To my husband, a garden means a sort of outdoor refrigerator, ideally stocked with enough fresh vegetables to rival a Whole Foods.
But to me a garden is a design element that welcomes you home. If you’re lucky enough to have a front yard, it’s the best kind of mixed metaphor. It’s a canvas you get to paint with colors that go off like time-lapse fireworks as seasons change.
“What about planting some Big Boy tomatoes over there?” my husband asked the other day, gesturing grandly toward a spot where my heirloom gladiolas were in bloom.
“Sweetheart,” I explained gently for the kazillionth time, “we already have an edible garden.”
“Ha,” he said, in a tone that struck me as pointed. “That sliver of shade next to the driveway?”
“Darling,” I tried again. “We grew great strawberries there last year.”
“Six strawberries,” he said. “We need a real victory garden. We need to grow more food.”
Victory gardens are in vogue this year. Again.
“Whenever the country goes through uncertain times, people decide they want to grow their own food,” said Charlie Nardozzi, a consultant for the National Gardening Association. “We’ve seen this trend before, both in world wars and in economic downturns.”
This spring, with many people out of work and sheltering at home, growers and online retailers nationwide have reported an increase in sales of edible plants, seeds and garden products, Mr. Nardozzi said.
Some people are doing it to save money, or because they have time on their hands. But the biggest reason people are yearning to grow food is “it makes them feel they are doing something to contribute to their own sense of security.”
Unfortunately, it’s hard to be a farmer.
“One reason I don’t do it is my biggest crop was six strawberries,” I confessed to Mr. Nardozzi. “I’m basically a failure as a farmer.”
“That’s a common feeling and one reason a jump in interest in food gardening is usually temporary,” Mr. Nardozzi said. “After a year or two, people give it up because they weren’t successful.”
“But my husband is really pushing the victory garden idea,” I said.
“If you want to be successful, don’t set unreal expectations,” Mr. Nardozzi said. “Start small.”
Brilliant—instead of a victory garden, we would have a partial victory garden.
It was a relief to hear I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my roses to rows of radishes. But what’s the best way to start a partial victory garden?
I called urban gardener and activist Ron Finley, whose own edible garden in South Central Los Angeles is so bountiful it spills from his backyard to the narrow strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. (A few years back, local officials told him it was illegal to plant there, but Mr. Finley won that fight.)
I figured anyone who could get bananas and artichokes to grow in a curb of hard-packed dirt could solve my problem.
“Don’t worry, most people don’t know anything about gardening,” Mr. Finley said. “Last week I gave someone a fava bean and he actually said, ‘If I plant this bean, what will it grow into?’ I said, ‘It’s a fava bean, what do you think it will grow into—a pineapple?’ ”
Mr. Finley recommends planting vegetables and flowers together. “It looks good, and it tastes good,” he said. “The bottom line is everything you eat that comes out of the soil—from figs to peaches to zucchini—starts as a flower. Everything is a blossom before it becomes food.”
Co-planting edibles with ornamentals has been popular for centuries, dating to Elizabethan times, when villagers who were allotted tiny plots crammed in enough food, flowers and medicinal herbs to sustain their families. Thus was born the rambling cottage garden.
Today, planting a cottage garden is still one of the easiest ways to grow food, said Marty McGowan, a garden designer and organic farmer on Nantucket. Mr. McGowan said his favorite formula when he designs gardens is to plant a mix of 30% vegetables and 70% flowers.
“A true cottage garden might have tomato plants growing in cages, which I think of as structural enhancements, or arugula with little blue flowers at the front of a border,” Mr. McGowan said.
He also told me I won’t have to replace any flowers to grow food: “Just add edibles here and there. Fennel’s feathery foliage looks great, and you can snip it when you cook.”
For people without gardens, Mr. McGowan suggests planting beans in a container and letting them grow up a trellis or over a balcony railing: “It adds romance.”
After I got off the phone, I found my husband in the front garden, eyeing my roses.
“This would be a great spot for watermelons,” he said wistfully.
“I agree,” I said.
He looked at me suspiciously.
“You’re willing to sacrifice flowers for food?” he asked.
“We won’t need to,” I said. “We’ll just train the vines to grow along the edge of the path.”
“Sounds pretty,” he agreed. “And six watermelons is a lot.”
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