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WC Retro: Lawn Love in L.A.

By Sarah Rich, posted on December 11, 2005.

Those of you who subscribe to the opinion that Los Angeles is the pinnacle of urban folly, it is time to shed your dated views and open your eyes to LA's widespread, citizen-initiated urban renewal.

Because LA lacks the density of many other large cities, most Angelenos are blessed with lawns and trees. Used in the right way, these are great assets not only in terms of beautifying the cityscape, but also in terms of providing food and energy-savings, and facilitating community networks.

We must start with a nod to Tree People, who have inspired countless urban greening projects through their extraordinary work. But we'd like to highlight some LA projects that have ripened more recently. Read on for a taste of Fallen Fruit and Edible Estates.

Fallen Fruit took root when CalArts professor Matias Viegener discovered an old city law declaring that all fruit growing on branches that overhang into public property is free for the taking, even if the trunk of that tree is in private domain. Along with two fellow professors, Austin Young and Dave Burns, Viegnener composed a manifesto calling for the picking and planting of public fruit trees. Naturally, art poured forth from the idea, including some outstanding photography and a digital mapping system to track the locations and ripening cycles of fruit trees in LA neighborhoods. The mapping caught on and community members joined in, planning late-night fruit harvesting walks and growing the radius of the mapped regions.

Clearly, the community aspect of this had no trouble taking off. Fallen Fruit mixed guerilla-style adventurousness and uber-cool art with a very real mission to tap into abundant and underutilized resources in their city. What's been slower to take hold is the public service component—the systemic recognition of public food sources as a good idea.

The Fallen Fruit trio is long on ideas for how to bring fruit to the masses, from planting out the LA river corridor to planting up the Santa Monica mountains. This week they submitted a proposal to design an installation for the redevelopment of a park at the LA Civic Center. Their design, entitled "Endless Orchard," will contain a square grid of fruit trees planted around four mirrored walls, giving the illusion of "the endless vista of fruit trees that once characterized so much of California." The trees will be grafted – 5 species per tree – so that ripe fruit will almost always be available, maturing on a rotating cycle. The installation is meant to awaken visitors to the idea that there is food available all around them, and to invite community participation by encouraging people to pick and share the Endless Orchard's offerings.

Who knew lawns would go from epitomizing the American dream to embodying all manner of evil? Blaming both human and natural failings, many homeowners have embraced the idea of lawn-eradication. Last week, it was the lawn-pavers; this week, it's the lawn-eaters.

Edible Estates is the brainchild of Fritz Haeg, who has made it his mission to replace the water-guzzling, pesticide-drenched grasslands of American front yards with functional, fruitful plots filled with all things edible.

"The lawn devours resources while it pollutes. It is maniacally groomed with mowers and trimmers powered by the 2 stroke motors responsible for much of our greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrocarbons from mowers react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to produce ozone. To eradicate invading plants it is drugged with pesticides which are then washed into our water supply with sprinklers and hoses dumping our increasingly rare fresh drinking resource down the gutter. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater and 23 have the ability to leach into groundwater sources.
The lawn divides and isolates us. It is the buffer of anti-social no-mans-land that we wrap ourselves with, reinforcing the suburban alienation of our sprawling communities. The mono-culture of one plant species covering our neighborhoods from coast to coast celebrates puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity."

The first Edible Estates lawn revival took place in Salina, Kansas, where a family offered up their conventional front yard for transformation (it's like reality TV for lawn makeovers!), and vowed to maintain the garden as a living, thriving edible installation. The process not only furnishes a family with a hearty supply of nourishing food, it also provides an education in seasonal cycles, organic gardening, and regional biodiversity.

Over the next three years, Haeg will install edible landscapes in nine front lawns across the country. For his next trick, he will eat up a Los Angeles lawn, the location of which has yet to be determined. Do you live in LA?

"We are currently seeking the skilled, eager and adventurous occupants of one conventional American house on a typical street of endless sprawling lawns. These L.A. citizens should be brave enough to break this toxic uniformity, by having their entire front lawn removed and replaced by an edible landscape. As role models they will then proudly devote themselves to the indefinite cultivation of fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs for all neighbors and car traffic to see."

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I hope this self link isn't a breech of etiquette, but I'm the L.A. citizen who was eventually chosen for the Edible Estates project. We planted the garden on Memorial Day, and already we are harvesting vegetables from the former site of our front lawn. I've been documenting the progress of the project at:

So far the experience has been very positive. I will say that lawn-eradication has it's own set of potential human and natural failings. I think that calling the lawn evil is overdoing it a bit. The message I'd like people to take from our project is that there are other posibilities for that space out in front of your house. Change your surroundings, and you change yourself.

Posted by: Michael on 6 Jul 06



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