With the popularity of home vegetable gardening at an all-time high, the topic of edible landscaping has been sweeping the country the past few years. As lot sizes shrink and more people migrate to urban environments, they turn to the only suitable place they have to grow their veggies -- the front yard.
For years, I was party to the common misconception that the vegetable garden must go in back. This, of course, stems from the general assumption by many that food gardens are not known for their good looks. True, left unkempt, they can grow quickly to take over whatever space they occupy, and then some. Most vegetable plants are annuals, living out their life in one season. In a matter of months, they go from lovely little beauties to gangly, gnarly beasts. That’s a slight exaggeration, but for many of you, it’s an image that resides in your head, recalled from personal experience.
But over the past couple of years, the notion of placing our food gardens front and center has been making headlines -- mainly concentrating on the debate over digging up our lawns and replacing them with vegetables. In 2011, one Michigan woman was briefly threatened with substantial jail time -- about 90 days -- simply for having four raised-bed vegetable plots in her front yard. The case made by the city of Oak Park was that her food garden did not meet the standards for “suitable live plant material.” Its interpretation of “suitable” was a nice grass yard with trees, bushes and flowers. The city eventually backed off.
I get the need to establish aesthetic standards of acceptability for the good of the neighbors and community, but four well-maintained, orderly vegetable beds should not draw such a reaction. Since then, a wave of likeminded homeowners around the country have installed garden plots and raised beds in their front yards, too. Nearly all have the same reason: They want to grow their own food, and the front yard is their only consistently sunny spot in which to do so.
By applying the principles of traditional landscape design, but substituting edible plants into the mix, you can have a garden that has both form and function, especially with plant varieties available today - ones that are bred specifically for compact size, improved disease resistance, ornamental appeal or all of the above.
My Chicago-area friend Shawna Coronado is one example. Her front-yard garden is filled with plants that are largely traditional food crops, such as tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, squash, beans and cucumbers. They’re nicely arranged and mixed in with annual flowers, shrubs and other ornamental features. To the casual observer, this a lovely front-yard garden and landscape. But for a particular neighbor in need, Shawna planted this edible garden in the only sunny space she had, in hopes of providing enough fresh produce to alleviate a significant part of a neighbor’s food budget. The plan was to provide the family with a steady supply of fresh produce through the season, and take enough strain off the grocery bill to help the friend’s family from losing its house.
Not only were Shawna’s efforts successful in helping her neighbor remain a neighbor, but she also planted so wisely that no one else really knew this front-yard garden was comprised mostly of edibles. It was functional, “suitable” and, most importantly, sustaining, in ways far beyond what anyone knew. And that’s a garden that’s far more beautiful than any strictly ornamental garden.