Our little town’s gardening group has been buzzing after two of our members — following a neighbor’s anonymous complaint — were notified recently that they might be in violation of a city ordinance against gardening in the “boulevard,” the strip of grass between sidewalk and curb in front of most houses. The issue: our members’ gardens – neat and attractive in both cases – do not actually create visibility problems for those in cars and driveways (a legitimate concern), as the city police chief and the city manager have confirmed. And by one count, these households are just two of many on that side of town alone who could conceivably be cited as being in violation of this ordinance. Luckily, we have a good and community-minded city manager and police force who are eager to work with home gardeners.
But this event does make me ask the question I always seem drawn to ask lately: “what is this really about?” Why do so many people object to the sight of gardens in a front yard (or even a back yard) even when those gardens present no sightline or other hazard? Why do so many people consider even the neatest, best-tended, and most aesthetically pleasing garden “messy,” worthy only to be in the backyard, if anywhere? What accounts for the strange hostility with which some people, amazingly, do still approach food gardens? And why, when we as Americans need to practice household self-sufficiency and sustainability more than ever, are so many of us still hamstrung by unconscious aesthetic preferences we can literally no longer afford — especially since their political and ecological consequences are disastrous?
Led by gardeners and writers like edible-landscaping guru Rosalind Creasy — whose endlessly fascinating 2010 book Edible Landscaping I’ve been curling up with like a novel — and Fritz Haeg (author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn), many Americans are coming around to the idea that we don’t have to keep paying obeisance to a blank strip of grass in front of our houses, just because we’ve inherited that aesthetic from the 1950s. This photo of garden designer Darcy Daniels‘ side yard, as seen in Creasy’s book, is inspiring my next big development of the little strip of garden in my side and front yards I put in this year — a raised bed. The images in these books alone, of beautiful, lively, wildlife-attracting gardens, abuzz with birds and butterflies and neighbors’ conversations, should be enough to allay anyone’s fears that a front-yard garden will inevitably be scruffy or unattractive. Yet too many people living under restrictive homeowners’ association guidelines – or with neighbors who don’t quite get the concept of front-yard gardens – can testify that the objections to those gardens are pervasive.
But after reading Bill McKibben’s EAARTH, which argues that the future of life on a planet distorted away from every previous norm by climate change lies in reduced consumerism and in self-sustenance at the community level, and seeing stories like this (http://grist.org/list/tulsa-authorities-bulldoze-edible-garden-for-being-too-tall/) on the news lately, I feel even more strongly that neither our community nor our world can afford to keep on with our outmoded, static ways of thinking about landscaping as something merely ornamental, featuring non-food-bearing big-box-store annuals clustered politely around a giant tablecloth of prized and heavily maintained lawn. This water- and pesticide-heavy aesthetic of “gardening,” modeled on the golf course and keeping yards essentially unused, has done a lot of damage. But, in my opinion, this is the model of landscaping driving a lot of objections to gardens in people’s minds even when those gardens present no issues of visibility or unattractiveness. And it’s a problem. Because fundamentally it makes your interaction with your yard, or your garden, a hands-off one: mow, spray, cut, forget. Ours is not a world that can afford to impose this type of distance between people and our environment anymore.
Distance — “that thing, or those people, over there have nothing to do with me” — is a way of seeing the world that has real consequences. Think of political decision-making at its worst. Think of war, in which drones and bombers devastate the lives of people thousands of feet below. (The excellent memoir HOUSE OF STONE by the late, lamented Anthony Shadid — which can be ordered through our great local bookstore here — is a recent take on the way domestic lives are warped and wracked by the machinations of distant powers from the nineteenth century to today.) Think of the mountaintops shoved off into streams to reveal the coal that gives us light when, in our houses, we flip on a switch, oblivious of the cushion of other beings on which we ride through every day.
In contrast, a view of the world based in a hands-on view of life — which a garden is a near-unsurpassable way to practice — keeps you grounded and connected in reality, community, responsibility. It’s hard for a gardener to feel otherwise. In HOUSE OF STONE Shadid’s friend walks him past the site of an almond orchard, razed to rows of stumps by Israeli bombs, pointing out the small indelible signs of human-scale devastation. In the back yard of his great-grandfather’s house, Shadid plants jasmine vine and olive trees, which can live to be hundreds of years old. The gardener in me shivers sympathetically at the first, cheers at the second, at its promise of ordinary lives being rebuilt amid political chaos. There is a kinship of those who grow things to feed themselves and plow their own refuse, energy, and care back into the earth. Everywhere. It’s the human kinship, too, if we will only acknowledge it.
As part of a group of community volunteers, I spent the last couple weekends pulling trash out of the river, just as my family used to pick it up off the side of the road near our farm. I was reminded of the moment my ecological awareness, if that isn’t too grandiose a term, first began, in high school, when I saw a bumper sticker that read: “throw it away – where’s ‘away?'”
Not for the first time, I think of the British homefront response during WWII: plant gardens. As quoted in McKibben’s EAARTH: “In the course of the war years, Britain managed to increase food production 91 percent. Small gardens – allotments, the English call them – sprang up everywhere. For example, the wife of the keeper of coins and medals at the British Museum planted rows of beans, peas, onions, and lettuces at the museum’s entrance. Almost seven thousand ‘pig clubs’ sprung up throughout the country, with swine being kept in, among other places, ‘the (drained) swimming pool of the Ladies Carlton Club in Pall Mall.'” Even this toniest of destinations set aside codes of “taste” to get personally involved in the war effort, acknowledging no illusory distance between “over there” and “at home.”
We all make choices. You make yours, I make mine. We are never not involved. It matters. And we all have to make the choice not to keep rolling along obliviously in our illusion that the way we have been doing things is going to keep on being possible, on into infinity. Infinite growth is an illusion. “That’s happening on the other side of the world, it doesn’t matter to me” is an illusion. Luckily, so is “the world’s problems are too big, I can’t do anything about them.” I think Bill McKibben’s right: ours is an era in which a million small choices at the individual and local level will add up to big changes. But we have to do it now. And what better way than to roll up our sleeves and bring forth our own food, out of our own home ground.