Over the weekend, we rather suddenly became urban farmers, and since I haven't gardened much in the Pacific Northwest other than in containers, I went to the library to check out some gardening books. I also found out that Seattle Public Library has an upcoming Edible Garden Series of classes and events for gardeners.
While I was there, I also ran across Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg. This book is not strictly relevant to what we want to do. We don't have a front lawn, and our garden is in a p-patch dedicated to gardening. But it was an interesting read nonetheless. The basic premise of the book is to question the idea of the vast expanse of green grass prevalent in American suburban neighborhoods and suggest that it's more sustainable to use your property to grow food and other useful plants.
The book is divided into a few sections. Up front are a few short essays about lawns, going off the beaten path when it comes to how you maintain them, and gardening in them. These do a neat job of introducing the idea that your front lawn doesn't have to be an expanse of unsustainable green grass and what you can do to make something different. Then the book details a few projects that Haeg has coordinated across the U.S. and in London. Each section has some input from the homeowners, and each had very different experiences. The back section is devoted to a few more homeowners who sent in their own notes about their own Edible Estates projects.
I loved the ideas presented in Edible Estates because I hate the monotony generic suburban neighborhoods designed with a cookie-cutter mentality. I have lived in suburban areas a couple of times in my life, and I don't miss them at all.
I grew up in a working class urban neighborhood in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where people owned their homes and basically were allowed to do what they wanted. There was no neighborhood covenant, no HOA. My mom, who grew up on an Iowa farm, had a great garden in her backyard. We had neighbors who sold eggs out of their back door. My mom canned her own salsa for several years. It's actually kind of amusing to me that the things that are hip and popular now in Seattle - canning, gardening ("urban farming"), cooking from scratch, and other homespun housekeeping tasks, were things my mom and grandma did when I was a kid growing up in Iowa.
Now I live in an apartment building in a residential urban neighborhood of Seattle. Many people here do have grass lawns, and in Seattle they are not quite as difficult to maintain because of the nearly year-round rain. Many people also let their lawns go dry and brown in the summer. But some also do some kind of gardening or landscaping in their yards that favors a variety of plants, native plants, and edible plants. I really like that approach to landscaping. For one thing, I never understood why you would want your home to look just like everyone else's home. I've been in suburban neighborhoods where you can't even tell whose home is whose unless you look at the house number. So I like to look at homes with a variety of stuff going on in the yard. For another thing, as is pointed out in Edible Estates, it's kind of insane to keep up a pattern of watering, fertilizing, mowing and weed-whacking or weed-killing to keep up a green carpet of lawn that is more or less a false pretense of nature.
Since I am not a property owner, I don't know how difficult these Edible Estates would be to create or maintain. It's worth noting that the homeowners in this book had the help of a crew of volunteers who came by, ripped out their lawn, reshaped their landscape and planted all new plants within a matter of days. A more reasonable approach might be, as described in one essay, starting small with some herbs in a flower bed, or a few new beds of produce a year.
I have to admit, I don't really understand the concept of why people want to own giant suburban houses and big pieces of property, but if you do, why not put it to work for you? That's the concept behind this book - making your property both environmentally and economically sustainable. Throughout this book, neighbors reach out to each other and have discussions over the front yard gardens as well, which leads to greater community involvement. The homeowners do run up against a few negative responses, but for the most part their neighbors embrace their efforts and are quite interested in the progress of their gardens. In the end, rather than being a rebellious act, for most of the homeowners (with a couple of exceptions) the front yard gardens become a positive presence in their communities.
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