Only a few generations ago, America was an agrarian society. At that time, farm families made the most of their land, raising animals, tending orchards and planting gardens that provided a bounty of food right from their own backyard.
Today, most of us live in an urban or suburban setting. Our homes are situated on tidy fenced lots with groomed lawns and carefully landscaped hedgerows. Did you ever wonder what happened to that desire to grow food and provide fresh fruits and vegetables for our families? Why are our yards so devoid of any of the food-bearing plants of our forefathers, yet we seem to love the “local food’’ movement and visiting the crowded hometown farmers’ markets every Saturday morning?
These questions dogged Los Angeles artist Fritz Haeg, who, for over a decade, installed a series of “Edible Estate’’ gardens by building consumable landscapes in a variety of locations all over the world. The project resulted in a book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, which Haeg co-authored.
Haeg’s first Edible Estate was built in 2005 in Salina, Kansas, where the artist found Stan and Priti Cox, homeowners willing to tear out their entire front yard and replace it with food-producing plants. Stan Cox is a plant geneticist at the Land Institute, where he is developing perennial varieties of sorghum (or milo) and is also the author of a few books with an environmental bent.
Haeg sourced an excavator and tore out the couple’s front lawn, brought in a truckload of composted manure, and planted the entire space—about 50 feet wide by 35 feet deep—in a variety of vegetables, perennial herbs, fruit trees, and grapevines. More than ten years have passed, and while Haeg is unavailable to discuss the experiment (he’s living on a commune in Northern California and no longer gives interviews), Stan Cox still enjoys his Edible Estate and appreciates the idea behind it.
“I’ve worked professionally with species of grass all my life. I don’t have anything against grass, but I think the problem comes when people try to maintain the classic, immaculate green lawn. Doing that requires a lot of chemical inputs and [use of] fossil fuels,’’ Cox says.
He contends that the relentless pursuit of the perfect lawn has spawned an “unnecessary industry’’ of power equipment manufacturers and “green’’ chemical treatment services. Meanwhile, his yard has produced plenty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that make it straight to his dinner table.
Choosing Plants Wisely
“We’ve been very happy with it over the years, and it’s a lot more fun than cutting grass. I estimate we spend the same amount of time caring for it as we did the lawn. The main work is pulling weeds and harvesting berries and herbs,’’ Cox says.
The Cox Edible Estate has seen changes over the years, mostly in choosing plants that perform better in the extreme Kansas climate, which experiences 30–40 days of 100° F temperatures in the summer and swings to -10° F in the winter.
The evolution of Cox’s plantings hints at one of his top tips for others who want to do away with their lawns and create an Edible Estate: know your environment. Gung-ho gardeners will only have satisfying results if they understand the impact of shade, property orientation, growing zones, soil types, and other factors and plant accordingly, he warns.
“You may love peaches, but if you’re only going to get a crop one year out of ten, it’s probably not worth [planting them],’’ Cox says. “A lot of plants are just too much work to keep alive.’’
Get On The Internet
Have no fear of starting your own Edible Estates garden. Cox says it’s easier than ever to research and source the most appropriate plants or trees for any situation. The Internet has opened gardeners up to helpful information and allows them to network with experts who can help them become more successful.
“Before you start planting, you need to understand your micro-climate. Know everything about your piece of property to do things right. Most people put plant material in exactly the wrong place,’’ Spellman says. Get a soil profile for your yard, observe drainage patterns, prevailing winds, and shade patterns.
Everything Old Is New Again
As long as Stan and Priti Cox stay in Salina, they’ll keep up their Edible Estate. They’ve enjoyed the experience immensely, including the years of food production that have helped sustain them.
Stan Cox fondly recalls his late father’s reaction to all of the fuss over their Edible Estate, which brings us back a few generations to when families were accustomed to growing their own food.
“He liked what we were doing, but he said, ‘This is nothing new. When I was a kid, lots of people were growing vegetables in the front yard,’” Cox recalls. That was out of necessity—his father grew up during the Great Depression and through lean times in World War II.
“For quite a while he was planting four or five tomato plants along the curb in front of the house,’’ Cox says. “I guess he did carry on that tradition.’’
Read this article, Local Food Starts In Your Front Yard, in its entirety in the 2017 Special 200th Anniversary Edition of the Farmers’ Almanac, pages 182-184.