Growing food, growing community

I’m proud to grow veggies on my front lawn, and none of my neighbours seem to mind

Front-yard gardening with my 10-year-old.

When I first built my vegetable garden boxes, I was worried I would get some blowback from the neighbours.

That’s because I installed the boxes — four, 16-square-foot wooden rectangles — smack-dab in the middle of my front yard. I thought that someone might complain that I was lowering property values with my unsightly vegetables, or try to enforce some obscure neighbourhood bylaw preventing gardens out front.

Still, I persevered. Mainly I wanted the gardens out front because my front yard gets way more sunlight than the back, making it ideal for growing food. In any case, my kids had already turned the backyard into a soccer field — and I wasn’t thrilled about my precious tomato plants being whacked by a wayward ball.

Putting my garden boxes out front also meant less resource-guzzling grass to maintain. (“Maintain,” I should point out, is a strong word for my lawn-care regime, which involves no watering, fertilizing, or chemicals – mostly making peace with dandelions – and occasionally mowing with a push mower.) By opting out of maintaining a traditional turf lawn, I’m also saving water and reducing the amount of chemicals and pesticides released into the environment. And the only energy required for the push mower is mine.

Another bonus is accessibility. I’m in my front yard more often than I’m in the back, which means that I have several opportunities each day to interact with the garden. On the way out the door — or coming home — it’s easy to pull a few weeds, harvest a zucchini, or notice which beds need watering.

For the same reasons, my kids (and their friends) also connect with the garden more often. They’ll regularly unearth and eat a couple of carrots (they’re not eating any pesticides, and I’m not worried about them ingesting a bit of dirt), or sneak a few cherry tomatoes off a bush. And, really — I’m happy for them to eat as many vegetables as they can.

But when it comes to gardening, my thumbs aren’t particularly green. I don’t know much about growing or maintaining flowers or vegetables. I don’t know the names of most plants or trees. My philosophy tends to be “stick it in the ground and see what happens.” Which means that in order for me to maintain even a semi-successful vegetable garden, that garden needs to be easy.

For that reason, I’m a big fan of square-foot gardening, which is about as easy as it gets for people like me. You build a 4 x 4 foot wooden frame, fill it with a mix of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost, and plant a variety of vegetables in square-foot sections (although I’m more likely to divide a box into quarters, or simply use an entire, 16-square-foot plot for a single crop, like beets). Then you stick the seeds in the ground and see what comes up.

And what comes up, aside from chard, has been community. In the nearly 10 years since I’ve installed the boxes, no one’s said a negative word. In fact, the garden is a constant source of conversation. People walk by with their dogs and stop to chat as I plant beets or pick radishes and ask what’s growing. My neighbours across the street now grow kale and tomatoes in their front beds; when I run out of kale, I have an invitation to pick some of theirs. When I have too many radishes to eat at once, I hand a bunch over the hedge to the folks next door. In the fall, I pickle beets and share the bounty with friends and neighbours. It’s awesome.

Only once did someone ask, “Aren’t you afraid that somebody will steal your vegetables?” It had honestly had never occurred to me anyone would. When I thought about it, though, I realized that, no, I wasn’t afraid. Frankly, if someone needs those veggies enough to actually steal them, then they’re welcome to have them. But no one ever has.

My younger son and I recently replaced the wood frames of two of the beds, using wood donated by a friend. This weekend, I’ll buy beet and kale seeds, maybe dig some new compost into the beds, and plant this year’s crop. I’m sure I’ll chat with some neighbours during the process, and again when I have too many radishes or zucchini.

It’s funny what unexpected benefits can be reaped when you plant a few seeds.


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.

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