One of the first things you note about Jim Crist's front lawn is that, well, he doesn't have one. Instead, his Kansas City, Mo., area home's front yard...

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One of the first things you note about Jim Crist’s front lawn is that, well, he doesn’t have one.

Instead, his Kansas City, Mo., area home’s front yard is a thicket of flowers, ornamental trees, leafy bushes, native grasses and a bramble of green tendrils rising up in suburban anarchy to the orderly lawns around it.

“I don’t like mowing, and I don’t like spreading and spraying weed killer and grub control, so I turned my front yard into a garden, something I like to do,” said Crist, a horticulturist and Master Gardener.

Americans have long treasured a well-tended lawn. But a small, if determined, movement would replace vistas of unrelentingly green front lawns with at least pockets of exotic flower and vegetable gardens that not only are feasts for the eyes but sources of cheap veggies, too.

No statistics exist, mainly because the movement so far amounts to little more than a persistent dandelion. But largely because of an art project to turn a front lawn in Salina, Kan., into a so-called Edible Estate, it is gaining widespread publicity through the Internet.

For the love of lawns

Consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on water, pesticides, fertilizers and gas to keep 30 million acres of lawn green and tidy, making grass America’s largest irrigated crop. Yet, critics say, consumers get little practical value from this endless regimen.

Turn lawn space into a garden

Drive around the neighborhood to see how much lawn your neighbors devote to plants.

Observe plant combinations and styles you like.

Take into account how much sun and shade you have, to determine what plants will thrive.

Use ornamental trees and shrubs for accents.

Use fewer varieties of plants but larger quantities, to imitate nature.

Plan for the seasons to provide winter evergreens, spring bulbs, summer abundance and fall colors.

Be realistic about how much time you can spend on gardening a week, and plan accordingly.

When in doubt, ask a professional. Many landscapers charge a minimal consultation fee.

Source: Vivian Pine of Floraculture, Johnson County-Kansas State University Research & Extension Office.

The Kansas City Star

“Now it is time to question how much lawn we need and what is sustainable,” said Diana Balmori, a New York landscape and urban design expert and co-author of the book “Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony.”

Balmori said lawns are not natural to America. The concept was imported from England, where lawns thrive in near-constant drizzle. In America, she said, an obsession with grass lawns has produced “an impoverished landscape. … It’s a loss of biodiversity that starts with our front lawn.”

And while homeowners battle the heat to keep their lawns green, critics raise environmental worries about water and energy consumption, chemically tainted streams and air pollution from mowers and leaf blowers.

Defending their turf

The $35 billion lawn-care industry isn’t worried yet.

“Consumers get a lot of utility out of their lawns,” said Tom Delaney, director of government affairs for the Professional Land Care Network, an industry trade group.

Delaney said lawns have many benefits. An average lawn generates enough oxygen for a family of four, and the cooling effect of eight front lawns can equal 70 tons of air conditioning — enough for 16 average homes. Turf traps dust, filters contaminants and reduces runoff.

“A healthy lawn certainly produces curb appeal,” Delaney said. He said a nice lawn adds 20 percent to the price of a home. “And try playing ball over a garden or ground cover.”

Eating on your lawn

Even so, you still can’t eat your front lawn, say advocates of a new experimental lawn alternative called Edible Estates. The idea began when Stacy Switzer, artistic director of a nonprofit art group, was asked by the Salina Art Center to develop ideas for a project titled “Eating: A Community Project Exploring What, How and Why We Eat.”

Out of that came the proposal by California artist Fritz Haeg to replace a resident’s front lawn with a garden. And that was what he did in July 2005.

Haeg said he chose Salina for symbolic reasons because it is smack in the geographic center of the United States.

Stan and Priti Cox of Salina, Kan., allowed their front yard to be used. It was transformed with dwarf peach, plum and apple trees, a grape arbor, blackberry bushes, herbs, sweet potatoes, strawberries and rhubarb, sunflowers, wheat grass, flax and other food plants.

Stan Cox said that at first, his neighbors wondered what the heck was going on, “but when things started growing, they got real interested.” No one complained, he said. Cox kept the garden, which now nearly obscures his house.

Cox and Haeg received e-mail from people nationwide who wanted to grow front-yard gardens. In July, Cox, Haeg and the Edible Estates concept were profiled in The New York Times. Haeg expanded his Web site,, to devote space to Edible Estates. And he has completed two new projects and plans another soon in Minneapolis.

Seeking middle ground

Vivian Pine, owner of a landscaping firm, thinks there is a middle ground. She embraces the idea of front-lawn gardens because it promotes soil-friendly uses and conservation. Still, she does not expect many homeowners to tear out all their turf: “We love our lawns,” she said.

Crist expects to find out soon how much people love lawns. He and his wife have put their home up for sale.

But it’s hard to tell: The “for sale” sign is nearly obscured by vegetation.