Monday, August 1, 2016

An Unlikely Garden

A few years ago, at our former home, I had decided that we should really attempt to grow a little vegetable garden in our backyard. We didn't have a lot of space to do so because the yard was almost completely covered in shade, but we managed to section off an area and used whiskey barrels as planters for an experiment in growing our own food.
The experiment was somewhat successful, but at least three-quarters of what we attempted to grow never made it into actual food. We found some success with spinach in the spring and bell peppers in the summer, but beyond that, it kind of all fell apart. I chalked it up to not having a green thumb and figured we just weren't meant to have a vegetable garden.

After moving into our current home about a year and a half ago, we quickly realized that growing anything in our backyard, food-wise or other, would be impossible as it sees only about an hour total of very late day sun. I was not interested in a repeat of what had happened prior, and I knew that sun was likely the biggest issue we'd had in that location.

The front yard of our new home, however, was a glowing food-beacon of promise. There is a lot of real estate available in this space and absolutely no shade at any point in the day until the very late hours of afternoon. My only concern was the neighborhood and the thought that perhaps some neighbors would find such a thing unsightly.

But, we do not have a neighborhood association and although we weren't looking to create enemies in neighbors, we figured it is our yard to do with as we please. Since there are not city laws to forbid it and no association to say we couldn't, we figured this space would be our future garden. So, last summer, our first summer here, we began preparation in the yard, digging up the grass (that was actually mostly dead-weeds that had been mowed) and preparing raised boxes for garden beds.

Of course, neighbors became curious as to what it was we were doing because the yard was a mess of progress for the entire spring and summer in 2015. I have no doubt many of them shook their heads wondering what these two new-to-the-neighborhood youngsters (to our neighbors we are definitely "youngsters" as the majority are into their 70's and beyond) were doing tearing up their yard and seemingly leaving it in such disarray.

My biggest neighbor-concern was the house directly next door. They have maintained a perfectly manicured space the entire time we have lived here, with a perfectly-groomed-at-all-times yard consisting of a deep-green colored lawn with exactly zero weeds and a precisely arranged flower bed (also somehow entirely weed-free) around their house.  They spend their days working diligently to maintain this yard, but I was concerned that they would disapprove of our choice of garden in the front.

Preparations began last summer to ease the neighbors in, sharing often our plans for the yard. Conversations consistently ended with, "and of course we will share the veggies with you too!" hoping that it would soften the news. The neighbors next door are perhaps the sweetest couple I've met in a very long time, but I have had experience with meticulous yard-folk in the past and they can be very particular about what is acceptable as front yard landscaping. I could never quite tell from their expressions and reactions if they were accepting of what was to come, or if they were cursing us under their breath. Perhaps it was a little of both.

In reality, we really aren't farmer/gardener sorts of people in our household. Yes, we'd love to reap the benefits of fresh food at our doorstep, but neither of us has a ton of experience with growing food successfully or even unsuccessfully. But, as with most things we've done in life, the only way to learn is to research and then try it out to see what happens. I know I've always learned better by doing, so we were jumping into this garden hoping for the best, but realizing it may very well end up as a bunch of flower beds or other greenery if we failed.

Beyond having fresh vegetables and fruit to consume during the summer and early fall, my hope with planting the garden in the front was to provide an opportunity to chat with neighbors. Most people seem to keep to themselves and rarely do we see people on the street stopping to talk to one another. It isn't that they're unfriendly, but I had hopes that having to tend to the garden in the front would provide an opportunity for others to stop by and ask how things were coming along and hopefully start conversations.

Frankly, I was concerned about whether we could even manage to keep a vegetable garden alive after our prior experience, but we felt better prepared to deal with set up and maintenance this round and went to work creating a drip system that would allow for better watering, prepared better soil for growing, and chose a variety of plants so that at least some of them would (hopefully) succeed. I told myself that this current spring and summer would be an experiment, simply to see what would grow.
I was thrilled that something was growing in the garden early in the season
Our early success was with spinach; however, we have little appropriate weather for growing in the spring and the spinach quickly bolted (making it bitter and no longer usable) in the heat and we were giving it away left and right just prior to its end.
We were successful with growing red leaf, head, romaine, and a 'greens mix' of lettuces through late spring and early summer
A variety of lettuces also did well and provided several summer salads for us and for friends and neighbors who were willing to try out our experiment. As with the spinach, when the weather really heated up, the lettuce became bitter and no longer edible though. While we'd been enjoying our lettuce and spinach, I wasn't sure if any of the other plants would make it.

We had planted a variety of other items including: potato, jalapeño and a few other hot peppers, bell pepper, three varieties of tomato, strawberries, green onion, broccoli, three varieties of cucumber, celery, two varieties of melon, pumpkin, kale, as well as a few herbs in a narrower but taller raised bed.

We had considered growing zucchini squash, but hadn't had the best luck with it in the past and it tends to be something that takes over the garden in my past limited experience, so we decided against it.

Slowly, something started to happen. It was gradual and I almost forgot that it was one of the reasons for planting the garden at all, but community started to form. Neighbors began to walk over to say hello. Walkers stopped to ask about containers or watering. People driving by would park, get out, walk over and have conversations as I was weeding or pulling off bits for a meal. It was amazing!
Both the lettuce and spinach were dying off at this point in late June/early July, and everything else was still quite small. I wondered if anything else would survive long enough to turn into food at all.
Granted, the garden didn't look great, but it was bringing out people who we had rarely or never spoken to for conversation. I always offered up some of what was available to anyone who stopped over. Some accepted, others were hesitant. Some even refused entirely, but still came back for conversation at later times, and many accepted the offer upon second or third visit.

The melons and the pumpkins we had planted I was sure would never grow. A few weeks after they'd gone into the ground, I'd had a conversation with a friend who stated that both are difficult to grow if the soil is wrong. Not being very well versed in vegetable garden matters, and after seeing the leaves of the plants at this point,turning yellow and brown, I was convinced they wouldn't survive. I did my best to tend to them, knowing that we were likely in for a yard full of empty garden beds.
The beginnings of celery and pumpkin, just before they started to really turn yellow and brown and appear as though they were near-death. The melons looked even worse than these at this point. I had also planted a couple of flowers in each of the boxes, hoping that it would bring bees to pollinate. Even the flowers seemed to be dying though.
As it happened, one of the three varieties of cucumber I'd planted turned out to actually be zucchini squash. This was discovered one day as I was whining to Sam about the lack of growth in the garden. He had gone out to see how things were coming along after work one day and said upon his return, "You know there's a large cucumber growing in there, right? It's under all the leaves."

"What?!" I responded, "Something is actually growing?"

I hurried out to take a look for myself and sure enough there was a very large cucumber growing. Except, I was pretty certain it wasn't a cucumber.

"I don't think that's a cucumber," I said hesitantly. "The skin looks exactly like zucchini."

I pulled it off as it was about 6 inches in diameter and decided to give it a taste. "Yep, zucchini," I nodded, as if reassuring myself that I wasn't entirely crazy. "Definitely not cucumber."

I'm sure it's very easy to confuse the two plants when they are small, so I've no doubt it was simply mislabeled, but man alive, that was a very large zucchini squash I had on my hands. Food was actually growing!
A new crop of zucchini is popping up. This one is still quite small compared to those that have been pulled off thus far in the season. In the lower section of the photo, just right of the middle, a small lemon cucumber can also be seen maturing.
A few days later, I wandered out to check on things and took a peek under the leaves again and there were multiple large zucchini appearing as if by magic. At this same moment, our next door neighbor came over to say hello.

"Your garden is looking so nice!" she exclaimed. "Those." she said, pointing to the jalapeños, "They are looking lovely. You must have quite the green thumb."
I couldn't help but giggle inside about the green thumb comment as I seem to kill nearly everything plant-based that we attempt to grow, and I was still unsure if I should take this comment about the garden looking nice at face value or if she and her husband were actually displeased about the vegetables starting to take over the front. They had politely refused each of my vegetable offerings in the past, but I decided to try one more time.

"Would you like some?" I offered. "I have jalapeño and salsa peppers, if you'd like to take some home."

"Oh, could I?" she responded softly. "That would be wonderful!"

I couldn't help but smile both outside and in.

"Is that kale you have growing back there?" she inquired in her soft-spoken way as she pointed to one of the boxes a few feet away.

"Yeah, it is. I wasn't sure it would grow, but it seems to be doing pretty well. Would you like some of that too?" I asked. "It's getting a little out of hand and I need to give some away."

She nodded and I went to get a container for her to take home her small stash. We spoke briefly about how we cook various items and I told her that both she and her husband were welcome to anything they'd like from the garden. She thanked me and returned home.

I let out a sigh of relief and ran inside to Sam.

"I think the neighbors might actually be okay with the garden!" I exclaimed bursting through the door. "I just gave them a few peppers and some kale and it seemed to go well."

I was aware that I was overly thrilled about this, but it was nice to be able to share what we had with those around us. Sam was not as elated as I had been, but he smiled and nodded in approval, if for no other reason than to appease me in my excited state.
The pumpkins forming are numerous and one (unseen here) is already larger than a basketball.
Today, those sad, dying pumpkin and melon plants are actually flourishing. The two very small pumpkin plants that I thought would never survive, managed to come back and began to spread out, forming flowers as they grew. Slowly, small gourds began to appear and today there are a number of pumpkins continuing to expand on the vine.
The green onion is sprouting up nice and tall, and is smelling, well, very onion-y, as it should. Perhaps planting berries directly next to these was poor judgment, but when one believes everything planted is going to die off, it seems to make little difference.

We are pleased to see everything taking shape though. In fact, the only thing that hasn't done well has been the broccoli (that can just barely be seen behind the onion above). While the plants themselves have done well, the florets haven't done as they should and will likely be inedible, unfortunately.
Tomatoes are abundant, though most have not yet turned red. We've learned some lessons about what not to do with these in the future as well because they have become an inter-tangled mess with the gourds and melons growing around them. As the branches begin to bend with the weight of fruit, attempting to reach the tomatoes for plucking without trampling other vegetables is a tad challenging too. Not a horrible problem to have though for two people who believed nothing would grow.

With the garden, our immediate community seems to be flourishing as well. People who once barely waved in passing now take a moment to stop and actually chat about life happenings. We have learned that we are not entirely surrounded by the elderly (not that there would be anything wrong with that at all) and that there are many different people of all ages and from different backgrounds within close proximity. We've even inspired a couple of others to begin their own gardens, though they have preferred to keep theirs in the backyard rather than the front.
The front yard garden today. We've pulled the dying lettuce and spinach, but everything else continues to expand.
There was a time when home vegetable gardens were entirely common but they seemed to fade away for the most part with the passage of time. The last several years have brought a resurgence, but it's still not entirely common to find these in front yards. I believe a front yard garden is a wonderful way to get to know neighbors though and a great use of space, especially if this is the only area with a steady supply of sun. After all, if we're going to water something anyway, I'd at least like to make it something useful and usable - and even share-able with others - and it's provided us all an opportunity to get to know each other a little bit better too.

This unlikely garden has been a challenging but entirely pleasant undertaking, providing nourishment for both body and soul. I hope it is something we can continue to share with others and that those unknown to us will keep stopping with questions or simply to say hello. Much like riding a bicycle rather than driving, I'm finding that when we are out in our surroundings, talking with others becomes far less challenging, invisible barriers break down, and conversation presents itself without much effort at all.


  1. Yay!! This is wonderful in every way and reading it has made my day. Enjoy!

    1. It has thrilled me too, Rebecca! :)

  2. I love front yard gardens! Yours is lovely, and it looks like you did really well, especially for your first real effort at a garden. I've always had a "black thumb" too, so it is inspiring to see that you succeeded!

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Kendra. I realize sometimes the front yard gardens can get out of hand, but I think it can be pretty in its own way. We also have flowers around, so I think it's a nice balance of color from flowers and color from foods we can eat and share.

      I'm frankly shocked that anything survived, but am very happy to have things flowering on a daily basis.


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