My dear friends Dave and Stephanie took out their front lawn a couple of years ago and put in a full-on vegetable garden. Every time I talk to them, they’re eating something from the garden, and I’m so jealous—not only are they getting great produce, but they’re also not giving their whole paycheck to Whole Foods. Though the process was long and painstaking, it’s also inspiring, and the payoff is huge. Here’s what Dave told me:
“I’d been growing tomatoes guerrilla style for several years–tucking plants away on vacant lots and in the corners of rental properties, then watering them with gray water hauled in buckets. As a something-out-of-nothing proposition, it was pretty satisfying, and I was never in one place long enough to have to worry about crop rotation. When we moved into a place with its own yard, it was a chance to scale things up–more tomatoes, and an expanded range of vegetables. But more space did not bring more time or money, so we’ve had to go about it with the same kind of make-do approach behind the earlier efforts. The first year I tried planting in pockets between roses in perimeter beds. But several things quickly became clear: how much shade was too much, how much hotter it is here in the San Fernando Valley than in the LA basin, and how no amount of water was going to change the essential, brown, wiry fact of the front lawn–ie that it was really just a patchwork of invasive bermuda and ferral crabgrasses, self-sown from seeds fallen off the mowers of LA’s itinerant ‘mow, blow and go’ crews.
These realizations led to the bulk of the hard currency we’ve put into the project, all to kill things: $500 to remove a 40-foot Brazilian Pepper Tree, a super-aggressive invader outlawed in some states, $60 for a gallon of Roundup concentrate, and about $85 for 2000 square feet of 10 mil black plastic. We spent the next season digging things out, cutting them down, pouring Roundup into bore holes in the remaining tree roots, and began the year-long process of alternately hitting the lawn with Roundup, water, and long spells of smothering it with black plastic. Meanwhile winter rains convinced us we needed to regrade the side yard to save the foundation, so piles of dirt started piling up all around the plastic. Neighbors were ecstatic. It was the height of the housing bubble. But we had what they call ‘Devil Grass’, whose roots can go 6′ down. Experts in workshops told us it can take 5 years to get rid of it for good. Yet after 18 months we’d tested everyone’s patience, including our own, so spent another $400 on the only other kill strategy we hadn’t used yet–digging the roots of the grass out (down only to, say, 6 inches). So after 2 summers and about $1100 on ‘demo’ we were back to bare earth. The last real investment was $250 on parts to convert the old sprinkler system to a drip irrigation system (luckily my Father-in-Law is a take-charge guy with a true feeling for PVC). Add in a couple fruit trees to call it $1500 even.
The rest has been a matter of cobbling together left-over junk on the property, and stuff (materials, plant, and seeds) we can salvage from curbsides and friends. The garden itself looks OK but privileges function and cost over ‘design’ and aesthetics. In this respect it, and certainly our property as a whole, owes more to ‘Sanford & Son’ than to Sunset and Dwell. The (barely) raised beds are made up of things like old door jambs, cinder bricks, the trunks of neighbors’ abandoned Christmas trees, scraps of torn-out edging boards, and chunks of tree trunks, without pretense of artful arrangement. The soil level in them is rising slowly–only as fast as we can add the compost we make from yard prunings and kitchen scraps–1-2 cubic yards a year. Between the beds we put down layers of old newspaper and cardboard boxes gleaned from grocery store managers. On top of that is wood mulch. Our first layer came from the neighbors, whose tree-service crew was happy to dump their truckload of chipped tree trimmings in our driveway, rather than pay to leave it at the county landfill. It was still green and broke down really quickly. Now we get mulch from the city, which even delivers it for free. The first load had someone’s old IKEA furniture chewed up along with the tree branches, but the second load was cleaner. We just pick out the chunks of MDF as we find them. We’ve put down about 25 cubic yards of mulch by now, trying to keep the ground covered and the grass good and truly dead.
Now we’re into our third summer, and onto the learning curve of gardening proper. The first year was actually the most prolific, with a few hundred pounds of produce, mostly tomatoes, before everything petered out in July’s heat. It was heady and glorious and reminded us of those early reports of California’s fecundity, the ones that lured tens of thousands of incredulous Mid-Westerners to farms in the Golden State. We had more than we could eat, more than enough to make up with the neighbors, and still more to share with friends and curious passersby: Something-out-of-(almost)Nothing. Last summer was much more humbling, but the winter crops did well. This summer’s cool start has taken its toll, but figure we’ll get what we get, and don’t spend much time trying to fix it. We just keep amending the soil, rotating the crops, and hoping we’ll get better at it over time. Luckily the native plants we ringed around the edges have taken off, and camouflage our lesser successes elsewhere.
So it’s been a slow process, but that’s been good. It’s given the Roundup more time to break down (it is supposed to have a very short half-life, but even so . . . ), and given us time to see what will really grow where. The slap-dash construction makes it really easy (physically, financially, and psychologically) to move the beds, since our respective investments in them are so minimal. We can see something like a master plan starting to emerge, but will stick to a flexible approach (at least) until we hit the 5-year mark with the grass. If everything is growing well where it is, the soil level is getting harder to contain, and we’ve run out of useful junk, then we might formalize the design with more permanent beds. For now, we’re sticking with minor tweaks, ad-hoc solutions, and the situational wisdom of our fellow Angelenos, Fred and Lamont.”