environment.
Anyone who has occasioned even the briefest glance at Mother Natures handiwork knows that symmetry and flawlessness are happy accidents limited to four leaf clovers and a handful of supermodels.
The subversion of natures wild tendencies to order and precision requires copious resources. An hour spent mowing the average lawn with a standard push mower creates the equivalent pollution as driving a car for 350 miles, it uses 10 times as many pesticides per acre as industrial farm-land, and the water required to keep this lawn its greenest accounts for 20 to 50 percent of residential water use.
And anyone who’s been jarred awake to the heinous sound of a leaf-blower being wantonly wielded by some guy wearing monster-sized noise-canceling headphones can attest to the glaring social flaw of the vanity lawn: noise pollution.
How about a yard that creates community instead of degrading it? A garden blooming with native plants that thrive in Santa Cruz’s drought-prone conditions, a collection of plants and wildlife that nourishes itself and the occupants of its adjoining home. And for those of you religiously observing the 100-mile diet, how about a 100-feet diet?
This is the kind of yard designed, installed and cultivated by Terra Nova, an ecological landscaping company that uses no pesticides, is 90 percent carbon neutral and considers maintaining the delicate intersection between mans property and the nature it sits upon to be its top priority.
Native Santa Cruzan Ken Foster founded Terra Nova in 1985 after completing UC Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden Apprenticeship. Recently, I met with Foster to tour his garden, or as he calls it, his laboratory. Not a single blade of grass in sight, Foster’s yard is a veritable utopia of fruit trees and shrubs, herbs, spices, vegetables and flowers.
Pretty much everyday, I’m picking something to use, Foster says. A garden really does have a large effect on quality of life, on our attitude and happiness.
The Apothecary Is In
Foster’s garden features an herb spiral, which includes lemongrass, oregano, Indian mint, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, prunella and mugwort. While several of the herbs can be enlisted as spices or for aromatherapy purposes, mint doubles as a digestive aid, lemongrass is a known antiseptic and lavender can be used to treat anxiety or depression.
Before Foster designs an edible landscape for a client, he asks a series of questions meant to determine everything from the time a client has to devote to caring for their garden to their favorite color. Then he calls in an herbalist. The herbalist assesses the clients health and prescribes a series of herbs that will serve as remedies for their specific ailments.
Romancing the Weed
In any given season, Foster’s garden produces tomatoes, Swiss chard, concord grapes, several varieties of pears and apples, pineapple guavas, mulberries and elderberries, pluots and kiwis. He even has a collard greens tree.
But among Foster’s most cherished vegetation is a collection of plants that most gardeners would traditionally condemn.
It’s easy to look at a lot of plants and just dismiss them as weeds, Foster says. But some of the common weeds are the more nutritious salad greens available.
He mentions the excellent tea that can be made from yarrow flowers and the several applications of mullein, the weed with plush, green, velvet soft leaves, which include using the leaves to make a tea that cures insomnia and the seeds to make cornbread.
If you’re looking for the star weed in Foster’s yard though, it’s nettles. People think oh, great, he says, but I love telling people about nettles because they’re so healthy for you. Rich in folic acid, calcium and iron, nettles have a nutty, herb-like flavor and are absolutely worth trying, Foster insists, explaining that the key to making nettles edible is boiling them. The spines wilt, rendering them harmless. For Foster’s personal recipe for a nettle casserole, log on to gtweekly.com.
The Birds and the Bees
When Foster gets a taste for an omelet, he doesn’t check his fridge for the contents of his egg carton. He makes a trip to his backyard chicken coop to check in with his three pet hens he affectionately refers to as the herb girls. They’re easy to keep, he says, picking up a large orange one and stroking her wing. She doesn’t seem to mind this in the least, so I reach out to pet her as well. Her feathers are remarkably soft.
You need a dark space for them to lay, a safe, enclosed area to protect them from predators, and a place for them to be in the sun, scratch and take a dust bath, he says. In return, he adds, they go after weed seeds, snails and insects, provide eggs and manure and most of all, they’re a great source of entertainment.
They’re not real smart and that’s kind of what’s endearing about them, Foster explains. They’re just fun to watch. They don’t really have a lot of pretense. I think humans need more appreciation for creatures that are just exactly who they are.
Just to the left of the chicken coop sits Foster’s honeybee hive. Hundreds of bees drone about, darting to and from the hive. Foster uses the bees wax to make candles and harvests only a modest portion of their honey for himself. I like to leave a lot for the bees, he says.
In addition to these gifts, Foster counts watching the bees perform their industrious tasks as one of his favorite meditations.
They’re an awesome creature, he says. It’s quite a service to take care of bees.
According to Foster, there’s no contest between a yard designed for the sake of aesthetics and an edible garden.
It’s far superior, he says of the latter. We need to start utilizing our front and our back yards in ways that are multifunctional, so that we’re not just driving across the hill to work and then buying all of our food at Safeway.
But beyond each household having its own edible garden, Foster envisions an entire neighborhood maximizing and sharing the fruits of its individual gardens.
We can make our neighborhoods into food sheds, he says. We could create a database of who has what in their garden and who has surplus. Somebody has too many apples and somebody else has too many nettles or eggs, so we create an exchange and barter system.
I share honey and honeycomb with my neighbors, he continues. I share fruit and eggs and they very much appreciate it. A garden really creates community. Creating community is one of the greatest benefits of a garden.