Eating up the landscape: Permaculture proves a yard can wield more than grass

Ashton Martin, farm manager for the 12-acre permaculture test site at the Karlin family farm, checks on trees that will be planted as part of a multi-tiered food

It’s a quiet street in northwest Lawrence. The lawns are green and lush, the heady smell of charcoal and barbecue sauce is in the air, and there’s a basketball goal standing sentry to nearly each driveway.

Laura and Devin Zell love their house, their neighbors and their location, and agree that a stroll down their block could write the definition of modern suburbia.

That said, they are planning to change an integral part of that suburban identity one blade of grass at a time.

“To me, a lawn is kind of sad,” says Laura Zell, known as Lori to her friends. “I feel that as homeowners, and as apartment renters, whatever it is, we are stewards of this land. And it’s our responsibility to take care of it and to use it the way that it’s supposed to be used. Not necessarily just for aesthetic purposes. Why not have aesthetics and food and beauty and something that sustains beneficial wildlife?”

In short: The Zells will eschew their piece of Lawrence suburbia for a grass-less lawn. Their front yard will soon be nothing but edible vegetation and walkways. Their back yard will include a swath of grass for throwing around a ball with their son, Henry, 2, but the rest of their lot will be crowded with plants and trees that not only provide beauty, but food as well.

Laura Zell, son Henry and husband Devin are pictured in their front yard before turning it into a livable garden.

On the organically maintained menu? Strawberries, rhubarb, goji berry bushes, a wildlife garden shaded by fruit and nut trees, a rotating crop of vegetables done in space-maximizing keyhole beds, a grape arbor and even a “beer garden” of brew-making implements shaded by a pergola crawling with viney hops plants. Recycled bricks and decomposed granite will create gardener-friendly pathways, while a super-sized rain barrel system and three-stage compost sorter (for ready, cooking and in-the-works compost), will hydrate and feed the growing vegetation.

Mimicking nature

The Zells’ new yard comes courtesy of the permaculture landscaping movement. Started in the 1970s, permaculture is an alternate way of looking at land and the plants that inhabit it.

Founded by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, permaculture strives to mimic nature to create a balanced, sustainable, organic mini-ecological system. That means all the produce coming from the Zells’ garden won’t come courtesy of stick-straight garden rows. Rather, the garden will look just like any professionally done landscape.

It’s a movement that is held close to the hearts of Troy and Brady Karlin, the brothers behind All-N-1 Landscaping, a Lawrence-based lawn care business that has built the Zells’ permaculture design. The Karlins met the Zells when Lori sent out an e-mail to local landscapers eager to find out more about organic, sustainable gardening techniques and design.

Troy Karlin started All-N-1 as a traditional landscaping business back in his high school days. About five years ago, he began implementing sustainable agriculture methods and techniques on the suggestion of his brother, Brady, who was off learning about the natural world in such far away places as California and even New Zealand.

The permaculture plan for the Zells' residence.

“I came up doing everything wrong, you know, mowing a hundred lawns a week, spreading all the petrochemicals,” Troy Karlin says. “And then Brady, when I would go visit him in California and hear about the things that he was doing, it really started to turn me on to a different way and a better way.”

Troy Karlin began taking classes on his own and soon began offering rain garden installation, organic vegetable gardens, green roof landscaping, and edible and native landscaping. Then, when Brady Karlin moved back to Kansas at the end of 2009, the brothers decided to convert their 12-acre farm into a veritable showcase of natural, sustainable and permaculture techniques. There, they have multiple gardens they’ve created using the tenets of permaculture and have recently installed the beginnings of a three-tiered “food forest” – trees and bushes with edible fruits and nuts.

The brothers are hoping not only to use the farm to showcase the fruits of permaculture, but also to teach the tenets and techniques of the movement as well: skills like sheet mulching to protect and enrich topsoil, creating a swale or rain garden to catch water and creating a sustainable, edible, useful landscape. And their ideal students aren’t those with similar 12-acre plots, but ones with pocket-sized suburban lots.

“Suburban houses and development lend themselves great to permaculture, they have so much infrastructure already in place,” Brady Karlin says. “With the average quarter-acre lot, there is the potential to harvest more food, water and energy than a household of five can consume in a year.

“Americans spend $30 billion every year to maintain 23 million acres of lawn. That’s an average of $1,200 per acre per year. The same sized area could still provide a beautiful space for recreation and feed a family of six if converted to edible landscaping as opposed to traditional landscaping.”

Split duties

Brady Karlin with All-N-1 Landscaping is pictured on his farm near a swale that is meant to trap rainwater and provide for a food

So the Karlins agreed to help create the family’s vision by designing a master plan and putting together the plan’s hardscaping elements – the walkways, hops pergola, reworked deck, rain garden, compost system, rain barrels and arbor structure – while Lori would order the plants, plant them and do all the other “soft” portions of the work.

“Basically, before All-N-1 Landscaping got involved, I was just going to be slowly encroaching on the lawn and eventually taking it all over,” Lori says, laughing. “But this is definitely something I can look at and say, ‘OK, yeah, if I break this up into this section and this kind of a theme, yeah, I can do that.'”

Her husband, Devin, says that while the idea of a grass-free, food-in-the-front-lawn existence worried him a bit at first, he says he was quickly won over.

“I’m kind of grounded and grew up in that environment of shrubs, and just landscaping plants, and the garden’s in the back of the house, and so I was just like, ‘You can’t put zucchinis in the front lawn!'” he says of when Lori first started adapting the home’s landscape last year. “But the reaction’s been really positive.

“I thought it was going to be this weird thing that all the neighbors walk by and scoff at and point fingers. But we’ve met so many neighbors who just walk by and want to know what we’re doing because they’ve never seen anything like it before.”