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A Creative Mess

Ornamental vs. productive gardens



A creative mess is better than tidy idleness," stated a neatly typed sign on the door to our grandmother's art room. Inside were shelves overflowing with art supplies, canvases stacked on every wall and boxes and boxes of wrapping paper, and forgotten Christmas presents. Here on the home farm, we've been inspired by Grandma's wisdom, focusing on boosting productivity (aka creative mess) rather than ornamental perfection (tidiness). In more populated parts of the state, this approach to gardening often raises eyebrows. In certain suburbs, pristine landscaping is expected and all front yard landscape designs must be approved by homeowner associations. Allowing the lawn to grow longer than three inches might result in a warning letter taped to the front door. Growing vegetables is another story entirely. In South Central Los Angeles, gardener Ron Finley was fined for growing food on a median in front of his home — his only available garden space. He remained determined to grow food because there was nowhere in his neighborhood within walking or biking distance where he could buy fresh organic vegetables, something to which he thought everyone should have daily access. He persevered, attending public meetings and applying for permits until he finally earned the right to grow his own vegetables. Luckily, here in Humboldt we have more breathing room. We can let the grass wave in the wind while we bustle to get our garden packed with as many vegetables as possible.

Now that frost season is officially over, we are planting all the vegetables on our list. With the beautiful sunshine and light breezes of mid-spring, we sow corn, beans, squash (summer and winter), basil and pumpkins. In order to have the most growing area possible, we long ago got rid of all the lawns to produce more food and cut flowers. Yes, luscious green lawns are very pleasing to the eye and bare toes. But does it compare to a bowl of blueberries still warm from the sun? We'd rather sacrifice a little tidiness for a lot of creative mess when it comes to fresh berries and vegetables. And listening to the drone of lawnmowers around the neighborhood every weekend morning, we revel in the relative silence that is vegetable growing. Routine tasks such as tilling the earth, composting, sowing seeds, transplanting, watering and weeding give us a chance to unwind from our busy work schedules — listening to birdsong and watching butterflies. Our friends who don't grow vegetables complain about mowing the lawn and we feel bad their only experience with yardwork is operating a loud machine.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to take out even a portion of the lawn, now is a great time to start. Simply measure out the desired growing space, cover with a thick layer of cardboard and top it with a couple inches of mulch. The area can be bordered with boards for a raised garden bed (two 2-by-12-foot Douglas fir boards can be cut into 3- and 9-foot sections and stacked two boards high for a simple wall). Perhaps a more organic border, such as cut logs or river rocks, will do the trick. Either way, once covered, the lawn will die back. If making a raised bed, be sure to install hardware cloth along the bottom to keep out underground critters such as gophers and moles. Fill it with organic soil and compost, and plant away. We suggest a few raised beds for good measure, as it's nice to have a variety of vegetables. For those without a lawn but with abundant concrete and asphalt, you can also build raised beds on these surfaces. For drainage, it's best to place cobble and gravel on the bottom 12 to 16 inches of the raised bed. In our marine climate, growing vegetables on asphalt and concrete may be ideal (especially in windy areas) because it absorbs heat from the sun, even on cool, overcast days.

Given that we balance growing food with a full-time work schedule, time is often the limiting factor. We have two dueling aesthetics: Neat Nancy and Sloppy Suzy. Neat Nancy likes the grass trimmed to a manageable 1 to 3 inches, every shrub and tree neatly pruned, and not a leaf out of place. Sloppy Suzy makes piles everywhere, running from one job to the next. During busy planting times (such as right now), Sloppy Suzy prevails. The grass grows tall and waves in the breeze as she digs up the corn patch and plants out rows of beans and snap peas. Sloppy Suzy wants to add a compost pile with fresh manure on top to attract worms, dig up areas of the yard for new planting beds and generally create chaos that never seems completely contained. She tells Nancy to get over it — if you want to grow something there's going to be a bit of a mess.

The transition from ornamental to productive might seem daunting at first. However, every time dinner or dessert features something from the yard, it becomes that much easier to forget about neatness. Yes, the weeds may grow long as time is spent planting but this will only attract beneficial insects, create habitat for frogs and give the cats a chance to feel like they live in a jungle. Once we've done our planting, Sloppy Suzy can kick back and let Neat Nancy come in to pull all the weeds and cut back the grass.

Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at

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