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Gaining ground

(article, Tracy Ilene Miller)

In Gilbert, Arizona, an adult son battles the city council to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for his elderly parents. In California, an architect has taken a sodbuster to suburbia’s outdoor status symbol — the grass-green lawn — to create produce-producing plots. And in yards across America, homeowners interested in being more intimate and organic with their food sources are plucking edibles right outside their doors. 

I admire lolling on a lawn by a water-lilied pond to eat white currants and see goldfish: and go to the fair in the evening if I’m good.
— John Keats, August 28, 1819, letter, to his sister Fanny 

[%image "lawn" float="left" caption="The all-American lawn."]

Time was, the Great American Front Yard was a carefully packed patch of dirt, inhabited by a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables and a small orchard of fruit trees. But between the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and the cleanliness movement of the early 20th century, reformers began promoting stringent standards of household conformity and order to the expanding middle class as examples of good citizenship and high morals.

By the 1870s the formal English garden, with its clipped grass lawns and sculpted focal points, had become fixed in the American mind as the landscape to emulate. The rolling grass lawn became the symbol of a leisure class with space to waste and enjoy, and landscape architects made a lasting impression during this period on the modern American landscape. 

In his 1870 book Victorian Gardens: The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, Frank J. Scott declared that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”

Today, tidy verdant rectangles are still the norm; estimates vary, but American homes are ringed with anywhere from 25 million to 40 million acres of lawn. (That’s up to twice the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.) But since the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, the idea that a lawn could be the Great American Front Yard again — a garden wealthy not with a single plant but with scores of edible and aesthetic delights — has been slowly creeping, like a kiwi vine, back into the American consciousness.

The desire to rip up sod and replace it with sustenance comes from various quarters and wears many shades of green. Self-reliance, rebellion, aesthetics, and environmental and health concerns are just a few of the motivations for eschewing lawn. 

Americans burn some 800 million gallons of gas in their lawnmowers every year, and we’re starting to balk at the notion that these machines are either environmentally or leisure-friendly. Americans are also increasingly concerned about water and pesticide use: we pour 238 gallons of water per person per day on our lawns, and apply 78 million pounds of pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) to our homes, gardens, and lawns every year. (We use two to five times more pesticide on our lawns than we do on agricultural crops.) 

Environmental and health concerns aside, we want our landscapes to look (and often taste) appealing. So we've begun to challenge the standard notions of yard and landscape design as we look to our outdoor spaces to provide greater satisfaction. 

h3. Looking homeward

“People like growing their own food,” says Michael Veracka, a landscape designer and professor of horticulture at Farmingdale State University in New York. And the new urban and suburban gardeners “don’t want to fit in a rectangle, practically and philosophically. They don’t have a lot of room to begin with, and whatever they choose to grow has to have double and triple meaning.” 

Since the 1950s, lot sizes in new housing developments have shrunk by half, while house sizes themselves have doubled, reducing the amount of useable outdoor space. Americans are therefore looking to maximize the utility and value of their homes and gardens. In addition, the home has become the family retreat, a place of reflection — inside and out — as Americans continue a trend toward fewer longer holidays in favor of more time at home. 

This new habit even has a name: “cocooning,” a term coined after the slowdown in travel following the events of September 11, 2001, when Americans pulled money away from extracurricular pursuits in exchange for increasing livability at home. And that trend still holds. In 2005, according to the U.S. Census, Americans spent more than $50 million on creating outdoor spaces: buying furniture, installing patios, building grilling areas, and laying pathways. 

Nursery sales reflect this trend toward personalizing garden spaces, including diversifying with edible plants. Adjusted for inflation, ornamental plant sales of nursery crops such as trees, shrubs, and groundcovers have increased by 13 percent over the past 10 years. And the market expectation is that the highly publicized research on the health benefits of the antioxidants found in strawberries and blueberries, together with a demand for smaller fruiting plants over larger shade trees, will influence sales. 

Certainly the availability of fresh food right outside the kitchen that’s pesticide-free and, in many cases, unavailable in local stores, has increased homeowner desire for edible landscapes over green lawn. Just seven years ago, says John Weeks of Weeks Berry Farm in Keizer, Oregon, he was selling only five varieties of blueberries; now he sells more than 40. And with almost all of those varieties, he adds, the breeding is geared toward disease-free, high-producing plants.

Unlike lawns, which require continuous care and feeding, edible landscapes require less fertilizer (sometimes none, if side-dressed with compost once a year) and less maintenance (apart from harvesting, perhaps an annual pruning session). Lawns usually need at least once-a-week mowing in the high season, and a 1,000-square-foot lawn needs an annual average of about 12 pounds of fertilizer.

h3. Turf wars

Despite their manifold appeal, edibles that have spilled over from the back yard (their usual post-lawn-era location) into the very public front yard can cause neighborhood tension. In Gilbert, Arizona, for example, Daniel Lee Thompson is fighting the city council for the right to pursue healthy living and self-sufficiency by turning his elderly parents’ front yard into a farm-food bonanza. His neighbors complained about the yard’s unkempt appearance, preferring the minimalist look of the lawn to the lush riot of the farm. 

[%image "salinas-1" float="left" caption="A home in Salinas, Kansas, before (above) and after (below, right) the Edible Estates renovation of its lawn into a garden."]

In California, architect Fritz Haeg has faced similar grumblings over the projects of his organization, Edible Estates. Combining art installation, political statement, and conservation effort, Edible Estates has reclaimed the front lawns of two suburban lots — in Salinas, Kansas, and Lakewood, California — in the past two years and transformed them into extraordinary kitchen gardens. Haeg plans to reclaim one more as-yet-unidentified grassy homestead this spring in the New York area, then six more nationwide.

While Thompson typifies the unaffiliated individual looking to garden for personal health, Haeg represents the political strand of the edible-landscape movement, reclaiming lawns in the interest of community and the environment. He and others speak to the ideals of those who “have decided suburban architecture and what it promotes in terms of a lifeless architecture isn’t of interest to them,” says Veracka. 

[%image "salinas-3" float="right"]

In her recent book Food Not Lawns, Heather Flores, a landscape designer in Eugene, Oregon, promotes the idea that gardens, not lawns, “have the potential to spark a global culture of peaceful, responsible communities.” Flores’ book is both anti-corporate manifesto and easy how-to for those people who come to edible landscaping as a call to action, to examine their relationship to the earth and their community.

“I base my work on a vision of community that I want to live in, where healthy people enjoy their food,” she says. “I see that happening in communities associated with sustainability and an altruistic, environmentally friendly attitude.” 

h3. From fringe to center field

Flores' vision is a far cry from the mainstream approach to edible landscaping spearheaded by the now well-known California-based garden writer Rosalind Creasy, who wrote a straightforward handbook on edibles, The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, in 1982. But for more than two decades, the rise of organic gardening, community-supported agriculture, the Slow Food movement, water-wise (or drought-tolerant) gardening, and even Christian ecological groups — not to mention the recent box-office success of former Vice President Al Gore’s environmental wakeup call “An Inconvenient Truth” — has pushed the consciousness of American gardeners away from manicured lawns and toward natural landscapes, where the flat carpet of grass is replaced by walkways that meander through park-like settings and layered designs featuring edibles. 

As Veracka and other landscape designers have found, the mainstream has yet to clamor for the edible-only landscapes pushed by Haeg’s Edible Estates. The hesitancy isn’t just over aesthetics; it’s over labor. In the front yard of the California edible garden installed by Haeg, a sign reads, “The empty front lawn requiring mowing, watering, and weeding previously on this location has been removed.” But that’s misleading. Michael Foti, the homeowner of the converted California property, told the New York Times that after “a long day at the office” he still had to work in his yard, pruning and weeding and watering. Such maintenance can be draining, especially in summer, when Americans want to relax but their gardens want to grow.

“I’m a proponent and I want to promote this ideal to clients and neighbors,” says Veracka, who is also the former editor of The Edible Landscape newsletter. “But what I’ve discovered is there’s a fair amount of work if you’re not around when things need to be harvested in early-to-mid-August, when I’m burnt out from living and want to take a vacation. I want to be around for all that food, but it does tie you down.” 

So can the watering, says Kate MacQueen, who with her partner, Amy Beller, has converted nearly 80 percent of their downtown Eugene, Oregon, property into landscaped grounds. They’ve covered approximately half their land with apple, pear, and fig trees, three kinds of berries, three kinds of grapes, and vegetable beds. “The time it’s a problem is when we want to go away and we still need to water,” says MacQueen. “When we go away, it’s a lot worse than having someone take care of the cats.”

And MacQueen and Beller live in the rainy Pacific Northwest, where water in all but a few weeks of the summer is plentiful. For gardeners in other parts of the country, the job of watering can be, well, a job, unless a drip-irrigation system is used. The recommended water allowance for both lawns and ornamental and food-producing plants is one inch per week. Nevertheless, flat lawns require much more water to cover their surface area than ornamentals, which do just fine with parsimoniously targeted watering. 

In addition, edible landscapes that balance vegetables with more ornamental fruiting shrubs and trees (such as blueberries and raspberries, or dwarf or columnar apple and pear trees) sustain a harvest while reducing the workload. Gardeners who also choose to mulch and use other growing practices that crowd out unwanted plants can eliminate the hassle of weeding as well.

[%image "kiwi" float="right" caption="Edible kiwifruit hang from a shade-providing vine."]

In the end, most gardeners who convert to an edible landscape feel that the work pays off. For MacQueen and Beller, the edible landscape fits their sense of aesthetics and experimentation, while the grass lawn represents a conventional statement. And as Americans gardeners come to view their landscapes as unique forms of self-expression, edibles have filled a need for variety.

Edible plants such as blueberries, rhubarb, grapes, and kiwi have won places on the overall palette of landscape design; they add year-round interest with texture, color, and depth, and they support the recent trend of creating garden rooms and outdoor sanctuaries. And over the last few years, seed companies have worked hard to meet gardener demand for leafy greens and herbs (kales and mustards, lettuces and basils) that are attractive, edible, and contribute to an overall sense of pleasure in the home.

In the Northeast, homeowners interested in historical accuracy are renovating not only their homes but their land to the standards of the original homesteads. From the colonial era up to the Civil War, having a mixture of fruit trees, edibles, and ornamentals — not lawn — was the norm. Meanwhile, on the West Coast and in the South, gardeners are maximizing the possibility of year-round interest with year-round harvesting in climates that support it.

“I am an ornamental gardener more than a food gardener,” says MacQueen. But Beller cares more about the food. “And so we make sure those things go together, that the food part is as pretty as the ornamental part, the texture and colors. I want my garden multi-seasonal.”

And that represents the new way of thinking. Homeowners are adopting alternative ways of landscaping with less lawn to adopt more ecological principles and get more bang for their gardening buck.

“That’s the new mindset,” says Veracka, “and that’s where edible landscapings can play a role.” 

p(bio). [ "Tracy Ilene Miller"] is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at the University of Oregon and Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. She has transformed a country property into one big edible landscape and is currently working on a five-year plan to turn a bare city lot into an outdoor paradise.

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