May 1 2013 12:00 AM

Front-yard gardeners kill the turf and woo the world with food and flowers

Everybody wants to brag about his garden, right? Maybe get it into the newspaper? “I’m not interested,” an 80-ish woman in her bathrobe said curtly at the curb. “Not interested.” 

There’s no set profile for people who get rid of their front lawns and plant gardens. They range from tear-it-up anarchists to compulsive control freaks, from fussers to fanatics. Some just love tasty food and pretty flowers. Others hate the “hegemony of the lawn,” noisy gas mowers, poisons and the conformity of suburbia. Some are looking for old-fashioned community in a lock-and-load, neighborhood-watch culture. They love to lure butterflies and curious neighbors, give away tomatoes and share perennials.

Gardeners can also be private, even in the front yard. Not all of them are eager to talk your ears off about their big plans or green ideas. 

For years, I’ve admired one small front yard on the near east side of Lansing, in the shadow of Sparrow Hospital. In the summer, it’s carpeted edge to edge with flowers and vegetables and ringed with pots of more flowers. There isn’t a blade of grass in sight.

When I knocked one afternoon, a man in pajamas came to the door and told me his mother has been doing all the work in the yard for 40 years. That’s all he told me before she called him back into the house, in a language I didn’t understand. As the door closed, I glimpsed icons and ornate family portraits on the walls inside and smelled spicy food.

Early the next morning, I found the lady herself, hacking at the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk with a hand tool, ignoring a dusting of late April snow. She wore round glasses, like Leon Trotsky’s.

“Not interested!” she repeated. She didn’t even look at me.

I left her in privacy, bent and absorbed in the dirt, to sing all summer with flowers.

I found lots of other people who were happy to talk about their plans, their tools and their methods.

Getting started

On the first warm day this spring, Sue Eby pressed a fluffy pillow of mulch on her entire front lawn — on Britten Street in the Moores River Park area — and waited for it to die. She’s itched for this day since she moved into the house last November, within walking distance of her job with the state of Michigan. Eby grew up in a Mennonite community in the Upper Peninsula and always felt close to the land. She lived in a condo for years but chafed at its restrictions. Growing plants in pots on the porch didn’t satisfy.

Saturday morning, she dumped a layer of leaves and four truckloads of oak mulch onto every inch of her front yard to smother the grass.

Digging a lawn up is hard work, even with a rototiller, but smothering is almost fun. To prepare, Eby raked hills of leaves from her neighbors’ yards, with their glad permission. Many lawn-smotherers wait for trash pickup day and harvest bagfuls from up and down the street. Some learn all the pickup days and cruise the city in pickup trucks for free leaves. It takes a lot of them to kill a lawn.

The mulch cost about $400, but Eby considers it a long-term investment. You can also smother grass with newspaper or cardboard — City Pulse works great, says East Side garden expert Peter Hudy — but mulch is easier on the eyes and smells nice during the transition.

Like most front-yard gardeners, Eby considers routine lawn care a boring, unproductive ritual.

“It seems futile to me to plant grass, fertilize it, cut it, and it all takes carbon,” she said. “My parents would never have used a lawn mower or a leaf blower.”

Digging is hard work, even with a rototiller. Smothering takes about a year of waiting before you can plant, but it’s a lot less work. You can do a large area at once, sit back, and scheme for next spring. 

“Gradually, I’m going to plant a combination of flowers and things to eat,” Eby said. She might use strawberries for ground cover, as her neighbor across the street does. She’s got time to think about it.

‘Don’t do it all at once’

For an extreme — almost Babylonian —  “after” picture, Denise Chrysler and Paul Pratt’s place will do. They have lived in their west side home on Everett Drive for 32 years. They’ve been digging up the front, side and back yards for 30 of those years.

“My advice is: Don’t do it all at once,” Chrysler said. They started by digging up small areas of grass, mixing the dirt with compost, making a bed for something tasty or pretty, and gradually working outward.

By 2010, their entire front yard was gone. Now the whole back yard is a vegetable garden, the side yard is a flower bed, and the front yard is full of ornamental grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees, filled out with bulbs and annuals.

Now for the Babylonian bit. Pratt happens to be Ingham County’s deputy drain commissioner. That means there will be infrastructure. “I think of it as a garden — he thinks of it as a water management system,” Chrysler said.

Their house and surrounding yard is Las Vegas for visiting drops of rain: What falls there stays there. Downspouts lead to rain barrels or rain gardens. Paths are made of porous concrete and permeable pavers, even the sidewalk and driveway. 

Chrysler isn’t a fanatic about using only native plants, as some gardeners are, but she does favor drought-resistant plants and avoids invasive species.

“When it’s in its glory, there’s not many inches that are empty,” Chrysler said. Hummingbirds, butterflies and mantises are frequent visitors. And humans. In the evening, Pratt and Chrysler drink wine and chat with neighbors who go out of their way on daily walks to see what’s in bloom.

Get on my lawn

The friendliness of front yard gardens — their total rejection of suburban home-is-my-fortress hunkering — is a big draw for many gardeners. Everyone has heard of surly seniors who yell at kids to get off their lawn. Helen Nethaway Mindiola is the opposite.

Five years ago, Mindiola, 87, installed a Japanese tomato ring smack dab in her front yard, where it towers like a silo, taking up half her frontage on Allen Street on the East Side. Heating bills were going up and she wanted to do something to help herself and her neighbors. In the off-season, her son, Patrick, installs weird Halloween and Thanksgiving displays inside the tower. Last Christmas, it morphed into a decorated gift exchange where kids could leave a toy and take one.

The tower is a growing technique Mindiola learned while living at a Venezuelan coffee farm 30 years ago. It’s a ring of chicken wire about 15 feet around, up to 12 feet tall, with compost in the middle. Four tomato plants are positioned on the outside. The ring is watered in the middle, so the roots are drawn toward the moist, compost-rich soil.

She got over 2,000 tomatoes in her first year.

“I’ve stopped telling people that because they think I’m lying,” she said.

The idea of the ring, she said, is to share. “My rules are: You can take tomatoes free, as many as you want, but only if you’re walking or riding a bicycle.”

She hastened to point out a misnomer. “It’s not Japanese. It was invented by a postman from South Dakota.”

The community-minded East Side is Lansing’s prime spot for front-yard gardens. Not far from Mindiola’s tomato tower, John Lindenmayer and Sarah Schillio tend a classic front-yard sitter’s garden, with purple coneflowers and brown-eyed Susans, at their house on Leslie Street. 

“We get a lot of foot traffic,” Lindenmayer said. “People stop and talk. It changes and grows.”

They had a prosaic reason for installing it.

“I’d mow the side yard but I couldn’t reach the front with my electric mower,” Lindenmayer said. “The cord was too short.”

With the help of the in-laws, they dug most of the yard up in one back-breaking weekend seven years ago, then worked it out further over the years. They brought in rocks and mulch. Neighbors donated perennials. Now they’re returning the favor.

“That’s cool, sharing them,” Lindenmayer said. “Since then, we’ve passed on a lot of plants.” 

Lawns are a lot of work, but so are gardens. Separating perennials to keep them from crowding each other is a chore, especially if you hate sharing flowers with people.

In Lansing, as in most American towns, front-yard gardens are still a novelty, but grass is increasingly on the defensive.

Spreading the message

On April 9, a dozen would-be sod-busters crowded into a small shed, as thunder and lightning crashed outside, to get tips from experts at a “Sod-to-Garden Ideas” workshop on Lansing’s East Side.

They had different reasons for being there. Southsider Beverly Smith has already been gardening for about seven years and really wants to tear things up this year.

“I have five kids,” she said. “That’s why I garden.” 

It seems that no bastion of the American lawn is safe. Glenn Ernst, a member of the St. Johns Masonic Lodge, was tired of years of mowing two city lots behind the lodge.

“We want to convert that into a community garden, to donate to the community,” he declared. Last weekend, Ernst braved the wet ground and built some raised beds, but hasn’t begun tilling up the sod yet.

Getting down to basics, Julie Lehman, coordinator of the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s Garden Project, gave the group a cup of composted soil to fondle. It sprinkled softly through my fingers like slightly dried coffee grounds. 

“We have a very nutrient-rich, wet clay soil around here,” she explained. That’s good, she said, but compost is essential to break it up.

“Compost absorbs and distributes the water, not like subsoil that captures and holds onto it,” she explained.

Peter Hudy, who tends community gardens at the Marshall Street Armory, showed the group how to kill grass with mulch (or City Pulse). He said he’s already dug up “about a third” of his own lawn.

“Our first year [at the Armory], we used 200 bags of chopped up leaves, worked them into the soil and put paper bags on top,” Hudy told the group. The weeds stayed at nearly zero for three years. “The moisture stays in there, nutrients stay in there,” he said. “The neighbors have smaller tomato plants, and they’re out there watering three or four times a week.”

Some people don’t have patience for a slow smother. For those who want the quick kill, burly Americorps volunteer Neal Valley waded into the violent mechanics of sod removal.

He recommended a gas-powered tiller for big yards.

For a small plot, he suggested a square point shovel and a “bastard file” to keep the blade sharp. He made a vertical chop-down motion.

“Step down about two inches, just below the root zone of the sod,” he said. Chunk.

Then came the stake in the heart. Valley leaned over and pried up the imaginary square of grass with a $15 gadget called a soil knife, a cross between a pie server and a Roman short sword.

“It has a lot of uses, but it’s really great for cutting roots,” he grinned. “Just loosen the patch and work the soil.” 

I could almost hear a thousand little grass roots rip away and a new door open in the dirt. 

Dig it: Classes, workshops and resources on gardening in the area

Let’s Garden Lansing
A combined posting of garden-related activities in the area.

Garden Project of the Greater Lansing Food Bank
919 Filley St., Lansing | (517) 853-7800

NorthWest Initiative
(517) 999-2987 |

Allen Neighborhood Center
(517) 367-2468 |

South Lansing Community Development Association
(517) 374-5700

Lansing Neighborhood Council


Greater Lansing Housing Coalition
600 W. Maple Ave., Lansing
(517) 372-5980 |

Gardening and landscaping with native plants:

The Red Cedar Chapter of Wild Ones
Meets 3rd Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Fenner Nature Center, 2020 E. Mt. Hope Ave., Lansing (southeast corner of Mt. Hope and Aurelius Road)

Wild Ones Native Plant Sale
May 11 at Lansing City Market and May 25 at Meridian Farmer’s Market

To attract awesome bugs to your garden:
Wednesday, May 15
Peter Carrington, assistant curator, W.J. Beal Botanical Gardens
Native Plant Strategies for Attracting Great Insects
Fenner Nature Center, 2020 Mt. Hope Ave., Lansing