Front Yard Vegetable Gardens

I’m fortunate to know lots of gardeners.  They are a quiet bunch for the most part and sometimes rather eccentric.  But they are on the forefront of an environmental movement that is making a big difference in our community: turning front yards into vegetable gardens!  It begins as the gardener runs out of room in the backyard to make more garden beds, and starts looking wistfully out the front window at the expanse of green lawn. Going from backyard to front yard is like going to a different country.  The vegetables out back are grown organically with manures and compost. There are honey bees and birds and butterflies attracted to the flowers growing among the vegetables.  The front lawn is a pristine deep green thanks to synthetic fertilizers and weed killers but lacks the vitality and delight of the backyard.

For most people turning the front yard into a vegetable garden takes some negotiating with a significant other who likes the lawn, but the idea of not having to mow week after week often tilts the balance.

So what happens when you turn your front yard into a vegetable garden? In the beginning, neighbors eye you suspiciously, worried you’re going to lower property values.  By mid-June, as you’re starting to get some good produce and butterflies are flitting about, people are a bit curious and start to walk by on your side of the street.  A neighbor kid on a bike asks “Whatcha doin’?” when you’re out shoveling compost onto the new beds.  By mid-summer, tomatoes are coming in strong, and the guy next door is hanging out watching you build a vertical wood structure to handle the squash that wants to grow out into the street.  Finally, come Fall and pumpkin season (hey look, Halloween decorations are already growing right in the yard) you realize you know the names of some of your neighbors. And you’re going to have to plant a bigger garden next year to plan for sharing the bounty with your new friends.

It is a lot of work converting a front yard into a vegetable garden.  There can be serious digging involved. You have to change your practices from lawn management to building safe and healthy soil. You have to keep things tidy and attractive. The rewards of a front yard vegetable garden are many. More food, more space to garden, more people who understand the relationship between food and the environment, and best of all, sharing late summer produce with friends and kindred spirits right in your own front yard!

Squash Bees

by Sandy Swegel

My friend and local pollinator expert Niki fretted greatly this Spring because there weren’t any bees in her yard.  She grows her native plants and large vegetable gardens in her yard that is surrounded by typical perfect looking suburban lawns. Despite her pleas with neighbors, they maintain suburban perfection by pouring pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on their lawns, and over time, the bee count in her yard has dropped precipitously.

But there was no fretting during a recent tour of her garden.  There were still very few honeybees but the garden was abuzz with many native bees and native fly pollinators.

Niki eagerly led us over to her huge squash patch.  She did the usual humble gardener thing of apologizing for her garden and how poorly the plants were doing.  Naturally, her plants were double the size of anything in our yards. We walked right into the squash bed as she gently lifted a giant leaf so we could see…a “Squash Bee.”  With great animation, she described how one bee comes early in the morning and throws itself completely over the pollen…and then proceeds to eat all day long.  This bee seems oblivious to us and looked like it was lounging in its own little opium den, covered in pollen and eating as much as it could. Niki lowered her voice and said, “Sometimes there are two bees.”  The male comes first and then is joined by a female…and the two of them spend the day in a frenzy of mating and eating, mating and eating (she watched). Once they finish one blossom, they moved to the next one.

There are two genera of native squash bees, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, and they are specialist bees. Cucurbits are all they pollinate.  And they are very resourceful and start pollinating earlier in the morning before the honey bees are even awake.  So take a look under your leaves one morning and peer deep into squash blossoms.  In areas with healthy squash bee populations, there can be as many as one bee per every five blossoms.  Another marvel of the natural world….hidden in plain view before us.

Of course, while you are peeking under giant squash leaves, don’t forget to look for that pest of the squash kingdom…the squash bug…and pick it off and throw it away.

The International squash bee survey: