Help turn this front lawn into an
edible landscape


Front2webby Susan
It started with the removal of half the turf in my back garden, chronicled here, here and here.  The next victim in this lawn downsizing fervor is the 12 by 23-ft oval of lawn in the front, which I’ve decided to rip out and turn into a vegetable garden of some kind. Move over, Edible Estates

See, I’m weak and easily swayed by the drumbeat of gardenbloggers and commenters who seem to think homegrown food tastes better and may even be better for you.  Ever the doubter and, more importantly, a noncook, I’ve resisted the pressures of friends and neighbors but people like Michele Owens and Ed Bruske have worn me down

Here’s the catch, though.  I know literally nothing about growing food, so I’m looking for some real help here.  Should I remove the sod and do anything to the land now, or can it all wait til the spring?  Not to mention: What should I grow?  Remember, it’s gotta be beginner-level, and things that I like to eat (hold the lima beans).  And not too much of any one thing, either, or I’ll have to open a stand at the farmer’s market to get rid of the stuff.  Most of the space has several hours of midday and afternoon sun and the rest has maybe 2 hours sun, with more hours of high dappled shade.

It’s the front, after all, and I’m still an unreconstructed ornamentalist (a scoffing term one hears in the veggie-growing world).  But because of the fedge – a cute name for a combination hedge and fence, in this case chain-link fence covered by ivy – hardly anyone actually sees the front garden.  Just the occasional curious pedestrian, though I’ve noticed, with hurt pride, that most of them would rather look at the big, beautiful home across the street than in my direction.  Sniff. 

But more importantly, I want it to look good for ME because I live here and see it often.  Then there are my visitors, many of whom expect me to have figured out how to have a good-looking front yard, possibly due to all my assertions of garden-coaching abilities.

My first design idea is to keep the border intact and simply convert the oval to veggies, with maybe a path around its perimeter.  And is it too much to ask that some of the vegetables I grow there be good-looking plants?

Food-growers, this is no time to abandon your newest convert.  Help!


  1. Herbs! They are so easy, and seem bug-proof. Some overwinter and some reseed the next year, but it seems like they always make a reappearance. Take a cue from Simon & Garfunkul and grow parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and throw in some basil, oregeno, chives, and mint for good measure. I always feel so culinary when I step outside with my scissors to snip a few herbs for the evening meal.

  2. Two pieces of advice… prep the soil now, and call Ed or Michelle to come over and coach you on the rest!

    Good luck and may you know the thrill of eating your own first tomato, warmed by the sun, while standing in the middle of your first vegetable garden. You will never buy a grocery store tomato again.

  3. Susan, I worry about the sun question. The basic recipe for a vegetable garden is sun all day. I’d hate to see you rip out that beautiful oval of lawn only to have everything languish.

    Your oval shape suggests a classic potager, where the vegetables are planted ornamentally. The great crazy example of this is at the Chateau de Villandry in France. But I’m sure a quick browse through any random bunch of glossy books will reveal a circular potager with wedge-shaped beds that you might find inspiring.

    What to plant? First of all, what you like to eat. I love a good salad, and leaf lettuces like arugula are simply the easiest crop in the world.

    Then consider what’s pretty. Many vegetables are extremely beautiful–red cabbages are gorgeous. All the brassicas, in fact, are thrilling. Eggplant is a lovely plant, with fuzzy leaves, lavender flowers and shiny purple fruit. I think pole beans are as beautiful as wisteria. And their flavor is amazing. This year, I planted a variety of soup pea with pink and purple flowers and purple pods that was as beautiful as any ornamental pea.

    Since your garden won’t be huge, you’ll have time to consider the aesthic properties of various vegetables. I love mixing ornamentals like sweetpeas and dahlias into my vegetable garden. They like the more pampered life there, where they get fantastic soil and regular watering.

    A lot of vegetables need support, and to me, adding some vertical structure lifts a vegetable garden out of the realm of the utilitarian.

    Paths are super-important in the garden, since you can’t reach more than a few feet to pick what you’ve grown. This year, I only took the trouble to bark-mulch the main arteries in my garden. The rest of the paths were just gaps covered with leaf mold or straw. I knew where they were–but my visitors didn’t always know where to step.

    I only wish you lived next door. You’d get more advice from me than you could stand!

  4. What a fabulous blog Garden Rant is and now you are going to grow vegetables!! You will not look back!!

    Over here in the UK we would be digging the ground now and incorporating well rooted organic manure ready for growing next spring. Dig a bean trench, fill it with vegetable scraps, to feed your bean plants next year.

    Easy vegetables to grow are climbing french beans, courgettes, squashes, beetroot – the list is endless. Enjoy growing them and enjoy eating them!!

    Can we exchange links with Garden Rant? It’s a fabulous site!

  5. P.S. Yes, prepare the soil now (again, if you’re confident about the sun.)

    The only hard thing about vegetable gardening, in my opinion, is making the garden. I’d hire somebody to plow that oval up, take out the chunks of grass on the top and then dump yards and yards of compost on it.

    The alternative is the smother method–cardboard over the sod and then some kind of vegetable-friendly mulch to weigh it down. Turn it in in spring. But I don’t know that your grass would really be dead by the time you want to plant in April or so.

    For information about the care and feeding of individual vegetables, Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer cannot be beat.

  6. I would echo all that Michelle O said and add on the subject of ornamental veg that purple pak choi is something I’ve been obsessed with since I saw a picture of it the other day – thrilling plant. I’d probably use a space like that to have a few pretty edibles mixing into the existing planting, pole beans, artichokes and the like (but I don’t know your location).

  7. As a sincere but not very good gardener, I recommend keeping it simple. Peas taste great fresh. Yellow and red cherry tomatoes. Climbing beans on a trellis. Anyone can grow cucumbers and dill.
    Don’t rip the grass up yet- try to plant around first-
    and pick up lots of packets of nasturtian flowers- they’re edible,dont die, and spread to fill any space left by failed crops.

  8. Vegetables are like anything else–plant what is appropriate for your location. Have you tested your soil? I would seriously consider raised beds to maintain some separation from nature–helps keeps weeds out. Think about how much time you want to be tending this garden. You can get at least three crops in this climate if you want to do succession plantings and rotate.

    Consider some perenniels such as asparagus and rhubarb. Some things are so easy and produce so much–Swiss chard for example is almost indestrutible and you can cut and come again. Carrots don’t need full sun, but fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra do. Lettuces are so easy and they come in so many shapes and colors. Sturdy greens such as mizuna, arugula, kales and collards also do very well here and are decorative.

    I would work on the soil right now and draw a plan with possible raised beds, then start thinking about what you might want to be eating in the spring. Peas? Lettuce? Then you just need some seeds.

  9. You’ve received good advice. I would just add, start with a soil test! A vegetable garden can be ornamental as all have stated. I can’t wait to see what develops!

  10. I recommend the smother method. Thick layers of newspaper or cardboard topped with compost, manure, grass clippings, dried leaves, shredded yard waste, etc. Pile it high–over a couple of feet if you can–and know that it will settle quite a bit over the winter. Plant directly into it in the spring. I’m not sure what cover crops grow in your area over winter, but if you can, sprinkle seeds of fava, vetch, rye, or clover, which will hold the “pile” in place this winter, add organic matter, etc. If the snow doesn’t kill it, you’d chop it down in spring before planting.

    Again, not knowing what will work in the climate, I’d go for lots of perennial stuff–a dwarf fruit tree, artichokes, and perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, etc. Leave some discreet spaces in between for the more ephemeral stuff like lettuce.

    One idea for saving money: let’s say you’re going to sow lettuce seeds all season. Buy one six-pack of seedlings to use as row markers and get something going, then seed in the rest behind or around it.

  11. Gawd, I’m overwhelmed with indecision already! But that’s okay; I’ll calm down, research all your ideas, and get on with it. Thanks and don’t be surprised if I come back for more help, often.
    Lesley in U.K. – yes, let’s link.
    Michele, you can be my long-distance veggie-garden coach. I’m not kidding. I like that you garden not JUST for food but for beauty, and I’m diving into the subejct of potagers, at your suggestion. I already love the word. And I’m definitely hiring some muscle.
    Of the specific plant ideas, I’m liking the salad approach, since that’s what I eat most nights and aren’t there lots of greens that dont’ require full sun? And collectively they have a long season, right?
    But for the record (and I keep adding these caveats after the fact, I know) I’m not anti-lawn! I don’t want to add to the popular misperception in the media that lawns are environmentally bad per se. Grown organically, they’re fine groundcovers for many situations and not so much maintenance as some would have you believe. (Do these people know how much work the alternatives really are???) I’m getting rid of my lawn because I want to grow more interesting and rewarding plants – that’s all. And I don’t enjoy lawn care as much as other gardening duties. So I’m opting for different maintenance, not actually less.

  12. Lets talk about design for a moment.
    Your front yard appears to be a green walled garden.
    The perimeter plants are layered in with the tall plants at the back of the borders and the shorter plants work their way inwards.

    The current lawn is an absolutely perfect flat visual plane ( negative space ) for the eye to lay and take in the horticultural performance of the shrubs and perennials beyond.

    If you take away your negative space by filling it with plants of the same volume you take away the surrounding stage for the plants beyond, thus changing the entire visual and functional make up of this space.

    I believe if you want to maintain some sense of beauty of proportion that you need to address this from a functional and aesthetic standpoint, other wise I think you are going to create a jumble of mixed plants that have no relation to the space or to one another.
    To acommodate a new vegetable garden ‘plopped’ down in the middle of your negative space ( the lawn ) , take into consideration its profound performing postive attributes and function as you consider how to best integrate the architectural structure of the new spatial quality that you will be creating as well as the pedestrian flow of traffic, visual axis, and the horticulatural workability of the layout.

    One aesthetically pleasing solution to consider would be to maintain the path space that services the existing walled greenscape . This will serve two functions. It will provide you with pedestrian flow and segregate the inner volume layer by a negative space.
    I would take it one step further and divide your inner volume into quadrants, much like the medevil cloister gardens.

    plan first , cut once.

  13. The Michelles beat me to the punch on most of this. Yeah. Rows of veggies plopped down in there would be a visual disaster. I drew an X through the oval in my head and put in four bean towers, one in each quadrant. Keep at least a mower’s width of grass around the edge of the oval in the paths forming the X.

    Mulch it down now. I worry about the sun, too. Most books say 4 to 6 hours a day, but they don’t say weather that’s at equinox or solsitice. Gooseberries do OK in part shade. Greens do better than fruiting crops.

  14. Tomatoes!! This was my first year to grow anything. My tomatoes were/are so rewarding! I borrowed a book on ornamental kitchen gardens to work on my design for next year. I’ll be checking back for comments on your blog since I had the same question about preparing soil for next year. I decided to try lasagna-ing for raised beds that I’ll build myself over the next few weeks. Good luck!

  15. I agree with Michelle’s comments. You might try one or more framed, raised beds in the center of the flat plane of lawn to start with. Maybe something extremely simple–even just one rectangular bed no wider than 4 or 5 feet, with plenty of lawn left around it.

    Another reason to keep it simple is that because you want it to be ornamental, you’ll have to really spend a lot of time weeding, pruning, staking, moving, replanting, etc. This potager will be a focal point of the space, and you’ll have to spend many times the effort here than elsewhere, and there will be things to take care of nearly every day. Keeping it simple helps with that.

    Another benefit of a single bed is that you’ll be able to work around all sides of it, which is essential. One idea for construction of the bed is two tiers of 2″ x 6″ cedar boards, screwed together with metal brackets and plates, for a total of 12″ high. However, there are many other materials you could choose, and depending on other hardscape in your garden, you may want to repeat one of those elements somewhere. Another possibility is to surround the with clipped dwarf boxwood.

    If you want to save yourself some hassle and get good results with the plants, consider running drip or soaker irrigation into the bed, with a timer to water early in the morning. I’ve done this with my kitchen garden this dry summer, and got excellent results without once having to water by hand.

    Good luck and have fun!

  16. A bit more from me…

    I just re-read your post more carefully and noticed the dimensions are 12′ x 23′; now that I know this my suggestions can be more specific.

    One possibility is a set of two beds, 5-to-6′ long and 4′ wide, with some sort of ornament (sundial, armillary, sculpture, etc.) in the very center of the oval between the two beds.

    This way you’ll have 4′ of space around all sides, which you will need for circulating with a wheelbarrow and tools. Using the center helps ensure you’ll have a decent amount of sun. And the central-axis bed arrangement with an ornamental feature in the center of the oval could turn out to be a pleasing one.

  17. Hi Susan,

    I concur with many of your readers. You have such a lovely layout currently; keeping the oval shape would be very pleasing.

    Mark a no-less-than 3 foot path (4′ is better) of grass for a path on the outside curve of your oval, all the way around. Then divide the smaller oval into quadrants, and maintain a mower’s width path from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom. It is your choice whether to maintain the center paths in grass (which should be edged to keep out the grass, which *will* creep) or use a hard mulch (bark, hazelnut shells, gravel, etc. etc.) Then cover all unwanted grass with newspapers which can be weighed down with mulch, and dig it in, in the spring. Definately, the easiest way to go. Can add soil amendments at that time.

    Don’t forget water. I don’t know where your spiggots are, but place some sturdy rocks or iron piping on the corners where the hoses will be dragged. Your choice for drip or overhead watering, but the peas and tomatos won’t appreciate the overhead as much.

    I really recommend keeping to the potager style, as already mentioned by other posters, considering your space availability, and your previously mentioned esthetic. For structure, make or buy some tuteurs; you have a lot of red in your picture, and the picture you posted by Layanee showed a nicely red-painted structure, so this would be a good way to add color to your garden. One in each quadrant could be spectacular, and will give you more space for peas, indeterminate tomatos, squash or cucumbers, and maybe even melons!

    The most fun is choosing the varieties and layout for your vegetables, so I’ll leave that for you and your friends. Plant what you like to eat, or what you know you can give away. Feel free to contact me directly if you want a Seattle perspective.

  18. Susan

    This is a great idea, but I worry about the lack of full sun. I’ve had so many disapointments and outright failures over the years in trying to force this issue in my own garden and have found that when it says “tolerates’ less than full sun that’s exactly it. The plants aren’t happy. Many of the more appealing perennial herbs (lavender, rosemary, some of the sages,etc) definitely want it very sunny.

    Maybe initially you could start with lettuces in different colors and shades of greens and textures? Making patterns out of these can be very attractive. The chards will also tolerate less than full sun and are beautiful.

    A suggestion – especially if you might go with grass walkways – might be to start with a smaller island plot that would be the center of the garden and create your design in such a way that it could be expanded if the experiment works out. Maybe start with one tutuer with sweet peas and some greens and annual herbs.

    I have a good book on French vegetable gardening with lots of illustrations. Let me know if you’d like to borrow it and I’ll drop it by your house.

    Happy digging!

  19. Susan – what do YOU eat? I’d grow what you ike best – that is why I do strawberries and watermelon but you won’t find onions in my beds. I concur with the herbs advice and why not mix in some edible shrubs in your borders – blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, etc. (there are thornless kind) and how about a small fruit tree or two? I think a fig would be perfect at your front strip. Edibles goes far beyond just a summer crop of veggies.

  20. This summer was our first to have a real garden (new house), so we planted lots of stuff where we had lots of sun. We had a quandry about what to do with the “cold crops” so ended up placing two kiddie pools under a tree, poked holes, filled with potting soil, and planted with lettuces, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. That worked so well we gave away lettuce. I’m sure you want something nicer looking than kiddie pools but making some small 2’x4′ formed and 18″ tall raised beds would help you. You could make the frames, and before filling, arrange and re-arrange in your yard, watching periodically throughout the day as to how much sun each gets. Just remember the sun is higher in the sky in the summer. Once you’ve figured out the placement, layer in the cardboard and newspaper and mulch, etc. to prevent weeds and grass growing through. Unfortunately we have “bindweed” that comes through anything and everything. Hope that helps. Keep us posted at – we’re very interested in this topic! Vikki

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