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Greener Pastures: Edible Estates, Part 2

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Originally published on The Green Fork.

A while back, a friend posted on his Facebook profile that he was excited to embark on his yearly attempt to outshine his suburban neighbors with the lushness of his lawn. I pictured my friend pouring resources, including time, into the project. I think he's one of those guys who enjoys mowing the lawn, although he's a very social person and it tends to be a solitary act. I thought too about the amount of chemicals and drinkable water he would squander in the name of a little neighborhood rivalry, and I could have cried for the weirdness of it all.

Clarence Ridgley of suburban Baltimore was once a competitive lawn tender, too, but in 2008, he decided to raise the neighborhood stakes by planting an edible landscape in his front yard. He went to the Web in search of plants that would do well in his region and stumbled upon the call put out that day by Los Angeles-based artist Fritz Haeg, for his Edible Estates project. Haeg had been commissioned by Baltimore's Contemporary Museum to come to town and organize the installation of a front yard edible garden and document the whole thing, in writing, photos and videos, to be displayed as part of an exhibit called Cottage Industries. Clarence applied and was the chosen beneficiary of the project.

Here's how it went down: Clarence and Fritz conferred over what types of foods the Ridgleys would like to grow (and eat), Fritz planned the garden and organized the volunteers, then executed the documentation with the help of photographer Leslie Furlong. Haeg acts as kind of a garden party organizer, if you will: he blows into town, gets it going and then leaves. "I just kind of make these gardens happen then disappear. I want the families to feel like they're their gardens, not my gardens."

I caught wind of Edible Estates through my boyfriend at the time (artist Jaimes Mayhew), and we were excited to volunteer together on a project that touched on both of our interests. So we signed up and went out to the Ridgleys' house one Saturday in April two years ago, along with a few dozen other people. I wrote about it for the now sadly defunct magazine, Edible Chesapeake.

Haeg wrote about it too, but not in the first edition of his book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, which came out right around the time we helped plant the Ridgleys' garden. The first book was about the gardens he'd helped make happen up until that point (the Baltimore installation was the sixth) and featured essays from Michael Pollan and Rosalind Creasy. It was a great book, and I had no idea he was even doing a second version until I got a galley in the mail a month or two ago. Upon pulling the book from the padded envelope it arrived in, I noticed a familiar sight on the cover -- the Ridgley's garden -- and I was transported back to that day in Baltimore, filled with pride again at how much we'd accomplished, and how quickly. I was glad for the Ridgleys, whose lives had become more healthful and more interesting for having broken from the "greenest lawn contest" tradition.

Haeg is no Roger Doiron, and the book is not designed as a how-to, though you will find valuable info within; rather, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn is a collection of stories about what happens when people are brave enough to break from that tradition, and smart enough to question the idea that we should separate ourselves from our neighbors with squares of resource-intensive, mind numbingly uniform green space.

I was also excited to see that the new edition includes an essay by the prodigious Will Allen, founder of Growing Power and far and away my favorite of the sustainable food movement's leaders. Allen's essay takes Edible Estates to another level, in fact aims to take the "sustainable food movement" itself to another level, suggesting that movement (or whatever we're calling it these days) is more aptly called a revolution.

Let that sink in for a moment. As the mainstream media grows ever more pop and shallow, with the likes of Glen Beck targeting public officials and bashing programs like Meatless Monday as indoctrination of our nation's youth, tossing out words like revolution is no small potatoes, but Allen is easy to get behind -- those who've heard him speak will attest to his easy manner and compelling style -- and inspires the reader to believe that the revolution, even if not all of it's being televised, is here all the same.

Of course, he's right. Gardens are growing like weeds, a fact that has been attributed by some to our flagging economy, but is also one of the most hopeful things a person can do and, in many circles, one of the coolest. I talked to Fritz the other night, and he mentioned the enthusiasm young people bring to the task and that he thought some of their enjoyment comes from ripping up the lawns, mistakes of past generations, and replacing them with something better.

"The project is very much an earnest, straightforward, pragmatic attempt to see what happens when people grow food at home," says Fritz. " But also, for me, removing the lawn and planting food is an equally powerful symbolic act, taking the icon of the antiquated, outdated fantasy of what America is and replacing it with a new kind of fantasy of what America could be. For me, the lawn symbolizes a whole kind of value system that doesn't make sense anymore and a productive garden in front of your house symbolizes another set of values ."

Why ever we're doing it, it's not all fun and games, as anyone who has ever put in a full day (or a full season) of gardening can attest. But many hands make for lighter work, and this, to me, was the neatest thing about Edible Estates. It was unbelievable how quickly the Ridgleys' yard was transformed. In fact, the three-day event was shortened to two when we finished the planting early that Saturday, and those who'd signed up for the Sunday shift missed their chance to get their hands dirty. I remember that day feeling like I was at an old-fashioned barn raising, and imagining how many lawns could be replaced if we could just get organized.

Of course, Fritz Haeg isn't the only person helping plant the seeds of lawn replacement or cooperative gardening, or farming, for that matter. The New York Times ran a great piece in February called Field Report: Plow Shares about North Carolina's Crop Mobs, which bring dozens of wannabe agrarians -- and their energy -- to working farms, often accomplishing in one day feats that would have taken the regular crew months. For those who would prefer a more lasting involvement, possibly with an edible payoff, Hyperlocavore is a sort of match-making site for "yard-sharing," and of course, many towns have community gardens that you can get involved with.

Here in New York, spring has sprung, just this week, but it's not too late to get started on some edible landscaping of your own! Even a few tomato plants or some potted herbs can spruce up your window or fire escape and you'll thank yourself when you're making homegrown salsa later this summer. Or, find someone with a garden to help out on -- no doubt you'll reap the rewards there as well.

Fritz Haeg is appearing in NYC tonight, along with Will Allen, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Annie Novak, co-founder of Brooklyn's Rooftop Farms. The event is sold out, but you can stream it live at 7pm at The Green Space.