Traditionally, farming and country life go hand in hand: In the popular imagination, agriculture and hands-on, dirt-in-the-fingernails cultivation happen well outside urban centers, where there’s space and where the air is clean. Yet a new narrative has emerged, one of rooftop gardens and reclaimed green spaces in places like Brooklyn and Raleigh. Modern small farmers seek both.
Yet there are places left out of the conversation: what about the subdivisions upon subdivisions’ worth of manicured lawns that stand between city and country?
“The suburbs, to me, don’t get the attention they deserve for the opportunities they possess,” Brie Arthur says from her home in a Fuquay-Varina neighborhood. “Right now everybody is on the urban farming bandwagon, but what about the suburbs? What about the sprawling suburbs that are sunny and irrigated and managed?”
She lives in the kind of zone she describes – too organized and planned to be rural, yet certainly outside the city – and maximizes her single-acre patch of suburbia. There’s oregano in a planter by the drive and at the base of her mailbox, wheat and oats interspersed among poppies and roses in the front yard and blueberries, tomatoes and garlic treated as ornamentals throughout. Here and there a lettuce plant is going to seed: let it, she says. It will only grow more. Some features look like wildflower meadows, but a close look reveals herbs and vegetables among the blooms.
With a foodscape, you can have your lawn and eat it too.
“For me it started out as a way of tricking my HOA,” Arthur says. She used to live in Cary, where neighborhood covenants were much more restrictive than here. She designed a way to grow edibles without upsetting her HOA. The idea wasn’t to start a farm, but to grow supplemental amounts of food. This is “permaculture for yuppies,” she laughs.
Arthur says that many food crops grow in the same conditions as the plants that pepper the suburban landscape, as knockout roses, crepe myrtles and Japanese maple. Arthur sees the suburbs as an opportunity, though even limited agriculture in them can take some groundwork.
“It starts with healthy soil. People move into a subdivision, it’s like moving onto Mars,” Arthur says.
Here is where a professional landscaper can come in handy: They can help build up good soil. Once the soil is good, she says, anything grows.
We toured Arthur’s foodscape, seeking tips.
Have a plan: “Everything here has been put down on paper,” Arthur says, gesturing at her edible lawn. If you’re presenting your foodscape to an HOA board, you want to have all your ducks in a row. She recommends hiring a professional designer.
Don’t go overboard: You don’t need to rip out your yard and put in raised crop beds; the food in a foodscape is integrated. If Arthur’s situation ever changes, she says, the edibles could come out and she’d still have an attractively landscaped yard.
Start with something easy: When people start with tomatoes, Arthur says, they’re actually starting with a challenging crop. Rather, she recommends something easier – blueberries and lettuce, for instance. Blueberries are native and need very little fertilizing or pruning, while lettuce seeds can simply be scattered.
Edible edging: “I have garlic edging everywhere,” Arthur says. “Everybody who lives in the suburbs has the ability to grow all the garlic they need.” Peanuts are excellent edging plants, too. Their yellow flowers bloom all summer. In the fall, yank the plant out of the ground and find peanuts on every root.
Going to seed: “You can let things go to seed and it just magically happens,” Arthur says. There are plenty of edibles in her yard that she didn’t actively plant. They grew where their ancestors’ seeds dropped, meaning she rarely buys seed packets these days.
The value of lawns: “Turf, in moderation, is extremely important,” Arthur says. A lawn is a space where you can take in the landscape, sure, but it also keeps ticks at bay. The suburban landscape is a social, practical space, too, and Arthur wants the neighbor kids to be able to come over without risking Lyme disease.
Plant by season: “The fun thing about this garden is it’s always changing.” Arthur says. A wave feature in the front yard contains wheat in the spring; by mid-June, she has amber waves of grain. Then, in the same feature, she plants bloody butcher corn and sorghum in the summer. When the corn is high, this yard is split into two “rooms.”
Let the bugs be: “The worst thing you can do is hire the Orkin Man,” Arthur says. She plants wheat alongside poppies and larkspur, which attract pollinators of all stripe. Arthur welcomes wasps as readily as charismatic pollinators like bumblebees. Insects are important, and they keep this landscape going.
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Brienna Arthur’s site at BrieGrows.com for updates or information on upcoming events, such as her annual tomato tasting in August. Or sign up for her “Propagating the Foodscape” lecture at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Visit jcra.ncsu.edu or call 919-513-7005.