Eat Your Yard

By Helen Cordes  

Imagine this: it’s long about suppertime and you’re hungry, so you step out into the front yard and gather ingredients for a tantalizing Tuscan mélange—green beans, tomatoes, squash and herbs. And why not grab some peaches for dessert, while you’re there? Don’t forget to wave at the guy next door sweating over a loud lawnmower, then breathe a contented sigh that you’re avoiding the hours of fertilizing, mowing and maintaining the lawn you’ve replaced with an edible landscape.

This is the scenario that Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn (Metropolis Books, 2008), hopes will blossom across Austin and elsewhere. Austin is the latest city hosting an Edible Estates demo garden, and aspiring gardeners can get the how-to at free workshops sponsored by Arthouse at the Jones Center. The artist-designed demo garden will be planted in March and will serve as a testament to the benefits of growing your own edible landscape (for event details, see below).

With a conventional lawn’s downside of toxic chemicals leaching into waterways, fumes bellowing from deafening mowers and the endless watering that depletes aquifers, Haeg thinks the time is ripe to transition front lawns to food gardens. “People from many arenas—environmental, sustainable food production, art and community activism—are drawn to the Edible Estates idea,” says artist/architect Haeg. Already, the Edible Estates demo gardens in Kansas, California, New Jersey and London, England have yielded hoped-for results. Gardens produced in very public spaces encourage interaction as neighbors, children and curious observers come together to brainstorm ways to produce delicious food themselves. “The point of the project is for people to experience how it enriches a community to grow some food in their front yard,” Haeg says. With a goal of installing demo gardens in each growing zone, Haeg aims to create evidence for aesthetic front-yard gardens in all climates.

You can learn how to create an Edible Estate from the workshops at Arthouse and Haeg’s book, and there’s also plenty of expertise perennially available from Austin’s Sustainable Food Center, the Austin Area Permaculture Group, Austin Green Art, Green Corn Project, garden centers and gardening consultants. Want to know more about creating your own front yard food font? Check out these tips:

U Dig in! You really can do it. “If you can grow a lawn, you can grow vegetables,” declares John Dromgoole, Austin’s gardening guru and owner of the Natural Gardener. “All you need is a sunny space.” If you’re concerned a garden space won’t be visually appealing year-round, get inspiration and advice from passionate gardeners such as Dromgoole. For examples, as Austin dipped below freezing this winter, the Natural Gardener’s plots glowed with colorful chards, majestic artichoke plants and magnificent broccoli and cauliflower heads.

U Start small. “Intersperse some edible plants into your existing beds,” suggests Colleen Dieter, owner of Red Wheelbarrow Plant Care. “Novices could start with herbs, which look more like typical landscape plants,” advises Melissa Stevens, a Bouldin neighborhood front yard gardener.  “Then begin adding beautiful vines, such as peas, and colorful lettuces and chards.”

U Use quality garden soil, and enrich with compost or seasoned manure mixes. “With an intense growing cycle, vegetables are heavy feeders,” notes Dieter. Veggies and fruits like water (though they still don’t require as much as an emerald-green lawn), and a uniform mulch on top of the beds both conserves water and adds a pleasing background to your plant palette.

U Get expertise, but don’t wait until you’re an expert. “My plants have to be tough, because I’m not a gardener,” says Thad Sitton, whose front yard beds have been veggie havens for a decade. An avowed lazy gardener, he picks hardy varieties that grow quickly.

U Expect a crop of community goodwill. When Austin Green Art founder Randy Jewart put in his first small garden plot, a gang of neighborhood boys were the biggest enthusiasts and helpers. Edible Estate owners from Salina to London report their gardens became the hub for a flowering of community, with virtually nonexistent local opposition or produce theft.

U Think big! Maybe you’re ready for the front yard full monty. “Under the right conditions, a 100-square-foot space and 20 minutes a day will keep one adult in vegetables and fruit for a year,” says Green Corn Project director and bio-intensive gardening expert Amy Crowell.

U Be proud you’re making a difference. “Growing your own food means you’re helping to reduce pollution created by shipping food from some faraway place,” says Dromgoole. You’ll shrink the demand for food crops that swallow natural habitat, and you’ll save money as food prices rise from ever-increasing fuel and fertilizer costs.

And while virtue is its own reward, still more payoff accrues in your mouth. “Really fresh food truly tastes better,” says Dromgoole. “Just try it.”