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A Cook's Frontyard

Long hidden in the back, fruit and vegetable gardens are now on display all over the Southland

June 26, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of us, fruits and vegetables come from supermarkets. For Rosalind Creasy and a devoted band of followers in Los Angeles, the produce department starts at the sidewalk. Sorrel, tomatoes, peppers, savory and artichokes overlook the front of Creasy's Bay Area ranch house. Proceeding up the walk to her front door is like entering an oddly flowery green grocery, redolent of damp earth and roses. On either side of the walk, interspersed with lobelia and roses, abutilons and fuchsia, there are caraway plants, Yukon gold potatoes, escarole lettuce, blueberries, loganberries, eggplant.

How many edible plants you spot depends on how much time you have. There will be 60 or so growing at any one time in the 40-by-80-foot frontyard. But once it was like most suburban yards--driveway, lawn and ornamental shrubs.

When Creasy ripped out her driveway and put in artichokes and herbs about 25 years ago, it got a reaction. Vegetable gardening in the frontyard, she says, was "the equivalent of letting the weeds go--I was considered a nut case."

She kept at it until her frontyard was a sumptuous cottage garden that not only fed her, but fed her well. Presently, amid the artful profusion out front, she has at least 20 sorts of herbs, three types of watermelon, 10 kinds of peppers, five of tomatoes, four of cucumbers, three of squash and three of beans. Except now, this brick front walk crowded by flowers and food isn't a curiosity, but a California landmark.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 386 words Type of Material: Correction
Garden photo--The story about fruit and vegetable gardens in Wednesday's Food section included an incorrect caption. The garden with circular pavers and vegetable plants is in Altadena, not Pasadena.
*

Creasy is the author of more than a dozen books on kitchen gardening, and a proud advocate of food out front. Here in Los Angeles, Creasy's acolytes are switching from ornamental to edible plants in some of the swankiest gardens in Pasadena. Grapes grow in the Arroyo, pumpkins crawl in San Marino.

Master gardeners trained by the University of California Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program are converting frontyards around Los Angeles to orchards and herb gardens; a San Fernando Valley nursery is promoting the idea of hedges made of allspice bushes and, for ornamentals, caper berry shrubbery.

Although it would be premature to write the obituary for the lawn, thanks to Creasy and her acolytes, edible landscaping in the frontyard is now a mark of good taste.

And, OK, a certain eccentricity.

We were not always so shy about food near the front porch. Garden writer and radio broadcaster Andy Wasowski, author of the new book "Landcaping Revolution," takes the standardization of the American front garden to mown grass back to the 1870s and Cincinnati landscape architect Frank J. Scott. "Scott decreed a 'smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of the suburban home,' " says Wasowski. "Lawns became synonymous with wealth and respectability."

By contrast, growing food came to connote need, even rank poverty. Certainly, lawn was the norm when Creasy decided on a second career in landscaping. This Los Altos mother of two was in her 30s and had an education degree when in 1979 she enrolled at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills for a horticultural degree. The adult student had the courage to challenge the prevailing Scott norm. "When they told me I couldn't do edible landscaping, I said, 'Phooey on you!' " she recalls.

Two years after graduating, she published "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping" through the Sierra Club. It addressed everything from garden design to soil conditioning, planting, growing, pruning, grafting and pesticide use, and is still in print.

"It's the bible," says Tony Kienitz, a Pasadena garden designer who specializes in landscapes of vegetables and fruit.

Creasy's success in finessing vegetables back into frontyards owes much to her insistence on defining beauty as the wholesomeness of vegetables. "It's an accepted cultural norm that the frontyard should be beautiful," she says. "If you do an edible garden, do it with style. I think that's the message. I tell people vegetable gardens should have flowers in them because most beneficial insects need flowers. Don't use old stockings to tie up tomatoes. Don't use old plastic bottles. Don't hold out for the last zucchini from a spent plant. Rangy stuff does not belong in the frontyard."

Her curiosity about plants sparked a new hunger at the table. Friend and Santa Cruz-based seed merchant Renee Shepherd began popularizing new, exotic vegetables. Frilly lettuces and endive, she and Creasy illustrated, could be used like fluffy skirts, or "under planting" for other plants with more arching foliage, such as peppers. Flowers could be studded among vegetables.

As a romantic diversion, after noticing children gravitating to her garden, Creasy began creating special themes to an ever-changing series of plantings. Presently the theme is "fairy garden," and children bring fuchsia flowers to a little fairy grotto. She also grows sorrel for them to feed her chickens.

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