In Gilbert, Arizona, an adult son battles the city council to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for his elderly parents. In California, an architect has taken a sodbuster to suburbia’s outdoor status symbol — the grass-green lawn — to create produce-producing plots. And in yards across America, homeowners interested in being more intimate and organic with their food sources are plucking edibles right outside their doors.
I admire lolling on a lawn by a water-lilied pond to eat white currants and see goldfish: and go to the fair in the evening if I’m good.
— John Keats, August 28, 1819, letter, to his sister Fanny
Time was, the Great American Front Yard was a carefully packed patch of dirt, inhabited by a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables and a small orchard of fruit trees. But between the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and the cleanliness movement of the early 20th century, reformers began promoting stringent standards of household conformity and order to the expanding middle class as examples of good citizenship and high morals.
By the 1870s the formal English garden, with its clipped grass lawns and sculpted focal points, had become fixed in the American mind as the landscape to emulate. The rolling grass lawn became the symbol of a leisure class with space to waste and enjoy, and landscape architects made a lasting impression during this period on the modern American landscape.
In his 1870 book Victorian Gardens: The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, Frank J. Scott declared that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”
Today, tidy verdant rectangles are still the norm; estimates vary, but American homes are ringed with anywhere from 25 million to 40 million acres of lawn. (That’s up to twice the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.) But since the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, the idea that a lawn could be the Great American Front Yard again — a garden wealthy not with a single plant but with scores of edible and aesthetic delights — has been slowly creeping, like a kiwi vine, back into the American consciousness.
The desire to rip up sod and replace it with sustenance comes from various quarters and wears many shades of green. Self-reliance, rebellion, aesthetics, and environmental and health concerns are just a few of the motivations for eschewing lawn.
Americans burn some 800 million gallons of gas in their lawnmowers every year, and we’re starting to balk at the notion that these machines are either environmentally or leisure-friendly. Americans are also increasingly concerned about water and pesticide use: we pour 238 gallons of water per person per day on our lawns, and apply 78 million pounds of pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) to our homes, gardens, and lawns every year. (We use two to five times more pesticide on our lawns than we do on agricultural crops.)
Environmental and health concerns aside, we want our landscapes to look (and often taste) appealing. So we’ve begun to challenge the standard notions of yard and landscape design as we look to our outdoor spaces to provide greater satisfaction.
“People like growing their own food,” says Michael Veracka, a landscape designer and professor of horticulture at Farmingdale State University in New York. And the new urban and suburban gardeners “don’t want to fit in a rectangle, practically and philosophically. They don’t have a lot of room to begin with, and whatever they choose to grow has to have double and triple meaning.”
Since the 1950s, lot sizes in new housing developments have shrunk by half, while house sizes themselves have doubled, reducing the amount of useable outdoor space. Americans are therefore looking to maximize the utility and value of their homes and gardens. In addition, the home has become the family retreat, a place of reflection — inside and out — as Americans continue a trend toward fewer longer holidays in favor of more time at home.
This new habit even has a name: “cocooning,” a term coined after the slowdown in travel following the events of September 11, 2001, when Americans pulled money away from extracurricular pursuits in exchange for increasing livability at home. And that trend still holds. In 2005, according to the U.S. Census, Americans spent more than $50 million on creating outdoor spaces: buying furniture, installing patios, building grilling areas, and laying pathways.
Nursery sales reflect this trend toward personalizing garden spaces, including diversifying with edible plants. Adjusted for inflation, ornamental plant sales of nursery crops such as trees, shrubs, and groundcovers have increased by 13 percent over the past 10 years. And the market expectation is that the highly publicized research on the health benefits of the antioxidants found in strawberries and blueberries, together with a demand for smaller fruiting plants over larger shade trees, will influence sales.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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