Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From Bashful to Bodacious

Last spring, I decided to grow some of my own food. Without any raised beds (since rectified thanks to Mr. Green Bean) and a yard that was mostly lawn, I did what I could. I hesitantly tucked a couple tomato seedlings in amongst the lamb's ear and daisies in my backyard. In the front yard, I hid some thyme and oregano next to the Mexican sage and Penestemon. I hoped no one would notice. Thus, began my edible gardening.

A few friends were surprised that I would grow vegetables in with my flowers. However, as summer padded in, my tomato seedlings stretched beyond their cages and dangled their cherry red fruit over the dahlias and foxgloves. There was something romantic and old fashioned about them. By the time I harvested the last tomato in November, even doubting friends pronounced a tomato tucked amongst ornamentals wonderful and many swore they'd try the same thing next year.

Yesterday, waist deep in squash leaves, hair in my eyes, I pried the crabgrass out of the dirt where it was crowding the climbing Scarlet runner beans. "What have you got in here?" my neighbor from across the street asked, peering down into ever expanding green. I eased apart leaves to show off my baby banana squash, my preemie Potimarron. I clambered over the vines to point out my peppers and frown over the baby apple tree still recovering from a deer's feasting. I waved into the butterfly garden to explain that there were peas, lemon cucumbers and tomatoes lurking amongst the Cosmos and yarrow. Lastly, my kids bounded over to explain how big our sunflower forest had gotten. They ran between the scaling stalks and stood next to the biggest plant so that our neighbor could understand just how tall the sunflowers really were. "Taller than me!" my three year old announced.

A year ago, I would have been far too shy to plant vegetables in my front yard. Even last spring, when asked what I was growing, I gave vague answers such as "flowering vines, some plants." I couldn't quite spit out "pumpkins" or "beans."

A year ago, too, my neighbor might have responded differently than he did today. "What a great idea!" he marveled. "We should do that next year." In a way, I didn't expect his response. My neighborhood is very traditional - a grass and roses kind of place. But I shouldn't have been surprised. A different neighbor stopped me last week to thank me for "bringing up the neighborhood." She said that she had seen on the news how front yard feasting is very fashionable now.

She's right. Everywhere you turn, people are talking about edible landscaping, Victory Gardens, growing their own. The food revolution is here and it's exciting . . . and a bit scary to be the first in your neighborhood to replace lawn with lettuce. Here are some baby and not so baby steps for going from bashful to bodacious:

1) Plant some innocuous (e.g., not obviously edible) plants in flower beds. People won't blink at a a few of the following:
  • herbs
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • blueberry bushes
  • strawberries
  • Swiss chard (Bright Lights looks pretty)
  • sunflowers
  • pole beans that climb up an attractive structure
  • peppers
2) Expand your flower beds, nibbling away at the grass. It doesn't feel like ripping out grass. It doesn't feel like a big step. Just getting more planting room. I did this bit by bit. No one noticed the shrinking lawn - except the water company.
3) Put some lettuce or herbs in your window box - with or without flowers.
4) If you are up for a bigger step, remove a patch of lawn. Doing it in the fall allows sheet mulch and cover crop to improve the soil over fall and winter. We did this with our sidewalk strip last October and, although some of the newspaper and cardboard from the sheet mulch has not completely degraded, the soil underneath is loamy and rich.
5) Plan to replace lawn with flowers instead of edibles. For some reason, people find it more acceptable to grow flowers than vegetables in your front yard. As a result, it doesn't feel like a big step. A flower garden - especially one that features native plants - uses less water than lawn, requires less upkeep and will increase the biodiversity of your yard. My "butterfly garden" was mostly planted from seed (replanted successively through out the year) so it was cheap, mostly plastic-less and has a natural, lush look to it. Better yet, a brimming flower garden is the perfect place to tuck in peas, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. With the swaying strands of Cosmos, Queen Ann's Lace, Mexican sunflowers and lavender, no one notices a stray vegetable here or there.
Doing any these things will embolden you.
You will revel in the ability to run out front to grab some thyme for your pumpkin soup, to scoop up a few tomatoes for your salad, snip a couple snap peas for stir fry or harvest some baseball sized potatoes.
You will get to know your neighbors, if for no other reason than you'll be out front. As your garden grows, so will interest in it and discussion about it. Someone might even join you next year. While there is always someone crotchety who might complain, I find the more I connect with my neighbors, the less likely they are to complain about anything.
You will realize that there is no reason to be bashful. That vegetables and berries are beautiful, and, heck, its your yard anyway!
Last spring, I hesitantly tucked a couple tomato seedlings in amongst the flowers in my backyard. In the front yard, I hid some thyme and oregano next to the Mexican sage and Penestemon. I hoped no one would notice.
Next spring, I won't think twice about rows of tomatoes, eggplants or peppers. About mounds of potatoes, cucumbers or pumpkins. About climbing beans and sprawling peas or even corn.
My edible garden will be both bodacious and bountiful. And my neighborhood will be better for it.


The Purloined Letter said...

How delicious! We've been backyard gardeners for years, but this year we've been planning how to design our move into the sunny front yard. Deciding how to plant in such a way that our neighbors will think it is beautiful is certainly challenging!

Tameson said...

Good for you!!

In my neighborhood nobody'd notice if I put veggies out front (I don't 'cause it's in the shade all day, but both sides of my house are covered in edibles). Next year I'm going to take the semicircle in front of my driveway and put a dye garden in. I'll be sheet muching for it come this October.

Donna said...

Recently I walked by a neighborhood house where they had done this. The front yard (fenced) was a lush garden of flowers and veggies. But the best part was that they took the sidewalk strip (between the sidewalk and the street) and planted it with veggies and a big sign that said, "Help Yourself!"

eco 'burban mom said...

I have chile peppers and green peppers in my flower garden and I enjoyed their little white flowers. Now that the chiles are growing, I think their bright green changing to violent orange is kind of cool. I also planted a big pot of herbs right on the front doorstep. It's close to the kitchen, so it saves me some steps. Next year I would LOVE some blueberry bushes in the shrubbery! How much fun would that be to sit on my porch and pick berries! I'm still not giving up on my flowers though, at this very minute I have about 30 white lilies blooming that are almost the size of a soccerball. Talk about getting some jealous stares from the neighbors! ;o) Gotta love that!

jennconspiracy said...

I'd love to get my landlord's permission to dig up the front lawn...

Green Resolutions said...

Thanks for all the suggestions. We hid a few tomatoes, squash and herbs right behind the house, but I've been wishing we'd done more. Your blog is so inspiring. I'm so glad to know it has only taken you a year to get to the place where you're writing from now.

Donna - that is a wonderful idea. I'd love to plant a neighborhood circle around our mailbox! It is very hard for us to meet neighbors. Thanks!

arduous said...

Wow, Donna I wish more people did that! I bet a lot of home gardeners end up with more vegetables and fruit than they can eat. It would be so cool to offer them to the whole neighborhood!!

fearlesschef said...

I loved this post! My garden grew by a huge leap this year and I think it needs to grow yet again!

Burbanmom said...

I keep eyeing my front yard, noticing how it gets the bets light and has the richest soil.

What would the HOA say? Don't know. But I think I'll test the waters next summer with some 'maters in the flower beds. If I get a pretty trellis, instead of an ugly tomato cage, I think it would look nice.

You inspire me, oh brave one!

- Burbs

Melinda said...

Go Green Bean Garden Machine! Didn't we just talk about your neighbors seeing things differently because of your efforts? Glad to see it's happening - very, very cool. I'm really glad it's becoming fashionable. I walk around our neighborhood every day, constantly seeing new bits of herbs and vegetables growing up in flower beds and ornamental gardens. It's a beautiful thing.

ib mommy said...

I have two pear tomato plants growing right by the street in my flower bed. I didn't stake them, just let them ramble and I mulch with pine straw so they don't get dirty on the ground. My HOA either hasn't noticed or they blend in pretty well with the other flowers! They just look like pretty red and yellow dots of color in the bed. Eggplants are a really nice addition, they have gorgeous purple flowers.

Next year I'm putting a whole hedge of blueberry bushes along the driveway. I just have to convince my husband he doesn't need as much room to unload his kayaks!

Green Bean said...

Purloined Letter: I was worried about my neighbors this year and spent a lot of time figuring out what to plant where. It didn't exactly turn out like I expected. Especially the sidewalk strip - man pumpkins take up a LOT of space. Still everyone is being very positive so I'll push the envelope a little more next year.

Tameson: A dye garden! How wonderful. I think I remember you writing folks in your neighborhood have front yard edible gardens? Is that right?

Donna: I LOVE that idea. I only really have squash and peppers that are doing well this year. The beans aren't doing that hot. I'll have to do that next year and plant things like tomatoes and such that are a little easier to pick. What a wonderful way to reach out to the neighborhood.

EcoBurbs: I think pepper plants are absolutely gorgeous! And I'm with you. I'm not giving up the flowers in my butterfly garden next year. I love flowers and it is nice to have a mixture.

Jennconspiracy: Just think of what you could grow . . . and can.

Green Resolution: I'm so glad that you are inspired. A year ago I would never have thought the progress I have made possible. The new habits just become second nature and open up more and more opportunities. A neighborhood circle around the mailbox sounds lovely - perfect way to get to know neighbors.

Arduous: Totally! Speaking of which, I'm going to have a ton of squash - just as I'm finishing up the freezer reserves. Hmm. I feel some neighborhood community building coming up.

Fearless: Absolutely! That's what so great about a garden. It can keep changing and evolving as we do.

Burbs: I think you could totally get around your HOA. Go for the maters but also try some herbs or potatoes. No one will ever have a clue.

Melinda: You are right. You commented on my last post that people might emulate my garden next year. I hadn't gotten many positive comments, mostly questions, at that point and I doubted you. Let that be a lesson. Never doubt Melinda! I hope to see a few edible gardens out front next year.

IB Mommy: Oh yes, eggplants! I forgot them but they are absolutely beautiful plants! And a hedge of blueberries. I'm jealous.

CindyW said...

One of our neighbors has a full-blown edible landscape in the front and the back. Like Donna's neighbor, they also have a little sign that says "bring your basket, help yourself".

My daughters have picked strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes there. They always give me a sheepish look - are we stealing?

Tameson said...

Green Bean said "I think I remember you writing folks in your neighborhood have front yard edible gardens? Is that right?"

Yeah kind of...I live in the country. We have everything here. Laundry out front? Yup. Food out front? Yup. Livestock out front? Yup. A trailhead running the length of your property? Yup. Several generations of haying equipment decorating the barn? Yup.

That's why I said nobody'd notice - actually they would but it would be more along the lines of "Hey did you see the O'Briens moved their garden this year? Ayuh,sheep kept getting into the old one I 'spect."

I love living here.

Beany said...

Green Bean, I am green with envy.

Seeing pictures of the Dervaes' garden showed me how beautiful a edible landscape could be. I will have no problems or complaints if this becomes trendy.

spelled with a K said...

wait till my neighbors get a look at the orchard that is going in the front yard next year. I am itching to send that order form to the nursery, I know I won't get anything till spring, but heaven help me I am so pumped. If I planned this right we ought to be having fresh fruit just about every other week from either dwarf trees or bushes.

I agree, its time for us all to take this show on the road...or at least make it visible from the road. All of our friends and family know what is possible now, a few have even started gardens of their own. Imagine when the whole neighborhood finds out.

Verde said...

I had "softened" up the neighbors this last year with the threat...-er the idea of tearing up my front yard and putting in a big garden.

That's when I got invited to garden with the neighbor in his field behind his house.

I suspect a tomato here and a eggplant there is much more diplomatic!

Natalie said...

Everyone around here has some sort of berry plant or another in their yard. I think next year my strawberry containers will go out front - just because it's sunnier out there.

What's sad to me, is that most people don't know what a veggie looks like when it's growing. I was talking to my neighbor about someone down the street who is growing some beans and squash in their front yard. My neighbor, who is intelligent and observant, had no idea what I was talking about. She was curious how I could identify which plant was which! I guess I'm in the clear to put some veggies out there next year too.

TRBeck said...

Thanks for sharing this! I don't have any yard-space of my own, but I love hearing about and seeing people taking advantage of their land with edible plants.

I've been looking into getting a vacant lot on which to start a vegetable garden, but it's rather pricey to buy land in Chicago. Have any gardening tips for a non land-owner?

Robj98168 said...

Love this post! I started putting in an edible front yard this year- I am so tired of mowing grass- MY front yard is going to be just edible plantings and gravel to keep the rainwater in my yard! Right now I have pansies(edble flower),borage, huckleberry bushes, nastrutium, cukecumber, zucchinni, chard, carrots, beets, broccoli, beans, peas in my front yard. And a golden plum tree I planted a few years back. LOL I just found out my day lillies are edible!And i will put a cuke or succhini flower against any other flower out there. And the peas when in bloom look just like sweet peas growing up on the little towers! Thanks for this post - you give me hope that what I am doing is not nuts!

Robj98168 said...

TRBeck COuldn't help but trying to answer your question- go to melinda's blog and see her lovely flower boxes and fire escape garden Melinda proves you don't need land to garden!

Bobbi said...

I've been growing veggies in my flower beds for several years now! It's nice to be able to walk out the front door for a tomato or pepper instead of heading to the garden in the back 40. I also plant veggies along the utility stip in front of my house and my neighbors know it is okay to pick a few things when they walk by (I live in a tiny neighborhood).

Green Bean said...

Cindy: No! Who knows why people do what they do or look they way they do at you but you are definitely not stealing if they have that sign up!

Tameson: Sounds like a great place to live. I'm jealous! I'm here in the Silicon Valley burbs which means I can reach out either window and knock on my neighbor's window. Only good news is one neighbor brought me a chicken book today (she knows I want to get some) and said, "you can totally fit them in your yard. hey! people in the city (that's san francisco) are doing it so why not you."

Beany: Hey now, don't be comparing me to the Dervaes. Can't stand the pressure. ;-) Seriously, what a great trend that would be, huh?

Spelled with a K: First, how awesome your orchard sounds. Why waste valuable land! Second, you are so right. If we all stop being shy and show the world - or at least our neighborhood - who we really, what a difference we might make.

Verde: Ha! I love how you were invited to plant somewhere. Hey, a garden is a garden! And you are right, you can still plop a few plants here and there.

Natalie: Too funny. Yup, if no one can identify it, you might as well plant all veggies out front. However, when the vegetables start showing up attached to leaves, people might start figuring out what is what. :)

Trbeck: Yes, to what Rob said. Check out Melinda at One Green Generation. She's a master gardener (officially, Melinda?) and lives in an apartment. Think fire escape, think community garden, think friends or family that live near by.

Rob: Not crazy but beautiful! I have half a front yard/lawn left. I'd love to rip out the rest of that this fall and plant there in the spring. Thinking, thinking, you're inspiring me. Thinking some more. Oh, and peas? Totally look just like sweet peas.

Bobbi: That's wonderful. I need to transform my sidewalk strip into a bit more of a neighborhood garden for next spring. I think it is such a lovely, community building idea.

Melissa said...

my dad and I were debating the value (or lack thereof) of lawns today. I know he hates makeup for the most part, so I was like, look, if you think girls look better natural, shouldn't the same apply for a lawn? pouring seeds and fertilizer all over the ground and spending all that time cutting grass is like a girl putting on a ton of makeup.

and he said "are you calling my lawn a wh**re?"

Yes Dad, yes I am. :)

TRBeck said...

Robj98168 and Grean Bean: Thanks for the tip! Melinda's fire-escape garden looks wonderful. I never would have thought so much could be grown in such a small space, but I'll have to give it a shot.

mona said...

Does anyone live in a subdivision where there are several people who ignore the subdivision rules?
I do. No one is supposed to have those ugly fences on the top of their pools, and it seems that everyone in the sub with a pool has one of those. My neighbor has one, and I have to look at that hideous thing every time I look out my window. Then there is my other neighbor who has three dogs.
The maximum number of dogs is supposed to be two. I wouldn't mind the three, but two of them are pit bulls who viciously snarl and growl and act like they are going
to eat my dog when they are outside. Even the owners scream at them to stop. It is very unnerving. Then one of the board members is delinquent by 3 years on the dues because she has decided she doesn't need to pay since she is on the board. I can't take the neighbors around here. I was looking for a forum to vent about the jerks around here and I came across this site called and I sent all of those idiots on the board and all my lovely neighbors with the ugly pools an anonymous card. LOL I loved it. I know it sounds stupid but I feel better. He he he.

Green Bean said...

Melissa: Great point and funniest line ever: "and he said "are you calling my lawn a wh**re?" Yes Dad, yes I am. :)"

Trbeck: Happy gardening. Isn't the Internet a great place where we can share ideas like this?

Mona: Sounds like your neighborhood needs a little out front vegetable garden with the "help yourself" sign. Might make everyone a bit more neighborly. ;-)

innercitygarden said...

When I was growing up heaps of houses had front yard veggie gardens. It's how I learned to garden: I used to get off the tram, walk past the local Gardening Guru's house, see what he'd planted and what was finishing, and know what I was due to put in or take out or whatever. Much more efficient than reading!

knutty knitter said...

I've got alpine strawberries all over the bank at the back. My hubby planted them and is encouraging them to spread everywhere....he loves strawberries and so do the kids. We got fruit right through into winter :) Apart from that we have red currants, gooseberries and rhubarb, an old apple tree and various vegetables in the flower beds - hoping for more next year.

viv in nz

Green Bean said...

Inner City Garden: That's how people did it before the internet, right? They learned from their neighbors. And I'll attest that I've gotten to know my neighbors and their friends and passersby much more since gardening out front.

Knutty Knitter: How lovely! I adore alpine strawberries. Ours are in their second season and spread quite a bit over the last year, giving off a lot more fruit this summer than last. Can't wait to see what happens with them next summer!

Chile said...

Sounds wonderful but my front yard is gravel with native low water use plants. No lawn to replace. ;-)

It's wonderful that your front yard garden is helping develop neighbor relationships!

Woman with a Hatchet said...

My front yard is almost completely out of lawn. I have only a small amount left. Also, since it's on a slope, it isn't the greatest for water retention.

Although now that I think about it, I'm kind of regretting planting just an ornamental cherry tree. Darn! I could have had a bearing fruit tree instead.

Oh well!

I am, however, beginning to think about taking over more of the backyard for veggies and fruit. Bwahahaaaa!


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