An Edible Garden


An Edible Garden
by Patrick Porter

My neighbor John Regan is a sewer man in Natick. He gets paid for emptying overflowing septic systems with his pump truck. After a full day's work, he parks the unsavory load outside town to keep peace with his neighbors. His white house on the corner of Main Street is above average and well maintained, but the surrounding yard was unremarkable ... until last spring.

Growing bored with his lawn and anxious about an economic downturn, Regan cut down the spruce trees and forsythia bushes that lined his property. Then he called me. We attached a tow strap to my tractor and removed the stumps. I tilled away the grass and together we raked away any leftover clumps. After a handshake for my efforts, John Regan announced he would "enhance the community and become self-sufficient."

With a little help, he bought packets of seeds and planted peppers.  Sweet corn and broccoli were sown in neat rows; transplanted squash and pumpkins were placed along the perimeter of his lot (and eventually extended beyond), obscuring the soil beneath their foliage.

The change from suburban lot to edible garden was quickly noticed.  Previously unknown neighbors ambled up and folded their arms over the top rail of his fence, watching while he worked. Folks who had spent years minding their own business were suddenly affable and chatty, gazing wistfully upon the garden. Although they had not contributed to the harvest, most were handed armfuls of excess food. It was a busy little yard and the sewer man became famous.

Regan is not shy about his new celebrity status. "When I had plain old grass and trees, people drove by without turning their heads.This place used to look like everywhere else ... now I have a crowd here all the time, including paparazzi."

It is not hard to become an edible gardener; just a slight change in philosophy is required. With little more effort than mowing a lawn or deadheading a patch of marigolds, food production can be realized on any soil that gets adequate sunlight and water. Simply sticking a shovel into turf and turning over three square feet will turn a caretaker into a producer. Nine reasonably nurtured tomato plants that fit in the newly prepared area will yield far more tomatoes than most families will use fresh and the rest can be distributed for future favors.

If you're new to this, do not dampen your enthusiasm with too much literature. Oftentimes, the information in the gardening books will frighten away potential edible gardeners ... it almost did with me 30 years ago. Don't worry about what you don't have, like pH levels and micronutrients. That can all be changed over time, depending on your future commitment and possible plans for expansion.

Most important, it is best to start with robust transplants and a little fertilizer to "jump start" their growth. Our great-grandparents could produce food from a tin can filled with dirt.Whether organic or not, at least try, as your ancestors most certainly did, to provide some sort of larder for the dinner table.

In these late winter months, step out and peruse what you have at your disposal. Got grass? Take some of it away this spring with a flatedged shovel and replace it with chocolate peppers, neon eggplants or Brandywine tomatoes. The area underneath specimen trees can probably be refitted with a ground cover of Red Sails lettuce or the mixed chartreuse to violet palette of a mesclun mix.

Don't fight dandelions near the driveway ... consider a paper birch trellis with burgundy pole beans dangling just beyond the pavement.

Edible landscapes can be laid out in an orderly format or a creative mosaic; straight, regimented rows are a thing of the past in urban areas.  Abstract circles of golden beets or purple kale are all the rage now.  Oddly shaped pieces of wood or metal can be considered sculpture, but covered with Oriental pea pods they become totems of self reliance in the front yard. Any available fence can hold Galia melons and Asian cucumbers if there is reasonable daylight.

Go online and order seed catalogs; thumb through them. The species are usually indexed alphabetically. Find what you like to eat, starting with asparagus and ending with zucchini. Good vendors generally include a growing guide with their products, so you receive not only the seeds or roots but also the proper information on how to grow them.

Look for purveyors that actually grow and "trial" the vegetables or fruits they are offering. My personal favorites are companies that sample the material and bring them to maturity during growing seasons shorter than my own. If the plants will grow inMaine or upstate New York, I can expect good results just west of Boston.

Pay attention to the height of certain crops.The physical requirements of corn, vine peas and pole beans have been adhered to for thousands of years. Do not tamper with their needs. Plant the carrots in front so the sunlight can do its work.

Don't break your heart trying to grow novelties in your edible landscape.  Certain varieties have proven dependable over hundreds of years and are continually propagated (Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Detroit Dark Red beets). I recommend you start with these to insure your success.

As a species, we are naturally inquisitive and industrious. We have fed ourselves for millions of years. The edible landscape has followed us through our journey. Allow yourself to choose the fruits and vegetables that will adorn and enhance the parcel you have sold your working days to pay for. Grab a hand tool and prepare for visitors.

This past Thanksgiving, I was able to walk out onto the remnants of my own front lawn, just two blocks away from John Regan. I found the heavily mulched rows of my Yukon Gold and Red Norland potatoes giving themselves up to frigid temperatures, filled with starch and each as crisp as a cold apple. The spring-sown carrots had sent a few wispy sprigs of foliage towards the November sun, but they pulled from the soil easily, done with their task. Beets and turnips were assembled under the straw, finally pulled and placed into a wooden basket. My digging was done and the soil was raked level. Eventually, snow and ice hid the evidence of my work, and the edible landscape was retired until next year.

Patrick's Seed Sources

Johnny's Selected Seeds
Winslow, Maine 04901

Stokes Seeds
Buffalo, New York 14240

Harris Seeds
Rochester, New York 14624

Patrick Porter grows cut flowers in Sudbury and Framingham, Massachusetts, for New England florists, supplies vegetables to two restaraunts: Dali and Cucci Cucci, and works every day at the Boston Flower Exchange. Occasionally he is able to write freelance...His email is and he welcomes all comments.