Radical Front Yard Farmer Throws in the Towel



To catch new readers up, last fall I gleefully removed my front lawn, prepped the soil, and, in a radical departure for me, planted vegetables.  I just could no longer resist the passionate entreaties of Michele Owens and Ed Bruske, among others (Kingsolver, anyone?).  Plus, I was SO sick of the lawn.

So I harvested what greens weren’t spoiled by the 90+ degree spell we experienced in April, ate a couple of homegrown salads, and wondered: Now what?  There isn’t enough sun here for the summer crops most kitchen gardeners plant in late spring and I quickly realized that my front yard – that most visible of spaces – would look like crap for most of the year, and I suddenly lost heart. 

I’m a bit shamey-faced as I report this failure to convert to food-growing, but at least I never considered replanting the lawn.  Not even to try one of the new-and-exciting eco-friendly types of turfgrasses.  No way.  Coz not having to use a lawnmower is too wonderful, and anyway, I really like the old Williamsburg look of the brick path bisecting the perfect oval of space.

So I unceremoniously ripped out the edibles and replaced them with groundcover-type ornamentals, like thymes, sedums, creeping Jenny and mazus, all moved from elsewhere on my property.  Next I bought some iceplant, sage, and prostrate rosemary for the dry side of the garden, and the wetter side is home to Wave petunias, a castor bean vine (proving to be too determined to grow vertically for the prostrate look I had planned for it), and pulmonaria at the shadiest spot.  I dearly wanted some dark purple sweet potato vine but couldn’t find any this year.  Y’all have any plant suggestions?

And what do you call an anti-lawn garden that resembles an old kitchen garden, but is purely ornamental? The plants are arranged free-form through the perfect geometry, so a knot garden it’s definitely not. July08350

Then would you go for a calm, rest-the-eye look to perform the function once performed by the lawn, or totally tart it up?  And there’s the question of vertical structure and don’t even think about suggesting I put a Washington Monument-shaped thing at the exact center of all this because it’ll only block my paths, and in a royally annoying way.  (Paths matter!)

Finally, to all the vegetable gardeners, cooks and lovers of all things organic and local among our readers:  I’m sorry, really.  But I’ve gotta tell ya, discovering new plants to grow in new and more beautiful ways on this little patch of ground is a thrill.  In the words of Michele, it’s my mad love. 


  1. I wouldn’t feel bad about the vegetables. You clearly don’t have enough sun for them. And it hardly makes sense to go to the trouble of growing them if you’re not a cook–or a bit food-obsessed.

  2. I would call it one of the following
    Reality Check Garden
    What Happens When Zen Hits The Fan
    Damn That Maple
    Can’t Eat Moss Any Way
    Who Stole My Tomatoes?
    So Much for Trying to Micro Manage My Micro Climate

    Neighbors Preferred My Dirty Laundry Anyway

    WTF? I am Not a Closet Vegetarian After All?

    The (Name That Tune) TROLL

  3. I’m all over low effort. I like a tomato not-quite-as-much as the next person, but I also like the challenge of constraining gardens to edibility. Don’t rule out a kitchen garden that you might not recognize from the street… i.e.

    Focal point shrub – “Jan”, “Joy”, or “Joel” bush cherry or a patio peach genetic dwarf, for gorgeous flowers in spring, and cobbler or pie fruit in the years that you get around to it.

    Wet shady area – an Ostrich fern, for spring fiddlehead sautes, in the years that you get around to it.

    Wet sunny area – Marilyn’s Salad Mint, a (trademarked) mint cultivar with mild delicious leaves for salad. Some people don’t like mint in the garden, so put it in a gorgeous pot to give your garden some height!

    Partial shade normal water – your go-to plant is the entire Campanula genus. Bellflowers, in addition to being gorgeous, are fully edible. Some have tastier leaves than others.

    Ground cover – lingonberries in wetter shadier spots, or wintergreen for tasty tea and berries. Labrador violets in dryer spots, try the leaves in gumbo. Alpine strawberries grow 8-10″ high, don’t put out runners, and even if you don’t eat the delicious berries, the incredible scent of a sun-warmed ‘Yellow Wonder’ ripe berry will perfume your front yard for a month or more.

    Odd spots here and there – Don’t get out the herbicide yet – a few Chenopodium “weeds”, a purposely planted French dandelion cultivar with milder greens, chicory, and the verdant greens of self-seeding mache.

    I have a zillion more.

  4. You haven’t read my latest couple of post on hydroponics! Go Local, Go Organic, Go to your basement. Hydroponics uses one third less water than a conventional garden. You can do it organically and you can grow right through winter when the farmers markets don’t have as much to choose from. It’s a bit esoteric for lots of folks but I believe that will soon change.

  5. When Ann Lovejoy spoke about areas of grass with small flowers mixed in she used the term “Tapestry Lawn”…maybe your new design is a kind of Tapestry Path, Susan?

    Can you grow the ornamental oxalis with large, triangular purple leaves where you live? They could blend in well with what you have planted.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  6. Oh well, look on the bright sight, it’s still much more beautiful and eco friendly than that darned lawn. And no mowing!

    My vote is for Reality Check Garden. 😀

  7. I must confess I love ripping things out of the garden. Found two plants that had expired this a.m.

    I think it’s cool that you ripped out the lawn in the first place. It looks charming. I love ‘Black Magic’ elephant ears in my shade garden for a focal point, and the new, blue lobelia put out by Proven Winners is a winner here. Still, you live in a cooler clime that mine I think.

    Rock on.~~Dee

  8. Susan,
    I’d call it a cottage garden.
    As summer passes, you could plant some chives, other alliums, and leafy greens amongst your showy, shady plants. While I haven’t tried this, I understand that potatoes and bush beans are shade tolerant. Do you have room for a few blueberry bushes? They are colorful in the fall, too.

  9. Vegetables do need sun. Some of them want lots of sun.

    But do save space for herbs. You can grow lots of herbs for your kitchen. Or will you be cooking?

  10. What to call it ? – A potager garden.
    A mix of flowers, herbs, ornamentals and culinary annuals.
    You could use some annual veggies in the garden if you were still inclined.
    Looking at your photograph above it looks like some purple mustard leaf would look smashing next to that chartreuse plant.
    I mix it up all the time.
    Love the look on peoples faces when they are enjoying the views of a perennial border and they see vegetables plopped in for textural contrast and beauty.
    Lettuce makes a great border plant in the winter ( in my climate ) and ornamental kale ‘bright lights’ looks stunning next to a wispy stand of bronze fennel and red penstemon firebird.
    I don’t see why folks don’t use vegetables in an ornamental way. They can have great form , texture and color .

  11. I’m coming to the conclusion that having a decent size vegetable garden isn’t a real option for a lot of us urban gardeners for exactly the reason you describe–not enough space that consistently gets enough sun. What I’ve discovered does work is to tuck edibles in here and there wherever I find a sunny spot. So, OK, I’ll never have a classic potager. That’s fine, because I really love the look of having a zucchini plant next to my roses and a towering pot of pole beans as the focal point on my patio. As with my interior decorating style, “eclectic” seems to be the key word.

  12. I love an ever changing landscape to suit your needs. Yours looks fun and gives your home lots of inviting curb appeal. I would want to get to know you from seeing that front yard. It looks great.

  13. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a castor bean vine, honey. Google Ricinus communis. It’s a beautiful, dramatic perennial, but it ain’t no vine. Oh, and it’s highly, highly poisonous (that’s Ricinus as in ‘ricin,’ so don’t feed the beans to the neighborhood kids.)

  14. Maybe this is the vine you have,or could have!Dolichos lablab (Lablab purpureus) Common Name Hyacinth bean

  15. A potager as someone else suggested.

    I’m converting most of my front lawn into a cottage garden. I have a huge veggie garden out back but might attempt to put some of the more sun loving (peppers) veggies up front amongst the flowers.

  16. Count me as one of the sun-challenged! I have one modest-sized area in my garden where there is enough sun for sun perennials and also for veggies, so for many years now I have mixed my vegetable plants in with the perennials. Eggplant plants are very decorative, especially the little slim Japanese ones like Ichiban; A big zucchini plant in a giant pot rests right at the southwestern edge of the flower bed, next to a rose-coloured perennial hibiscus — it is really very handsome, and I find that having it in a pot seems to cut down on the damage inflicted by squash borers. So far, anyway. The bean tepees are on the northeast side of the plot, behind the tomatoes, peppers and the pink and white echinopsias. Another big pot holds shallots, ready to harvest now, and also a couple of small cucumber vines. For my household of two people, we get quite a lot of our vegs from it. But — I think I will check out hydroponics for the cold season.

  17. So what’s the big problem, Susan? It looks totally fine!

    Consider your cool-weather veggies as a seasonal ornamental (with edible benefits) and intersperse them every spring before the rest of the stuff gets out of control. It’s pretty easy to clear a little space out of that sedum. No reason you can’t cycle food through a garden like other plants. In fact, it makes sense because your lettuce wouldn’t be doing much but protesting the heat and humidity right now anyways.

    And, actually, mixing food crops with other flowers/grasses is at the heart of Integrated Pest Management: create a good habitat for predator bugs and they’ll prey on your tomato-sucking aphids.

  18. We’re not only sun-challenged, but deer-challenged too. Believe me, more of us would love a potager, but there are just too many critters.

    I like the idea of interspersing cool weather veggies. The Wave petunias can go in once the lettuce bolts and come out when its time to plant the fall crop.

    I think you could pull off beans in partial sun–all the better since the fix nitrogen.

    Cilantro and dill can take part shade. My rue does fine in part shade–and is a host plant for butterflies.

    I’m growing lavender and rosemary with about 5 hours of sun.

    For sunny, dry areas, I’m all over hardy succulents like sempervivum and sedum. Pop some basil in there and you’re in business.

    For dry, shady areas, I’m loving my heuchera and helebores. Remember to include some winter interest!

    As for a vertical element, you could try a topiary. I’m crazy, so I’d always go for a small water feature.

    Your crepping Jenny is causing me to shudder. It’s all over the “green stuff we mow.” I’m not fond of it. I should probably let it take over but as you already know, it spreads but never quite delivers the promised carpet o’ green.

  19. I love it! But you’d better fill in those blank spaces, because mulch or not, they’ll be weedy in no time. I always say that if we don’t plant something, God will. And when He does, you’ll be spending all that saved mowing time pulling weeds. How about some ajuga? It fills in nicely and likes the shade.

  20. – Black mondo grass
    – itty bitty hostas (in the shade)
    – Ocimum basilicum ‘Queen of Sheba’ – the coolest variegated basil, actually developed to be a bedding plant but which can be eaten. Gets to about 3′ (mine is only about 18″ so far) AND you can eat it. It’s purty, too.
    – I second the campanula. I have a variety that’s prostrate.
    – GERANIUMS – the cranesbill kind
    – If you get 3-4 hours of sun, you can grow raspberries. Next spring I’ll GIVE you some plants.
    – miniature daylilies (or the bigger ones) – because you can EAT them.
    I think I’m out of suggestions. Let us know what you decide to plant.

  21. Wow, all this creativity is forcing me to add another thought: currant bushes are gorgeous, the fruit is delicious, and I don’t think they need complete blazing sun.

    And I second the Alpine strawberries idea. I used them as a groundcover underneath peonies in a semi-shady garden. Pretty and the flavor of the berries is pure perfume.

  22. I still love having some lawn, but won’t argue it is for everyone, nor is a vegetable garden for everyone. You tried, that’s what counts sometimes. I agree with the commenter who said to continue to grow early spring veggies in that garden, amongst whatever else you plant.

  23. I second Susan re:”Neshura, where can I find your zillion more? Coz those are great.”

    I’m currently planning my new home’s landscape. And the plan is to do edibles in a decorative fashion, so I would love to know more about which plants people consider ornamental would also work for food. I have fuschia, violets, saffron crocus, passion flower, elderberry, asparagus, artichoke, lemon, peach, kiwi, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, and various herbs in the plan, as well as lawn elimination, and interspersing annual edibles in with the rest. The spots without perennials or shrubs will have creeping thyme. I’m not growing ONLY edibles, just lots of them. Spinach grows pretty well in shade from what I hear too, but I’ve never had much success with spinach so I could be way off.

    Susan, I love what you’ve done regardless of whether it’s useful in the kitchen. But don’t give up on growing food yet! People have commented with a lot of very interesting and worthwhile suggestions.

  24. I started with “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway (best book evar), and my zillions more came from observation, “Edible Forest Gardens” by Jacke & Toensmeier, “Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables” by Fred Hagy, the Edible Landscaping website and catalog, the PFAF leaflets (online at PFAF.org) and plant database, and wild plant cookbooks. From those I condensed out a list of edible perennials and self-seeding annuals that do or should work out nicely in my mid-Atlantic coastal area.

  25. Good for you!!! You don’t even cook that much, so I never understood why you did it to begin with.

    Do you mean hyacinth bean? That’s a vine.

    Anyway, I am all for the ornamental gardening and to hell with Kingsolver.

  26. Well, I totally second the “To hell with Barbara Kingsolver” sentiment–her self-regarding saintliness is INSUFFERABLE!

    I’m a hedonistic type, too, like our friend Elizabeth there on the beach–and I do a vegetable garden because I get tons of pleasure out of it. In my heart of hearts, I consider it the beautiful garden in the world.

  27. I’m new to blogging, have just discovered Gardenrant and Sustainablegardening, and I love them both. I tried a vegetable garden in my “front yard,” too (I live in the country so telling the front from the back seems a little arbitrary–anyway, it’s the place where people who don’t just let themselves in tend to come up and knock). I love what you’ve done–I’m in Virginia, too, and I think Creeping Jenny is better than peanut butter (and I LOVE peanut butter). Anyway, I look forward to reading through your posts. Best of luck.

  28. Susan – how about calling it the “le quel que soit jardin” – that’s French for the “whatever garden”. But seriously, why not just call it the front garden?

  29. I would call it a great low-maintenance garden! I also have herbs in my front yard after my lawn died (oh darn.) I’ll probably keep the veggies in the back, and fill up the front with native, Xeriscape plants that the neighbors won’t hate. Rosemary makes a great landscape plant, and so does lavender if you’re in an area where it’ll grow well.

    bobbi c.
    Central TX

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