Eat This

No Revolution Without Pretty

Artist/designer Fritz Haeg is clearly a lovely guy, as well as a comrade in arms, in that he’s trying to make people question the absurdly unproductive and unattractive American yard.

His Edible Estates project replaces front lawns with vegetable gardens as a kind of art happening.  Last week, Susan posted about a garden that was sponsored by the Contemporary Museum Baltimore. 

How do I know Haeg is a generous soul?  Well, he answered my ungracious comment on that post with an extremely gracious comment of his own. 

Still, I can’t help myself. I find this project ridiculous, mainly because the gardens themselves are so artless and insignificant. The fact that Edible Estates gets so much press for them and the fact that homeowners compete to have one installed says one thing to me: Americans know zero about kitchen gardening.  So little that they find the mere concept of growing vegetables provocative–never mind the execution.

Edible Estate’s gardens seem extremely dubious from a cultivation standpoint.  Vegetable beds in the shade of a maple tree?  Good luck with that.  Failing to fence a front-yard garden that you plan to eat out of?  I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to have the neighborhood dogs pee on my lettuces.  And who takes care of these gardens after Haeg and his band of idealists disappear? Homeowners too diffident to make even such small gardens themselves? 

It seems telling that the homeowner’s blog for the Baltimore project has just one entry, dated May 16, 2008. Okay, now it’s high vegetable season.  How are things going?  Does anybody still care? Why does no one photograph these gardens in high season and in subsequent years?   Are they somehow finished the moment they’re planted?

And from an aesthetic standpoint: There’s no structure in these gardens.  There are no flowers.  There are no pots.  There is no sculpture.  Lordy, it’s the front yard.  It ought to look good.  And vegetable gardens invite structure.  Stuff like tomatoes and pole beans and peas need to be supported.  And structure doesn’t necessarily require a big budget, by the way.  Ingenuity will do.

What should a front-yard vegetable garden look like?  I borrowed these photos from Rant friend and designer Michelle Derviss, who’s written very convincingly about the need for architecture in a vegetable garden and whose front-yard potager offers an inspiring example.

Vegs_with_hand

Boxwood edging is of course, a natural in a front-yard vegetable garden. But what makes this garden so ineffably cool and personal is the hand emerging from it.

Winter_2001_veg

Gorgeous, no?  Notice also the geometry, the pots, the flowers, the wire fence to keep the dog from peeing on the produce.

Late_sprng_potager

Artful.  Pretty enough to launch a revolution.

I’m sorry, Fritz.  We’re talking about suburban homeowners, lawns, property values, petty pride.  Until people are starving in the streets of Lakewood and Maplewood, without pretty, there is no revolution. 

Posted by on July 11, 2008 at 3:38 am, in the category Eat This.
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18 Responses to “No Revolution Without Pretty”

  1. Donna says:

    I was recently reading about this.
    When I was a child there was a neighbor whose front garden was edible and it was as beautiful or more so than any other.

  2. greg draiss says:

    CONGRATS! I think garden rant gets it! These are the people (edible estates and their ilk) to attack. The so called experts who get press just because they know some editor and know nothing about gardening.
    The edible estates guy is right. We have lost the knowledge of kitchens gardens. Why? because American exceptionalism has made it that WE CAN FEED THE WORLD from our heart land. I am tired of the rest of the world and home grown America Haters telling us how bad we and our gardens are. The simple fact is they are jealous of our success.

    Now comes the test. What are we citizens going to do to beat down the oil nazis and survive as Americans? It is alraedy happening four day work weeks, mass transit is setting record ridership numbers, SUV and truck sales are down. People are staying home. Remember how quickly every one pulled together and cleaned up the mess of the buildings after 9/11. A project that was to take two years to clean up was done in several months, the Pentagon was rebuilt in several months not years.
    Then things got better and we started bickering about what was to built and how tall it should be at ground zero.

    If you want fault us for one thing it is our short memories. But that is caused by our quick rebounds to normal life after times of trouble.

    I just sold our summer home in the Adirondacks for the simple reason I AM NOT SPENDING THE GAS MONEY TO MAKE SOME 7TH CENTURY TERRORIST wealthier. I will saty home grow herbs, dry them in cute little bundles and sell them.

    As for the moron with the veggie gardens in the shade……DUH!
    As for the photos in this post about what a kitchen garden should look like WELL DONE!

    The (flag waving Uncle Sam wannabe) TROLL

  3. Kim says:

    Wow! Beautiful vegetable gardens and a post that makes you think. I want a veggie garden that looks like that, and I just may have one after seeing how great it looks. And you’re right – where is the follow up? If you want to start a movement, you can’t do it with one blog entry. I know where to go for the good stuff – it’s here at Rant.

  4. sixty-five says:

    Brava! This is such an important subject it really deserves a blog of its own. Those of us who are struggling to make better use of our suburban plots need inspiration, examples, lots and lots of photos. Give Mr Haeg credit where it’s due, for having the ability to get us all thinking about this. Now let’s figure out what works.

  5. All this talk about vegetable gardens from you Michele, while I have beeen in the midst of my first one in eighteen years certainly makes me think about how mine compares to an ideal. Ideally I want stuff to eat and that has been working out very well despite some minor failures. Pretty is good too. And if you can combine pretty with an alleged function so much the better. I decided my country vegetable garden needed a scarecrow.

    http://outsideclyde.blogspot.com/2008/07/scarecrow.html

  6. lawremc says:

    Michele—thanks for such an insightful post. You are right. If we are to encourage people to take the step back to raising at least some of their own food—there has to be a better way than this “veggie garden as performance art” that Edible Estates seem to be.

    In these days of horrific neighborhood covenants–you have to be able to show folks how they can integrate vegetables into their yards so that it’s aesthetically pleasing.

    The photos you posted are amazing! Like another person who commented—I lust for my veggie garden to look like that.

  7. Cindy says:

    I commend your bravery for having a dissenting opinion about Edible Estates. I personally think their intent is good, but the execution somewhat lacking. But there is a certain militance amongst some of the locavore and homesteading movement groups that dismisses anything short of living off the land by using vegetable garding (in tie died skirts..second hand of course)as a weapon in a growing war against suburbia.

    I have a sister that has beautifully combined vegetable growing and flower gardening on the sweeping lawn of her very formal 1850s brick and mansard roofed mansion which they restored after it being empty for 25 years. Hence growing veggies to save money since they spend all theirs breathing life back into the house. You actually have to tell people it’s got vegetables in it, or they just think it’s a beautiful formal garden.

    But, is it just me? The hand coming out of the boxwoods is kinda creepy. It kinda reminds me of the dog digging up the wife’s remains out of the flower bed in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

  8. DoctorJohn says:

    Great Post! Its great that Garden Rant is calling him out. I’m tired of seeing design ideas put forth that are not practical or useful in the long term.

    There is one example of practical vegetable gardening that I know of http://www.pathtofreedom.com
    If you go to their photos page and scroll down to the yard photos you can see how they transfromed their yard into an edible landscape.
    I’ve met them and been to their home. (Taught a soapmaking class)Great people, but be warned they are part of the second hand tied died skirt crowd ;-)
    Finally, If someone posts the address of the veg garden in Lakewood, CA. I’ll go take a picture of it so show the progress

  9. Claire Splan says:

    So now we’re asking people who are new to the concept of vegetable gardening to also become really great garden designers at the same time? I think anyone who takes out a front yard lawn and replaces it with edibles, under the auspices of Edibles Estates or otherwise, is doing something that is still slightly radical in this country. I’d rather see them commended than criticized.

    And I agree with Doctor John about Path to Freedom. They are doing a great job and leading by example. But they would be the first ones to state that it doesn’t all happen in one season. Gardens, garden designs, and garden knowledge all evolve over time.

  10. wooly sunflower says:

    Thank you, Claire, I agree with you 100%. With all due respect to both Michelles and their beautiful veggie gardens I have to play devil’s advocate here. My son called me on the phone the other day, telling me he wanted to plant his first vegetable garden. He’s a twenty year old college student on a tight budget, seeking advice on starting from scratch. If I lived closer to him, I would have gladly given him first hand instruction but I live 5 hours away. I advised him to make raised beds if possible, since he’ll be gardening on top of a dead/dying lawn in a student rental. And since he has little money to spend, I told him to go out in the boonies to find rocks or logs to hold in the soil. He ended up using cinder blocks that were already laying around in the yard. You think I’m gonna discourage this first time gardener of the generation that’s not supposed to care about gardening with a list of to-do’s from the style police? No Way!
    Everyone living in his house is stoked about this garden, all kids in their late teens/early twenties. This is what we want, isn’t it? Real gardeners who are willing to get dirty and learn from experience? It’s how my husband and I started out back in the seventies, when we were all reading Organic Gardening magazine and plotting out how to be self sufficient. I happen to have saved all those old OG mags (too info packed to recyle!)and just got them out of hiding to take a look at them. None of the cover shots featured “designed” veggie gardens. Many were rather unruly….lots of mulch and compost and uh….cinderblocks! Not too many flowers cept for the ubiquitous marigolds and sunflowers, yet legions of fans of Robert Rodale were turned on to organic gardening and are *still* gardening without pesticides because they were inspired by this magazine, packed full of practical information and little artistic inspiration (at least in the traditional sense). The quest for beauty comes naturally, with experience. I remember the arguments I had with my husband back in the early 80′s about plucking off the flower heads of the garlic. “But the garlic is better if you cut off the flower heads!”, said he. “But the flowers are too beautiful to cut!”, said I. We compromised and kept some of the flowers. Eventually, I had more time to garden than hubby and our garden became more ornamental than not. But he’s a better vegetable gardener than I am and I’m thinking of inviting him back into the garden when he retires.

  11. What does vegetable gardens , art and design have to do with one another ?
    Everything if you are marketing your work as a contemporary performance artist.

    That’s is what Edible Estates is about. He’s an ARTIST not a GARDENER.

    If you read the Edible Estates web site they state they are looking for ‘opportunities for the contemporary artist,-
    not contemporary ‘gardener’ or ‘horticulturist’, or Average Joe homeowner.
    This is why in many cases Museums of ART and cultural institutions ( cultural not horticultural ) are sponsoring these projects, not the county agriculture department or your local Master Gardeners co-operative.
    These ‘gardens’ are ephemeral performance pieces.
    This is why you are seeing poor horticulture and agricultural practices used.

    And that is the heart of Michele’s observation. Poor execution under the guise of sustainable urban gardening.

    The counter point is that sound horticultural practices can be employed and look good too.
    You don’t have to be a ‘really great garden designer’ and you can use concrete block in a pleasing manner to achieve a simple and attractive vegetable garden.

    Wooly sunflower, I too am a fan of Rodales Organic Gardening magazine and have been honored to have my garden published in their magazine.
    I hope someone will be inspired by the image some 20 years later like you have been while reading some of their old issues.
    It would be a great pleasure if someone would see and understand that vegetable gardens can be planted and maintained organically and still look quite lovely.

    ( Rodale’s Home Garden Solution – special interest issue Spring 2005 )

  12. Michele Owens says:

    Michelle, so true!!! I’m constantly posting photos of my humble country vegetable garden, just so people can see that vegetable gardens have their own kind of beauty. My garden has none of the sophistication of yours–but it’s a feast for the eyes nonetheless.

    The fact that Fritz Haeg is selling his gardens are art projects–while making gardens starved of any aesthetic interest puzzles me.

    Thanks very much for the photos.

  13. wooly sunflower says:

    OK, I think I missed the point about these gardens being unsustainable because of the lack of actual horticultural skill used in their creation. Fritz spoke at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco Thursday night. It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say in person. The invitation I got had this link to a video about his work:

    http://www.dwell.com/daily/video/17171261.html

    His animal movement events sure look like alot of fun! I think his heart is in the right place.

  14. I was at Flora Grubb Nursery on Thursday afternoon as one of the nursery workers was preparing a flat table of sod.
    I asked what the tableau of sod was all about and he told me a performance artist was going to give a talk that evening.
    I had prior plans for that evening so I did not stay to attend the $ 30. talk.
    I think it would have been interesting to hear him speak.

  15. Michael Foti says:

    Hey Michele,

    I’m Michael Foti, long-time Garden-Rant reader, and owner of the Lakewood, CA Edible Estate. This is about the forth or fifth time you’ve ranted about our garden. We’re in our third year here, and going strong (in the front yard that is – I already had a garden in the back). The garden today doesn’t look anything like it did when Fritz and I first installed it. It’s a living thing. It evolves. You probably still wouldn’t like it, but that’s ok. I like it. That’s what matters.

    I’ll tell you what though… If you wanna come out here and redesign my garden, I’m game. I’ll even write about the experience for this blog.

    Email me: mjcjfoti@gmail.com

  16. I have to agree with Michelle Dervis. Though a professional garden design is out of reach for many people, good garden structure should be established within the edible front yard. Edible gardens go in and out of season but attractive front yards never do.
    If you are interested, take a look at this edible front yard garden that Michael Glassman and I designed in the Knot Garden style. It is neat looking, productive and will look decent every season. Hope it inspires some ideas for you.

    http://www.edenmakersblog.com/?p=246

    Shirley

  17. Michele Owens says:

    Dear Michael, we’re talking about you because we’re interested in this project, obviously!!!

    Particularly me–I get such enjoyment out of my vegetable garden, not to mention so much beautiful food, that I don’t understand why the kitchen garden has practically disappeared from our culture. But I question whether Edible Estates is the way to bring it back.

    Thanks for the design job offer, but nope, I’m not a designer and it’s clear that you don’t need me because you are an actual gardener, not just the passive recipient of a garden from Edible Estates.

    Why don’t you do a guest post for us and show us photos of your front-yard garden in Year Three? We’d love to hear about it.

  18. germi says:

    I love this post!

    First, let me say that Fritz is an old friend – he was in my garden club, The Germinators, in the late 90′s. That club was made up of artists who’d become passionately radicalized by plants and gardening … many of them are now fairly successful garden designers.

    Fritz is NOT one of those – he is an artist, and his project is intended to provoke and challenge. It’s funny to me, all of the gardeners and designers who are fervently denouncing the work because it isn’t ‘pretty’ … forgive me for turning to an old cliche, but ‘Art isn’t always a pretty picture’.

    Fritz purposely chooses houses that are in the middle of neighborhoods where the front lawn reigns supreme. The Edible Estate is intended to be a sort of ‘shock’ … if it were an attractive vegetable garden, it would be easier to contend with. Making beauty in outdoor spaces is the job of garden designers – creating work that inspires thought and opens up to other possibilities is the job of the conceptual artist. The fact that his work inspires this kind of post and the subsequent comments is a real victory for the Estates, as far as I am concerned.

    Whew … I’m taking up alot of space on your blog! Maybe I should continue this elsewhere! Thank you Michele, for posting this … you are helping the project work. I don’t think Fritz is trying to bring the kitchen garden back – I think he is trying to ask questions and get people thinking about what our priorities are.

    Thanks for doing your part to continue the conversation – really interesting writing, as always!

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