What!? Rules for breaking the rules? What kind of outlaw gardener am I? Sheesh.
Actually, hopefully, I’m the kind of outlaw gardener who gets to continue being an outlaw gardener.
Put another way, I recognize that I’m breaking the rules here. At any moment, my community’s HOA could demand that I remove the garden. They have that right; I signed the paperwork agreeing to the community’s rules when I bought this house. And, now that my garden is in a national magazine, I figure the chances of this happening are greater than ever.
So, yeah, I want to continue breaking the rules. But, I also want to continue gardening.
No, I’m not abandoning the front yard garden. Far from it. Instead, I’m just thinking more carefully about how to go about this little act of civil disobedience. How to have my front-yard tomatoes, and some neighborly peace too.
Last September, I shared a short list of lessons from my first summer gardening here. Now, I’m building off that list. Creating a few guiding
rules principles for how to grow a garden that pleases the neighbors and puts food on the table, all in the front yard. If you’re thinking about starting a front yard vegetable garden of your own, this list might be a good place to start. And, if you are already growing edibles out front for your whole neighborhood to see, I’d love to hear if you have any additional “rules” to add to the list. Please share them in the comments section below.
Here they are:
10 Rules for Front Yard Vegetable Gardens:
1. Be beautiful. Looks matter.
It’s true. Looks matter. If you want to grow your vegetables in the front yard, it’s good to remember that you aren’t the only one who will be seeing your tomatoes and peppers. Now, I’m one of those people who believes even the homeliest vegetable plant is beautiful. But, I know my neighbors might not agree. And, sometimes, it only takes one complaint from one neighbor to bring the “authorities” down on a front yard vegetable garden. Reduce the risks of complaints; grow a beautiful garden.
2. Be friendly. Say hello.
It’s simple. Your neighbors are more likely to like your garden if they like you. You don’t need to be BFFs with the folks across the street, but it’s good to be nice. Make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Chat about the weather. And, if folks ask about the garden, share it with them. Take them for a tour. If they are gardeners too, ask them their opinion. In short, treat them like you’d want to be treated yourself. Yeah, I know, we covered all this stuff in kindergarten.
3. Be generous. Share.
Once you’ve smiled and said hello, why not offer your neighbors a bit of the harvest? You might be a bit, ah, tired of that squash you’ve been eating every single day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks, but your neighbors will probably be thrilled with the gift. [Note: Unless they are also gardeners. Never give summer squash to vegetable gardeners. That's like giving a dozen eggs to a chicken farmer. It's a nice thought, but a bit misdirected.]
If you’re a writer, you’ve certainly heard the phrase: Don’t tell. Show. Well, this is a bit like that. Don’t tell. Share. I can’t think of a better way to promote front yard vegetable gardens than by sharing the fabulous taste of homegrown produce. Give your neighbors a just-picked front-yard-grown tomato. Go ahead and give them the best one you picked that day. It’ll be worth it; the next day, you might see them taking a shovel to their front lawns. Grass just doesn’t compare to homegrown tomatoes.
4. Be respectful. Keep things tidy.
This gets back to Rule #1: Be beautiful. Because, again, looks matter. It’s ok to leave wheelbarrows and shovels and hats and rakes and gardening gloves strewn across the garden if you’ve got your veggies hidden out back. But, when the garden is literally front and center, all that stuff has got to go. Oh, by all means, pull out that rusty ol’ wheelbarrow (mine is bright orange; certainly no beauty) when you need to haul a bunch of manure or compost. But, please, put it away at the end of the day. It’s good for your tools. But, more importantly, it’s good for your neighborly relations (which, let’s be honest, is good for your garden).
Here’s the thing. If you are going to grow veggies in your front yard, you are probably going to grow veggies in view of your neighbors’ front yards. They will drive past your tomatoes and beans and overgrown, powdery-mildew-infested summer squash every single day. They will see you garden whenever they collect their mail, walk their dog or mow their lawn. What they see will determine what they think and how they feel. If you want allies, you’ve got to give them something for that alliance. Beauty and tidiness is a small price to pay for friendship and support in the neighborhood. So, put away that wheelbarrow at the end of the day. Please.
5. Be ruthless. No mercy for unhealthy plants.
Are you sensing a theme? There’s a reason for that: Looks matter. You might have a gorgeous landscape. You might remember to put away your wheelbarrow and shovels every single night. But, none of that will really matter if you don’t also deep-six the squash plants when they’ve lost their battle to powdery mildew, squash bugs and general end-of-summer malaise (I haven’t found this condition described in any of my gardening books, which I view as a real oversight on the part of gardening publishers).
Let’s be honest here. Sometimes, vegetable plants go ugly. The mildew overruns the squash. The tomatoes finally cry “uncle” after yet another drought-then-downpour cycle. The flea beetles dominate the eggplant. Another cliché applies here: The best defense is a good offense. [Note: I played sweeper on my high school and college soccer teams, and this cliché isn't really true. The best defense is a damn good defense. But, it's the cliché, so we'll run with it.] So, first you try to prevent the mildew and flea beetles and water stress. But, sometimes prevention doesn’t cut it, and a plant just loses. When that happens, it’s best to get it over with quickly. Pull the plant. Send it to the compost heap. Do it now. It won’t recover, and it’ll just look worse tomorrow. And, really, nobody wants to watch a squash plant waste away in your front yard. It’s just not pretty.
6. Be flexible. Use containers.
What do you do with the bare spot that’s left after pulling that ugly, mildew-ridden, bug-invested squash plant? That’s easy. Put a container there. Ideally a container with a plant in it. An edible plant, if at all possible (Hey, we are growing a vegetable garden, right?).
Keep a few containers waiting for these moments, because you never really know when you’ll have a bald spot that needs, ah, covering over. You don’t need anything fancy. Thyme in a terra cotta pot. Parsley in something ceramic and pretty. Sweet potatoes in a bushel basket. Mint in, well, anything. The point is that you have these movable plants that can quickly step in and cover for you. Keep them on the front porch, along the front path or in the driveway. Doesn’t matter. Just keep them growing, and keep them flexible.
7. Be creative. Experiment.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. All that knowledge in all those gardening books? Sure, that’s all good knowledge (at least, the stuff you find in the good gardening books). But, it was all, once-upon-a-time, an experiment. Someone, at some point, figured out that trellising tomatoes — a non-climbing plant — was worth the effort. Someone else (I’m guessing) discovered that potatoes produce more tubers when their stems are buried. Blanching celery, forcing rhubarb, pinching back basil. Someone, at some point, did something different and discovered that it worked better, and that’s how we’ve come to know all these things about how to plant, tend and harvest our most popular vegetables.
Most of these rules work best in a traditional vegetable garden. Yes, many of them translate perfectly to the front yard — basil always needs to be pinched back — but many of them don’t. Or, at least, not necessarily. Last year, totally by accident, I discovered that indeterminate tomatoes make a fun and attractive groundcover. This year, I’m testing this discovery by deliberately growing several indeterminate varieties without trellis. We’ll see what happens. If it works well, I may have figured out a way to incorporate tomatoes — not always the most attractive plant in the garden — into the front yard vegetable garden in a low-profile way.
My point? Try something new. It could be fantastic.
8. Be thorough. Plan for all four seasons.
Summer is easy living in the vegetable garden. Seed + dirt + sunshine + water + summer = crazy intense almost uncontrollable growth. In short, it’s good.
But, summer is really only around for a few months every year (unless you live in California or Florida or some other bizarrely warm and winter-free region). And — news flash — your front yard is around every single month of the year. It’s there, looking lush and gorgeous in July. And, it’s there, looking barren and sad in January.
I know it’s hard to think about January during the heat of the summer, but, well, if we’re going to grow our veggies out front, we really need to think about the winter months too. Your location will — to an extent — dictate your options. Here, in northern Virginia (USDA Zone 7), I can reasonably assume that my kale and collards and brussel sprouts will stand through the winter. Warm years will mean green-all-winter parsley and chard and celery. Cold winters will mean the kale might just give up. This gets back to the last point: experiment. You might discover that lettuce grows in January for you. Or, you might find that kale rarely survives. It’s about climate and protection from the wind and good, honest, unpredictable luck.
But, it’s also about more than vegetables, and more than plants. Think about incorporating trellises or fences or sculpture. Consider adding a non-edible for its winter color (I’m in love with my redtwig dogwood, which produces berries for the birds and red red red bark for my winter garden). Don’t stress. No one really expects your January garden to look like your July garden. But, think about it some. A little goes a long way, especially in January.
9. Be incognito. Grow flowers.
Does this really need further explanation? Plant the flowers. Yes, I know, if you plant flowers, you reduce the amount of ground available for vegetables. It’s a tough decision to make. But, trust me here, it is so very very worth it.
Flowers add beauty and charm and color to the garden. Also, butterflies and hummingbirds and native bees and all manner of beneficial insects; flowers add all those things too. And — bonus — some flowers are edible. See? Don’t you feel delightfully sneaky now?
10. Be ready. Just in case.
It could happen. Someone could challenge your garden. See an eye-sore where you see bounty. Raise a ruckus and cause trouble. This person could live across the street, down the road or nowhere nearby. Doesn’t matter. It could happen.
So, be ready. Be ready to be vocal. Be ready to defend your garden. Be ready to explain the benefits of homegrown produce, fresh vegetables and time spent in the sun. Be ready to call on neighbors for signatures or support. Be ready to rally neighborhood children and gardeners and folks who like the idea of homegrown veggies, even if they don’t want to dirty their own nails. Be ready to defend your garden.
Because, while we hope it will never happen, it could. Someone could complain. Someone could make a fuss. And, then, someone could knock on your door and demand an explanation. If that happens, be ready.
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That’s it. Ten rules for front yard vegetable gardens. Or, more accurately: Ten tips for making a rule-breaking garden work. What do you think? Did I miss anything? Please share your suggestions for any additions / delations / changes to the list in the comments section below.
If you’re already growing veggies in your front yard, I’d also love to hear about your experiences: What works? What doesn’t? And, why even bother growing vegetables rather than grass?
And, if you’re thinking about planting some edibles out front, I’d love to hear from you, too! What do you want to know? Why are you considering taking a shovel to your lawn? And, when are you going to start?
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