On Frontyard Gardening

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here that relates to “life,” so in the spirit of taking a day off from school (mostly), I thought I’d write a bit about the story of our front yard garden.

Annette and Will and I live in the Ypsilanti neighborhood of Normal Park, which is mostly older homes (ours was built in the late 1940s) with lots and lots of trees. Like lots of people in this neighborhood, we do a fair amount of gardening. I wouldn’t describe us as passionate or knowledgeable (I always admire people who know the names of all of their plants, especially when they know them in Latin), and I don’t think we’re going to win any prizes or be on a garden tour any time soon.  But we do pretty good, I think.  When it comes to flowers and the like, we tend toward hard to kill perennials, pretty standard annuals, a lot of hostas, and hanging baskets that always dry up and die by early August. Herbs grow like weeds, so almost all of them work. We’re not trying to live off the land or anything, so for the most part, food-wise we like the kinds of vegetables that are always best super-fresh, things like lettuce and especially tomatoes. We stick things in the ground, try to remember to water them, hope for the best.

Square foot gardenA couple years ago, I heard about and then bought a book by Mel Bartholomew and his “square foot gardening” methods.  My first efforts were back in 2009 along the side of our house in a narrow strip of yard that got a surprising amount of sun.  That worked out well (here are a few more pictures of that).

Huge Square Foot Garden (sitting area)So in 2010, I decided to tear up an even larger space for I referred to as “the huge square-foot garden” because it was four 4X8 foot raised beds of mostly perennials and herbs. I had pretty good luck with things in 2010 and 2011, though not as much this year– more on that in a second. But this way in the backyard garden has its limitations because it is largely shaded by the giant trees around there– you can see some of them in the background of the photo to the right.

But in 2011, we had a pretty bad year with the side of the house square foot garden, partly because of weather and partly because my neighbor’s tree really shot up and put this once sunny all day long spot into a lot of shade. We missed the tomatoes.

Anyway, that’s what started this year’s front yard garden.

Front Yard Veggie Box Garden

We started with a box built from three twelve-foot long 2X12s, one cut into four three-foot lengths (I had them cut at Home Depot).  Will and I nailed those things together, laid it on top of some gardening fabric, and filled it mostly with “Mel’s Mix” (1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost), though I also added a lot of garden store variety top soil and compost to fill this thing up. The 2X12 box is unnecessarily large and takes a lot of dirt; on the other hand, my smaller boxes are starting to warp a bit, and this thing seems pretty indestructible.

Then I tore up much of the rest of that part of the front yard and ordered several yards/a half-truck full of compost/topsoil.  As the video suggests, there was no going back after this.

It started off looking pretty pathetic back in April:


But we’ve seen pretty steady progress over the summer, and by early September, things were looking pretty good:

The perennials in the front yard, September

We didn’t do this as a political statement about urban farming or our rights as homeowners to plant vegetables in our front yard. We just wanted a sunny spot to grow tomatoes and things. But I remember mentioning these plans to my mother and she thought it might be “tacky,” and there have been some cases (including in a northern Detroit suburb) where it is against code or neighborhood agreements and such.  If you do a search for “front yard gardening,” you’ll come across as many “is this illegal?” web sites as you will pages with tips.

I didn’t think it would be a problem in our neighborhood because there are lots of gardeners around here, but I have to say I’ve been kind of surprised by the enthusiastic and nothing but positive response we’ve heard from people. Whenever Annette or I are out there weeding or picking things, people walking down the street stop and inevitably say something nice about it all. I think it’s fair to say I’ve talked to more of my neighbors in the last five or so months than I did in the previous 10 years.

And we’ve gotten a shitload of tomatoes.

A few tips and/or thoughts for next year:

  • One of the reasons why this has worked out so well is because I bought a cheap timer for the sprinkler, which I ran for 30 minutes a day, especially when it was super-hot and dry around here. The simple success of that was a real eye-opener for me, and I’m planning on doing more of that with some of the other garden spaces around here next year.
  • The tomatoes did great, though I am thinking that next year, I’ll try planting heirlooms and more unusual tomatoes instead of the more “garden variety” (pun intended) varieties. Carrots were a real surprise— we never had this kind of success with them before– so there will be more of those, and since the basil did crappy in the the backyard this year, I’ll try some more fo that up front next summer.
  • I’d like to rehabilitate the side yard garden again, maybe with some combination of perennials and veggies that don’t require quite as much sun. We’ll see.
  • And growing isn’t over yet, I don’t think. I need to figure out how late I can still plant stuff like spinach out there.

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