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Yardens: Bringing food to the front yard

Yardens: Bringing food to the front yard


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During the 1940s, vegetable crops lined schoolyards, churchyards, rural yards, and suburban yards alike.

As a patriotic act, Americans converted their yards into victory gardens to supplement the food supply threatened by pressures of WWII. At its peak, about 20 million victory gardens across America produced about 40% of the country’s vegetables.

“It’s a testament to what collective action can look like if we can sort of coalesce around a shared vision and a shared goal and a shared sense of meaning,” said Mara Rose of Boundless Landscapes.

Rose imagines a world where painted yard signs invite community members walking by to pluck a tomato from “yardens” along the way, a world devoid of the social pressures to keep a manicured lawn of Kentucky blue Grass. Yardens is a portmanteau for front yard gardens that prioritize growing food over ornamental plant display.

“There’s sort of this natural community-building impact that front yard gardens have because it invites people into conversation with each other,” Rose said. “It opens up opportunities for generosity and sharing and sort of collective living in some ways.”

It’s ingrained in the best of us: Tidy yards reflect social standing.

“It goes back to this American Dream history and the lawn,” Rose said. “Lawns are seen as tidy and a symbol of the American Dream and achieving middle class status. Food was seen as something you grew if you had to, if you didn’t have the resources to buy food. Many people, when they walk by a nice tidy lawn, they feel comfortable, and when they walk by a wild vegetable garden, they think it looks untidy and unattractive often. I think that psychology is working on many people and many [homeowners associations] even today.”

Jill Lyford started a raised garden bed, adjacent to her driveway, and planted a grape vine, strawberries and raspberries because her front yard received better sun exposure. Photo courtesy of Jill Lyford.

In 2019, Boundless Landscapes piloted a program turning lawns into food. In their first year, they converted five Boulder yards into this model. After three seasons of installing, building, and maintaining vegetable yardens, Rose rethought the approach.

“My hypothesis after doing this work for a while is that there’s 40 million acres of lawn in America, and actually the only way to get rid of it at scale is to empower everyday people to do it themselves,” Rose said.

Now, Boundless Landscapes seeks to educate and empower individuals to take the steps themselves to transforming their personal lawns into yardens through an “Ask a Farmer” monthly support group, individualized coaching, and garden design offerings.

Boulder County boasts a swath of avid gardeners daring enough to challenge the status quo. Some do it because the light is better in their front yard, others to enhance the soil. Everyone I talked with enjoyed their front yard garden for different reasons.

“Just do it,” Jill Lyford said about starting a yarden. It’s totally worth it. Just start small.” Photo courtesy of Jill Lyford.

Permaculture paradise

Devin and Heidi Quince gave up on years of watering, fertilizing, and aerating their lawn. One year in the spirit of Halloween, they spread three alpaca manure mounds resembling grave sites in their front yard and never looked back. First covering their lawn with cardboard boxes and a layer of cow manure and mulch, the Quinces planted their apricot tree, apple tree, lilac bushes, raspberry bush, flowering shrubs, cherry tree, grape arbor, and an herb spiral.

In accordance with permaculture design, the plants requiring the most water were strategically planted at the bottom of their sloped yard. The fruit trees provide shade for the plants underneath them.

The Quinces hardly water the herb garden, which includes sage, tarragon, chives, fennel, mints, lemon balm, and more.

The yarden has produced mint for jelly, fennel seeds for the kitchen, sometimes as much as 100 pounds of apricots, and much more.

“There’s nothing like tree-ripened fruit,” Heidi Quince said. “We’re such a proponent of eating fruit in season. It tastes better. You don’t have to haul it across the country or the world. It just makes more sense. The best thing to do is if it grows in your area, grow it. It really doesn’t take that much effort once the plants are established. You want to put a hedge in? Put a hedge in that produces fruit. You’ll be getting fruit for years.”

Growing a yarden full of non-traditional plants has brought some negative attention to the Quinces. Coined “the ugliest yard on the block” by a neighbor, some even reported their lawn to the City of Longmont, which resulted in several letters questioning what was growing in their yard, Devin Quince said.

But it was worth it for the Quinces.

“I hear people talk about how thankful they are for California for their climate because they can grow everything,” Heidi Quince said. “We should be more aware of what we can grow right here. Food preservation gets you through the winter, and you don’t have to buy tomatoes in February.”

Landscaping your yarden

Ariel Dutton of Ariel’s Farmette, LLC quit her job as an accountant and started her own landscaping company this fall. Mostly focused on weeding, plant consultation, and maintenance, Dutton loves encouraging people to grow food.

“I’ve been gardening ever since I could walk,” Dutton said. “One of my first memories is putting corn seeds in the soil with my mom. We lived in the country, so the grocery store was like 20 to 30 minutes away. When she was cooking dinner she would always say, ‘I’m going to go to the grocery store,’ and just go out to the garden and pick whatever we needed for dinner.”

In her personal life, Dutton spent six years transforming her front yard into a garden and is now in the process of converting to a yarden at her new house.

Devin and Heidi Quince’s yarden has a herb spiral in the middle of the yard and surrounded by fruit trees and bushes. Photo by Zoe Jennings.

“Grass is just pointless,” Dutton said. “It’s a waste of time. It’s another chore that you have to do. If you’re not using the grass, why spend the time to mow it and rake it and water it? It’s such a huge waste of resources, where you could be using that water and that space to feed yourself, or people who have no time to grow food for more than they need can donate it or share it with their friends and neighbors.”

Although it’s not free to convert due to the cost of soil, landscaping supplies, and time, Dutton only buys the staples like meat, crackers, and bread from grocery stores during the summer. The rest is harvested from the garden.

Dutton plans to install a berry patch with blueberries, goji berries, currants, and gooseberries and has prepared an area ready to plant come spring, with the eventual goal of replacing the entire lawn in her front yard.

Neighbors have asked her, “What if someone steals your produce?”

“Whatever. I have enough,” Dutton said. “If someone really wants to get my tomatoes they can have them. If someone picks a tomato here and there, good for them.”

When Dutton has crop excesses, they are put out on the curb with a “free” sign.

Ariel Dutton’s completed yarden. Photo courtesy of Ariel Dutton.

Herb yardens

Meri Gibb converted part of her yard into an herb garden where she grows onion chives, garlic chives, two kinds of thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, horseradish, lavender, parley, mint, chocolate mint, and echinacea.

Her herbs, many of which are perennials, don’t require much watering aside from the rosemary, and she’s only received compliments from neighbors in her HOA-controlled neighborhood. Although it’s a tedious job sometimes, Gibb carefully dries the herbs or uses them fresh. Gibb has never fertilized her yarden, and the herbs spread easily, out-competing any weeds.

“A person should pay attention to the light the plants need,” Gibb advises. “Some herbs do better in part light/part shade.”

Trees and shrubs serve as good shade covers. Gibb recommends researching the required growing culture before planting and grouping plants based on their shared water needs.

Ariel Dutton mulches the new bed at her new house. Photo courtesy of Ariel Dutton.

It starts with the soil

Shelby Kaminski envisioned Edaphic Solutions as a CU Boulder student. “Edaphic” is a technical term for characteristics influenced by the soil. Specializing in making custom-blended compost teas, the company provides food for soil and plants, manages unwanted plants with the power of steam, and advises clients on how to create a healthy ecosystem for their soil.

Kaminski urges gardeners to look beyond the plants into the soil health below. Kaminski lovingly calls her compost teas full of living microbes “kombucha for plants and soil.”

“The way that we eat fermented foods and probiotics and prebiotics and kombucha is the same way that compost tea is to plants,” Kaminski said. “Whatever is in the soil, the plants will uptake it and eat it. If you want to grow food, you have to have healthy soil or your food will be nutrient deficient or it won’t yield. Everything starts in the soil.”

Kaminski enjoys working with clients who see the long-term picture of what a yard can provide. The little fruit tree may not yield fruit right away, but eventually it will become abundant.

“I work with a lot of people who understand the interconnectedness of it all and understand the value they can bring to their little yard,” Kaminski said.

Creating treatments for the soil can also combat unwanted plants cropping up.

“Most weeds are actually medicine,” Kaminski said. “Most weeds are actually really good for the soil, believe it or not. They have the deepest roots. That’s the reason why they’re surviving compared to your grass.”

This doesn’t mean you need to have a dandelion yard, but weeds can indicate a mineral deficiency in the soil, Kaminski said. Through treatments, soil can become more fungal dominant, which is important in the dry Colorado soil that struggles to retain water.

“Fungi does a lot of really amazing things in the soil,” Kaminski said. “I feel like fungi right now is a hot topic with psilocybin mushrooms, but to me it’s bringing people down even more into the soil. These fungi have always been around us. It’s been really fun to flip the script. Psychedelic mushrooms are cool, but what about the mushrooms in the soil? The future is fungi. The future is microbes. That’s how I see it.”

Kaminski recommends working with the soil that you have in your yard and seeking out individualized treatments rather than looking toward the products you can find at Home Depot. The weed cover products including the black plastic rarely work at curbing weed growth. Covering the yard with cardboard is better, Kaminki said.

Ultimately Kaminski hopes that clients will eventually not need her, that their soil will become healthy enough that it doesn’t need enhancements.

During the pandemic Kaminski noticed that clients became more connected to their gardens.

“It’s very cool to be a part of that paradigm shift,” Kaminski said. “I’m here for it all. Yes, this all comes from the soil, and we need to shift our relationship to it if we want to grow food ourselves because then people will have more success if they’re actually seeing it from a whole system standpoint rather than just ‘I’m growing a carrot’ type of thing.”

Sunny Gilbert grows food in raised beds in her front yard. She loves to decorate the yard with colorful rocks. Photo courtesy of Sunny Gilbert.

Food with flair

Sunny Gilbert is a lifelong gardener and tinkerer. She knocked down the juniper bushes in the front yard of her small property in Niwot and built raised garden beds for growing tomatoes, herbs, peppers, lettuce, and kale. Receiving better light, the front of the property features the raised beds and a bed with a trellis for vining crops a couple feet from the street.

Gilbert loves the yellow flowers that grow on her pumpkin vines. “Go out for a morning walk, and you see all these beautiful yellow, orange blossoms, and then bonus they become pumpkin for some scones in the fall or a nice pumpkin pie.”

Sunny Gilbert planted these Home Depot pots a prettier color and drilled holes in the bottom for drainage. Photo courtesy of Sunny Gilbert.

She also likes flair and doesn’t believe that yardens have to be drab. Her yard is decorated with painted rocks from neighborhood children, plants with variegated leaves, and decorative woven yarn trellises. “It’s part decoration, part the fun and science of growing plants,” Gilbert said. Neighbors come to snip clippings of her herb plants and admire anomalies like her 2-pound, ten-ounce tomato.

Decorative trellises bring an artistic touch to the garden. Photo courtesy of Sunny Gilbert.

“If you’re going to do it, spend some time thinking about the aesthetics of it as well,” Gilbert said. “I try to not to grow things that I can find in the grocery store.” Gilbert has grown novelties like the Dragon Suhyo cucumber that curls, and a cumbermelon vine with inch-long fruits that look like tiny watermelons.

“When I see a big grass lawn I always think to myself, ‘What a waste,’” Gilbert said.

Cucumbers, tomatoes and kale grown in Sunny Gilbert’s yarden. Photo courtesy of Sunny Gilbert.

Possibilities for pest management

“Growing vegetables in Colorado is really hard,” Rose said. “It’s not just ‘Throw some seeds in the ground and leave them to grow,’ as might be true in other parts of the county. It really does take some real care and attention. I think learning about integrated pest management as a way to work with the pests in the garden without using chemicals is really important.”

Rose recommends using natural pest management tools like introducing ladybugs to eat aphids and companion planting. “To grow wonderful, fresh vegetables in your yard and then cover them with chemicals feels like a bummer to me,” Rose said.

Insulating for the winter

Removing foliage has an impact on the critters below. “There’s all these animals, creatures, and bugs that live in all of this, which is the reason they say to not go and mulch your grass,” Devin Quince said. “What you’re basically doing is killing those beneficial bugs. They live in all of the mess during the winter, and when people go and mulch in the spring, you’re destroying their habitats, and plus you’re killing them. They’re all beneficial. They keep your soil healthy. A bare lawn doesn’t really do anything for anyone.”

The dead foliage is also an added layer of protection against harsh winters. “It’s fall, our attitude is ‘Leave it because it provides insulation,’” Heidi Quince said. “With our wacky climate, if we don’t get a layer of snow, the old growth insulates the heat, so you don’t have as much risk of losing perennials.”

Critters and pollinators 

The Quinces don’t mind when squirrels skim the fruit at the top of their apricot tree. They are happy to provide food for critters.

Gibb plants marigolds and snapdragons along with herbs to attract pollinators. “The bees just go nuts,” Gibb said. “They totally love it. If you don’t want a lot of bees, don’t do it. I’m probably feeding a hive — seven hives.”

Rose allows herbs to go to seed for pollinators to enjoy. She also advises clients who have raised beds to allow them to be permeable from the bottom so worms can come and go.

“We let a lot of our herbs especially go to seed because when they flower they’re not as tasty, but hopefully we’ve harvested a lot up until that moment and then they flower and then all of a sudden bees show up,” Rose said.

Seeds

“Go to the farmer’s market and chat up your local farmer and then go to their farm stand and buy their seedlings, and I think it creates a really nice symbiotic relationship in the local food system,” Rose recommends. Seeds grown over several seasons in a local climate make for plants that are better adapted to survival, she added.

Whether big or small, yardens provide much more than food for their creators: “When I first started this I was intimidated by growing my own garden and succeeding or failing, but that’s the whole part of it — just try and not be so set on having to have an end result,” Kaminski said. “If you don’t eat a tomato out of your garden, it’s okay. Plants are really, really intuitive beings. They will find you and teach you if you’re just patient enough to listen. We don’t all have to be farmers or even gardeners, but I think it’s just so beneficial to be connected to the earth regardless of the way that you do it.”


Resources:
CSU Extension
Water It With Love Landscaping, LLC
MASA Seed Foundation
Denver Water’s Garden In A Box
Denver Urban Gardens
Backyard Boxes
Harlequin’s Gardens
Cure Organic Farm
Dirt Health LLC
The Flower Bin

Author

Zoe Jennings
Zoe Jennings is a freelance writer who is a firm believer that everyone has a story. With degrees in journalism and history from Colorado State University, Zoe served as editor for the arts and culture section of the University’s daily newspaper, The Collegian. She is the author of the creative non-fiction book “The Word on the Yard: Stories from D.O.C. #166054,” a piece about the humanity of those who are incarcerated.

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