Taking backyard gardening out front

Chrissie Long

 Corn stalks supplant sunflowers in Sam and Margaret Fogel’s front yard. In the place of grass, there are a few rows of sweet potatoes. And rather than rose bushes, rhododendrons or other bushes intended to please the eye, their Newton Centre, Mass., home is dotted with peach trees and blueberry bushes that the Fogels hope will please the tongue.

Sam and Margaret Fogel admit that their front lawn is a bit unusual compared to the manicured lawns of their neighbors. But by planting rows of food in the front, rather than hiding them in the back, they’re hoping to inspire others to grow their own food, too.

“We do it partly to influence our neighbors. We want to make them curious,” said Sam, who is a strong advocate of local food. “But (the front yard) is also where the sun is.”

Exploding with life that afternoon, as daddy longlegs climbed over the corn stalks and bees pressed their legs into the pollen, the garden was in its midsummer’s glory. A result of hours of planning and days spent on knees carefully combing out the weeds, the garden was inspired by a strong desire to supplement the food imported from California with something in the Fogels’ backyard.

“Why waste energy on transporting fruit and veggies from the West Coast, when we can grow them in our yard in Newton?” said Fogel, volunteer coordinator and board member for Newton Community Farm. “The corn,” he said pointing to the long stalks that looked somewhat awkward in the front lawn, “is fresh and convenient and not difficult to grow.”

Sam and Margaret Fogel have had a vegetable garden at their home for close to 26 years. In part, it’s their interest in experimenting — both are lead scientists at Watertown-based Bioremediation Consulting Inc. — that ignited their passion for gardening.

“We are trying new things all the time,” said Sam, with one foot perched on a bag of mulch. “We are always curious to test what works. It’s truly an experimental thing.”

The Fogels’ front-yard garden is still in its infancy. And so far, they haven’t heard any grumblings from their neighbors.

In historic Newton, growing a vegetable garden in the front would be frowned upon, Sam said. Now that there is a nationwide push to consume locally grown food, he’s hoping his neighbors will be more accepting. So far, they have been.

Maintaining a weed-free front lawn without chemicals requires just as much energy as growing food, Sam said. Without chemicals, many lawns become knotted with crabgrass. “There are a variety of strategies to deal with this,” Sam said, pointing to a neighboring lot, where the homeowners covered their yard in ivy. “Here, we are illustrating something else.”

The Fogels admit that their garden grows less than 10 percent of their diet, but the 15 to 20 hours they put into it each week is well worth the effort.

“Working our own garden, we see how much effort is involved in growing food, which makes us appreciate locally grown food that much more,” said Margaret, her dirt-spotted hands held wrist-up and away from her, careful not to stain her clothes. “If people knew how much work went into it, they might be more apt to go visit their local farmer.”

Despite the labor, the Fogels are actively working to encourage others to start vegetable gardens. They are teaching classes through Newton Community Education and focusing on education outreach for the community farms.

Auburndale resident L.J. Urbano, a publisher of a Web site that compares communities nationwide, was a student of Sam’s in one of his gardening courses, and said he’s consulted with the Fogels several times since.

A “newbie” to gardening, Urbano was inspired to start because of the oil shortage.

“I think it is a good idea to know how to grow our own food,” he said. “As fossil fuels become scare and more expensive, I think we are going to have to grow a portion of our food ourselves.”

Despite a July hailstorm that damaged some of his plants, he thinks his attempt may yield some food.

“Some days I think I am doing pretty well,” he said. “Other days I am not so sure. All in all, it looks like it is going to be successful.”

While it may not be realistic for many to have a garden like the Fogels — complete with grape vines and a composting system — “It’s realistic to have a tomato plant,” Margaret said.

Her husband nodded, adding, “That’s the payoff crop. That’s the one that gets you sucked in.”