Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A call for front yard gardeners

Although food gardening is making a comeback due to concerns about the economy, the health of our families and viability of our food systems, many gardeners won't consider gardening in their front yard - even when the back yard suffers from excess shade or other problems that make growing food difficult.

Objections to front-yard gardening seem to fall into three categories: 1) fear of what the neighbors will think, 2) fear that food will be stolen, and 3) fear of code enforcement. Yet often, these fears can be addressed with a few precautions and proper design. Let's get over our fears of neighborly gossip and petty theft and bring on the front-yard gardening!

Not only will expanding to the front provide us more space to grow healthy food, and reduce the need for the chemicals, water and mowing usually needed to keep a lawn looking so exquisitely monocultured, it can help demonstrate the practice of growing organic food and build community in our neighborhoods. The time is ripe to move from our back yards to our fronts, throw conformity to the wind, and plant some food.


America has been dominated by the expensive and chemical-intensive lawn culture for far too long. We desperately need other examples of beauty outside of the "lawn + hedge + one tree" formula in our neighborhoods. Why not showcase an edible landscape, designed to be both beautiful and productive?

If you don't want to plant tomatoes in your front yard for fear of sprawling plants exploding out of their cages, there are plenty of attractive vegetable and fruit options. Plant some beautiful edibles: blossoming fruit trees with glossy leaves, evergreen thyme, rosemary and purple sage, groundcovers of watermelons, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes, or peppers with their fruit dangling in the breeze.

Plant easy-care lovelies like daylilies or salvias around your garden areas, and include plenty of blooming flowers to attract beneficial insects such as bees, ladybugs and parasitic wasps. Plant a few evergreens so your landscape doesn't turn a harsh, bland brown in the winter. People will soon get the idea that gardens don't have to be ugly places.

Including beautiful ornamentals such as roses, along with mulch and attractive hard-scaping such as weathered brick, flagstones or ornamental boulders, will give your front-yard garden a finishing touch and distinguish it from the unmowed, weedy lawns that attract disapproval and code-enforcement calls.


Front yard gardens force us to spend time in our front yards - watering, weeding, harvesting, pruning, thinning, admiring the fruits of our labor. Neighbors will naturally be curious as to your activities. Those who have green-thumbs will stop to ask you about your favorite tomato varieties and see if you need any extra Swiss chard. While not all neighbors may approve, plenty will admire your chutzpah and want to meet the bold edible landscape owner (you).

In this easy way, you can meet many of your neighbors who just happen to be walking by with their dog or baby stroller. You may develop a gardening network of neighbors who exchange peaches for okra and watermelons for squash. Who knows? Maybe this could be the start of a gardening club, book club, green living group, or home-brewing cooperative.


By siting a demonstration garden in your front yard, and spending time out there meeting your neighbors, you have a prime opportunity to educate your community about organic gardening, permaculture, the benefits of growing your own food, the need to provide habitat and food for birds and bees, the purpose of rainwater barrels, saving seeds, supporting local farmers, and so on and so forth.

The design of your garden can support your educational efforts. Incorporating flowers that attract beneficial insects, therefore reducing the needs for pesticides, using deep mulch techniques and swales to cut the need for watering, featuring a rainwater barrel in your front yard (perhaps covered with a vine), and planting a diverse variety of different edibles in permacultured layers - all these techniques offer opportunities to share knowledge.

Education can extend beyond your immediate neighborhood. You can reach out to the sustainability, permaculture, gardening, local food or environmental communities and give tours to various groups who are eager to see design put into action - especially in an attractive, neighbor-friendly kind of way.

I have twice transformed my front yard from grass to perennials, and both times the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. In Denver, I designed and planted a xeriscape that needed virtually no additional watering after getting established, and here in Oklahoma City, my partially-permablitzed front yard has four fruit trees (two peach, one apple and one persimmon) and has sported watermelons, summer squash, winter squash, thyme, oregano, mint, and peppers. Rather than find fruits and vegetables horrifying or bizarre, most people find food plants to be fascinating.

Luckily, I don't live in an area with restrictive HOA covenants or strict municipal codes that might torpedo my efforts, but I still try a little harder to keep the front neat and attractive, keep the flowers blooming, top off the mulch every year, and remove the weeds and the fallen fruit. I'm not always successful at keeping it tidy, but this extra care and attention helps make a front yard garden an attractive model to emulate, not to avoid. The work is repaid when my edible landscape inspires conversation, helps me meet other gardeners, attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees, and produces so much fruit I have to give it away.

So if you need room for more garden, and want to expand to the front of your home, forge on! Work through the worries of neighborly disapproval, code enforcement, and pilfered produce. It's quite possible that not every single one of your neighbors will love your new yard, but so what? You can be a catalyst - a model for many front yard gardens, all cutting the need for chemicals, gas-powered mowers and excessive watering. All, cutting the need to import produce from Chile, Mexico, and China. All, symbolic of the world we are working for - a world of healthy local food, strong communities, bountiful biodiversity, and the simple, and subversive, act of sharing.


Gaia's Garden, 2nd Ed. Toby Hemenway

Rosalind Creasey's Edible Landscaping (series)

The Edible Front Yard, Ivette Soler

Great Garden Companions, Sally Jean Cunningham


Patty said...

I'm redoing my front yard in edible landscaping right now. It's going to be a multi-year project but it's coming along quite well. I just got the last of the non-edible bushes out with the help of Freecycle (where else can you get people to come dig out your bushes for free?), so I'm diving in.

If you'd like to see my progress head over to

Anonymous said...


Our veggie beds are mostly in the front yard, due to the north-east aspect (I'm in Australia, so our north works the way your south does for getting light and heat).

My partner likes 'tidy' so made me some lovely, neat raised beds, and I've interplanted veggies like eggplant and beetroot with marigolds and alyssum for lots of colour.

We get lots of passers-by stopping to chat about the garden - it's a good way to meet the neighbours.

Anonymous said...

I love this idea. Although I have neither a front nor a back yard, really, I'm working to grow as much on my patio as possible. I think it's important to grow things where we can and to find ways to do what we can with what we have. And, with any luck, one day I'll have a front yard to convert as well.

Thijs Goverde said...

Just started the first beds in my front yard, as it happens. And a few hazelnut trees.
My S.O. drasically limited the use of the back yard - that's for sitting in, having privacy, kids playing safely etc.
We don't do any of those things in the front yard. It was just sitting there, slowly going to weeds. (Neither of us enjoyed working in the front yard, as it seemed pointless. We didn't do anything with it, after all.)

sv koho said...

Great sensible article POH. I can't imagine living in a city with a lawn only policy. We visited my son now living in OK City and when we noticed the paucity of sidewalks he told us that OK City had a policy some years back to restrict and/or remove old sidewalks.Better for the cars That would be the same folks who I would assume prohibit front gardens. Sad. We in wyoming do envy your ability to grow such exciting plants! Good luck.

agwh said...

I've been growing food in my front yard for years --it's where the sun shines. The backyard is mostly deep shade.

I do try to keep it tidy (don't always succeed) and it does help me meet neighbors of all ages. One teenager had no idea what kind of a plant corn grew on (bless her heart . . .). One woman pulled into my driveway one day and asked if she could see the garden from the front porch -- she had been curious for years!

Now, quite a few people have planted at least a couple of tomato plants out front, and others have stopped to talk about their backyard gardens. It's turned out really well for me.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Nice article summarizing why front yard gardens make so much sense. We lived way out in the wilds of Michigan where I worked at slowly transforming our yard into a garden, but there was a surprising amount of resistance. We stopped mowing a large portion of it except for a few meandering paths, and put in scattered collection of spring bulbs. In the fall we burned it, which also shocked our neighbors. We were just adding fruit trees and assorted native plants when we moved.