Thursday, June 10, 2010

Edible Estates

Cover of Edible Estates, second editionI don't know about your neighborhood, but mine is sprouting front boulevard vegetable gardens at an amazing pace. With that in mind, I just finished Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg, a garden book without being exactly a garden book. It's part polemic and part pole beans.

For the past five years or so, Haeg has been instigating front-yard vegetable gardens, in cahoots with art museums in cities across the country. Regular citizens volunteer their front 40 (or 30 or 20) feet, and with the help of Haeg and some volunteers, their lawns give way to strawberries and tomatoes.

The book opens with a number of essays by big names in the urban food and new urbanism world: Will Allen of Growing Power, Michael Pollan, Diana Balmori. One important focus of the essays and the book in general is the high-input, low-return cultural phenomenon known as the American front lawn. Here are a few quotes.

Fritz Haeg:

The front lawn was born of vanity and decadence, under the assumption that fertile land was infinite. The English estate owner in Tudor times would demonstrate his vast wealth by not growing food on the highly visible fecund property in front of his residence. (p. 16)

Once that fertile farmland in front of the English estate had been turned into a sterile monoculture, where did the cultivation of food happen? Out of view, of course... This was perhaps the beginning of the notion that plants that produce food are ugly and should no be seen. Today the idea has played itself out at an industrial global scale, with our produce grown on the other side of the planet. (p. 17)

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. (p. 25)
Will Allen:
The greatest danger of winning [the good/local food] revolution too soon and too easily is that we will find ourselves being seduced by the blandishments of Big Ag with claims that it has become local when it has merely become slightly less distant; when it claims that it has become healthier by merely becoming a bit less dangerous; when it claims to have become sustainable when it has merely become marginally less exploitative of the land and the people who work it. (p. 30)
Michael Pollan, in an essay called Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns:
...we superimpose our lawns on the land. And since the geography and climate of much of this country are poorly suited to turfgrasses (none of which is native), this can't be accomplished without the tools of twentieth-century industrial civilization -- its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery. For we won't settle for the lawn that will grow here; we want the one that grows there, that dense springy supergreen and weed-free carpet, that Platonic ideal of a lawn.... (p. 42)

For if lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery. (p. 43)
Michael Foti, part of the second family to establish an edible estate with Haeg's help, blogged about the process and the garden: of the things that is most striking about the garden when you first see it is how open and close to the sidewalk it is. How vulnerable it seems. There's no fences or anything to keep anybody out. It really makes you aware of how most lawns function as kind of a buffer between public and private space. In a way, it sort of illuminates the value of a lawn to most people -- not worth stealing, and useful only to the extent that it keeps people away, or doesn't need to be worried about. (p. 81)

If I slack off on the maintenance [of the garden], it will turn into an eyesore very quickly. I think that is a valid concern, but do people really prefer their neighborhoods be maintained by low-paid workers whose main concern is efficiency rather than beauty? I think it's a vicious cycle. The more utilitarian and fuctional these spaces become, the easier they are to maintain, but also the easier they are to ignore and neglect. Ultimately, the upkeep of a lawn becomes nothing more than a kind of tax on the homeowner that he only pays out of some sense of obligation, or self-interest in neighborhood property values. (p. 81)
Plus lots of nice before, during, and after photos. It's inspiring and fun, so if you have any interest in gardening or growing your own food, it's worth a look.

An afterthought: The section on the Los Angeles-area front-yard garden opens with this stunning quote from Le Corbusier (1935):
The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work... enough for all. (quoted on page 73)

1 comment:

Linda Myers said...

Last summer we tore out half our lawn and built raised garden beds and a trellis for fruit trees and grapes. This spring we planted broccoli and spinach and, just as it finishes up, we rejoice in the peas and lettuce. Last week we called the yard guy and told him we no longer need his services. We have three tiny patches of grass now, just enough to mow for enjoyment - and trees of apple and pear and cherry, and raspberries and blueberries.

I love this urban gardening stuff. When I'm in the yard I feel like I live in the countryside. When I make a spinach salad with our own spinach I feel like I'm cheating the market!