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FEATURE

Overcoming Front-Yard Veggiephobia

Steven Biggs

Overcoming Front-Yard Veggiephobia | Steven Biggs

Photos courtesy Steven Biggs

 

 

STEVEN BIGGS is a writer specializing in farm, food, and garden. Along with cardoons, one of his more memorable food experiences is parsnip wine. He lives in Toronto with his cardoon-sceptic wife, Shelley, three children, and a bunch of fig trees. Find out about his books on vegetable gardening, gardening with children, and growing figs at www.stevenbiggs.ca.

THERE WAS A LOOK OF SURPRISE on my wife Shelley’s face as she took her first—and last—bite. No doubt my eyebrows shot upward, too. The flavour was not at all what we expected. The cookbook had described it as “a bit like celery” or “similar to artichoke.” One online posting described the flavour as “robust.” I should have heeded that as a warning. My first attempt at cooking cardoon stands out in my mind as one of the most revolting mouthfuls of food that I’ve ever ungracefully returned to my plate.

This was unfortunate, because my cardoon plants were stunning. The 4-foot-high, grey-leaved beauties arched over my driveway like sentries standing guard. Somebody I didn’t know even took the time to ask a neighbour for my telephone number and left me a message inquiring about them: “I must know the name of that Promethean plant in your front yard!”

As a writer, I was delighted to learn a new word: Promethean (bold and daring). As a gardener, I was heartened to think my new front-yard veggie garden interested someone. I had actually worried that I would offend neighbours in our shrub-, lawn-, and driveway-shrouded neighbourhood. That telephone message made me feel a lot better.

I dug up the front lawn and replaced it with veg, fruit bushes, and edible flowers after I attended a neighbourhood meeting about turning a vacant, overgrown, city-owned lot into a community vegetable garden. I thought that the community garden was a good idea, as I happen to love growing vegetables, and that it could be a great space for non-gardeners and gardeners alike to enjoy growing food. Most of the neighbours at the meeting were keen, but a couple people worried that vegetables might be unsightly and opposed the idea. If the community garden went ahead, they hoped the City would at least hide it behind a fence.

“An attractive front yard full of edibles (including tomatoes) would be my statement against the banishment of veg to the backyard.”

That kind of sentiment—I jokingly call it veggiephobia—wasn’t new. I recalled my dad telling me that when he and Mom bought their house in the 1970s, the next-door neighbour, Jenny, was relieved to learn that they weren’t going to do anything out of the ordinary … like grow tomatoes in the front yard. In her mind, flowers belonged in the front yard and tomatoes belonged in the back. Mom and Dad did eventually transform most of that front yard into garden, but they never did plant tomatoes in it. As I thought about the meeting, I wondered if I should. Surely, times had changed.

An attractive front yard full of edibles (including tomatoes) would be my statement against the banishment of veg to the backyard. But I was slow to start sod busting. I was still pondering it when Shelley put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Honey, I think the neighbours know you’re eccentric, so you might as well make that veggie garden out front.”

So began the transformation. Turf gave way to tomatoes, peppers, Malabar spinach, and a rainbow of chard. The ‘Trombetta’ summer squash grew up the spruce tree. Sunflowers gave seed, and nasturtiums and daylilies gave edible flowers. For fruit we had Nanking cherries, serviceberries, and honeyberries. And I had a tray of cardoon seedlings that I had grown for the first time that year, so I planted them all along the driveway, not knowing what to expect. The garden thrived.

Because my office overlooks my front yard, I often saw passers-by stopping to look. When I was out working in the garden, people stopped to chat. Franka, our neighbour, thanked me for planting the garden. Gloria, who walked the neighbourhood daily, always gave me a hug if she saw me out front.

“I’m glad I took the leap from grass to edibles. It’s fed me and my family well, and been a great way to meet new people.”

I like to recount the story of my first foray into front yard edibles and cardoon cuisine when I give gardening talks. After one of my presentations, a man came up to me and said, “I’m a chef—I can help you!” He advised changing the water part way through boiling, and salting the water to pull out bitterness. (I’ve since learned that when growing, a cardoon plant is best blanched—i.e., stems wrapped in cardboard or newspaper for a couple of weeks—but I don’t have the heart to cloak my charming cardoons in cardboard!)

I still don’t care for boiled cardoon. Deep-frying fixes many things, including the “robust” flavour of cardoon. Breaded is best. And a garlicky dip on the side is nice.

In the end, that city-owned lot became the Parkview Neighbourhood Garden in Toronto, ON. It’s been a big success. In 2013, the City acquired and demolished an adjacent house to expand the garden, and it continues to thrive.

As for my own front yard, I’m glad I took the leap from grass to edibles. It’s fed me and my family well, and been a great way to meet new people. This year, Jenny would be pleased, as there are lots of flowers and no tomatoes. I haven’t had a change of heart about front-yard veg. I just happen to love growing things in new spaces. So, for now, most of the front-yard veg has migrated to my garage rooftop and new wicking raised beds in the backyard. But the cardoons are still there. This summer I will dine on red-blushed stems of ‘Rouge d’Alger’. And, yes, I will deep-fry them.

Front-Yard Veggie Tips

Expect Interruptions

When you’re budgeting time to work in your front-yard veggie garden, allow extra time in case neighbours stop to chat. When I garden out front I often accomplish less than when I garden in my backyard—because neighbours out for a walk stop to say hello.

Turf Your Turf

I removed some of the grass in my front yard with a spade, but I got tired of digging so for parts of the yard where I wasn’t planning to immediately grow anything deep rooted, I just smothered the grass with cardboard that I covered with a few inches of soil and compost.

Use Veg as Your Palette

Leafy greens give you lots of opportunity to be creative and design with colour and texture. Chard comes in a rainbow of stunning colours. Kale comes in many different leaf textures and colours. Don’t be afraid to combine veg with flowers so that you can harvest both flowers and food. Who says you can’t plant zinnias and parsley side by side? Or maybe plant edible flowers such as nasturtiums and daylilies.

Try Something New

I love recreating the garden space each year. What was a bean teepee one year became a tangle of tomatoes then next; and then a circle of strawberry popcorn plants the following year. And at the moment, that very same spot is occupied by an obscure fruit called a medlar.

Have Fun Failing

Most good gardeners have failures (even if they don’t talk about them!). One of my more memorable crop failures was the year the kale patch developed a rot that made my yard smell like an outhouse. Another year the beautiful little red peppers that I planted by the sidewalk turned out to be mouth-searingly hot … and I quickly harvested them before any children walking by tasted them and got third-degree burns!

Be Prepared to Share

I’ve lost entire crops of beautiful red leafy amaranth to rabbits. The robins move in quickly once the Saskatoon berries are ripe. And I see kids munching on the Nanking cherries. (I hope it inspires them to grow something one day.) Overall, I don’t end up having to share much of my harvest—and I get a lot more than if it was a grass-covered front yard.

 

STEVEN BIGGS is a writer specializing in farm, food, and garden. Along with cardoons, one of his more memorable food experiences is parsnip wine. He lives in Toronto with his cardoon-sceptic wife, Shelley, three children, and a bunch of fig trees. Find out about his books on vegetable gardening, gardening with children, and growing figs at www.stevenbiggs.ca.

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