Full frontal gardening

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Over the winter, when the days were short, the temperatures were low, and Kevin and I often looked to Netflix for an evening’s entertainment, we watched all four season of a 1970’s British television series called “Good Neighbors.” (It was called “The Good Life” in the UK.) It features Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as Tom and Barbara Good, who decide they’re going to exit the rat race and live off the land – in their case, what looks to be about a half-acre in a tony London suburb.

The pigs in the back yard caused problems with the couple next door, but it was the front yard that galvanized the neighborhood. It was unsightly – unseemly, almost – to put anything but ornamentals between the front door and the curb. (Is that the ornamentality?)

What passed for our front yard, last summer

It still is. Even with gardening all the rage, vegetables are relegated almost exclusively to the back yard. Some planned communities specifically prohibit front-yard gardens, and there’s a deep-seated reluctance, even among the practical, food-centric, gardening-minded, to dig up the front yard and plant tomatoes. Even Michelle Obama put the garden in the back.

I never understood it. For starters, I think vegetable gardens are lovely. Besides, what’s usually in a front yard is a lawn, and I get the sense (not that I pretend to have my finger on the societal pulse) that lawns are beginning to look like Hummers – resource-guzzling status symbols. Why wouldn’t you want to grow things to eat, conveniently, right out your front door?

But that was other people’s front yards.  I only figured out how near-universal the front-garden aversion was when I realized that, when it came to my own front yard, I had it, too.

Followers of this space know that we’re sun-challenged. We’ve carved about 600 square feet of garden out of our two acres, and we periodically pace around the property looking for other spots that might get enough sun to support life beyond the oak, pine, and pricker bushes that grow wild.

We bought the house two years ago, and it took until yesterday for me to realize we had a usable, sunny spot right outside our front door.

It’s hard for me to explain how weird this is. I’ve never been particularly attached to that spot. It’s not really a front yard, it’s just the area in front of the house. Nobody can see it from the street because our house is on the opposite end of the property. We decorated it with a couple of benches and a low table, but we seldom sat there. We certainly never had a lawn – it’s just mulched-over dirt.

It’s not that I thought about using it and rejected the idea because I wanted to keep my front yard. It’s that it simply didn’t occur to me. That’s what’s so disturbing. I like to think I’m reasonably bright (don’t we all!), and I’ve certainly spent a lot of time looking for gardenable territory on our land, but it took me two years to even consider putting raised beds in front of the house!

And then, when I thought of it, I balked. Not out loud, but viscerally. When I talked to Kevin about it, I was all enthusiasm, but I recognized the gulping sensation that we have when we take a step that we’re not sure about.

Me! No-lawn, all-food, live-off-the-land me!

There was only one thing to do. We had to get those raised beds in there right away. A trip to Home Depot and an afternoon later, there they were.

In a postal feat of perfect timing, our strawberry plants came in the mail today. I was going to put them in the raised bed we put up a few days ago in front of the shed, but I think I’ll put the asparagus there instead. I’ll put the strawberries in front of the house. They’re prettier.

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Comments

  1. I love that show! It was so funny and I could also understand their occasional desperation.
    Good job putting those raised beds in your front yard!
    I heard a show this weekend on NPR about growing food in the front yard. According to the show landowners in England started the no food in the front yard trend. They wanted to prove how wealthy they were, “We’re so rich, with tons of land and servants that we can grow only ornamentals in our garden.”
    Unfortunately, my front yard is 80% shade all day long, but I’m planning on planting some currants and gooseberries there this Spring.

  2. I love ‘The Good Life’ too. Those suburbs where the Goods live were a class step-up from the sturdy but common rural houses which have HUGE front gardens where the occupants were expected to have massive veg gardens to provide for their families.

    It was a status symbol during WWII to ‘Dig for Victory’, i.e. no lawn, all veg. The middle class suburban existence seems to start in the 60s here. Post-war lawn and ornament and modern life eschewed grow-your-own. Now everyone in the UK is desperate to get their hands on a well-built rural property with one of those huge front gardens again, and to live the Good Life.

    My passion in gardening is the potager garden, mixing flowers and food, form and function. There are rustic examples – the kitchen garden kept by the farmer’s wife and there are luxurious ones – walled gardens attached to stately homes and Maniors with knee-high pleached trees surrounding beds, trained wall fruit, glasshouses with grapevines, run by a team of skilled gardeners. Even the hand tools could be in a design museum.

    If you need inspiration, google or go to amazon and type in Walled Kitchen Gardens or Potager and look at the images. Vegetables are definitely sexy, and worth a front yard spot!

  3. Sadly, the reason most of us can’t use our front garden, is due to theft. Having had shrubs, tubs of flowers, Christmas lights (cut down!!) taken from various front gardens, putting vegetables or fruit in our front garden would just be providing everyone else with free food.

    It really isn’t an option in most towns 🙁

    Fortunately for me in this house, all our sun is on the back (from about 8am in the summer till about 5p,!) and one of our neighbours has helpfully just cut down their large fir, which has improved things too.

  4. I’ve got to get hold of some divd’s of that show.

    I don’t have to confront the front lawn as garden issue. Where we live, old houses were put right next to the street. In fact, I suspect the roads in some cases were just put where wagon tracks had been. Our “front” door, which is only ever used to get the mail, is about 8 feet from a busy road, and about half that distance is taken up by a covered porch (underneath which is our root cellar). Trying to garden with the rest of that space would be taking my life in my hands. Plus, I’d just get exhaust-dusted vegetables. Frankly, the area looks awful, with a few scraggly yew bushes and some weedy stuff that refuses to die. But no one has to or even can look at that area once they’re standing on our property. So I refuse to care about it for the time being. Fortunately, the garage blocks most of the view of the backyard, which is where most of the action is.

  5. Catalina — We should start a “Good Life” fan club. Every gardener I know loves it. But now you’re giving me ideas — do gooseberries and currants thrive in shade? I’ve got more shade than I know what to do with, and some lovely little currants would be very welcome.

    Jen — You can join the fan club Catalina and I just started! We had Victory Gardens here in the states, too, but the front-yard garden didn’t seem to oulast the war. The UK seems to have very different gardening traditions — I keep encountering words I don’t know! I will look up potager gardens so I’ll know what you’re talking about.

    Ann — What a bummer! Christmas lights? But it sounds like your back yard is wonderful. I have sun envy.

    Kate — We have large swaths of land that look awful. Scraggly trees, poison ivy, these awful green vines with huge thorns. It comes with the land-owning territory. And I figure you’ve made excellent use of your front yard if you’ve got your root cellar under the porch.

  6. I was taken by the superb raised beds, but even more so by your adorable Cape Cod house! Just the perfect shade of gray, small, unassuming, and that porch on the left – oh my! Opens to just screens in summer, right? There is nothing more beautiful than a working Cape Cod house.

  7. see: http://extension.missouri.edu/publications/DisplayPub.aspx?P=G6911

    and

    http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/todo_now/faqs.php?id=79

    Hope it helps. I specifically looked for a house with a south-facing backyard with nothing else going on when we bought this house. Of course, the house is a boring, nondescript ranch, but the backyard is almost perfect for what I wanted to do with it, which is grow food. Too bad that I didn’t notice that all the soil was clay….

  8. Perky little Barbara and imperious Margot are such wonderful characters. The Good Life is a mainstay of the deadly summertime early evening repeat season even now on the good old Beeb. It really is funny how what goes around comes around, as they’re really spot on with their lifestyle choice 30 years on.
    My friend has just put raised beds in her front garden this year. Last year she filled every available inch of her urban back garden — and the flat roof of the kitchen extension — with raised beds. She even used old stacks of tires for some of them, which I thought was really clever.
    Me, I’ve planted “patio container” tomato seeds in a propagator, and they’ve germinated. Hurrah.

  9. Front yard gardens are fairly common in the Boston neighborhoods- especially with new immigrants who are used to tucking in a few veggies here and there where space is at a premium as in their homelands. But the front veggie garden is definitely catching on with the ‘natives’ now too! Theft can be a problem occasionally; i had a lovely eggplant growing in a flower border bed near the sidewalk that got swiped right at its peak. We’re blessed with a large sunny front lawn and a sunny side pernnennial bed. Not wanting to uproot my perennials, last summer I was able to convince my husband to reluctantly dig up a narrow (3′ wide by 12′ long) chunk of lawn that butts up against the front flower beds. Far enough away from the sidewalk to discourage tresspassing and small enough that it wasn’t too obtrusive. I also made it an in-ground bed so it has a ‘low profile’. By the time the tomato plants are tall enough to obscure my flower beds its too hot for me to be bothered tending flowers anyway! It worked very well and the harvest assuaged my lawn-proud spouse. This year he asked if we could expand it. Good luck to you and Kevin with your frontal approach!