“Imagine,” chef, cookbook author and local food activist Deborah Madison mused recently, “if our government asked us to respond to the crisis of global warming, diminishing oil and poor health ... by planting vegetable gardens.”
Those who lived in the United States and Great Britain during World War II and experienced the food rationing of the 1940s can do more than imagine; they can remember. As part of the war effort, every civilian was encouraged to turn their land and lawns over — literally — to growing food for themselves and for the troops. The millions of yards, vacant lots and converted lawns and flower beds at community centers, school playgrounds and places of worship were called “victory gardens” and were, for many years, a primary source of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes that were difficult to produce during wartime due to reduced manpower and gasoline rationing.
Neighbors shared and swapped produce with neighbors, summer’s bounty was canned or “put by” for winter eating, and many Americans found themselves eating locally in a way not seen since their forefathers immigrated to this country.
If the idea of eating local food, and its related topics (concerns over food availability, affordability, and the high environmental and monetary costs of transporting food over great distances) sound familiar, it’s probably because these issues have been in the news for the last few years. For many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers and a growing collection of authors, food activists and garden experts, fall is the time of year to begin turning over our lawns again, in search of economic, environmental and physical health.
Community activist and author Heather Flores released her book Food Not Lawns: How To Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community a couple of years ago. It was a radical call for America’s urban dwellers to turn their manicured lawns and backyards into food-producing gardens to benefit not just the dweller but their community as a whole. If the idea seemed a bit revolutionary at the time the book debuted, it now appears to be resonating with Americans in a way not seen since WWII.
Descanso Gardens: First Art, Then Activism
Descanso Gardens, a 150-acre public garden just 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, has been a showcase of formal botanical displays for more than four decades. In 2008, inspired by an on-site seminar featuring local architect Fritz Haeg, a major change was made to Descanso’s Center Circle, the first display area visitors see upon entering the gardens. It was torn up and replaced by a side-by-side comparison garden featuring a manicured lawn adjacent to an edible garden.
Although formally trained as an architect, Haeg had spent the last few years as an exhibition artist. At one particular exhibition in Kansas, the idea of creating an “edible estate,” or victory garden-like edible front yard, took hold. In fact, the 2005 exhibit was so popular that the installation spawned similar projects for Haeg in Southern California, New Jersey, Austin, Texas, Baltimore and London. The successes at each project site prompted Haeg to chronicle the experiences in Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, and resulted in a book tour that brought Haeg to Descanso Gardens.
Brian Sullivan, the senior horticulturalist at Descanso Gardens responsible for planning new exhibits, was inspired by Haeg’s argument for edible landscaping. The decision to implement his ideas, Sullivan says, was easy. “In a time when people are worrying about the cost of food, the safety of the food they’re eating, the impact of importing food from long distances and the cost of fuel, why wouldn’t we offer an exhibit that allows visitors to see for themselves what options they have for improving their lives and lifestyle?”
Thus the Edible Estates Demonstration Garden was born. A small house skeleton that symbolizes the American home is flanked by both a regular lawn and an edible lawn, or vegetable garden. Both lawns are being monitored by Descanso’s horticulture team and local school children, who measure the amount of water, fertilizer, labor and fuel each lawn requires. They are also measuring “outputs”: harvested food, green waste and biodiversity.
In mid-spring in Southern California’s already warm temperatures, the Demonstration Garden was producing some early leafy greens, beans, strawberries, herbs and edible flowers. Some plants that had wintered over were allowed to go to seed so that students could learn from them, and because Haeg finds them beautiful.
“Many of the visitors to the garden come expecting the pristine, incredibly manicured botanical gardens and broad, open lawns that you typically find in an urban, public space like Descanso Gardens,” Haeg says. “Then they walk in and find our edible garden and are introduced to a different kind of beauty. The garden offers a variety of colors, shapes and textures that is just as stunning — sometimes more so — than what is typically seen in a front yard. Plus, it’s edible! We’re asking people to redefine in their minds and in their communities what ‘beauty’ is.”
Demonstration Gardens: Experiential Learning
One of the undeniable beauties found in the Demonstration Garden is scent. A variety of fruit trees — including persimmon, pomegranate, apple, kumquat, nectarine and a wide selection of citrus — are blooming, and the scent from their blossoms carries a great distance in the spring air. There’s a steady hum of bees around the flowering trees and blueberry bushes. Butterflies and birds flutter in and out of the garden area, seemingly oblivious to the humans wandering on the path.
Someone remarks that the number of seedlings ready for planting seem better suited to a garden area twice the size of the Demonstration Garden, but Sullivan just smiles. “People are amazed at the sheer amount of edibles that come out of this space. The production of this garden could easily fill or nearly fill the produce requirements of a family and it’s a fraction of the size of most homeowners’ lawn areas. We encourage the kids who work on the garden and visitors to ‘taste test’ a bean or a strawberry or a sprig of rosemary, and they don’t even make a dent in what’s produced.” In fact, Sullivan says, what’s not picked and eaten by the schoolchildren participating in the study and random visitors is harvested and donated to the local food bank.
Food Lawns of All Flavors
While Descanso Gardens is a terrific example of an edible garden project — complete with financial and environmental return-on-investment statistics on display — it’s by no means the only one. Hundreds of edible landscapes and front-lawn victory gardens are popping up all over the country.
Some, such as the Haeg projects in Lakewood, Calif. (a suburb of Los Angeles), and Austin, Texas, are located in major metropolitan communities. Buoyed by extensive media attention, they’ve shown thousands of viewers what carefully planned edible landscaping looks like.
Other projects have started out as price-driven statements about the need for affordable organic produce and grains. In Northampton, Mass., the owners of the Hungry Ghost Bakery began giving customers heirloom wheat berries to plant in their own yards. Their hope is that local folks will be able to grow enough wheat to help fill the bakery’s need for organic flour.
In suburban Scottsdale, Ariz., an artist who has turned her front lawn into an edible garden reports that cars in the neighborhood slow down considerably as the drivers check out what’s growing.
In the Pacific Northwest, garden clubs, university extension programs, and experts in edible landscape design and the philosophy behind it are speaking to sold out and standing-room-only groups. And for those who don’t have lawns to tear up and replace, the opportunities available at community gardens have proven wildly popular. In urban Seattle, for example, in spite of the fact that there’s already room for 6,000 community gardeners, another thousand people are on waiting lists for a plot.
None of this popularity surprises Charlie Nardozzi, edible landscaping expert and senior horticulturalist at the National Gardening Association. “What we have right now, in this economy, is what I like to call a ‘perfect storm of edible gardens’ that has been spurred on by concerns over global warming, the impact of carbon and our individual carbon footprints, and also by things like food safety, food security, energy prices and food prices. Part of it is definitely about economics; historically, anytime inflation is up and the economy down, there’s a renewed interest in gardening. I think people are beginning to wonder why they’re paying $4 for organic salad makings when they could grow two or three dozen heads of lettuce for less than that.”
According to Nardozzi, “People want some measure of control over their lives when there is uncertainty and a feeling of chaos. This includes everything from rising prices to concerns over safety and availability. Assuming you garden organically, pulling a portion of your food out of your own garden means you’re not worried about pesticide contamination and you’re also not waiting for planes and tractor-trailers full of produce to come in from Chile and Florida.” E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in factory-farmed food are adding yet another motive to grow your own.
With that in mind, and with resources like Haeg’s Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn and Flores’ Food Not Lawns continuing to spur speaking tours and requests for demonstration gardens, could we begin to see the rebirth of World War II-era victory gardens?
Inspiration for Your Edible Lawn
Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community by Heather C. Flores (Chelsea Green, 2006)
Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg, et al. (Metropolis, 2010)
Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club, 2010)
Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik and Rosalind Creasy (Permanent, 2005)
The Edible Garden by the Editors of Sunset Books (Oxymoor House, 2004)
Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles by Eric Toensmeier (Chelsea Green, 2007)
The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey (Workman, 2002)
Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers by Edward C. Smith (Storey, 2006)
Landscaping With Fruits and Vegetables by Fred Hagy (Overlook, 2001)