16 July 2006

Lawnless in Lakewood

Thursday’s New York Times carried a feature about a family in suburban California who have thought outside of the box and put their front garden to work growing a marvelous range of fruit and vegetables. This move has not necessarily been welcomed by their neighbours, but to hell with the neighbours I say.

Me? I love the idea and the not-wife and myself would do similar were it not for the fact that our own front garden (in the loosest of terms) were not a concrete postage stamp covered in debris from recent home improvements. Perhaps we could try some container-grown produce but I fear that anything not swiped would receive an unwelcome watering from the people en route home from the pub….

Redefining American Beauty, by the Yard (extract)

When Cecilia Foti, a seventh grader, was asked to write a “persuasive” essay for her English class she did not choose a topic deeply in tune with her peers. Instead, she addressed the neighborhood’s latest controversy: her family’s front yard. “The American lawn needs to be eradicated from our society and fast!” she wrote, explaining that her family had replaced its own with a fruit and vegetable garden. She argued for the importance of water conservation, the dangers of pesticides and the dietary benefits and visual appeal of an edible yard. “Was the Garden of Eden grass?” she reasoned. “No.”

In a 1950’s tract community about 25 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, the transformation of the Foti family’s front yard from one of grass to one dense with pattypan squash plants, cornstalks, millionaire eggplants, crimson sweet watermelons, dwarf curry trees and about 195 other edible varieties has been startling.

“The empty front lawn requiring mowing, watering and weeding previously on this location has been removed,” reads a placard set amid veggies in oval planting beds fronting the street.

The sign is a not-so-subtle bit of propaganda proclaiming the second and most recent installment of Edible Estates, an experimental project by Fritz Haeg, a 37-year-old Los Angeles architect. The project, which he inaugurated in 2005 in a front yard in Salina, Kan., is part of a nascent “delawning” movement concerned with replacing lawns around the country with native plants, from prairie grasses in suburban Chicago to cactus gardens in Tucson. “It’s about what happens on that square of land between the public street and the private house. It’s about social engagement. I wanted to get away from the idea of home as an obsessive isolating cocoon.”

The Fotis volunteered for the project after reading about it in early 2006 on an environmental Web site. Cecilia’s father, Michael Foti, a 36-year-old computer programmer and avid gardener who raises chickens in the backyard, was eager to put his environmental politics into practice. “I am looking to think differently about this space,” Mr. Foti said of the family’s once-placid front yard. “I want to look outward rather than inward.”
The delawning was accomplished over Memorial Day weekend by a team of some 15 recruits who read about the project on Mr. Haeg’s Web site. Mr. Haeg arrived armed with three rented sod cutters, a roto-tiller and a dozen rakes and shovels, and within three days the yard was transformed.

The new garden has caused much rumbling in the neighborhood, where colorful windsocks and plastic yard butterflies prevail. Some neighbors fret about a potential decline in property values, while others worry that all those succulent fruits and vegetables will attract drive-by thieves — as well as opossums and other vermin — in pursuit of Maui onions and Brandywine tomatoes.

But the biggest concern seems to be the breaching of an unspoken perimeter. “What happens in the backyard is their business,” said a 40-year-old high-voltage lineman who lives down the street and would give only his initials, Z.V. “But this doesn’t seem to me to be a front yard kind of a deal.”

In spite of its contemporary media-savvy title, Edible Estates is a throwback to the early 20th century, when yards were widely regarded as utilitarian spaces, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. As recently as the 1920’s and 1930’s, decorative lawns were still largely the province of the elite. The yard was for putting food on the table, Dr. Steinberg said, in the form of vegetables, goats, rabbits and small livestock. It was not until the postwar period that the notion of the lawn as the “national landscape” developed as a vehicle for upward mobility, with zoning setbacks designed to encourage clover- and dandelion-free perfection

While backyards remained private, the front yard evolved into “a ceremonial space that appears effortlessly and without labor,” said Margaret Crawford, a professor of urban design and planning theory at Harvard. “In middle-class neighborhoods,” she said, “the idea of actually using the front yard is extremely unusual.”

Mr. Foti is taking the garden one day at a time, A.A. style, “I do feel a certain pressure not to fail. The whole neighborhood is watching.”

Edible Estates


mullet said...


Anonymous said...

Hmm. It seems in England the pattern is to remove the lawn to concrete (or paving-stone) it over. I really can't see what the fuss is about.

We grow tomatoes and herbs, and did try with potatoes but they over-ran the garden.

But thinking back, my parents' front garden was decorative although the back contained apples, rhubarb (yuck), gooseberries (double yuck), herbs etc. And the retired, fulltime gardener across the road kept the front decorative.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

I see they grow the pineapple guava tree like the ones I just planted in my FRONT yard. We have homeowner restrictions here, so I'm keeping it to a bare minimum in regards to edible plants up front, but I found the yard featured in the article breathtakingly gorgeous. Our dream is to pay off all our debts and move to the country, and try to wean ourselves from the system a bit with natural produce, a few heads of livestock, and an alternate solar power source. So it goes, the evolution of a once materialistic American woman, finds homebirthing, then tackles homeschooling, then eschews prescriptions for vitamins and herbs, and the final step is a farm, I think.

We employ natural gardening standards at my home. That means, instead of expensive weed killers, we bend our butts over and pick them ourselves. We use natural remedies for insects like baby powder, and lime. Except roaches; I use industrial strength, thermonuclear spray for them.

Fantastic article, jams! I'd love for you to post some wider angle shots of your garden.

jams o donnell said...

Hmm gert, given that choice I would prefer lawn every time. If someone did the same in Romford I would be pleased. I found the attitude of the neighbour pretty pathetic myself.

We don't grow a lot ourselves, but that is due to the state our neighbour's garden. Once he cleared it up we had established some lare plants in the prime spot for cultivation, including a Yew that might see out the third millennium!

Rhubarb and Gooseberries? I gag too!

jams o donnell said...

It looks great doesn't it? I posted the article because I know she who is Mrs Foti. That said I think they have done something great and if it pisses off the neighbours then that says a lot about the neighbours.

I am an arch suburbanite and though the country life does sound appealing I am not sure I will ever do it. On the other hand there are a couple of spots even not far from here thatwoud be good to live - and with the benefit of being not far from amenities.

We dont use pesticides either, we let the preators do what they need to do. giving a little help as necesary, same goes for weedkiler, that's what diggin's for!

I will post some more garden pics.. it is in a biut of a hiatue, with some things dying off but there is still more to come..