As Kansans become more conscious of the effects our daily routines have on the environment, some are getting rid of their turf grass and pursuing other uses of their property that rely on less-thirsty native plants or even vegetables, fruit and other edibles. Last summer, for instance, a Salina couple became the first in the country to install an Edible Estate, replacing their entire front lawn with a garden producing vegetables, fruits and berries. This nationwide program aims to help homeowners start using their land in more ecologically sensitive ways.
Replacing all of your turf grass may seem a bit radical. If it sounds like too much to do all at once, make the transition slowly. Start by planting some vegetables alongside your flowers. We are all familiar with ornamental kale and peppers. Why not try the real thing? Also, many herbs, with their aromatic foliage and variety of colors and textures, make a striking addition to the landscape (be sure to pay attention to whether the herbs are annual or perennial). Plant tomatoes and peppers in pots tucked into sunny spots. You can even plant lettuce as an early-spring border instead of pansies. Note: If you plant edibles in your landscape, avoid using chemicals that are not safe for human consumption.
Shrubs also can provide fruit-bearing alternatives. Currants, gooseberries and raspberries thrive in Kansas conditions and provide berries for pies, jams and snacking. They also are attractive landscape material and habitats for birds and small animals. Fruiting trees (apple, cherry, and pear) also can do well in Kansas but require more space and care.
If you are serious about using a larger space, spring is not the best time to prepare the area. Do this in the fall. Once you have a full-sun spot picked out, the turf grass will need to be killed off. If just tilled or dug under, the grass will emerge as weeds in your garden. To do this organically, lay down layers of newspaper on the grass and then cover the newspaper thickly with your organic material (ground-up leaves, compost, etc.). If the area is watered, the grass will be gone by spring, when you're ready to dig or till this mixture into the soil, and the newspaper will eventually decompose, too. For another approach, black plastic can also be staked over the area. The lack of sun or water and the hot temperature under the plastic will take care of the grass. Thick black plastic works best and clear plastic will not work. Remove the plastic before working the soil.
Digging, tilling, amending and planting now will not allow the organic material time to decompose, so this is a process that takes some time. Decomposition pulls nutrients from the soil, leaving little for the plants. Let your area winter over, and plant it next spring. Although the new garden will require water and nutrients, its demands are less than those of turf grass. Also, there are many organic ways to feed your plants, including homemade and purchased fertilizers, that don't add pollutants to the groundwater and runoff. Always pay attention to the amount of additives you use, following package directions closely, and always get a soil test before adding something your soil might not need.
Planting this alternative to turf grass doesn't need to include vegetables and berries. If you prefer ornamental plants, or if you do not have enough open, sunny space to plant vegetables, there are many varieties of native perennials and grasses to choose from. Use the same newspaper-and-compost "lasagna" method described earlier. This is especially effective in areas beneath trees, where roots can get in the way of digging up the soil.
Thanks to Andrea Zuercher, Douglas County Extension Master Gardener, for her significant contribution to this article.