Ground-Breaking: Making the Switch from Lawns to Food

Are a carton of juice, a head of lettuce or a bouquet of flowers on your shopping list?Most folks will run to the grocery store for such items, but have you ever considered producing some of these everyday food staples at home?Some of your neighbors may be doing just that.From backyards and front lawns to patios and fire escapes, there is a growing worldwide trend to convert outdoor spaces that have been traditionally empty or strictly ornamental to vegetable gardens and urban mini-farms.

For homeowners and renters alike, many city-dwellers have inherited a yard, a balcony or patio from a previous occupant.Often, these visible outdoor areas are homogenous, cookie-cutter spaces, where neatly-trimmed grass or a few well-placed flower pots are admired and appreciated by the neighbors.But for some revolutionary gardeners, a feast for the eyes is not enough.They want something edible in return for the hard work, the water and the expense of tending a landscape.These food revolutionaries are maximizing their cultivation area by converting their landscapes, patios, and nearby vacant lots into productive edible gardens.In the quest for more space to grow food, even conventional front lawns are being transformed into maverick, and highly visitble, vegetable plots.

The idea of growing an edible garden in plain sight is not new.From carefree cottage gardens to formal knot herb gardens, kitchen and potager gardening have been practiced for centuries.But to understand current trends, let’s explore a brief history landscaping.During the 1600s, common vegetable and herb gardening declined as new forms of gardening came into vogue. French parterre and the English landscape gardens became fashionable for those who could afford them, and they were grown to demonstrate wealth and impress visitors.These gardens were easily recognized by their low growing grasses and herbs bordered by neatly clipped shrubs.The trend spread to the United States during the Industrial Revolution, when a rising wealthy class crisscrossed the Atlantic, bringing back images of the sprawling European gardens they had visited.At the same time, Northern European immigrants introduced the game of golf to North America, and it was not long before the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Golf Association began collaborating to develop varieties of turf grass that were suitable for the various North American climates.

The advent of suburban living, coupled with the invention of the garden hose and the reel mower, made lawns possible and more practical for the average homeowner.But they did not gain popularity until the early 1900s, when the American Garden Club began holding contests and publicizing the idea that is was the homeowner’s civic duty to maintain an attractive lawn, described precisely as “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged” (The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Virginia Scott Jenkins.) Thus, the club’s highly effective campaign brought about the American obsession with turf.

During a brief interlude to the age of lawn care, Victory Gardens of World War I and II emerged out of necessity to reduce the pressure on public food supplies brought on by the shipment of produce to soldiers overseas. These gardens were also considered to be a public “morale booster” — providing a sense of empowerment and contribution to the war effort on the part of the gardeners, in addition to the reward of fresh produce that had become scarce in public markets. These gardens produced “up to 41 percent of all the vegetable produce that was consumed in the nation” (City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura Lawson.)However, when World War II ended, so did the government promotion of vegetable gardens, and many people ceased to plant them, or decreased the size to a small plot in the backyard.Once again, front lawns became the customary view from the street.

Fast forward to 2013, and the rise of modern vegetable gardeners who are cutting against the grain of current landscape fashion to grow food out in the open once again.What compels these gardeners to roll up their sleeves and become front yard farmers? Many are motivated to save money at the grocery store by growing their own fruits and vegetables.Organic or natural growers view vegetable gardening as a method to eliminate pesticides and genetically modified organisms from their diet. Some gardeners are driven by a desire to eat more locally, and what could be more local than stepping out of your own door for produce?Others simply want a greater connection to nature and to the source of their food, enjoying the experience of sowing seeds and nurturing them as they grow.Satisfaction is derived not only from the harvest, but from the very process of tending and cultivating the garden.If their backyard is too small or shaded to grow what they need, the garden begins to spill onto the front yard.

When a front yard is converted to a vegetable garden, growing food goes public!Gardens that are visible from the street naturally pique the interest of the community. The result can be that the gardener not only reconnects with their food, and also forges new connections with their neighbors.Some residents may be surprised, even resistant to the idea of a garden that is cultivated out in the open.But, as flowers bloom and veggies begin to form, attracting birds, bees and butterflies, as well as curious neighbors, a tended garden converts a sterile space into a living sanctuary. Most neighbors will grow to appreciate its beauty. A few community members may even jump on board, adding a few edible plants to their own landscapes.

If you are the first on the block to break ground in the front yard, be ready for lots of questions from community members, and impromptu visits by neighbors whom you may never have met before you started your garden.If you are new to gardening yourself, take a class or two and volunteer to do some hands-on work at a community garden to get your feet wet before tilling up your front yard.The public nature of a front yard garden makes you an automatic “expert” and your property a showcase.That is not to say that everything must be perfect before you get started.Successes and failures will happen in your garden, so be prepared to communicate with your neighbors about the ups and downs, and what you have learned from them.Being willing to share your story will foster positive feelings in the community about your garden, and may even encourage a few of the neighbors to follow suit!Perhaps, enough food will eventually be grown on your block to trade and share, all because you took the pioneering step to cultivate veggies in your own front yard.

What might a front yard garden look like? There is no single answer.Though publicity is given to highly energetic front yard farmers who convert entire lawns to gardens, not everyone is so ambitious.For some, it might be enough to grow a small herb bed or a border of edible flowers.Another approach could be growing a stand of fruit trees or a row of hanging baskets overflowing with strawberries. A few raised beds placed on the lawn would be another inexpensive and simple option.

When deciding how and what to grow, consider the following questions:


1. What do you like to eat?

There is really no point in growing any type of edible garden if you won’t eat the produce. Ask around to other gardeners or call your local university extension office to find out what varieties grow well in your area, and choose a few that you buy often at the grocery store. Start small with a handful of plants, and have a plan in advance for how you will use the harvest. For example, if you plant a hedge of tomatoes, know how long it will be until they are ripe so that you aren’t away on vacation during the harvest. Also, prepare to preserve the excess. Having a few recipes and preservation strategies will ensure that your surplus produce won’t go to waste. If your strategy includes a plan to share some of the harvest, your generosity will go a long way towards inspiring good will and interest in your garden amongst your neighbors.

2. How much sunlight does the yard receive daily?

Go outside and observe where the sun is shining throughout the day to determine how much sunlight your yard receives. Most veggies need 6-8 hours of sunlight daily for best results. Tomatoes, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, corn and many other veggies thrive in full sun. But if your yard receives at least 2 hours of direct sunlight, and several more hours of indirect light, you can still grow many edible plants. Opt for greens, such as arugula, lettuce and spinach. Root vegetables, scallions, beans and peas can also survive in lower light conditions, but the harvest will take longer than it would in full sun. In addition, many culinary herbs are able to tolerate shaded conditions. Try growing some chives or garlic chives, cilantro, marjoram, lemon balm, mint, parsley or oregano in shadier areas of the garden.

3. Is there a convenient water source?

Perhaps it goes without saying that water is key to gardening success, but having a convenient water source and a simple watering system makes gardening much easier. You may be able to imagine that dragging a hose around the house or filling up watering cans can quickly become a tedious process, especially during dry seasons of the year. Placing the garden in an area that is near a water valve will make the chore of watering less burdensome. Some gardeners opt to install irrigation systems, complete with timers, to automate the process. Others prefer to hand water, enjoying the relaxation time in the garden. Whether you hand water or have an automatic system installed, visit the garden often to ensure that it is getting the proper amount of moisture and to make certain that your system is working properly. It is said that “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Spending time in the garden will help you to spot problems and remedy them early. You will also have the joy of spotting new buds and developing vegetables, and won’t miss the opportunity to harvest at the peak of ripeness. Seeing you out in the garden may also pique the curiosity of neighbors who may just wander over to converse about what’s growing.

4. What is your plant hardiness zone?

Knowing the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone of the area in which you live will help you to determine the plant varieties that will thrive best in your location. Most seed packets and transplants specify the hardiness zone on the package. You can determine your zone by visiting and entering your zip code. In addition to knowing your hardiness zone, consulting a planting calendar specific to your area will tell you the best time of year to sow or transplant different varieties. Planting the right varieties at the optimum time of the year will help to ensure gardening success.

Consider that in many parts of the country, winter gardens are bare and may not be particularly attractive during dormancy. Though a dead winter lawn may not be appealing, either, most people are used to seeing brown grass in the winter. Despite this actuality, some neighbors may not appreciate a dead vegetable garden in your front yard. You may want to consider ways to make the dormant garden more appealing by removing dead plants, covering the bare ground with attractive mulch, or perhaps planting an evergreen hedge around the perimeter.

5. How will you protect the garden?

Front yard gardens are vulnerable in so many ways. You may need to take steps to protect your garden from issues that may arise. Perhaps you will need to build a low fence or plant ornamental bushes around the perimeter to deter pets and kids on bikes from damaging border plants. Some elements in the neighborhood may want to take advantage of your water source or help themselves to your vegetables. And it is sad to say that in a few rare instances, vandals may relish the idea of smashing your produce. If this is the case, you may need a motion detector light that comes on should anyone enter your garden after dark. A light, coupled with low fencing that makes it more difficult to enter the garden, while leaving it visible to the neighbors, may be all that’s necessary to deter trouble.

On the other hand, you may wish to leave the garden completely open, inviting neighbors to peruse at their leisure and to partake in the harvest. If this is your preference, some damage or missing produce may be worth the price to foster a positive sense of community around your garden. Communicating your expectations with neighbors can go a long way towards heading off potential trouble. For instance, you may opt to tell the neighbors that they are free to pick produce, provided that they check in with you first so that they know what is currently ripe. Neighbors who understand your expectations, and who feel welcome in your garden, will likely keep an eye on it when you are not around.

6. How will you make the garden productive and attractive?

Traditionally, front lawns are more formal than their backyard counterparts. So, while a sprawling, disorganized garden may be just fine behind the house, a front yard garden has a greater cultural need for aesthetic appeal. Certainly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the primary function of growing vegetables is to maximize the harvest. But if you desire to foster positive feelings amongst the neighbors concerning your garden, an attractive design is essential. Fortunately, an edible garden can be both gorgeous and productive.

Before planting, draw out your design and make a plan. Place tall and long season that take a long time to produce behind the smaller, faster producing varieties. For instance, a westerly row of trellised tomatoes, interspersed with sunflowers, serves as a lovely backdrop for shorter squash and bush beans, and provides some afternoon shade protection, as well. Arrange the border with some small edible or ornamental flowers, and tuck in some herbs or onions to make full use of the space. To avoid bare spots and to extend the harvest, mix a few live transplants with some seeds of the same variety, so that when the transplants are harvested, seedlings will be growing up to take their place.

7. Is your garden legal?

If visions of an edible estate are making you anxious to get started, be sure to check with your city codes and HOA rules before tilling up the lawn. Some municipalities discourage, or even ban, front yard vegetable gardens. It would be a shame to go to the trouble of creating a garden, only to have to undo it later. That being said, gardeners across the country are opting to participate in mild civil disobedience by planting full street-side gardens in neighborhoods where they are prohibited. Those that do so must be prepared to defend their gardens to the neighbors, and possibly to the authorities, and to pay whatever fines are dished out.

If this is the case in your area, you may need to get creative, perhaps growing a few unobtrusive vegetables in pots near the front door or berries in hanging baskets. Mix some herbs, greens and edible flowers discreetly into your garden beds. Replace a shade tree with a fruit tree and grow rosemary or blueberries in place of shrubs. Plant sweet potatoes or oregano to serve as ground cover. There are many ways to expand your gardening space into the front yard without the tell-tale rows or raised beds.

As the stories of these renegade gardeners are becoming public and interest in gardening grows, a groundswell of public pressure is rising in favor of gardening rights. Zoning ordinances across the country are gradually changing to support urban agriculture in its many forms. If your neighborhood doesn’t allow front yard gardens, perhaps it may soon. In the meantime, grow food however you are able, and enjoy the benefits and satisfaction of having fresh produce from your very own yard.