Front-yard vegetable patches make food and friends, but can rile neighbors
NEW YORK – A dedicated group of vegetable gardeners is ripping out their front lawns and planting dinner.
Their front-yard kitchen gardens, with everything from vegetables to herbs and salad greens, are a source of food, a topic of conversation with the neighbors and a political statement.
Leigh Anders, who tore up about half her front lawn four years ago and planted vegetables, said her garden sends a message that anyone can grow at least some of their food. That task should shift from agribusiness back to individuals and their communities, said Anders, of Viroqua, Wisc.
“This movement can start with simply one tomato plant growing in one’s yard,” she said.
While people have been growing food in their backyards forever, front-yard vegetable gardens are a growing outlet for people whose back yards are too shady or too small, as well as those who want to spread their beliefs one tomato at a time.
Many hope their gardens will revive the notion of victory gardens, which by some estimates provided 40 percent of America’s vegetables during World War II.
The topic has gotten more buzz nationally as bloggers chronicle their experiences and environmentalists have scrutinized the effects of chemicals and water used to grow lawns. A book called “Food Not Lawns,” published last year, inspired several offshoot groups.
Fritz Haeg, an artist and architect, has done yards in Kansas, California and New Jersey as part of a project called “Edible Estates.”
Haeg, who is working on a book, due out in 2008, called “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn,” says he’s been overwhelmed by the response. He gets hundreds of e-mails every month from people who want to be next.
“People are obsessed with their homes, creating these cocoons that isolate them,” he said. “This project is about reaching out, getting them connected to their streets.”
Some of the neighbors are less than thrilled. Some municipal codes limit the percentage of a yard that can be planted with anything other than trees and grass.
“Especially in the first three years, I got a lot of code violations,” said Bob Waldrop of Oklahoma City. He planted his corner lot almost entirely with fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetables.
“Now that the plantings have matured, it’s pretty,” he said. “It wasn’t so pretty the first couple years.”
Shannon McBride, 47, of Huntsville, Alabama, kept grass borders around her front-yard vegetable beds.
“We promised our neighbor we wouldn’t grow corn, because that looks kind of tacky,” she said.
The neighbor also thought tomatoes looked “untidy,” so McBride and her husband are growing bell peppers, carrots, chives, herbs, two kinds of beans, beets, okra, lettuce and cucumbers. Her corn is off to the side of the house.
An anonymous complaint about Karen Baumann’s front-yard garden in Sacramento, Calif., led to a fight by local gardeners against the city’s landscaping code, which stated that gardens could take up no more than 30 percent of the front yard.
After a public hearing where Baumann’s 11-year-old twin sons testified, dressed as a carrot and a tomato, the city changed the law.
“I’m always asked, ‘What will it look like in the winter?”‘ said Rosalind Creasy, a landscape designer who has been writing about edible landscaping for 25 years. “If you design it well and it has an herb garden, it will look fine. One of the dumbest things I see is dead lawns in the winter. They’re brown for six months of the year. How beautiful is that?”
Some front-yard gardeners say that ripping out the sod and putting in vegetables gave the neighbors their first-ever excuse to speak to them.
“It’s kind of like having a dog,” said Nat Zappia, 32, a graduate student. “No one talked to us until we had a dog.”
Zappia turned the front yard of the home he and his wife rent in Santa Monica, Calif. into a vegetable garden, with his landlord’s permission. He estimates it supplies 35 to 40 percent of the food they eat.
Zappia took a master gardening class at the East Los Angeles University of California extension program that was focused on growing food. Other gardeners were inspired by books they’ve read, such as “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” and “The Year I Ate My Yard.”
The gardens don’t cost much to plant. Zappia estimates he spent about $100 on the garden and says he and his wife save about $200 to $300 a year on their food costs.
Waldrop, in Oklahoma City, said the garden’s organic fruit allowed him to eat in a way he could never afford if he bought everything at the grocery store.
“It’s like money growing in your yard,” he said.