It looks odd, at first. We are used to seeing Japanese maples, box shrubs, hydrangeas, grass. A stand of corn looks like it has gotten lost on its way back to Iowa; a hedge of blueberries or a tall trellis of peas growing between porch and street seem out of place.
But, increasingly, we see these front-yard gardens in Salem, carefully tended by folks who want to use the traditional domain of ornamental plants to grow food.
Or maybe the ornamentals are not so traditional, if we look back far enough in history. “I have no use for grass,” says John Gear, as he sits in his front yard, wearing a floppy canvas hat and picking blueberries. “In colonial America, people grew kitchen gardens. They used all the space they had to grow food. Only the landed gentry had grass.”
Without thinking, I pick a few blueberries and toss them into my mouth, then look at him — guilty! “Eat as many as you want,” says Gear, 52. “We have plenty. They are the perfect crop for Salem.” The blueberries are large and luscious, simultaneously sweet and tart, and they pop with a burst of flavor under the tooth.
On their small urban lot in Northeast Salem, Gear and his wife, Mary, grow not only several varieties of blueberries, but goumi berries (a little-known berry from the Far East which is a great source of antioxidants), cherries, strawberries, raspberries, Asian pears, apples, melons and figs. And that’s just the fruit.
In the raised beds Gear has built in both front and back yards grow lettuce, pumpkins, carrots, potatoes, squash and tomatoes, all raised organically, all tended lovingly. Mary Gear does much of the work, putting in eight to 10 hours per week in the garden while her husband works his day job as a lawyer. On summer weekends, they work together to harvest their crops and freeze what they don’t eat immediately.
“When Americans grew more affluent, they began to imitate the habits of the British upper-class and grow lawns,” says Gear, who has done his research. “Food production, laundry — anything that had to do with work — was relegated to the backyard. There is a class bias against food production.”
The Gears use an online garden planner available through Mother Earth News to help them with crop rotation and succession planting. They make their own compost and add manure, kelp, lime and dolomite to the soil when needed.
“Grass is useless and expensive — both environmentally and economically,” Gear says. “Plus, I hate to mow.”
Just a few blocks away from the Gears, Lee and Janel Roden’s 1920s bungalow stands out from the other homes on 15th Street for its front-yard beds of basil, squash, eggplant, onion, carrots and cabbage — but most of all for its stand of tall sweet corn, a reminder of the couple’s roots in the Midwest.
The Rodens — both 32 — moved to Salem from Iowa six years ago because they wanted to be in Oregon, and after hearing their Portland friends complain about the expense of living in the city, they aimed farther south.
“This neighborhood is great — there are lots of kids, and I ride my bike to work,” Lee Roden says. He works full-time for the state, and his wife is a property manager. They garden on weekends and evenings.
When the Rodens first moved into their home, grass and weeds filled both the front and back yards. They started out growing a big garden behind their house, but they wanted a place for their dog and their 2-year-old son, Mosely, to run and play (they recently added another boy, Oaken, to the family).
“The front yard was unused space, and the garden just gradually spread around to the street,” Roden says. They still grow tomatoes and lettuce next to the garage, but now the backyard is also home to a shady patio and a small lawn bordered by blueberries and raspberries.
The Rodens garden strictly organically. They have three hens, and make their own compost from vegetable scraps and chicken manure. Nothing leaves the site — the garden provides food for the family and the hens; the manure and vegetable waste go into the soil; the soil produces the food.
They have a big extra freezer to store what they don’t eat fresh, and they devote one weekend a month to preserving as much produce as possible. “Growing food is my hobby,” Lee Roden says. “We don’t watch our TV. Gardening is pretty much what I do.”
Farther north of downtown, Brooke Edmunds and Jason Mekeel, a couple in their mid-30s, are raising their two children and a large variety of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs at their early 1900s home.
“We want our kids to know how to cook, to know how and where their food comes from,” Mekeel says. “Have you ever had real ranch dressing, made with fresh parsley and chives? It’s good.”
Mekeel got interested in urban farming three years ago, after reading about the pollution of the Willamette River. “A hundred years ago, the big polluters were raw sewage and heavy metals,” he says. “Now, it’s agricultural run-off. I thought, ‘How can I make a difference?’ I wanted to lessen our dependence on Big Ag.”
When they moved into the house, they ripped out lawn and shrubbery, amended the soil with mushroom compost and organic fertilizer, and now grow a surprising variety of crops on their fairly small lot.
Edmunds, a plant pathologist, insists on starting their plants from seed to avoid disease. In the early spring, trays and pots of quickly-growing plant starts crowd every south-facing window sill in their home.
Outside, silvery artichoke bushes, broad-leafed rhubarb and feathery asparagus do the work of ornamentals while providing food for the family. A pomegranate and a fig tree grow in a corner; a hop vine climbs and hangs over the front doorway — their friends make beer from their own hops, and Mekeel eventually plans to join them.
They grow several varieties of peppers, peas, beans (purple and rattlesnake), squash, dill and all kinds of cucumbers — Edmunds likes to pickle things. In the winter they will add kale, spinach and chard.
Mekeel shows me his collection of basil — lettuce-leafed and purple-ruffled — glowing in the dappled shade of a small tree. “I find it does better with some shade,” he says. The couple and their 4-year-old daughter, Josephine, make their own pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays (baby Everett is too young to help much). Later they can defrost as much or as little as they need.
The family transformed their side yard into a patch with 45 tomato plants, and Mekeel shows me at least four kinds of heirlooms: Stupice, purple plum, plum Tigris and San Marazano.
I ask what the neighbors think about the front-yard farm. “The reaction has been completely positive,” Mekeel says, with a smile. “But then, I give away a lot of tomatoes.”
Edible Yard Resources
Laura Gildart Sauter has been growing vegetables for 40 years — currently, in her backyard. She writes an occasional column on local farming for Salem Weekly, and has had her poetry and short fiction published in obscure literary journals.
Diane Stevenson is a freelance photographer and videographer who specializes in shooting candid portraits and landscapes. On weekends you can find her pouring wine at Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall.