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Above: Raised beds in the Northeast Portland garden of Ingrid Nylen and Mark Meininger are made of sheet steel trimmed with an angle-iron cap for sturdiness built to last.

Oregon is in the forefront of a quiet revolution taking place in front yards across the country. Homeowners are rethinking their relationship with the front lawn. 

The American love affair with grass dates to the mid 19th century when front lawns were popularized in the designs of landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmstead. The invention of the lawn mower in 1830 helped democratize the front lawn. Current urban and suburban landscapes in North America still reflect a post-World War II design tradition where cookie-cutter houses surrounded by sweeping lawns welcomed GI’s home.

Innovative gardeners inspired by the environmental movement in the 1970s began shedding the yoke of tradition and imagining front gardens as canvases for personal expression. Radical gardeners began removing or shrinking lawns to make way for seating areas, terraces, art, vibrant plants and edibles. Today’s front gardens are spaces where gardeners expose their personalities and sense of style to the public, and for many it is where they grow fruit and vegetables — a fundamental change in the status quo.


 

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Above: Flat bar steel edging supports raised beds in the Northeast Portland garden of Kristan and Ben Sias.

Below: The combination of straight lines and circles in the Sias vegetable garden references the classic potager. The use of the flat bar steel adds a modern, industrial look.

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Historically vegetable gardens were relegated to the back garden — out of sight of prying eyes. That more and more of us are planting dinner in our front yards isn’t surprising given interest in the politics of food, eating locally and sustainably, reducing the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the rising cost of produce and fruit. Growing edibles in the front yard is the only option if your back garden is shady or too small.

Rebellious and practical at the same time, Portland garden designer Darcy Daniels removed her driveway to make space for an edible garden. Her back garden was too shady for vegetables and the only space on her small urban lot with full sun was a narrow driveway. Raised beds and large containers overflowing with espaliered fruit trees, berries and an assortment of vegetables bask in the sun and reflected heat of the house wall where cars once reigned supreme. While experimenting with edibles on a small scale at home she also tended a plot in a community garden and helped a friend with a large-scale food production garden.

Daniels’ hands-on experience cultivating edibles combined with her modern, functional design aesthetic comes together in front gardens she crafts for like-minded clients. For a client who enjoyed cooking, growing her own vegetables was imperative. Her epiphany came when Daniels convinced her that underutilized space in the front yard was the perfect place for a vegetable garden. How edible gardens present to the neighborhood is important, as they are clearly visible from sidewalk and street. Daniels says she is “motivated to design edible front gardens that dispel the myth that vegetable gardens are eyesores.”

The hallmarks of gardens created by Daniels are strong lines, geometric shapes, curves, raised beds and interesting materials. A sense of order pervades her designs with raised beds laid out in patterns that are crisp and clean. The geometric shapes and height of raised beds constructed of steel, stone, wood or composite add visual texture to gardens year round. In winter those forms add seasonal appeal.


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Naturally rot-and-insect-resistant cedar beds with a trellis for supporting climbers are sited in full sun in the Southwest Portland garden of Jackie and Ken Ostrowski.

During the design process Daniels asks herself  “if she is tending to the fundamental needs of the gardener and the edibles.” Raised beds fulfill both criteria. Soil heats up more quickly in raised beds making it possible to plant earlier in the spring. They also eliminate constant kneeling and bending over, making sowing seeds, planting and tending the garden easier and more pleasurable for the gardener.

Pathways define the lines and shapes of beds and borders as they are seen from the street and sidewalk. Daniels employs a number of different surfacing materials based on budgetary considerations and aesthetics. Grass walkways are a low-budget option but require maintenance and may not withstand the rigors of rainy winters. Wood chips eventually break down but are cost effective. Compacted gravel aids drainage and is easily maintained with a rake. Pavers and stone are the most expensive on the cost continuum but last a lifetime.

Daniel’s cutting-edge front garden designs offer food for thought about personal commitments to growing our own food in less traditional spaces.


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Starting the transformation

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Pedestrians are surrounded on one side by the productive vegetable patch and by exuberant perennials and grasses on the other when they walk past the Nylen/Meininger garden.
  • Check with your Homeowner’s Association before tearing out turf to build a vegetable garden. Regulations may restrict what you can do. 
  • If you are unsure of the consequences of planting vegetables in lieu of a front lawn consult with your local governing body. Some towns and cities have codes that mandate the ratio of lawn to plants and the kinds of plants that may be planted in front gardens.
  • Don’t excavate until you check with local utilities about locating gas, electric and utility lines.
  • Design with simplicity in mind and avoid too many competing elements.
  • Don’t make raised beds too wide: You should be able to comfortably reach into the center of the bed from either side. You can sit on the edges of your beds if they are 18-20 inches tall.
  • Vegetables are most productive when they are watered regularly. Hand watering is an option if time isn’t an issue but drip systems or soaker hoses set on timers are convenient and water wise.
  • Maximize space by growing peas, beans, cucumbers and smaller squash vertically using tepee trellises, tuteurs and fences as support.

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