Kathy Caldwell is part of an ecological trend labeled by one author as “full-frontal gardening.” There’s nothing obscene about what takes place in her yard at 821 Ferdinand Ave., but Caldwell and others like her in Forest Park have joined a growing revolution.
What used to be a manicured lawn in front of Caldwell’s home is taken up by rows of plants and flowers, some of which Caldwell sells at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market. For five years now, Caldwell has subscribed to the theories of alternative lawns and welcomes such things as dandelions and clover that many homeowners take great pains to remove.
“What’s going on underneath the soil is more important than what’s going on above ground,” Caldwell said.
Homeowners across the country are considering alternatives to the traditional lawn and planting prairie grasses and wildflowers in their front yards. Some are even cultivating fruits and vegetables. Fritz Haeg, author of “Edible Estates,” calls this “full-frontal gardening.”
“My grandparents and parents were farmers,” Caldwell said. “We grew everything we ate.”
Caldwell’s father was Native American and practiced an ecological approach to farming that avoided chemicals. “He didn’t want fat, spotless apples if it meant using insecticides,” Caldwell said. “I learned the Native American way to farm, without even knowing it.”
The deeps roots of dandelions hold the soil in place, she said, and clover attracts pollinators. Earthworms are “black gold” in Caldwell’s book and help relieve soil compaction.
Lawns might seem like a permanent feature of the American landscape but they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. In the July 21 issue of “The New Yorker,” Elizabeth Kolbert recounts the emergence of mown grass in an article entitled “Turf War.” Kolbert writes that landscape architects like Calvert Vaux, who helped design Riverside, founded the American lawn movement in 1851.
Thanks to these early evangelists, well-kept lawns became the dominant feature of the suburban landscape. Today, lawns and golf courses cover an area equal in size to the state of New York, and Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year maintaining their turf.
Mark Rogovin took a pragmatic approach to replacing his traditional lawn and parkway at 930 Dunlop Ave.
“My mother once said, ‘I don’t want to mow lawns for the rest of my life,’ so I’m following her example,” Rogovin said.
Forest Park does govern plant life on lawns and parkways. The Building Department’s one provision: No weeds. It states that all exterior property be kept free of noxious weeds, noting that the term weed does not apply to cultivated flowers and gardens.
As for parkway planting, residents can obtain a permit for private landscaping on the public way for $15. The ordinance contains many provisions as to what can be planted and how high it can grow. Mayor Anthony Calderone suggested that prospective planters download a copy of the village code at Forestpark.net before they get started.
Turf lawns have their “good side and bad side,” according to local landscaper Scott McAdam of McAdam’s Landscaping. Lawns filter our water, release oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, he said. They also provide “recreation space and aesthetic appeal.” The only downside, according to McAdam, is the burning of fossil fuels to cut the lawns.
“People do it more with small spaces than they do with big lawns,” McAdam said.
Bruce Glaser took a break from gardening at 7655 Jackson Ave. to talk about his ongoing conversion.
“I used to have a regular lawn, but it was more like a regular weed collection,” Glaser said.
He was never interested in having the perfect lawn and is now installing ornamental bricks and planting tomatoes on the sunniest portion of his property. Glaser said he doesn’t have a green thumb or an encyclopedic knowledge of plant life, but expects his garden will require less maintenance than a typical lawn.
Jamie Brayo said she doesn’t even know the names of the plants that populate portions of her lawn and parkway.
“I go to Good Earth and buy the most outrageous plants,” Brayo said.
She also grows more traditional species like hostas, honeysuckle and hens and chickens. A network of hoses soaks the plants, she said, causing her water bills to be “off the wall.”
Like Caldwell, Brayo grew up on a farm. Her garden in the backyard is home to a grape arbor, blackberries, raspberries, tomato plants, and sunflowers, courtesy of an unofficial garden co-op. In addition to her luxuriant plant life, Brayo’s property boasts 15 birdhouses.
Rose Mattax has lived at 540 Ferdinand Ave. since 1996. Almost immediately she and her husband started tearing up the turf, she said. Mattax purchased a packet of wildflower seeds and planted a flower garden on the parkway and in the backyard. Unbeknown to her, the packet contained corn seeds. Nevertheless, she pressed on with her planting, adding a butterfly bush and lilac bush to the yard. Her current project is using stones to construct a Celtic labyrinth on the front lawn. Her plants have attracted insects, birds and a warren of rabbits, she said.
“We had a traditional lawn when we first moved in, but we wanted a lawn without pesticides,” Mattax said.