Convert Your Lawn into a High-Yield Food Forest

Over the last decade, I’ve helped convert multiple liabilities into assets that grant returns on a level stock brokers would envy.

The liability: a typical lawn.

The asset: a high-yielding food forest.

Why is a lawn a “liability?”

It’s something you pour labor, water, fertilizer, and gas into (hopefully not literally, though burning fire ant hills with gasoline is entertaining… must… resist…) in order to keep neat… and in return, it gives you nothing but inedible grass. And sometimes chinch bugs.

An asset pays you for your investment.

For example, what’s the return on a mature pear tree? Perhaps 100—200lbs of fruit per year?

What is a pear worth — maybe a dollar or so?

$100 – $200 worth of fruit… every year… is a great yield for a tree that originally cost about $25 at a nursery!

If that tree takes up about 400 square feet of your property, that’s a nice yield on the space.

What would 400 square feet of grass pay you over the course of a year?

Nothing. In fact, at $10 per mow, you’re probably paying a kid over $250 just to maintain it.

When you go further than just planting one tree, and instead plant a big edible forest ecosystem filled with fruits, nuts, roots, and greens – you can turn a non-productive space into a veritable food factory.

I did that with my front lawn. Here’s a “before” picture:

front-yard-food-forest-after

And here’s an “after” photo of the same space:

front-yard-food-forest-after

In that piece of abundant jungle there are mulberries, plums, chestnuts, oranges, persimmons, arrowroot, cassava, black cherry, loquats, figs, pecans, nectarines, peaches, perennial basil, Mexican tree spinach, wildflowers, sweet potatoes, jujubes, African yams, and more butterflies and bees than you can count… plus many more plant and insect species that would take too long to catalog.

It took me five years to build that food forest — and that’s only 1/3 of the complete system (and I have a lot of annual gardens out back).

Unlike a traditional orchard, a food forest is easier to tend and has excellent yields due to its diversity of species. The bad bugs get eaten by the good ones and diseases won’t spread like they do in traditional systems. And you can basically prune with a string trimmer and a machete.

I don’t miss my mower, I can tell you that.

And I love picking fresh figs, tangerines, herbs and lots more from the front yard. There’s always something new in every season.

That said — my home and food forest are up for sale right now (click here to see lots of pictures and my listing page) because I’ve got another opportunity to do it again in another climate and I can’t turn it down. You can also see what I’ve built here in Central Florida in this recent tour video:

Creating a food forest seems like a huge task the first time you do it, but over time it gets easier and easier. You start to see the patterns behind the trees and their interactions. You know when they’re going to be happy and when they won’t be. And you learn what works and what doesn’t. As the trees grow and sink their roots into the soil, they become less and less demanding on your time as well… and they feed you like a king!

My challenge to you is this: pick one little piece of your lawn and transform it into a long-term investment. Plant 1-3 fruit trees and surround them with some edible shrubs, some flowers, and a few perennial vegetables. Mulch the area and keep it watered as needed for the first few years.

The productivity and beauty of that little island should cure you of your grass addiction. I fell in love a decade ago and will never go back.

The cost of food isn’t likely to go down as The Great Depression 2.0 rolls on… and gas isn’t getting cheaper… and the stock market is primed for a crash… and you can probably name a half-dozen more reasons why growing your own food makes sense.

Turn your liabilities into assets by turning your lawn into a food forest — and reap the sweet rewards!

david-the-good-top-10-survival-crops

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David The Good (Bioneer Blogger)


Contributor

David the Good is a naturalist, part-time scientist, and hardcore gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a paper cup of soil and hasn't stopped growing since. You can find more of David's ongoing experiments in the Grow Network Lab and on his own website at www.thesurvivalgardener.com.


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  • I agree whole heartily about the lawn being such a liability. The amount of effort I see some go to to keep grass green all year long just has me scratching my head in wonderment. I have been slowly converting my lawn areas to produce fruits, veggies, and herbs.

    I have added peach and apple trees, blue berry, raspberry and blackberry bushes, and all kinds of garden beds. I even took a large chunk to build a chicken coop and run.

    We now have 6 of them as well. Fresh eggs … taste great!

    • geraldc

      Your idea of using your front yard is good but many states will not allow this to happen. Atlanta Ga fined a man $5k for planting his front yard, another about 150 miles him was fined $1k for doing same thing. A bud of mine in Fla rented 12 homes, all had orange trees, he came home one day from work and county workers were cutting all his orange trees down ! ! ! County told him all his trees had bad bugs, then he asked about the orange groves on each side of 3 of his homes, were they going to cut all those down also ?? They would not answer him. So need to be very careful what you think you can do on your own property.

    • Yeah – you totally get it! Nothing like homegrown fruit, vegetables and good eggs.

  • duggy

    Good for sunny lawn in central FL… What is good for northern NJ with partial sun between houses?

    • That is a great question.

      I would grow pawpaws (Asimina triloba) in that situation. They’re one of the few trees that will manage to fruit in partial shade, plus they’ll take your climate. After putting in a few of those, I would hunt down other woodland edibles or herbs that can take some shade. Perhaps ramps, ginseng, even shiitakes on logs. The book “Paradise Lot” was written for a climate similar to yours and might give you some inspiration.

  • I have always wanted to plant a lot of lilacs, chokecherry trees, different varieties of current bushes, nanking cherries, asparagus beds and other beds such as rasberry beds. However, up here in Montana, if you get a yard outside of the city limits, and your yard gets jam-packed with fruit trees and many bushes you get a habitat that rattlesnacks seek. It seems that you cannot step outside without finding a couple rattlesnacks in our short summer. They even crawl up to the front door on some houses in our neighborhood. People have lawns and keep them cut very short.

    • David The Good

      That is a serious problem. In Costa Rica where poisonous snakes are everywhere, they’ll plant densely but put 10′ wide mown paths in between so you don’t accidentally step on a snake.

      Here’s a question that might help you if you can find the answer: what eats rattlesnakes in your area – and can you encourage that creature, if possible, to patrol your property?

  • Jim Godwin

    We are retired and we started last year to grow annuals to have non-GMO food as much as we can. We have started by buying a 2 Star Fruit trees, 2 apple trees, a couple Moringa trees, African spinach plants, multiple Bell, Banana, Red pepper plants, couple hot pepper plants, cabbage plants, numerous different tomato plants, miracle fruit bush, Barbados berry bush, 4 cherry bushes, and we have a large Mango tree, Tangerine tree, and Lemon Trees that already give fruit. What do you suggest to add to our edibles to cut back on GMO food and become self sufficient. We only have 1/3 acre lot with our home taking up a 1/3 of the lot. We live in Cocoa, FL in temperature zone 9.

    • That’s a great start. For roots I would add lots of African yams (Dioscorea spp) and sweet potatoes. For greens, get ahold of some longevity spinach and chaya (also known as Mexican tree spinach.) There are also multiple lists of good species choices for every level of a food forest in my short book “Create Your Own Florida Food Forest”: http://amzn.to/1Qj7h9T

  • Toni

    This looks absolutely great. I’ve been looking for info specific to this area for several years. I am just starting to get into this and have several plants going in containers, but getting everything into the ground is my ultimate goal. Wish I had found this sooner! 🙂

  • Stella

    I love this! Just wondering what could be done in my yard with a colder climate (southern Ontario, Canada)?

    • Great question – I gave this answer earlier today to a woman growing in Alaska:

      First of all, I would look at the trees that live in your region and see if I could find any natives that are edible or useful – and then I would see if they have other cold-hardy cousins that might work.

      Secondly, ask the local agricultural extension or any farmers/orchardists you meet about what they grow and what can grow in that climate.

      Thirdly, go to permies.com, sign up, and start asking your questions about far-north food forests in their forest gardening forum. There are some brilliant folks over there.

      I know that the further north you get, the harder it is to live off plants. Many cultures lived off hunting since agriculture was tough. You might buck the trend, though – and I would REALLY love to see pictures and hear more about what you manage to pull off!

  • Profile photo of Michael Ford

    Nice video, David – your yard makes me hungry!

  • Joyful Song

    How would you keep deer out? Deer bed down all over our property.

  • linhawk

    What do you suggest for hot dry So. Calif.
    I have some berries, a fig tree, couple of peach trees , couple of lemon trees,
    a tangelo and an avocado. I plant tomatoes, beans, and a few other things in the spring. And 2 chickens that I let free range later in the day. I am in the city, so cannot do anything in the front yard, although I do have a bay tree out there.

    • linhawk

      P.S.
      I allow lambs quarters and purslane to grow in the garden and have a special spot for some stinging nettle. Also Thyme, sage and oregano in another spot.

      • Sounds like you have a great start already. I would consider date palms, edible nopale cactus, olives, Japanese persimmons, Mexican tree spinach, true yams (with irrigation), Mysore raspberries, tree collards, mulberries and Muscadine grapes.

  • Sharon

    I’ve been listening to the summit and love the presentations on herbs.
    I have a question: I’ve been an avid gardener for most my adult life and have had some beautiful gardens!! My family used to enjoy just foraging for our dinner in the garden, but since moving onto 2 acres in San Diego in 1988 it has been a losing battle! I’ve never had so much trouble with gophers, squirrels, rabbits, etc. I can’t seem to get the jump on the harvest of anything even in container gardening!!
    I’ve about given up but still have the passion. I have 4 horses and compost so should have great soil but just can’t seem to succeed at this any more. Do you have any words of wisdom for me??? It’s a war zone out here!

    • Florie

      Hi David, I enjoyed viewing your garden and all the varieties you have, thanks for the advise on what can grow in a temperate zone although I think I would realy be taking a great chance as our weaher in the Uk can get quite frosty

    • Florie

      Hi Sharon, let me answer for David as he has a tamed garden with hardly any barrier. I am Florie, I am surounded by Deer and Rabbits I have a perimeter fence with chicken wire a foot over lap with small hole at the edge of a 4.5 fence I push it up and dig a trench about 4 inches deep all round then I flatten the wire all round and cover with soil or rock that prevents the vermins from digging except for rats and mice you have to be cunning and trap them.

  • Jen

    what would you recommend planting in Calgary? ( zone 3) The area in question is very dry and has about 8 hours of sun per day. We have an apple tree planted nearby as well.

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