Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Grow, Therefore I Am

From the bean of Green Bean.

Last week, when I posted about my front yard garden, I mean, farm, a number of you asked for more information. For photos, directions, and step by step details on how my front yard went from suburbarama to Michelle Obama.

I can't say what works for everyone but I can say what worked for us. Here's how we did it.


Start monitoring your space. Where is the sun and when. Any pockets of shade. Particularly warm spots. Get to know the mini microsystems of your yard.

I'm a fan of front yard farming but frankly, if my front yard didn't get full sun, I wouldn't have as much planted out there as I do. Amongst, the ornamentals, I'd stick in some blueberry bushes, some strawberry plants and whatever else can tolerate shade or part sun. Fortunately, we're full sun in the front yard so its full farm.

If your front yard ends up being a hospital place for edibles, the next step is to find out (a) what kind of garden you want and (b) what you want to plant in it.

For (a), I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of an edible anywhere. I ogled. I took photos. I stalked the Path to Freedom web site. I decided what I liked and what I didn't. Check out my Edible Exhibitionism post for a number of photos of front yard farming to get an idea of the different styles of Victory Gardens. Envirorambo's post on Day with a Chef has some lovely photos of a kitchen garden as well.

I finally decided I wanted a garden where flowers and edibles intermingled rather than in rows or raised beds. I invested in a two hour consultation with a local landscaper who specializes in edibles. We talked about my front yard, the fact that I have occasional hooved guests meander through, that I needed to protect my plants against the deer but that I also wanted something attractive that wouldn't stand out as an obvious vegetable garden in the middle of a dense suburban neighborhood.


The consultant suggested a low fence with deer resistant plants tucked in along the edges so that my visitors would hopefully stick their heads over the fence and be deterred by the Shasta daisies, yarrow and sage growing there. I've always wanted an arbor so we decided to break up the fence (opted for white picket because it's just so, well, you know, white picket) and stick a gate and arbor in the middle. I have a flagstone path along the side of my house and we decided to have it meander through the front yard, forking mid-garden to lead under the arbor with one path and to the front door with the other.

The path helped to break up the yard into manageable planting beds. By curving the planting beds and the path, the yard appeared a bit more traditional and a little less, well, "farm-ish". The arbor provided a vertical growing surface.

We also have a patch of dirt between that side of the yard and the driveway as well as a thick sidewalk strip of land in between the sidewalk and the street. We put in matching flagstone paths in both of those areas to tie them together with the "main farm" directly in front of the house and under the arbor.


Over the last two years, we've slowly de-lawned the front yard. First extending the flower beds and then ripping out patches (e.g., the sidewalk strip and the driveway patch). Our soil here is clay and leaves much to be desired.

In each place we've taken away lawn, we've replaced it with a sheet mulch - alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen. That's a fancy way of saying, poke some holes in the ground, put down some black and white newspaper, then manure, then leaves or straw, then manure or compost, then finish it off with some wood chips or something similar to make it look nice and cut down on the smell. For a great how to on lasagna or sheet mulching, check out One Straw Revolution or get Gaia's Garden from the library.

Sheet mulching works by encouraging the critters in the soil to break down the materials you've laid down and increases biodiversity - always a good thing in the garden. It is a no till method of improving soil. You'll need at least six months for sheet mulch to break down. You can plant right in the sheet mulch but be prepared for what bugs that are part of the decompostition process can do to seedlings. It's not pretty.

Planting cover crop in sheet mulch, though, has worked nicely for me. It has helped improve the soil fertility while keeping weeds and pests at bay. Cover crop also often gives good bugs a place to overwinter. Heck, we even had a toad overwinter in our cover crop one year which is saying something given that I've never otherwise seen or heard a toad in the five years we've lived here. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply offers a fantastic mix of cover crop or you can plant favas and peas and harvest some of them. You do have to pull out the cover crop before most is ready to eat.

In my opinion, the sheet mulch is so worth it. Our soil has gone from yucky clay to a delightful loam full of microorganisms and fertility.


Even though my edible garden takes up most of my front yard, my front yard is pretty small. All of my edibles are squeezed in close together so I've had to pay close attention to putting plants together than like each other and keep edible enemies away. Carrots Love Tomatoes is a great guide to companion planting. Check out A Sonoma Garden for a handy chart of veggie friend and enemies. I just sketched out my yard, decided what had to go in what side and worked from there.

Having an arbor opened up a lot of space for me. I put in a grape on one side which is a perennial and will be there year after year. On the other side, I could have done squash, beans, or gourds. I opted for an Armenian cucumber but will likely put some peas there in the fall.

A cucumber growing on the arbor. On the other side is a grape vine.

View of the arbor and two of the front beds. Borage overgrew and
closed the path. On the left are potato runner beans and on the
right are Early Girl tomatoes, cayenne peppers and collard greens.
They are interplanted with penstemon, cosmos, borage, and
zinnias as well as various herbs.

I didn't want a lot of fruit trees in my small but sunny garden but I did stick an espaliered 5 in 1 pear tree along the wall of the house where it won't bother any one. In addition, I put a pomegranate in the corner near the fence. Pomegranates and pineapple guavas are not much loved by deer and I felt that, in addition to providing lovely fruit some fall, it will help keep the deer out of the garden.

I heavily interplanted flowers with my edibles. First and foremost, it looks pretty. Second, I have zero pollination problems in my garden. It buzzes and undulates with bees and butterflies which pop around from squash blossom to zinnia with ease. (I also have a pollinator garden on the sidewalk strip which helps.) Third, interplanting keeps pests at bay. Many bugs are repelled by marigolds and various flowering plants. Deer dislike herbs such as borage and lavender. The sunflowers in the pollinator garden keep the squirrels busy. And, as I said before, the variety of plants makes it less likely that I'll have a swarm of any one pest as beneficial insects are likely also hanging out somewhere in the garden. Monoculture = bad. My busy, crazy garden = polyculture = good! :)

The zinnias were an Easter gift for my boys from my sister.
If you look closely, you can see the watermelon and sage
tucked behind them. The only other edibles in this bed
are chammoile and rosemary and a grape vine.

I also spent a fair amount of time figuring out what grows best in my neck of the woods. Some of it was based on past experience. I've been gardening for several years but mostly flowers up until two years ago. I live on the cool San Francisco Bay Area peninsula. That means it rarely gets really really hot. "Early" varieties are nice because I don't have a 120 day growing season of hot weather. I opted for cherry tomatoes and Early Girls after years of watching my heirloom tomatoes throw off only a couple sickly looking tomatoes here and there. An early watermelon offered by a Pacific Northwest seed catalog is doing nicely in my yard.

Big is also better here in the Bay Area. That way, even if a particular variety does not grow to full size, at least I end up with something. The giant pumpkins currently looming in the front yard are an example of that as are last year's Jumbo Banana Squash. We're still eating frozen puree from the latter.

Here are two of our giant pumpkins. They reside just outside our
front door and are interplanted with zinnias and borage.

This is where research in the form of paying attention to microclimates pays off. Sunny spots along a wall - where sun might bounce off - are great for heat loving veggies. Winter squash with their enormous leaves can help shade another plant. Think three sisters. Cooler pockets might be nice for herbs or berries.

Finally, as common advice goes, I only plant things I like to eat. I hate eggplant. Sorry, but I do. And therefore you won't find any growing here.


What I've described is just where most of the edibles congregate. I've got a few peppers and raspberries tucked in the pollinator garden. In the backyard, where it's much shader, blueberries, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and herbs share space with flowers. Two baby apple trees, a mature orange and a mature lemon tree poke out of the corners. I also have two raised beds for lettuce, onions, carrots, radishes and other root crops.

Pollinator garden on the sidewalk strip.

Other side of the sidewalk strip pollinator garden.


Pick your tomatoes, ogle your melons, nibble your grapes and enjoy the fruits of your labor. I love my front yard garden and all the wonderful things that comes with it: the harvest, the community, the peace, and the beauty.

Our harvest of flame seedless grapes. We got one bunch from
a bareroot plant I stuck in the ground in February.


ruchi said...

OMG it looks FABULOUS. I love it. And honestly, it's way prettier a front yard than a stupid lawn. Seriously, you've made ME want to garden.

BUT, I think we might have to break up over this whole eggplant issue. It's almost as bad as hating chocolate. :)

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

All your research certainly paid off! Thank you for all the links and tips in this post - from the sheet mulch lessons to the tips about deer.
Your pollinator garden was my Aha! moment. I love how you have fed/helped the "local" bees while having them help your garden :)
It's turned out beautiful!

The Mom said...

I absolutely love your garden/lawn! Its so fun to see what you're doing. I find that turning my suburban yard into a little farm is addicting. Adding something here, trying something there. So much fun.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I agree, I only grow what I love. I'm not a fan of the gluts of green squash, so I don't let it take up valuable space here.

We've got tons of lawn, but I have plans to transform it over the coming years. I just wish we had built a bigger garden fence! I need to figure out what the deer will leave alone and plant that outside.

I'm most jealous of those grapes! A bunch of wineries have popped up around here and apparently it's a great climate for growing wine grapes. But I don't want to make wine, I just want to eat them. By the way, have you tried frozen grapes? I love to eat them when it's hot here and it's a great way to keep them from going bad.

Melinda said...

GB, it's absolutely beautiful! I love how ornamental your squash looks, and wow - it all looks fabulous!

Eco Yogini said...

WOW- this is the most fantastic description of a suburban garden that I've read!! SO COOL.

I am le jealous. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey good luck on the Armenian Cucumbers (Guta=Goo Tah) Here is an easy, healthy recipe for Armenian Summer Salad.
You need:
Red Onion
Big beefy Tomato
Armenian Cucumber
Balsamic Vinagerette
Olive oil
Feta Cheese

Cut cucumber, tomatoe, onion into small sections put into a small container with a lid.
Dressing: Mix Balsamic vingerette and Oil oil with Basil. Put on top of the finished cut C, T & O.
Let marinate for about 2 hours.
Sprinkle Feta cheese on top and serve.

Some other things you can add are Bell Pepper, Eggplant and hard Pita Chips. My favorite Pita chips can be found at Trader Joes.

Jason said...

This is a great site you have here. I have a blog myself that inspires people and I would like to exchange links with you. When you get a chance, let me know if this is possible, either by email or a comment on my site. Jason

fashionistafarmer said...

wow! what an inspiration! I am just starting to plan my front yard edible garden today and your post could not have come at a better time! i'll be linking to it on my post this afternoon! Thanks for all the lovely photos too!

kale for sale said...

The garden is beautiful! Do you eat the borage greens? I had a link the other day with a bunch of borage recipes, blossoms in ice cubes was my favorite, but there were also recipes to eat the greens. I don't however want to be the first. What do you think?

Elizabeth B said...

Oh, my, this is wonderful. It's beautiful and functional and (best of all) NOT a lawn.

Daisy said...

I'm thinking of creating a new tomato patch away from the current garden. We also have heavy clay soils, and the layering process may be the solution. My regular garden is thriving because I mix in family-generated compost every spring! Hmmm...maybe that's where the stray pumpkin came from ...

Green Bean said...

Ruchi: Really, you love eggplant that much? Oh dear.

Bushel: I'm glad you liked the idea of a pollinator garden. Ours started out as a butterfly garden (supposed to be shaped like a butterfly too but that didn't last long) for the kids. I saw how helpful it was not to mention beautiful and incorporated it.

Mom: YES!! It's totally addicting. Ours started out as a few potatoes amongst the flowers.

Abbie: Oh, you totally need to plant some grapes! Ours were wonderful. During bareroot season, they are a steal. Never tried frozen grapes but I will now! Happy planting.

Melinda: Thank you. I do think the yard looks lovely and ornamental. Some people don't even realize there are veggies in there at first.

Yogini: Thank you! I so appreciate that.

Anonymous: Sounds fantastic! And here I've still got a mongo sized cucumber in the fridge. Guess what's for lunch tomorrow. Your recipe! :)

Jason: Thank you for the comment and compliment. I'll head over to check out your blog in a second.

fashionista: Perfect! How fun is it to plant out front. Love your site, btw, and look forward to following your farming journey.

Katrina: I have yet to eat the borage greens. I didn't want to be first either. :) Mind sending me your link? My oldest eats the blossoms, though, like they're candy. I'll throw them in drinks or ice cubes but mostly just use them to attract the bees.

Elizabeth: Thank you. I feel the same. :D

Daisy: Gotta love the random pumpkin plant! Definitely try the sheet mulch. Ours worked wonders.

Alison said...

It is comforting to know that it has taken you several years to get to this point -- starting with the fence and the paths! I have a tendency to want to do things RIGHT NOW, but I think that it might also be wise for us to plan this out over several years. Thanks also for the beautiful pictures -- I bet there are a few fairies fluttering around in your yard in addition to the pollinators. :)

Pure Mothers said...

Thank you so much for going deeper on your previous gardening/farm post! This is awesome. What a lovely garden!! I am reading Farm City by Novella Carpenter and I am so envious of your garden and hers. (I couldn't raise and slaughter animals though) I've started small with squash and tomatoes and I am so excited to do more soon! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and your photos!

Green Bean said...

Alison: Yes, it has taken me a while - especially with the design and making it look attractive. However, doing the sheet mulch and getting some sort of edible in that grows well is pretty quick. I did that last year and it tided me over for this year. :)

Pure Mothers: Good for you with the squash and tomatoes! I was reading Farm City but had to return it to the library before I finished. No, don't tell me what happens. I'm going to check it out again.

Beany said...

Eggplant hater? Who knew? I'm joining Ruchi's club in reevaluating our relationship.


But your yard is so absurdly gorgeous! I think you are competing with the Dervaes for prettiest yard ever.

Green Bean said...

Why thank you, Beany, re the comparison to the Dervaes comment. As to eggplant, dude, it's not chocolate!

how to grow hydroponics said...

I had a link the other day with a bunch of borage recipes, blossoms in ice cubes was my favorite, but there were also recipes to eat the greens. I don't however want to be the first. What do you think?


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