Lawnless and loving it
Replacing front lawns with vegetable gardens is catching on Front-yard vegetable gardens catching on
Bill Bodnar finds that giving directions to his house—in a tidy court off of Hooker Oak Avenue—has gotten easier lately. “You can’t miss it—it’s the house without a lawn,” he quips. Last year, Bodnar decided to kill his lawn and plant fruits and vegetables instead.
“I stopped watering [the lawn] in probably June or July so it died pretty fast,” he said recently. One year later, Bodnar’s front yard sports multiple fruit trees and ample space for his sprawling spaghetti squashes, red baking pumpkins, artichokes, Bidwell casabas, and other edibles.
Across town, former Chico Mayor Karl Ory, his wife, Linda, and their 25-year-old daughter Kate ripped out sprawling ivy, suffocated a patch of grass, and removed a dead tree from the front yard of a home they purchased last year off of Fifth Avenue. The Ory family planted a vegetable garden instead. “The boxes were not yet unpacked, and my wife said, ‘We’re putting in the garden first,’” Karl recalled.
Front-yard vegetable gardens are popping up all over Chico, planted by gardeners frustrated with water-hungry lawns and rising food prices. For many gardeners, the well-kept green lawn, once an American status symbol, has lost its appeal.
“The lawn area, it wasn’t an area where you’d spend a lot of time,” explained Bodnar. “I don’t need a lawn. I like to grow things.”
Chapmantown resident Tammara Askea recently ripped out her weedy front lawn.
“I had the goal of doing an edible garden,” Askea said, as her front-yard chickens flapped their wings in a small coop next to her carport. “I don’t like to mow. … I’m doing it for water conservation, to be green, be organic. And, there’s the benefit to have food for your family.”
Within a three-block radius of Askea’s overflowing garden are a number of other front-yard vegetable gardens. Armando Villegas ripped out hedges along his driveway to plant Fresno peppers and tomatoes. A Hmong family’s expansive garden takes over the parking lot of their apartment building. And a Laotian grandmother’s front-yard corn reaches almost to the second story of their Victorian home. Khan, one of the residents of the home, watches his septuagenarian mother garden every day in their front yard. “We don’t have any money. We don’t want to buy food,” Khan said, so they grow food in every open space available on their property.
Killing lawns is an “environmental statement,” said Chico landscape architect Eve Werner. Most of the clients of her business, Eve’s Garden Design, want to incorporate edibles into their gardens, Werner said.
“It’s the times right now,” she explained. Werner typically kills lawns in her clients’ front yards by laying down clear plastic sheeting for several weeks in a process called “solarizing,” whereby the heat of the sun and lack of water kill the grass.
Brian and Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper, of the local permaculture landscape company Gaia Creations (www.gaiacreationsecoland.com), prefer to lay down cardboard and top it with straw, thus choking the lawn underneath. Werner also uses this method in shadier areas.
“A 10-by-10 plot of grass in Chico uses … between 100,000 and 500,000 gallons of drinking water a year,” offered Brian. “None of it is nonpotable, none is reclaimed—that’s drinking water.” He calls turf lawn “green cancer,” and is happy to see that, in Chico, “keeping up with the Joneses is disappearing” when it comes to having a green, mowed front lawn.
While Chico is embracing the front-yard food movement, other neighborhoods across the country have had issues with residents who are not interested in seeing squash and corn instead of a neatly mowed lawn. In 2007, Sacramento had to change a long-standing ordinance that forbade vegetables in front yards, after a neighbor complained about a front-yard vegetable garden, according to www.sacgardens.org. Eco-activists worked with the gardener to make the act of growing tomatoes in a front yard legal, through a revision in the city’s municipal code, but not before that garden was heavily doused in the herbicide Round Up in the middle of the night by an unknown person.
This summer, Oak Park, Mich., resident Julie Bass faced 93 days in jail after refusing to remove her raised vegetable beds from her front lawn. Local authorities, responding to a neighbor’s complaint, had determined that the garden was not in line with city code, which requires front yards to be planted with “suitable” plant material (see http://tinyurl.com/veginfront). In July, after the story sparked articles by numerous media outlets, such as the Washington Post, Time magazine and the Huffington Post, Oak Park officials dropped charges.
Luckily for gardeners, Chico is more laid-back. Raul Gonzalez, a code-enforcement officer with the city of Chico, confirmed that Chico’s municipal code does not address the appearance of front-yard gardens, as long as plants don’t create a fire hazard or obstruct vehicle visibility as cars pass by. City code also does not specify which plant material is suitable.
“I’m always in my garden, but [before] I was always in the back yard. Now I’m in the front, and people talk a lot more,” said Bodnar. “The neighbors love it. I’ve gotten incredible feedback.”
The Orys—who lived in Washington, D.C. for a couple of years before moving back to town recently—missed the community aspect of D.C.’s stoop culture, and hoped that their front-yard veggie garden in Chico would spur on community.
“Because you’re out on the street [in D.C.], people talk to you whenever you’re out on your stoop, and we were kind of after that,” Karl said of the motivation for planting their vegetable garden in the sunniest corner in front of their house. Now he’s meeting all his neighbors. The Orys’ next-door neighbor even went so far as to trim his tree back to allow for more sun in their vegetable garden.
A small patch of grass still remains in their front yard—but not for long. The Orys intend on repeating the process of laying down black plastic and straw over the grass and building more garden boxes.
Front-yard vegetable gardens, it seems, are quite useful. As Brian Ladwig-Cooper put it: “If you’re not a goat, you can’t eat the grass.”