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Farming the Front Lawn

Spending an extended period of time around dirt, explains artist/activist/architect Fritz Haeg, is a deviant act. "In our society we are not...

Spending an extended period of time around dirt, explains artist/activist/architect Fritz Haeg, is a deviant act. “In our society we are not called citizens anymore, we are called consumers,” he says. “Our role, our job is to buy. Not only do we not need to have our hands in the dirt, it goes against this duty to buy, and not produce. We are subverting a passive role by getting our hands back in the dirt.”

It’s just that sort of activity that Haeg encouraged in his 2008 book, “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn,” in which he urged people to rip out their grass and grow food instead. Since then, the interest in urban farming and community gardens has skyrocketed– so much that Haeg decided a new edition of Edible Estates was in order. “Today, the lawn represents what we want to escape.” says Haeg. “And the garden represents what we want to return to…

So Fritz, what do you have against lawns anyway?

It is the front lawn in particular that I would like to reconsider. It wastes resources, pollutes, isolates us from our communities and we rarely ever set foot in it! The project wouldn’t have developed the way it had if I hadn’t lived in L.A. where lawns are crazy, they just make no sense in that climate. The lawn really is the most visible, wasteful, unused space. As we spread out further, I think it makes sense to reconsider the land we have already claimed, and ask if it can be put to better use.

There is nothing remotely new about what I am doing. It’s really one of the most primitive and basic human occupations there is. The fact that it is a “story” worth reporting on says a lot about how far we have come….and who we are today.

How did the Edible Estates project originate?

I wanted to really think about how we’re living as Americans. Because I started out with that impulse I began with a common American space, the front lawn. It cuts across all economic, religious, and political boundaries. I decided to do something in the geographic center of the United States, which is in Salina, Kansas. A curator at the Salina Art Center there was doing a show on food so I proposed an edible front yard project.

You’re coming out with a new edition of “Edible Estates” just two years after its first publication. What’s changed since the first edition?

The mainstream dialog [about growing food] is something I didn’t anticipate at all. It’s amazing how quickly it’s become such a central topic. When my aunt in Omaha is aware of this stuff, I know it’s taken off. And these issues are not easily placed on a political spectrum. It’s not all lefties: whenever I do a new garden it’s always the local Fox affiliate that shows up with their cameras.

There’s also been a radical shift in the architectural community. Students are intensely interested in landscape– which was not the case when I was in architecture school. Really, students are wild about anything that’s questioning everything: You gave us lawns? We’re going to dig them up!

And there’s a new essay from Growing Power’s Will Allen?

Will Allen hadn’t really put anything in writing before so his essay in the book serves as a sort of manifesto. It broadens the conversation beyond simple issues of pleasure and aesthetics. It comes down to real food security issues that are much more urgent.

Are you growing food at your house?

Yes, but I’m not there to enjoy it [as I’m] traveling for these sorts of projects. The irony is that as I do more gardens for other people in different cities, I have less time for my own.

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