Veggie Tales

Artist Fritz Haeg is encouraging Americans to rethink the iconic front lawn

Clarence Ridgley lives in Baltimore, where, like most neighborhoods in America, the streets are lined with something very familiar: pristine front lawns. But when you get to Ridgley's home, there's no grass to be found; instead, there's a comely tangle of grape vines, blueberry bushes, strawberries, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, zucchini, herbs and black and brown beans, not to mention apple, cherry, fig, plum and pear trees.

Like the TV set, the car and the barbecue, the front lawn is such an American icon that planting it with anything but traditional landscaping can be a shock to the neighborhood. Especially when the vegetable garden was first installed, Ridgley says. All the neighbors slowed down as they drove past. "It's like I have a speed bump in front of my house," chuckles the good-natured Ridgley, who works as a supervisor at a local bottling company.

But Ridgley's garden is meant to draw attention. After all, it's not just his garden -- it's Edible Estates Regional Prototype Garden No. 6, commissioned by Baltimore's Contemporary Museum. The sixth Edible Estate created by Fritz Haeg, an artist, architect and designer and the author of the 2008 book "Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn," Ridgley's plot of vegetables is a work of social commentary.

"In our society today," Haeg says, "the way that we use (the front lawn) space is almost completely useless and yet requires all these resources and time ... . We pour water on it, we dump chemicals and pesticides on it, we mow it and pollute the air, and it requires all this time, and yet we don't even spend time there. We don't use it. And it's just this strategic piece of land between our front door and the street that basically has become like this kind of toxic moat."

Haeg's Edible Estates project asks people to reconsider that ubiquitous patch of green. "What if that all became a space to grow food on? But (it's) also just opening up people's minds to the possibilities, that they really have a choice about what they could do with that land," Haeg says. "Like when you buy a house, you inherit that front lawn, but a lot of times you don't think about the fact that you actually could do something else there."

People are coming to that realization more and more. While it's not always the front lawn that they attack, Americans -- including the Obamas, who have planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn -- are planting modern-day victory gardens all over the country.

According to a March 4 survey done by the Association of Landscape Architects, "Food gardens have re-emerged as a new technique to increase the sustainability of a home." And of course, there's the obvious benefit of consuming food you've grown yourself, says ASLA spokesman Jim Lapides. "But there are a lot of other things that go into it," he adds. "I think, because of the economic situation that's going on, it's kind of people's own way of contributing and giving back."

Giving back indeed. Last year, Ridgley's tomatoes grew so quickly that he "had to bag them up and walk up and down the street and put little bags of vegetables on my neighbors' front yards, because I couldn't use all of them," he says.

What's more, Ridgley has actually gotten to know his neighbors neighbors -- a phenomenon that Haeg says has occurred with all of his Edible Estates.

"It really was a great community sort of thing, bringing them together," Ridgley says. "Not to mention a lot of them got free fruit."