Front Yard Gardens Growing in Popularity

edible yard

Vegetable gardens are no longer relegated to the backyard. (Photo credit: Mark A Johnson/Alamy)

Home gardening has grown greatly in popularity over the past five years. According to research gathered by the National Gardening Association, 42 million households grow food at home or in a community garden. The greatest surge in home gardeners is among millennials (those between 18 and 34 years of age); over the past five years, food gardening among this age group has increased 63 percent.

While most food gardens are relegated to a side yard or backyard, some gardeners are taking an extreme approach to their home landscaping by replacing their front lawn with a food garden.

In terms of human history, the preference for wide expanses of green grass in front of homes is a relatively new phenomenon. Lawns first gained popularity 900 years ago in Great Britain and France. In these regions, the term lawn was used to describe clearings in the woods where livestock such as sheep and goats grazed the land, creating areas of low-cut grass.

In the early 19th century, the large lawns surrounding manor homes (think Downton Abbey) were seen as a way to flaunt one’s wealth. In the United States, perfectly manicured lawns were not always the rule. In Colonial America, with limited means, early colonists planted gardens with edible and medicinal plants. Because grasses native to America were not suitable for manicured lawns, turfgrasses had to be imported from Asia and Europe. Well-manicured lawns gained popularity in the mid 1800s in the United States. During this time period, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park, designed a suburban neighborhood in Riverside, IL, which featured rows of homes surrounded by green lawns unobstructed by fences or walls. Other landscape architects of the time declared that having a lawn was “a necessity for any respectable homeowner.”

Today, residential and commercial lawns cover more than 40 million acres in the continental United States. While these lawns may serve as a carbon sink (that is, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air) and prevent soil erosion, they also pose an environmental threat. Maintaining a green lawn typically involves plenty of water (which can be a problem in drought-prone areas), along with the use of pesticides, insecticides, and chemical weed killers. Replacing natural habitat with a monoculture lawn also reduces wildlife habitat and impacts the activities of pollinating species such as honeybees and other insects. And aside from being an annoying chore, lawnmowing also spews a significant amount of pollution into the air. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is estimated that a gas-powered lawnmower emits 11 times more air pollution than a new car. Taking care of a lawn isn’t cheap either – it is estimated that Americans spend $30 billion annually on lawn care.

Some homeowners are opting to ditch the front lawn altogether and plant a food garden instead. In some cases, however, it’s not as simple as digging out the grass lawn and replanting the yard with tomatoes, herbs, corn, and other food plants. Some communities object to vegetable gardens in the front yard. In others, zoning laws even prohibit placing food gardens in front yards and restrict plant height. Residents in Oak Park, Michigan; West Des Moines, Iowa, Newton, Massachusetts; and Miami Shores, Florida have found themselves afoul of the law after replacing their front yards with food gardens. Some cities, such as Orlando, Florida, are now rewriting their zoning rules to allow for front yard vegetable gardens, although they are placing restrictions on them, such as garden size and location in the yard. Determining whether or not a front yard vegetable garden is allowed where you live requires checking local zoning codes, deeds/leases/condominium documents, and Homeowners Association (HOA) regulations.

Fritz Haeg, an American artist based in Los Angeles, is taking the concept of front yard food gardens to a whole new level. In 2005, Haeg designed the first in a series of Edible Estates, which replaced front lawns with edible landscapes. Since the first garden was planted in Salinas, Kansas, a total of 16 Edible Estates have been established in front yards around the world. Most gardens are commissioned by local art institutions and designed in partnership with gardening groups, horticultural associations, and other community groups. The gardens come together in one weekend the help of the homeowner’s family, friends, and volunteers. On day one, the front lawn is ripped out; on day two, the new garden is planted.

According to Haeg, the intention of the project is to “create a series of regional prototype gardens that replace domestic front lawns, or other unused spaces in front of homes, with places for families to grow their own food . . . The Edible Estates project invites us to reconsider our relationships with our neighbors, the sources of our food, and our connections to the natural environment outside our front doors.”

More to Explore
Reclaiming the Front Yard with Edible Estates
Edible Estates
How to Grow a Front Yard Vegetable Garden
In Florida, A Turf War Blooms Over Front-Yard Vegetable Gardening
Dear Modern Farmer: Can I Legally Grow Food in My Front Yard?
The Incredible, Edible Front Lawn


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