Matthew and Genna Hurley wanted to grow a few vegetables, but their backyard lay beneath a blanket of shade. Some people might have stuck a few pots of geraniums in the sunny front yard and contented themselves with store-bought produce. But not the Hurleys.
They turned the front of their Cotswold home into a food-producing powerhouse, with eggplant, peppers, squash and tomatoes all bearing heavily. When the Hurleys open their front door this time of year, the heady scent of homegrown marinara sauce comes pouring out. The sauce and other homegrown vegetables wind up in all kinds of recipes, including Matthew's panko-crusted eggplant-and-buffalo-mozzarella appetizer.
A growing number of Charlotteans whose backyards can't support a garden are turning their front yards into mini-farms.
And it's a case of a trend coming full circle: Long ago, small cottage gardens in front of homes contained a riotous mixture of flowers and vegetables, but over time, food became something to hide out back. Now growing your own food isn't just socially acceptable, it's hip. And for many people, there's no reason not to put it on display.
In the Hurleys' yard, the tomatoes are staked in a large patch near the street, but Matthew has tucked many of the other vegetaxbles behind flowers. “I figured if I was going to garden up front, I was going to make it look as neat as possible,” he said. Eggplants make a nice backdrop, he said, hot peppers are pretty plants, and in the fall, cabbages and kale show off ornamental foliage.
Vegetables can be just as nice to look at as flowers, says Bill Woodson, who lives around the block from the Hurleys. Bill and Janice Woodson have a vegetable garden in their small, sunny backyard, but that wasn't enough for the couple, who are deep into tomato canning this time of year.
Bill, who noted that European gardens often are a blend of the ornamental and edible, started sowing okra on the street side of his house, surrounding it with a drift of blazing orange cosmos. He and Janice tuck in vegetables wherever they can – tomatoes under windows, more okra next to the air conditioning unit.
Try to make it look pretty
Nationally recognized edible landscaping expert Rosalind Creasy said the keys to making front-yard vegetables neighbor-friendly are using plenty of flowers and artful touches such as colorful trellises, and harvesting selectively so beauty remains, meal after meal.
“People have to change their mentality. They're not on a farm,” says Creasy, California-based food and gardening columnist and author of the 10-book “Edible Landscaping” series. She recommends choosing varieties of chard with neon-bright stems, lettuces with speckled leaves, and other painterly plants – and then arranging them in diamonds, circles or other patterns.
“I've gone to the Home Depot and gotten these redwood trellises, taken the legs off of them, laid them on the ground, painted them purple and planted lettuces in between the squares,” she said.
Creasy described the front yard of her Los Altos home. “I have the new black tomato… and I have red trellises with it to support it. On either side I have a deep purple basil and…white-blooming Asian chives.” Creasy paints the stakes for vegetable plants to match the color of the vegetable. She encourages beneficial insects by giving them plenty of blooms for nectar and pollen.
For a city like Charlotte, Creasy suggests replacing evergreen foundation plantings with edibles such as blueberries. “There's some blueberry bushes with beautiful fall color and it does not say in the Constitution that you have to have evergreens up against the house,” she said.
Renfrow Hardware owner David Blackley agrees and says more city dwellers are growing food in front of their homes. “If you're not looking for it, you don't realize (it's there), because it can be done very tastefully and sort of stealth-like,” says Blackley, whose old-time hardware store is in downtown Matthews. “All of a sudden you've got blueberries in your front yard, and why would you not?”
A bounty of vegetables
You don't need to convince Mattie Edwards that food belongs up front. The 82-year-old gardens her east Charlotte yard with a vigor that puts many younger gardeners to shame. Using a pitchfork, she hand-dug a 96-foot-long strip next to her driveway. She added chopped leaves and other compost to the soil until it was as rich and fluffy as chocolate cake.
Her bounty: “I grow half-runner (beans), I grow cucumbers, I grow squash, tomatoes, bell peppers,” she says. An old, treasured variety of field peas that Edwards has dubbed “Inheritance Peas.” Brussels sprouts. Collard greens. Cabbage. And oh yes, corn.
“With that one row of corn, I put in the freezer over 200 ears,” says Edwards, who also works full time in a public school cafeteria. “I put up maybe two bushels of tomatoes off of that.”
What about the neighbors?
Of course, not everyone is a fan of edible front yards. An Oak Park, Mich. woman made national headlines last year when the city threatened her with jail time for refusing to remove her front-yard vegetables (the case has since been dropped). And Charlotte attorney Michael Hunter warns that most upper-priced Charlotte neighborhoods are governed by covenants restricting what residents can do with their yards.
Those communities, overseen by homeowners' associations, have rules that range from “very vague” to those that detail the length of grass or whether someone can make a “major landscaping change,” said Hunter, whose practice focuses on representation of condominiums and HOAs. Will and Katie Esser found some neighbors were a little unhappy about their up-front vegetables, so the southeast Charlotte couple made changes. They enclosed everything in a white picket fence and added an arbor with seating.
Of course, front-yard farmers face challenges other than public opinion. A herd of urban deer enjoys the Essers' garden – which includes peach, plum and apple trees – almost as much as they do.
But still, said Katie, it's worth it. “We've got potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, cucumbers and some tomatoes. Blueberries and red raspberries. We've got three little kids and they just go out and eat right off the plant,” she said.