Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Problem -- and Solution -- of the Front Lawn

an excerpt from “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City”

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. For information on his classes and books, contact him at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

When we first moved into our home, the front yard was ugly – barren and oily.  The previous residents had used the yard to park their cars, an area of about 35 by 15 feet.  Just a bit of crabgrass grew around the edges.  The inner front yard, which we called the courtyard, was almost as barren, though there were a few trees there.

One of our first improvements, once we had removed bits of old metal, wood scraps, logs, and an old shack, was to very heavily mulch the barren yard and the neglected courtyard areas.  Mulch consisted of natural materials such as wood chips, leaves, grass clippings – organic matter that can be spread on the ground to hold in moisture.  As the mulch decomposes, it helps to increase the soil’s fertility.

While driving home one day, we saw a yard that was covered with fall leaves.  We had our rakes and bags with us, so we pulled over and knocked on the door.

“May we rake up your front yard and take the leaves with us?” we asked the elderly man who came to the door.

He was silent for a moment, uncertain what we had said, or perhaps suspicious of our intentions.  We repeated the request.

“We’d like to rake up your yard.  We don’t want to charge you.  We just want the leaves to use for mulch.”

By now, his wife had come to the door and we had to repeat the request again.   They seemed to realize that we were sincere, and agreed. 

As we raked, they began to laugh at their good fortune with sheepish smiles – someone had actually knocked on their door requesting to do something for free that they usually had to pay for.

“Take all you want!” the man told us, cheerfully and loudly.

We busied ourselves filling up about four large trash bags of the yellow leaves, and they watched us from their window with large grins.  We laughed to ourselves too, and wondered if they would be telling and re-telling this curious story to their friends and grandchildren.

When we got home, we scattered all those leaves around the needy front and courtyard areas.  We knew that we’d have to add more and more organic matter before the soil would be fertile enough to grow plants, so we collected leaves from other sources as well and spread them in our yard.

Neighbors watched our leaf mulch project curiously.

We contacted an acquaintance who runs a tree-pruning service.  This man and his crew prunes trees and then chips up the prunings, and when their truck is full of chips, they take it to the local landfill and pay to unload the chips.  In response to our invitation, they were happy to bring a load to our place instead and dump it in a huge pile onto our front yard.

The huge pile covered most of the front yard, and the central peak was nearly five feet tall.   We knew the pile would get smaller over time as the chips decomposed.  In fact, the pile had sunk down about a foot after the first week, and we spread the chips out on each side so we’d have a mulch that uniformly covered the entire area.

If you’ve ever been around a big compost pile, you know how it generates lots of heat as the contents decompose.  We noticed our pile steaming in about two weeks, and we also watered it to help the decomposition process.

One morning, a neighbor form next door yelled, “Your front yard’s on fire!”

We ran out expecting to see flames somewhere but saw only the steaming chip pile.  We assured our neighbor that everything was fine.

In two  years, after two big truckloads of wood chips, we were able to sink our hand down into the soil in the front yard, and wild plants had begun to grow and thrive. 

FOR THE CONTINUATION OF THIS STORY, get a copy of “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City” wherever quality books are sold.  Also available at the Store at

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