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.”