Average lawns, as we’ve come to know them in the past half-century or so, are virtually useless. 

Kentucky Bluegrass, the most common type of grass seen on lawns in the United States, requires a lot of mowing to be kept up and the grass’ shallow roots don’t do a lot for the soil in which it is planted. 

There are plenty of uses for land area aside from aesthetics, such as growing and planting produce, medicinal plants or types of grass that help the soil. In fact, outdoor spaces can be strategically designed to the point where nearly every aspect is useful and helps the plants or soil in some way. These design principles are known as permaculture, a mix of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” 

Upon learning about permaculture and its benefits to the environment, Laura Newby and John Nelson, members of Columbia Heights’ Church of All Nations, decided to embark on their own permaculture journey for the land surrounding their church on Benjamin Street Northeast. Nelson and Newby are the heads of the church’s permaculture project, a process that started more than a year ago.

“We are attentive to … what’s going on in terms of climate change and all those larger things that people are drawing attention to now,” Nelson said. “But the other part of that is local ecosystem destruction — destruction of local habitats, loss of biodiversity, collapse of insect populations. You can just go down the list of all that.”

Ultimately, they want to improve the health of their soil and water with plants and without using herbicides.

“We don’t have to hurt land and water to get what we need from it, but we can be in a mutually beneficial relationship,” Newby said.

Nelson, a pastor, took permaculture design courses a few years ago, where he learned about the design principles and how to start the process. Eventually, Newby, a ministry catalyst, did the same. 

Overall, Newby and Nelson are hoping to change the way people think about typical lawns, which don’t really serve purposes other than looking a certain way. 

“Part of it is changing our aesthetic. People are really used to manicured grass lawns,” Nelson said. “We’ve been conditioned to see manicured grass lawns as the most attractive and most desirable.”

One way to get away from favoring a typical lawn is by planting different types of grass, ones with longer roots that can help prevent erosion and require less mowing, can be a fairly easy fix to helping your land’s soil, Nelson said. 

People can also plant clovers, a plant that adds nitrogen to the soil. Typically, Nelson said, clovers have been seen as a nuisance to many homeowners, as they take away from the uniform look of a lawn.

They hope to create a cultural shift from this local project, even if that just means members of the congregation taking these practices home with them. Nelson knows that one project isn’t going to change the current situation, but he recognizes that multiple projects like theirs could have a significant impact.

“We just see that as a church, we have a real opportunity here, because we can impact our members,” he said. “People talk about it. People will see it in our neighborhood. We can explain it to other churches.”

As a church, the congregation strives for a sense of community among its members. They don’t want to see each other only on Sundays, and the permaculture project is a means of getting everyone together more frequently.

Nelson noticed the disconnect for many between themselves and the land. The idea for the permaculture design project was not only to create a sense of community, but also to get people connected with their local ecosystem. 

“It’s not that we should do this, but there’s something in our bodies saying ‘We need to do this,’” Newby said. “We’re eager to be a part of creating that cultural change.” 

The duo sought out help from members of the church to keep the permaculture process going. They wanted to form a committee of about five to 10 people, but, to their pleasant surprise, 20 people signed up right away. 

Throughout last fall and winter, the committee met to study permaculture. They also got help with the planting and, currently, weeding process from the rest of the congregation. 

Newby and Nelson got help for the design process from Ecological Design, a local, women-owned business that “is passionate about transforming land with degraded soil and water systems back to life,” according to the website.

“They’ve really been our mentors in transitioning from concept to reality,” Newby said.

Because the church in on a hill, they had to strategically plan so that most or all of the water wouldn’t run down the hill. To combat this, they implemented swales, which are small divots in the grass where water can collect so it eventually soaks into the grass. 

So far, the church has planted an array of stuff, including medicinal perennials, fescue grass, clovers, trees and produce. 

Fescue is a type of grass that grows taller and has longer, stronger roots that help the soil and prevent easy erosion. Because of its taller quality, it only has to be mowed a couple of times a summer, Nelson said, which helps cut down on maintenance costs and prevents the packing down of the land, which is bad for the soil.

They’ve planted 13 hazelnut trees donated by the Million Hazelnut Campaign, an initiative to plant hazelnut trees in the Midwest to combat climate change by creating less soil erosion, water contamination and carbon outgassing, according to their website. 

Additionally, Church of All Nations has planted apple, cherry and edible crabapple trees. Trees grow strong, long roots that help the soil and prevent erosion. And if that’s not appealing enough, those trees produce something even sweeter: free fruit to eat.

The fruit trees are planted in guilds, which Newby described as “companion planting,” which means the trees are surrounded by plants that provide nutrients the trees need.

They also planted a variety of berry bushes, like goji berries and black currants, neither of which are very common in this area, Nelson said. 

As for consuming the various types of produce they’ll have when the plants are fully grown, Newby suspects they’ll have no problem eating all of it. 

“We have a very active community here, we eat a lot of meals together,” Newby said. “We don’t anticipate any issue using what we produce. If anything, we’re like, ‘We should plant more.’”

They still have further to go in reaching their goals for the area, they said. There is a lot more to be planted and planned. A lot of the designing and execution process is trial and error, as they have to see what works in the space they have, Nelson said. 

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