Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rebel Gardeners Risk the Law for Forbidden Fruits (and Veggies)

From the Associated Press: Front Yard Veggies Improve Diets, Homes

This upbeat title was replaced in our local newspaper with the slightly more ominous, "Front-yard vegetables fill tables, but rile neighbors."

Used to be, in the U.S. suburbs, in the days of big front porches and convenient back alleys, that the front of the house was for show and socializing, while the back of the house was for service. That's why the kitchen garden was stuck in the back -- rows of vegetables weren't pretty, no more than rows of laundry hanging out.

Then came the post-WWII suburbs and the ranch house, with the loss of alleys for garages, garbage, and delivery. The front became the service entrance, and people moved their living spaces to the back.

Where did the vegetable garden go to? Into oblivion. Just before the turn of the century, about 30% of food was produced at home. By the post-war years, less than 10% was produced at home as people ripped out old-fashioned victory gardens and replaced them with landscaping and in-ground swimming pools. And the number continues to decline. Today less than 3% of food is in the U.S. is produced at home. (See Kitchen Gardeners International: What is KGI? for statistics -- of course, some of the perceived decline may be due to the enormous increase in agribusiness production during the 1950's.)

Now, rising gas prices and the subsequent rise in consumer prices, plus an increasing awareness of global issues and a desire to "live green" has aroused a new interest in gardening. But with urban and suburban land at a premium, and houses in modern 'burbs sit in postage-stamp-sized lots (which is nothing new -- houses in this town built during the 30's were also on tiny lots). Where do you put a veggie garden? Some folks solve the problem by ripping out the lawn, whether it is in the front or the back of the house.

But if you live in a neighborhood where covenants or municipal codes govern what you can do with your front yard, and front-yard farmers risk running afoul of the law. When people think of "vegetable gardens," they think of the old-fashioned American kitchen garden with rows of corn and peas in the summer and bare dirt all winter, not something they want to look at as they drive through suburbia. Or around here they think of little hippie houses with a mad tangle of half-neglected herbs, some of them legal.

Yet with a little inspiration from the French potagers and from the "edible landscaping" concept, people are designing beautiful front gardens with herbs, salad greens, berry bushes, and other food plants that are as nice to look at as they are to eat. What would look nicer: a French-inspired kitchen garden with neat paths, patterned beds, trained fruit trees, and clipped herbs, or a dead brown lawn? (Okay, dead brown in the winter for you folks back east, dry and brown in the summer for us folks out west.) What some front-yard gardeners are finding is that while their gardens may cause raised eyebrows, they also bring the neighbors over to talk, often for the first time.

I know my house, and some houses around here, have shrubs in front instead of lawn. I've been sneaking chard, tomatoes, and other edibles in the front landscaping for years, and this year I'm determined to take out the increasingly ugly concrete pad that the former owners used as a basketball court and replace it with raised beds. We'll see what the neighbors have to say about that!

1 comment:

kate said...

It would be wonderful if we lost the idea of a perfectly-manicured lawn as being the ideal. As in your environment, grass spends most of its time being brown here (unless one waters constantly). We are seeing a slow change to more creative gardens in the front. I haven't any grass in my yard ... my front yard is mostly shrubs and flowers as is my back. I have started adding veggies here and there ... most people stop to admire and want to know how to go about getting rid of their lawn.

So true about meeting up with one's neighbours when gardening in front. Sometimes I need to get out early or stay out late to get the work done I need to ... otherwise, it's easy to while away my gardening time visiting. That's okay though. It is worth it.