Want to Eat Local and Reduce Carbon Pollution? Start a Front Yard Food Garden

Written by Scott Belan on . Posted in Act

Climate change is clearly playing an increasingly large role in the way we feed ourselves. Just ask Russia and their diminished grain harvest from intense heat waves in 2010, or the coffee growers resorting to lower-quality beans, or the wine industry threatened by climate impacts to grapes, for starters. It’s a huge issue, and one that can be hard to grab hold of.

But a great place to start is your own yard.

My front yard in 2007, before conversion to a kitchen garden

Creating a kitchen garden is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Not only do you avoid the carbon emissions of shipped food (or even driving to the store), you also replace lawn (that must be mowed, usually by a gas-powered mower) with food. But the real payoff is that first salad of the season or that perfectly ripe tomato, still warm from the sun.

My front yard food garden (herbs, lettuce, Asian greens, onions, and peas. During the summer, we’ll grow okra, tomatoes, and basil as well)

My wife Allison and I initially chose our front yard for a kitchen garden for a simple reason: the backyard is too shady. But as I started building raised beds, filling them with soil and compost and planting perennial herbs, I found out there is another great reason to garden your front yard – community. Nothing starts a conversation with the neighbors quite like a bed of rat-tail radishes or a patch of purple okra. I love inviting dog walkers and neighborhood kids to come on over and check out what’s growing.

Of course, while we love chatting with the neighbors, most of our time in the garden is actually spent working and learning: what grows well in our little micro-climate (and what doesn’t), how to control plant-gnawing bugs without pesticides, that kind of thing. If you don’t have a tolerance for disappointment (and failure), gardening may not be your thing. My first garden was a pitiful thing, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to keep the squirrels from swiping my tomatoes exactly one day before they reach perfect ripeness.

On the other hand, gardeners are among the world’s most dogged adaptation practitioners. Last year, the part of the North Carolina Piedmont where I live shattered its old record (set way back in 2007!) with 91 days above 90 degrees – a full three months of the kind of heat and humidity that can put a beating on vegetables bred for milder temperatures.

So, what to do? Well, I grow a romaine lettuce variety from Israel, bred to stand up to the heat. Same with a number of Asian greens that do just fine in a range of conditions. And, while the season for spinach here can be short and unpredictable, the tropical vine known as Malabar spinach thrives all summer long, providing succulent, edible leaves that are vaguely spinach-flavored.

Asian greens (“the stir-fry bed”)

Snap peas (left); lettuce and onions (right)

Another cool thing about gardening is the potential to “close the loop” on resource inputs. I had to buy some soil to start my beds, but now I amend that soil with the compost I make from raked-up leaves, kitchen scraps and garden waste. And I have several rain barrels, so even in droughts, which seem to be getting more frequent and more intense as the climate changes, I usually have a good supply of water collected straight from our roof. Growing from seed and buying plants from local growers is good too. And, for the truly hardcore, there is always saving your own seed from heirloom plants and using them to make next year’s garden – now that’s a closed loop.

Climate change can make us feel helpless in its hugeness, but starting a front yard food garden is a concrete, if small, way to get involved in reducing carbon pollution. Every square foot of lawn that you turn into a square foot of food is a step in the right direction!

So this year, in addition to joining in on The Nature Conservancy’s Picnic for the Planet, you can celebrate Earth Day with your very own front yard food garden. Follow these steps to get started!

TO GET GROWING:

1. Make a plan. A good vegetable garden usually starts in the cold of winter, on a piece of graph paper or a design program. This will help you put things in the right place the first time around.

2. Start small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so start with one or two beds, perhaps herbs and lettuce. Grow your garden by adding a couple of new beds every year.

3. Check out your farmers’ market. If you have a farmers’ market near you, spring is a great time to pick up bedding plants, herbs and that most valuable commodity of all: advice from people who know what they are doing!

Scott Belan is program information manager for climate change at The Nature Conservancy. Scott also attended the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, worked in restaurants for several years and most recently ran a part-time personal chef business. He is now an avid home cook, and takes advantage of the wonderful local foods opportunities in Durham, NC, especially the Durham Farmers’ Market.

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Comments (22)

  • Todd Bowers

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    Thanks much Scott. Missing NC since my move to Atlanta two years ago. However, I bought a nice little bungalow with, you guessed it, a shady backyard and lots of sun in the front. We couldn’t help but start a raised bed garden in the front and that is exactly what we did. Last year we started with 64 square feet and grew tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley, cherokee black beans, squash, and many other herbs. This year we expanded another 32 square feet and step by step we are converting the front lawn into garden space. It has been a boon to meeting neighbors and passersby as well. I can’t say we have saved any money yet (if you include the greenhouse cost) but as a hobby it is certainly rewarding eating our own food. Best of luck to you!

    Reply

  • Scott Belan

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    Glad to hear it Todd. That’s the cool thing about doing it piece by piece – you grow into the garden, so to speak, rather than biting off more than you can chew, getting overwhelmed and quitting the whole thing. I’ve started to notice more and more front-yard veggie gardens in my neighborhood – hope they are multiplying in yours as well. Happy Earth Day!

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  • Deb Rebisz

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    That is very cool. This year, I planted 5 tomato plants in the front yard after watching them burn to a crisp last year in our Central TX sun. Unlike tomatoes up North, down here we have to give them shade and my backyard just doesn’t have any. The tomatoes are currently flourishing between my house and my Italian Cypress shrubs in the bed in my front yard. My only fear is that my neighbors will be unable to resist helping themselves when the fruits ripen! ;)

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  • Owlie

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    To combat squirrels, I bought bird netting at Home Depot and put that over my tomato plants. You’ll have to tack it down at the bottom or they’ll climb up inside. It worked well, no more predation from them. Instead, the stink bugs got everything. Gardening: not for sissies!

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  • Abbie

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    This is amazing. What a great idea. We have two huge trees in our small front yard so not a great place for a garden but I love the idea. We took over our whole side yard for the garden instead.
    Great work!

    Reply

  • Diane Samdahl

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    Don’t forget about plants that fit in with “normal” suburban yards. I’m never without a few blueberry bushes along the lot line. Rosemary grows into a beautiful bushy plant that looks great at the base of the mailbox. A fruit tree could give a bit of shade where needed.

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  • Heather

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    I’m an amateur yard gardener at this point, but this is my second year in a row and it’s kind of an addiction! It’s growing exponentially it seems. Another thing to add is that yard gardening is a great way to be more visible and present in your neighborhood and it makes a great conversation starter to meet your neighbors. :)

    Reply

  • M. Mackenzie somewhere in Oregon

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    Nice idea, but unfortunately in these tough economic times if I planted a garden in my front yard somebody would steal the fruits of my labor. I do, however, have a just-planted garden in my fenced and locked back yard. Happy gardening everyone!

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  • Julie

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    I have a raised bed garden that successfully provides food for about half the year.

    I harvest about 900 gallons of rain water from my roof. I would caution the use of it on food beds unless you are scrubbing it. The heavy metals alone are not very healthy and we have been advised not to use it by the county who helped pay for the water harvesting project.

    You might want to look into this in your area too.

    Reply

  • Linda

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    Very nice Scott. We have a pear and plum dwarf tree in our front yard put in last fall plus a mulch ground that replaced our lawn. Kitchen herbs and veggie garden in the back. Keep on gardening!

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  • Cecilia

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    Hi Scott. Thank you for sharing your gardening experience. I am a pure city girl, grew up in Asia where it was the household help who grew local veggies and fruit trees in between our mostly ornamental plants. Now that I’m in my late 50′s and spending half my time in San Francisco and the other half in Hong Kong (where most everyone lives in apartment buildings), I have a longing to start my own garden in San Francisco. Our backyard is small and gets a bit of sunshine and our front yard, which gets most of the sun, is also small. Please continue sharing your gardening experience. I will be back in San Francisco in June, and will try to start a raised bed garden with hardy veggies and herbs. I am infamous in the family for having my very un-green thumb, but your article and the experiences of others are inspiring and encouraging.

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  • Scott Belan

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    Deb – shade tomatoes, huh? now that’s an unexpected adaptation for sure. good luck!

    Heather – we’re all amateur gardeners – that’s what makes it so much fun! I agree with you that front yard gardening is a great way to interact with neighbors, too.

    Julie – that’s awesome, food for half the year! We just try to get a little something from the garden every day. sometimes it’s a whole salad or a mess of okra, but other times it’s just a snip of herbs to go in a soup or something.

    Cecilia – good luck starting your city garden – you can grow a surprising amount in a small space. One of the things I love to see more than anything when I travel is how people garden in their own places – I have seen many vibrant veggie gardens in San Francisco, so I know you can do it.

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  • Kelly Enzor

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    Scott,

    Thanks for the article. I live in downtown Atlanta and 96 sq. ft. of raised beds in a sliver of the backyard that gets summer (plus blackberries, blueberries and strawberries in another bed) and have taken over part of the front garden this year especially for tomatoes (a cottage garden: vegetables, herbs and flowers). I have four rain barrels, but was told that I shouldn’t use this water for my vegetable garden due to potential toxins from my asphalt shingled roof. I believe the wording was something like “this water is non-potable and not appropriate for vegetation to be consumed.” What material is your roof made from? We will need to replace ours in another year or so and perhaps there is something we can use that will allow us to use the rainwater for our kitchen garden. Thoughts?

    Kelly

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  • Cat

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    I love to see this happening. We are slowly but surely taking our landscaping and replacing ornamental with edible. (Although I cant give up my orchids!!)

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  • Scott Belan

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    Kelly, I have a standard asphalt shingle roof too. I’m aware that there are concerns about hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals leaching into the water (and thus the soil, and thus the veggies)…but it isn’t anything I stay up at night worrying about (too much other stuff to worry about….). Roof-collected water is definitely not for direct consumption, for a variety of reasons.

    As far as soil/food contamination, I haven’t been able to find any serious studies of this; much of what you find is pretty simplistic and cautionary (i.e. your roof has toxins and they could get into your vegetables, so don’t use roof-collected water on your veggies). I’d just say that if you are concerned, you could always have your soil tested. Not sure what other roofing materials would be better (metal roofs are often galvanized, i.e. coated with zinc). Another option would be something called a first-flush diverter that sends the initial rainfall (which may have more of the toxins as well as other biological contaminants – again, can’t find any serious research on this) away from your barrels before collection begins. Finally, if you really want to use your barrels but you are concerned about toxins, there are filter systems you could look into.

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  • Desmond Cutler

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    Scott: Jodie Lapoint (co-worker and wife of one of my good friends) forwarded this to me. I’m glad to see other Durham locals doing this. I sent Jodie a note asking for your direct email/phone so we can touch base. I’m on “planting” vacation this week and was going to offer you an opportunity to check out my garden(s) and rain sources right in the oldest community of Durham – Parkwood, if of interest. I have pictures, etc., on facebook, but they are not this year and my garden is continually evolving, improving, and growing. I have a .29acre lot. 1/2 of it is gardens/orchard (all created in the past 4.5 years). the other half is the house and an area for my dogs (with fruit trees). I capture rain water and have a total capture capacity of about 3,000 gallons – all off my roof. I attempt to be 100% organic using as much non-conventional methods/chemicals as possible. There is always a small portion of my crops where I have to use conventional, but that is less than 5-10% depending on the year and pests/diseases floating around. Keep up the awesome work and I’m hoping it catches on to more folks. Desmond

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  • Scott Belan

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    Cat – I certainly can’t give up ornamentals either, nor would I want to. Among other things, I grow a wide wildflower border, mostly native, on the edge of my yard. Provides a nice semi-private screen in the summer, but it also brings in bees and other pollinators that then go to work on the veggies too. There’s room for vegetables and orchids in the world!

    Desmond – Sounds amazing, will definitely come and see your garden. It really is heartening to see all the response from people who are doing the same thing and recognizing that they can do a lot more with a little bit of space than they ever thought.

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  • Christa

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    Scott, Thanks for sharing you very inspiring garden. You’ve got me thinking about starting an herb garden this spring!

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  • Margo

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    Nice video, Scott! Keep up the good gardening!

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  • James E. "Jim" Abbot

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    Hi Scott,

    I enjoyed reading about your “front yard” raised-bed garden. I’m originally from a rural area outside of Baton Rouge, LA [1940s-50s] where my family had a “HUGE” field (too large to call a garden) in which we grew most every summer vegetable, plus greens, potatoes, some squash and lettuce in the fall/winter. My Dad and I set out 100 tomato plants every year. We canned them in jars to use later for tomato sauce, gravy [ever eaten Tomato Gravy?], and for soups and gumbos. In the summer, we planted: sweet corn; pole beans; bush beans; butter peas; speckled butter beans; okra; egg plants; purple hull field peas; hot peppers; cucumbers [canned cases of
    pickles]; bell peppers; summer/yellow squash; green onions. Our family pretty much
    “lived off of the land.”

    I had vegetable gardens during my married years when I had a residence with a large back yard. Unfortunately, I now live in an apartment complex with NO opportunity for
    gardening. I really, sorely miss being able to garden. I have tried, w/o success to talk the apartment management into allocating some of the apartment grounds for gardening.

    ENJOY your garden and best wishes,
    Jim

    Reply

  • Paul Wassel

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    I arrived late at this website, but really enjoyed Scott’s guidance and everyone’s comments. Jim Abbot’s story of gardening when he was young sounded oh so familiar. We pretty much lived off the land here in rural west central Indiana when I was growing up in the 50′s and 60′s, with a huge vegetable garden, apple trees, and wild blackberries, raspberries, and persimmons. Our beagles usually kept any four-legged pests at bay! I’ve taken up kitchen gardening again, and we have enjoyed some good fresh fruit and vegetables despite the very challenging weather of late, with much wetter than normal springs and hot dry summers. Tame blackberries are doing well in a partly shaded portion of our lot. Difficulties aside, I find it very therapeutic, and the neighbors and family enjoy the surplus!

    Reply

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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