Front-yard veggie garden in the city

In the front yard, good taste means more than looking good.

In the front yard, good taste means more than looking good.

Passersby walking their dogs or babies, or both, stop on the sidewalk in front of my house. I’m inside, writing at my south-facing window above the yard, and I watch as families and pairs of friends out there point at what's in it, murmuring.

The peas have had their summer fling and departed, but the pole bean vines dangle with Blue Lakes that ripen at the rate of half a pound a day. Chard and kale stand a foot high beside the now-fruitless strawberry patch, and the floppy radicchios are forming heads. Around the season's third crop of red-leaf lettuce, nasturtiums flower and provide flickers of afternoon shade so the lettuces won’t bolt in the sun — when His Majesty deigns to show his radiant face to Seattle, that is.

Ten years ago the front lawn began to seem like a waste of good earth. Besides, the steep part slanting down to the sidewalk was hard to mow. Pushing the mower up the slope was good for the pusher’s (my) triceps, bi’s, and boobs, but when I heard about sheet-mulching I decided to turn all the grass into mulch and stick other green things in the ground. The slope would be planted with drought-tolerant geraniums and sedum; the level above would have flagstones interspersed with woolly thyme.

So on top of a lawn to be cruelly smothered in its prime went a layer of flattened cardboard boxes and a thick coat of newspapers, covered by a decent mourning veil of black mulch. A few flagstones here and there held things more or less down. In sheet-mulching, the cardboard gets the bottom bunk because that's closest to the worms. Earthworms are said to have a passion for laying their eggs in cardboard, and worm passion is, of course, golden in a garden even if it's not growing much of anything.

Two years later the layers (including the worms) had transformed the grass and dirt into a carpet of lovely loam, and stray dandelion seeds had begun to take root, sending up their slim green fingers. It was time for thyme. Since flagstones were pricey, necessity invented a less fashionably sleek yard: clumps of E-Z-to-grow flowers would be plunked in the empty spots. Planting vegetables didn’t even occur to me. The Platonic Idea of “front yard” that I grew up with was kind of like the Idea of pancake makeup — meant to put a proper face on your property.

What hooked me was arugula. An experiment showed that one small rectangle of soil, attractively screened by cosmos and Canterbury bells, could grow seven — seven! — crops of arugula, one after the other, almost satisfying the household’s arugula appetites for half a year. The following summer a trellis of pretty telephone-pole peas crept into the west end of the yard, and a pot of basil perched atop one flagstone.

Well, why not a small green fountain of Italian parsley — or two or three, or four — instead of daisies? How about a short row of fennel bulbs wearing their glamorous feathery hats?

After that, there was no stopping. Three-quarters of the front yard is now vegetable garden. And now, from University Market's farmers on Saturdays my husband and I buy only cherries and melons, or maybe some squash and favas, which would take up too much room if planted in our small expanse. Every week or so I fill the milk crate tied to the back of my bicycle with bags of greens and pedal them to the University Food Bank. On meatless Mondays our dinner plates and bowls are so full of salad and sorrel soup and sautéed kale I can feel the vitamins and minerals zinging through my veins. If I cut myself, I might bleed green.

Mid-August. The sun has settled back into its old angle again, and shadows lengthen earlier in the day. Out on the sidewalk the dog of the moment tugs at his owner’s leash, and the child in the stroller grows restless. Mom and Dad return from their garden reverie, from homo sapiens' primal reverence for food miraculously sprung out of the earth. Purposeful again, they move on down the sidewalk.


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