Credit: courtesy of Shelley Sparks
When it comes to landscaping your front yard, maybe it's time to think beyond the traditional grassy lawn. We've come to view it as the "gold standard," yet vast expanses of grass do not maximize the utility or value of your property. So why not use that space to plant delicious, edible fruits and vegetables instead?
Edible landscaping is a trend that's based on World War II victory gardens and was initiated by Los Angeles architect and artist Fritz Haeg
on Independence Day 2005. After getting a commission from the Salina Art Museum in Salina, Kan., Haeg convinced a household of local, would-be gardeners to let him transform their front yard into an edible paradise. Since then, he’s overseen the planting of edible landscapes across the United States and in London. In 2008 he authored a book about the movement called Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.
Don't worry about scaring your neighbors. It’s not about creating wild, messy, unattractive front yards. Over the years it’s evolved into an aesthetically appealing, socially accepted community-based practice. You can start small with just a small patch of edible beds — or you can turn your entire front yard into a Garden of Eden, depending on how much time and energy you have to invest.
Benefits of Front-Yard Gardens
Rising food costs and the desire to eat healthier produce have helped propel the idea. So, too, have environmental concerns over lawn maintenance: the use of chemicals to keep a lawn green and weed free, and the toxic emissions and noise that lawn mowers, edgers and blowers emit. Besides saving money on produce, you won’t be buying fuel to keep all the lawn equipment running. And if you opt for an organic garden, you won't have to deal with any toxic chemicals at all.
On a deeper, philosophic level, there are even more reasons for front-yard edible gardens: “You can look at these gardens seriously as a form of culture and an agent of social change,” Haeg says. “People don’t value gardens the way they do architecture because they have to spend more money to build a house. Yet the benefit of a good garden can be equal to or greater than that of a house," he adds, suggesting that this is also a way to shift people's entire way of thinking about the role of the front yard.
Haeg believes that the design should be simple, accessible and inexpensive. Transforming a front yard is a contagious act, he says: Once your neighbors see you working your garden regularly and you share the fruits of your labor with them, they'll likely be inspired to do something similar with their own lawn.
Another benefit of an edible garden — less tangible but huge — is the calming, stress-reducing qualities that working with and being connected to the earth provides.
Is an Edible Garden for You?
If you are looking for a no-maintenance garden, then edibles probably aren’t for you. Even the easiest-care fruit trees require occasional pruning, spraying and harvesting. But if you want to do something, you need to start by asking yourself, realistically, how much work are you able to do? Start small, and if your stamina and interest hold, expand slowly over time.
If your lifestyle is more geared to a low-maintenance garden, you could start with a single raised bed or one row of vegetables in the front yard, or three to five fruit trees or berry bushes. This probably requires about an hour of maintenance a week, possibly less.
Feel like you can handle a bit more? A medium-maintenance yard (say, four to six 4 x 10 raised beds or six to 10 trees or edible shrubs) could consume two hours a week on an average, depending on what you choose. A high-maintenance garden that requires several hours a week of care could extend to an area that’s 1,000 to 2,000 square feet.
Checklist to Start an Edible Yard
Before you dig, you need a plan. Here are the main considerations:
How much space can you devote? It’s best to draw your plan first. If you are going to grow vegetables, decide whether you want raised beds and if so, how high. They give you full control of the soil and water. The disadvantage is that they limit your aesthetic flexibility.
How will you design your plantings? One benefit of planning is that you can rotate the types of crops you’re growing in each bed — important because soil gets tired from growing the same type of plant. (For example, corn exhausts nitrogen in the soil and should be alternated the following year with a legume, like soybeanss that replenishes the nitrogen.)
Plant selection: It all begins with what you like to eat. Will you start from seed (much harder) or starter plants? It's easier to begin this process with starter plants that are readily available at nurseries. You can graduate to seeds later, and if you do, go with reliable companies like Burpee, which offers a growing calendar that’s applicable to the entire United States, or send away for free seed catalogs.
Water: The most efficient way to water is through a drip system or soaker hose. You’ll need to monitor the plants to be sure that the system is operating properly throughout the growing season. Rainbird irrigation is one reliable manufacturer.
Maintenance of soil (fertilizer): Different plants require different types of fertilizer. If you go with organic soil, that may be sufficient, but depending on your plant selection, you may need to fertilize. This is a big topic and is worth doing some research on. Here's a good primer.
Maintenance of plants: You’re not the only one interested in harvesting the fruits of your labor. Insects always want to get in the act. A good, organic approach to protecting plants is companion planting. Interspersing plants that repel ravaging bugs or plants that sacrifice themselves to the bugs can save your veggies. Other means of protection include adding beneficial bugs and birds to remove pests. You’ve probably heard that ladybugs are helpers, but so are green lacewings, spiders, parasitic wasps, birds and even bats. You can also rid yourself of pests using various organic protectors, like garlic, tobacco, fish emulsions, mineral or vegetable oils, cayenne peppers, salt or soap solutions.
Harvesting/saving seeds: Once the veggie bug gets you, you may want to grow and save seeds for heirloom vegetables. This practice preserves old vegetable varieties and enhances biodiversity.
These tips may sound like a lot of work to eat a fresh tomato, but there are so many more rewards than a great salad. There is the wonder of growing vegetables and fruits that you didn’t know existed, the security of knowing that what you are eating is healthy and pesticide-free, an opportunity to discover a new forum for connecting with your friends and neighbors. And of course there's the priceless value of moving away from the purely decorative to a far more fruitful use of your precious land.
Shelley Sparks has been a landscape architect for more than 30 years and is author of Secrets of the Land and Keep Plants Healthy.
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