“Farm-to-table” cooking is popping up everywhere, from restaurants to hospitals. In the summer of 2015, as I limbered up a new hip walking my Newport/Westport/Red Oak neighborhood, I realized it had even spread to my neighbors’ front yards.
Right across the street from my house, Anna Williams and James Roush, with at least moral support from toddler Linnaea, had turned half their front yard into a comb-shaped garden: a series of rectangular beds off a grass path that leads from their front door to the sidewalk. They started in 2014, their second full year in the house, and did all the work themselves: no rototiller, no hired hand, certainly no Roundup, just them. Mostly, just new mother Anna laying down cardboard and straw to kill the grass. Then, moving hundreds of rocks to outline the beds. Then, moving composted soil into each bed. Did I mention the garden is on about a 10-15 degree slope? All this work was done by June last year, when Anna could plant the garden. By the time I was walking again, the garden was bountiful: corn, many types of squash, peppers, beans, lettuces, potatoes, leeks, broccoli, kale, turnips, radishes, carrots, several herbs, and more. Rabbits and deer took their share, and some seeds just went in too late. Even so, Anna says that the garden, and fruit from her in-laws, provided well over half their food for the last year.
Last summer, Anna came to a CivCity gathering on my deck. We heard a talk by the group’s founder, Mary Morgan, and discussed how to increase the breadth and depth of civic engagement in Ann Arbor. We batted about many ideas, but I don’t recall anyone mentioning what Anna told me the other day: “Having a front-yard garden is the best way to meet neighbors or people just passing through the neighborhood. They come with their dogs, their kids, and want to talk about the garden.”
Now I’m one of those passersby who talk with neighbors about their gardens. A little up the hill on Newport, Bev Ostrowiecki and Ray Siciak told me they put their garden in front after frustrating attempts to grow in their shady back and side yards. A further impetus, Ray says, was the “impossible parking situation at the Farmers Market.” This summer they boasted thirty tomato plants, with tall graceful dill volunteers waving beside them, tomatillos, several types of hot peppers, beets, beans to dry, Japanese green onions, and more. They report no animal problems. A rabbit sits in the grass and simply views the garden, Bev says. A deer may chomp on a tender tip, but when Bev and Ray see the first bite, they emulsify garlic, add it to water, and toss the odiferous mix around the garden. “Deer B Gone.”
Fred and Iris Gruhl, at the corner of Westport and Newport, grow a wide variety of flowers (roses surrounded by lavender, daylilies, Russian sage, daisies, sedum, echinacea) and a few vegetables (asparagus, tomatoes, and beans). What is extraordinary is their carefully fenced patch of pawpaw trees, grown from seed. Fred and Iris love the trees’ shape and have a couple of almost full-grown and adolescent pawpaws in their front yard.
Aaron Wolf and Gretchen Keppel-Aleks next door established their front-yard garden last year. They succeeded in keeping deer out with a three-foot wire fence augmented with two rows of heavy twine each a foot apart, for a total of almost six feet. This year they expanded the garden, and what’s outside the fence is just as untouched as what’s within: several varieties of squash, beans, tomatoes, and eggplant.
So, what about front-yard gardens and civic engagement? The gardeners all agree that they interact more with their neighbors now. Around the corner on Red Oak, there are several “Food is Free” stands (take what you want) to go with front-yard gardens. Each garden reflects not only the culinary interests of the owner but also an individual balance of flowers and food, and of course a wide range of tolerance (or not) for weeds and a certain “natural order.” And the connection is not just conversation. Aaron and Gretchen have a young pawpaw from Fred and Iris; Bev and Ray share their surplus produce with neighbors. Probably not quite what Mary Morgan would consider true civic engagement, but getting neighbors more connected is surely a start.