Landscape architect Owen Dell learned as a young man that a front yard vegetable garden could be social glue that pulls a community together.
“When I was in my 20s, I lived in downtown Santa Barbara, in a big old Victorian, sort of hippy house. We’d sit on the front porch and hang out. We were kind of scruffy looking,” Dell said. “Down the street was a house for seniors. They sort of glowered at us as they walked by going to the grocery store or the post office.”
One year he planted a vegetable garden in the front yard. “The old people stopped to look at it, and talk. They were smiling, saying good morning. We gave them peas and tomatoes. It turned a lot of enemies into friends,” he said.
The experience made such an impression on Dell, he never forgot. “Not only were we growing food, we were growing goodwill and happiness,” he said.
Dell repeated the process several times over the years, most recently when he moved to Corvallis, Ore., three years ago.
“Same darn thing happened here. I put in a vegetable garden out front, starting in that devil’s strip between the curb and sidewalk. I now know 30 or 40 of my neighbors. We have become friends, help each other out,” he said. “I’ve come to believe the social value is as important as the lettuce and peppers.”
Dell will be in Lexington to give The Arboretum’s Founders Lecture on Feb. 10. His topic: Sidewalk Salads: Frontyard Vegetable Gardens. The next day he will be the keynote speaker at the Central Kentucky Ornamental and Turf Association winter horticulture conference where he will speak on Watershed Friendly Landscaping and Sustainable Landscape Management.
Dell is an author, educator and has worked extensively in areas of sustainable landscapes, watersheds and water quality. He is a permaculture designer and has pioneered sustainable landscaping practices used internationally.
But one of his favorite topics remains that of front yard vegetable gardening. Besides the social value to a neighborhood, planting something other than grass and ornamental shrubs in front of your house “raises that plot to a higher purpose,” he said. “We’re not just decorating with pretty plants anymore. That era has passed. We have to ask what does our landscape do.”
Sustainability “is very important” even on a small scale like a yard, Dell said. “Any plant will sequester carbon and make oxygen, doesn’t matter what it is. But obviously there is higher value to things that are native, have habitat value for the bees, the birds or create food for us.”
When asked why would a homeowner tear out lawn to put in vegetables? He replies, “You raise that land to a higher purpose.”
Higher purpose or not, if that garden is in front of your house for all the world to see, it better look good, Dell said. He will give tips on how to create a pretty, productive sidewalk vegetable garden.
“You apply the same design principles to your vegetable garden as you do a flower bed or a perennial border or anything. You’re just doing it with things you eat.”
If you take out your lawn and put in “a bunch of stuff that is neglected, poorly grown or is inherently unattractive to start out with, laid out in a way that doesn’t meet the requirements of good design, your neighbors are going to have to look at it,” Dell said. And they won’t be very happy with what you’re doing.
For that reason, he’s careful where he puts tomatoes, certainly never at the front of a garden because as summer wears on, they get leggy, need staking and can look pretty raggedy.
He will address safety considerations, neighborhood food sharing strategies, legal issues pertaining to zoning and restrictions imposed by home owner associations.
“In some places, you absolutely can not have vegetables growing in the front yard,” he said.
Beverly Fortune is a former Herald-Leader reporter. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-948-7846.
If You Go
What: Arboretum’s Founders Lecture given by landscape architect Owen Dell who will talk on Sidewalk Salads: Front Yard Vegetable Gardens
Where: Gluck Equine Center, 1400 Nicholasville Road, University of Kentucky campus
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 10
Admission: $5; free for Friends of The Arboretum and students with ID.