Thesis Project Inspires Community Action

Thesis Project Inspires Community Action
Todd Lininger

Todd Lininger's back yard is a living, breathing farmers market. In one area, he grows cucumbers, squash and artichokes. In another, there are bananas, grapefruit and18 varieties of tomatoes. Some of the vegetable plants are so unusual that they're not available in most grocery stores: Marina de Chioggia squash, jumbo pink banana squash, and a type of grain called amaranth.

Lininger, a regenerative studies master's student, is passionate about local food, sustainable practices and helping others achieve those goals. Two years ago, he co-founded Food Not Lawns, a community group based in Claremont that promotes edible gardens over grass lawns.

“If you have to pour a valuable resource like water on something, you might as well be getting a return on your investment. You should be feeding yourself,” Lininger says. “Having a grass lawn gets you nothing. And then, you grow it just to cut it.”

The community group started as part of Lininger's thesis project, which explores reviving the concept of World War II victory gardens in light of climate change and high oil prices. Some ideas are based on the book “Food Not Lawns” by Heather Flores, a well-known urban gardener and writer. Lininger's wife, Mary Beth, encouraged him to take the thesis a step further and start the community group in Claremont.

The Liningers' back yard is a vibrant demonstration garden, with mature plant beds, fruit trees, a compost pile and a large area to grow seedlings. Because they rent, they aren't able to convert the front yard into an edible garden.

Every couple of months, Food Not Lawns' 40 to 50 volunteers perform extreme lawn makeovers, replacing grass with edible and native plants. Most of their projects are in the Claremont and Pomona area, including private homes, a women's halfway house and Claremont Methodist Church. The volunteers, many of whom are Cal Poly Pomona students, help design the gardens; plant trees, vegetables and herbs; and install drip irrigation systems.

Very much a grass-roots organization, Food Not Lawns provides a support network for people who may not have the time or knowledge to convert their yards. It sponsors monthly meetings for members and neighbors to learn from one another, get gardening advice and exchange plants and seeds.

The extreme lawn makeovers are social events, too. “There's food and drinks and music. Work is being done, but it's a lot of fun as well. That's a large part of what I like about it,” says Scott Kleinrock, a graduate student in landscape architecture. “It's a community thing. Different people show up at different work parties as they're able to.”

Earlier this year, Kleinrock redesigned the front lawn of Michael and Vicki Shea's house in Claremont, and Food Not Lawns volunteers helped tear out the grass, ivy and hedges. The new landscape includes vegetables, fruit trees, herbs and California native plants.

Fruit and vegetables straight from the garden are some of the best tasting food, Kleinrock says. “There's no where you can buy better tasting tomatoes than the ones in your yard, or the best tasting peaches. Homegrown food is about amazing tasting food. Even things like lettuce, there's a difference to what you grow at home and what you buy in the supermarket.”

Swapping out an entire grass lawn for a sustainable garden may sound like a radical idea, but most neighbors will be curious, not critical, according to Lininger.

In fact, Vicki Shea found that her neighbors were attracted to her new garden, not offended by it. “The benefits are a sense of community, not just with Food Not Lawns, but also with our neighborhood,” she says. “[My husband and I] are out in our front yard and we talk with people. People will ring our doorbell, wanting to know what we're doing.

“I haven't heard a negative comment. Not one yet.”

For more information about Claremont Food Not Lawns, visit