Thursday, March 26, 2009

Creating an Edible Front Yard

I stumbled onto a new favorite blog, The Food Renegade, and in the interest of joining Kristen M's Friday blog carnival I am inspired to write a little more about how we created our edible front yard.

When we moved into our home 11 years ago the front yard was lush with grass. It looked fine, but I quickly came to resent it because the act of mowing the steep hills was more than a little life threatening.

Here's a picture of it from back in the day:

Our back yard is tree-filled and shady and I dreamed for years of transforming the front into an edible garden but felt overwhelmed by the time, cost and energy that such a project would entail. Finally, in the spring of 2007, we had an economic windfall and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it: hire folks to help me plan and create an edible garden.

Fortunately, my child's labor was free but I paid almost $1500 for other labor and materials.

The raised bed is essential because the soil was in very poor condition and required quite a bit of amendment to support the 8 blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. Those plants, along with the other herbs I planted - rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and marjoram - are now thriving.

Here is a picture of what the garden looks like today:

You can click on the picture for a larger view: off to the left is a large rosemary plant and the rest of the plants in front of the raised bed are mostly flowering plants. The bottom row has the blueberry bushes and strawberry plants.

Here is a close-up picture of a blueberry bush with sweet little buds:

And here is a close-up of the raised bed garden.

This is what it looked like last year in early summer:

We get loads of tomatoes and cucumbers by training them up the trellises. And we get glorious greens from the rest of the available plot:

Here my son proudly displayed a lovely cucumber before it was unceremoniously plucked off the vine and crunched in his mouth.

We have enjoyed our garden so much. It is definitely worth every bit of effort: I love to look at it year round and the benefits are too many to count. To me the greatest benefit is that my son knows where real food comes from.


PaulaB52 said...

Ohh, we went camping in NC this fall, it's beautiful country. I wondered how those yards got mowed when they have such steep inclines!

Great idea btw. What types of blueberry bushes did you plant? We have the beginnings of an "orchard" (one orange, one lemon, one Japanese plum). I plan to border it with blueberry bushes, but I've read you have to have two different types to propogate (is that the word, you know, make berries! LOL)

FOO said...

Hi Paula! Good question about the berries! I'll put it in to my friend who helped me plan the garden and raised the blueberry bushes before she passed them along to me and get back to you! Your orchard sounds wonderful! I'd definitely like to plant some fruit trees.

Lara said...

I love the idea of an edible front yard; we have nearly an acre of unused land and it never even occurred to me to utilize the space from the front of the house to the street. Thanks for the pictures and idea!

Villager said...

Your blog was picked up by Ooooby in New Zealand (see ) where the following reply was posted. It does not make happy reading, and may ruin your day, but you do need to be aware of the potential hazards.


Great story except for the photograph of the treated timber with the bare-legged child.

From its colour, I believe the timber used to make the bed is called pressure-treated, tanalised or CCA. CCA means the metals Chrome & Copper and the metalloid Arsenic. CCA is used because it is toxic to insects and bacteria that destroy soft timbers, especially pines which otherwise break down and become useless. All three elements are toxic, but arsenic is known as a dangerous poison.

Consider the following information taken from Guidance Noteissued by the Wood Protection Association (WPA) to assist users of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) preservatives and users and specifiers of CCA-treated timber.”

WPA is the trade organisation for the makers and sellers of treated timber. If this warning comes from them, it must be taken seriously. I quote below:

“CCA-treated wood may be placed on the market for professional and industrial use where the structural integrity of the wood is required for human or livestock safety and skin contact by the general public during its service life is unlikely. The Regulations lists the following uses:

• as structural timber in public and agricultural buildings, office buildings, and industrial premises;

• in bridges and bridgework;

• as constructional timber in freshwater areas and brackish waters e.g. jetties and bridges;

• as noise barriers;

• in avalanche control;

• in highway safety fencing and barriers;

• as debarked round conifer livestock fence posts;

• in earth retaining structures;

• as electric power transmission and telecommunications poles;

• as underground railway sleepers.

The WPA’s opinion is that compliance with the caveats (structural integrity of the wood is required for human or livestock safety and skin contact by the general public during its service life is unlikely) automatically follows from inclusion in this list. No further assessment of compliance is necessary.

See above for interpretation of ‘placed on the market’. Note the restriction for ‘professional and industrial’ use – CCA-treated timber should not be placed on the market for DIY use.

However, CCA-treated wood may not be used:

• in residential or domestic constructions, whatever the purpose;

• in any application where there is a risk of repeated skin contact;

• in marine waters;

• for agricultural purposes other than for livestock fence posts and structural uses (in accordance with the previous paragraph dealing with permitted uses);

• in any application where the treated wood may come into contact with intermediate or finished products intended for human and/or animal consumption.

‘Repeated skin contact’ is not defined in the Regulations but the Department of Trade and Industry has given a helpful definition of ‘frequent’ skin contact in their guidance notes on other regulations that introduced restrictions on creosote-treated timber. This suggests that someone working with treated timber and handling it without gloves is an example of someone in frequent skin contact. This may give an indication of what is meant by repeated skin contact.

In short, the DIY (do it yourself) garden shown in the photograph breaches the guidelines in the following ways:

• The flat tops are ideal for sitting, and it is most likely that the child will put his bare legs and hands on the treated timber, thus being exposed to Chrome, Copper and Arsenic (CCA).

• Placing food on the flat tops will mean treated wood comes into contact with food intended for human consumption

• The side wood is being used for agricultural purposes. This will leach the chemicals into the soil and into the water. Watering the garden would have to be done extremely carefully or the water will transport the chemicals. A hard rain will splatter the chemicals. Further, as soon as the soil is turned over, the chemicals in the soil near the sides will be brought into the growing soil.

Wood rots. If you want to do raised-bed gardening, use something that does not rot, does not contain toxins and does the job. Even using old railway sleepers (in the US called railroad ties) is questionable, as the chemicals uses in some timbers are highly toxic. While they are old and much of the fresh toxins would have leached out and be gone, it’s just not smart to take the risks of unknown products (some sleepers may be OK if they are untreated – such as jarrah - and have no history of dripped oil and grease from the trains, but unless you know, it's just not smart).

We made raised beds using earth-brick mix. This is a mix of 13 parts crushed rock from the local quarry and one part cement poured into forms. It’s a kind-of low-cement concrete. We coated the surface with a hand-mix of clay, sand and cement, where gold-red clay is selected to give a nice colour. Also, because of so many questions were asked about it, I wrote it all down in a booklet which can be obtained free off Ooooby in download pdf form. See for the download.

On the one hand, I feel sorry having to be the bearer of bad news, it is apparent how happy the Mum gardener is with her results, but on the other hand, people really need to know what they are dealing with. When I first got to New Zealand, I saw carpenters cutting treated timber with bare hands and no breathing masks. I saw huge piles of CCA sawdust on the ground where it was left to become part of the earth surrounding the home… earth where kids will play and dogs will dig. So I asked the local building supply store and they assured me CCA timber was safe. I asked to see their trade papers on the product, and in the binders they pulled out, I found endless warnings on how CCA timber should be used and handled. It was decidedly unsafe and the store experts said they had never read or been told about these matters. I built our home out of earth brick made from crushed rock taken from a quarry 4 km away. I know exactly what went into the construction, so I have some comfort about its health and safety.

In a few decades, when the illness strikes and is isolated, the state will probably view CCA the way we now view asbestos. Construction sites will be tested for CCA contamination. Topsoil will have to be stripped and sent away for containment… and a prior generation blamed when all the technical literature warned about it.

May I suggest that someone on Ooooby with some time examine every posting, and where CCA wood has been used, put up some sort of warning. Our own back yards can become a toxic place if we bring the wrong stuff in.

FOO said...

Fascinating stuff from the Ooooby commenter. So, yes, everyone reading this - take precautions!

The information provided reminded me of Having Faith, a memoir written by an environmentalist. She found that so many chemicals (for example, lead paint chips and dust) have leached into the ground around homes that it is unsafe to plant root vegetables.

It seems to me that any garden that is planted in soil that hasn't been maintained "certified organic" - meaning most front and backyard gardens - are going to have their share of contaminants.

I'm very glad this person posted so that others can benefit from the information. We will continue to enjoy our garden for all the benefits I enumerated.