Full Frontal Gardening

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Opening essay from Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, Metropolis Books, 2008

The Edible Estates project proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape. Food grown in our front yards will connect us to the seasons, the organic cycles of the earth, and our neighbors. The banal lifeless space of uniform grass in front of the house will be replaced with the chaotic abundance of biodiversity. In becoming gardeners we will reconsider our connection to the land, what we take from it, and what we put in it. Each yard will be a unique expression of its location and of the inhabitant and his or her desires.

Our Planet

Most of us feel like we don’t any have any control over the direction in which our world is headed. As always, the newspapers are full of daily evidence for concern. Unlike the challenges of past generations, however, these struggles are no longer just localized or broadly regional; they are an interlaced web of planetary challenges. How, then, do we respond in the face of the impossible scale of issues such as global energy production, climate change, and the related political aggressions and instabilities that accompany them? One thing we can do is act where we have influence, and in a capitalist society, that would be our private property. Here we have the freedom to create in some small measure the world in which we want to live.

Our Climate

We grow a lawn the same way anywhere in the world, but when we grow our own food we have to start paying attention to where we are. We experience our weather and climate in a personal way: they have a direct impact on us. The subtleties of sun, wind, air, and rain are meaningful.

Our Government

A functioning democracy is predicated upon an informed populace of citizens who are in touch with each other. A democratic society suffers when people are physically out of touch. An Edible Estate can serve to stitch communities back together, taking a space that was previously isolating and turn it into a welcoming forum that re-engages people with one another.

Our City

There was a time when the effect of a town on the land around it was clearly in evidence within a radius of a few miles. For the most part the town depended on the materials, food, trades, and other resources that were available in the immediate region. The detritus of that consumption would stay within that same sphere of influence. Today the entire story of the impact of any city has become invisible because it is global. Cheap factory labor, foreign oil, circuitous water distribution systems, industrialized agriculture, and remote landfills all contribute to a general ignorance of the effects that daily human life has on the planet.

What happens when you graft agriculture onto a city? The more we keep ourselves in touch with the byproducts of our daily lives, the more we are reminded of how it is all connected. Edible Estates puts that evidence back in our cities and streets, back in our face.

Our Street

Edible Estate gardens are meant to serve as provocations on the street. What happens when we share a street with one of these gardens? The front-yard gardeners become street performers for us. Coming out the door to tend their crops they enact a daily ritual for the neighbors. We get to know them better than those who have lawns. We talk to them about how their crops are doing. They often can’t eat everything they are growing, so they offer us the latest harvest of tomatoes or zucchini. We go out of our way to walk past the garden to see what is going on. Just the act of watching a garden grow can have a profound effect. When we observe as seeds sprout, plants mature, and fruit is produced, we can’t help but be drawn in. We become witnesses, and are now complicit and a part of the story.

Our Neighbors

What happens when an Edible Estate garden is not welcomed by the neighbors? Why do some people feel threatened by it? Anarchy, rodents, plummeting property values, willful self-expression, wild untamed nature, ugly decaying plants, and winter dormancy are some of the reasons that have been given. More to the point is a general sense that Edible Estate gardeners have broken some unspoken law of decency. Public tastes still favor conformity when it comes to the front yard, and any sort of deviation from the norm signals a social, if not moral, lapse. The abrupt appearance of such a garden on a street of endless lawns can be surprisingly shocking, but after the neighbors watch it grow in, they often come around. Perhaps the threats evoked by this wild intrusion into the neighborhood will eventually be a catalyst for questions. How far have we come from our the core of our humanity that the act of growing our own food might be considered impolite, unseemly, threatening, radical, or even hostile?

Our House

Private property and in particular the home has become the geographic focus of our society. When we take stock of the standard American single-family residence, it becomes quite clear where the priorities are. It is within the walls of the house that the real investment and life of the residents occur. The land outside the walls typically receives much less attention, and can even become downright unwelcoming. Any activity in the yard will typically happen in back, where there is privacy. We are obsessed with our homes as protective bubbles from the realities around us. Today’s towns and cities are engineered for isolation, and growing food in your front yard becomes a way to subvert this tendency. The front lawn, a highly visible slice of private property, has the capacity to also be public. If we want to reintroduce a vital public realm into our communities, those with land and homes may ask what part of their private domain has public potential.

Our Dirt

Just the act of spending an extended period of time outside with our hands in the dirt is a profoundly deviant act today! There is no rational or practical reason to do it. We can get anything we need at the store, right? The mortgage company refers to the physical house we live in as one of the “improvements” to the property. Pretty landscaping may be considered another improvement. But as far as the bank is concerned, the actual fertility and health of the dirt in our front yards has no economic value. Wouldn’t it be great if a chemically contaminated lawn made a property impossible to sell, while organic gardening and thirty years of composting would dramatically increase our property values?   Alas, today you can chart the exact economic stratum of any residential street based exclusively on the state of its chemically dependent front lawns.

Our Food

In the process of making the Edible Estate gardens I have encountered some interesting reactions from people on the street. Some actually find it strange and a bit unseemly to ingest something that has grown in your yard. Yet most of us don’t think twice before eating something grown under the most mysterious of circumstances on the other side of the world. What you don’t know can’t hurt you; out of sight out of mind. The act of eating is the moment in which we are most intimately connected to the world around us. We ingest into our bodies earthly matter that grew out of organic and environmental cycles happening all the time. We are all at the receiving end of dung and corpses decomposing, rainfall and evaporation, solar radiation, and so forth. What happens when the source of our food is far away and hidden from us? In moving food great distances, we pollute and expend precious energy, but perhaps more important, we lose visible evidence of our humble place in the big food chain.

Our Time

It is easy to romanticize gardening and food production when your life does not depend on what you are able to grow. An Edible Estate can be a lot of work! A lower-maintenance garden might be full of fruit trees and perennials well suited to your climate, but a more ambitious front yard might be full of annual vegetables and herbs that are rotated every season. Either way it demands a certain amount of dedication and time. Do we have enough time to grow our own food? Perhaps a better question is: How do we want to spend the little time that we do have? How about being outside with our family and friends, in touch with our neighbors, while watching with satisfaction as the plants we are tending begin to produce the healthiest local food to be found? It may be harder to defend the time we spend sitting in our cars or watching television.

But for those who just can’t be bothered, what if all the front lawns on an entire street were turned over to urban farming teams? Each street would be lined in a series of diverse crops. The farmers would sell the produce, and give what was left over to the families whose yards they tend. When buying a house, depending on your taste, you could decide if you wanted to live on artichoke avenue or citrus circle or radish road.

Our Modest Monument

Edible Estates has no conventionally monumental intentions; it is a relatively small and modest intervention on our streets. The gardens are just beginning when they are planted and they continue to evolve. With just one season of neglect some gardens may disappear entirely. Politicians, architects, developers, urban citizens, we all crave permanent monuments that will give a sense of place and survive as a lasting testament to ourselves and our time. We were here! These monuments have their place, but their capacity to bring about meaningful change in the way we live is quite limited. A small garden of very modest means, humble materials, and a little effort can have a radical effect on the life of a family, how they spend their time and relate to their environment, whom they see, and how they eat. This singular local response to global issues can become a model. It can be enacted by anyone in the world and can have a monumental impact.

Edible Estates regional prototype gardens will ultimately be established in nine cities in nine very different parts of the United States. An adventurous family in each town will offer their front lawn as a working prototype for the region. They will dare to defy the sweeping conformity of their neighborhood’s green-lined streets. Working together with the family and additional helpers, we will remove the front lawn and replace it with an edible landscape. This highly productive garden will be designed to respond to the unique characteristics of the site, the needs and desires of the owner, the community and its history, and especially the local climate and geography. Each of the nine regional prototype gardens will be sponsored by a local art institution and developed in partnership with a horticultural, agricultural, or community gardening organization. Each garden will be planted in the spring or early summer. A photographer and videographer will visit weekly to tell the story of its first season of growth for later public exhibitions and presentations. With the modest gesture of reconsidering the use of our small individual private yards, Edible Estates takes on our relationship with our neighbors, the source of our food, and our connection to the natural environment.

Edible Estates is an attack on the front lawn and everything it has come to represent!

Edible Estates is an ongoing series of projects to replace the front lawn with edible garden landscapes responsive to culture, climate, context and people!

Edible Estates reconciles issues of global food production and urbanized land use with the modest gesture of a small domestic garden!

Edible Estates is a provocation, a call to arms and a radical intervention on the banal, repressive streets of zombie lawn-lined monotony!

Edible Estates is nothing new, growing our own food is the first thing we did when we stopped being nomadic and started being “civilized”!

Edible Estates is a practical food producing initiative, a place-responsive landscape design proposal, a scientific horticultural experiment, a conceptual land-art project, a defiant political statement, a community out-reach program and an act of radical gardening!

– Fritz Haeg, 2008

{excerpt from “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn”, published by Metropolis Books, 2008}