The year was 1948, and the English grassland specialist Sir George Stapledon sounded an alarm for the food situation in his country, stating that it was “as serious now as it was at any time during the war, and serious it will long remain.”
Writing in a preface to his 1941 book “Ley Farming,” Stapledon called on farmers to adopt a system that would get the most food from the soil without depleting its fertility. Ley farming, a system whereby land is kept in grass for a period of years and then tilled and planted with food crops, was his answer, not because the land was just resting during these fallow periods, but by virtue of the grass itself. If the land was also grazed by livestock that would contribute their manure, so much the better, but “a healthy sod,” he wrote, “has many of the characteristics of a well-made and well-rotted compost.”
Perhaps, at this moment, you have no lack of food, but how many times have you wished you had more well-made and well-rotted compost? I think Stapledon was onto something. Maybe you don’t look out on acres of pastureland, as in England’s grassy shires. But many of us look out on stretches of grassy lawn. Lawns are often pitted against the cause of vegetable-growing, yet if you read Stapledon, a partnership between the two make a lot of sense.
Gardeners who till up a patch of grass and plant a kitchen garden are often surprised by their success that first year. Beginner’s luck, some might say. Or the fact that “the bugs haven’t found us yet.” Neither is true. The massive root system contained in sod amounts to a great store of organic matter that lends both fertility and a well-aerated structure to your plot. Add a legume such as the much-maligned clover to your lawn seed mix, and you get an even greater boost, as the nodules on the legume’s roots make atmospheric nitrogen available to your plants. If you were to till up a new patch in a different parcel of lawn annually, you’d enjoy that new garden experience each year.
But let’s try a more organized scheme. Let’s say you tilled a section and planted it with crops well suited to bust through any remaining clods of sod. These might include large-seeded crops like corn, squash and beans, as well as transplanted crops such as kale and broccoli. The following year you could easily drop in the finer seeds of lettuce, onions, carrots or beets. The third year you’d sow a grass and clover mix and let the patch revert to lawn, not with a standard lawn mix but one containing white clover seed, such as Fedco Seeds’ all-purpose CR Lawn Mix (www.fedcoseeds.com). If you divided the lawn into six sections, one of them would always be in large-seeded crops and transplants, one would be in small-seeded, direct-sown vegetables, and four would be at work creating the virgin soil of a new garden.
You might get by without any manure or compost at all. But you can never have too much compost, so make it anyway. And for the best of all possible worlds (if local ordinances allow), set up a low electric fence to confine a flock of egg-laying, manure-producing ducks to your lawn area, and you will eat well indeed.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
— Adrian Higgins