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The joys of front-yard gardening: Food at your doorstep--and better privacy

With the buzzword "local" increasingly used a selling point for food, apparently there's no such thing as too local in this town. The Toronto Community Garden Network website maps 45 community food gardens around the city, while the Toronto Farmers' Market Network site identifies more than 30 markets selling produce from nearby farms, with several operating year-round.
That's still not close enough to home for some people, who avidly cultivate food in whatever land may be available around their own home. More and more Torontonians are even planting edibles right outside their front doors, sometimes in the tiniest of spaces.
"Ten years ago you would rarely see food in the front yard," says garden activist Lorraine Johnson, author of City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing. That's not the case anymore. "I think it has to do with people becoming worried about food scares, and about people wanting to connect with their food more. There's a growth in local and organic food and concern about climate change. I think it also has a lot to do with people recognizing that homegrown food tastes better."
My own block is a case in point. About eight years ago, I moved into a tiny 100-year-old house on Craven Road, an east-end residential street that intersects with Gerrard's India Bazaar strip. In 2010, the Toronto Star's Jennifer Wells characterized my block, between Dundas and Gerrard, as "Tiny Town" because it boasts "the city's highest concentration of detached houses under 500 square feet."
Yet, of the approximately 60 households on my block, about a dozen grow edibles in the front yard. There are still others who grow food in their backyards or, like me, are currently harvesting the last of our tomatoes from a community garden a few blocks away.
In some cases, this may be little more than a haphazard clump or two of culinary herbs. But then there's the South Asian family that sometimes cultivates an intensive planting of eggplants, tomatoes and green peppers. Another enclosure pops up with a sturdy harvest of Egyptian onions every year. A burgeoning patch of ever-bearing raspberries, transplanted from a relative's garden by a third home's resident, continues to supply breakfast fruit to her newly arrived successor, who generously welcomes the neighbours to pick the fruit as it ripens. On our street, incidentally, people seem to be pretty respectful of other people's front-yard property.
At yet another address, one couple has been nurturing strawberries for several years in a plot that measures no more than six feet on any side. Under the protection of netting, the ruby-ripe fruit taunts the squirrels and raccoons every spring. This year, after strawberry season, cherry tomatoes and potatoes flourished in containers. A few houses away, a young apple tree, planted by renovators less than five years ago in a bed just big enough to accommodate it, yields plentifully. My neighbours Lisa and Frank bake pies, and deliver bags of apples to me for jams and jellies, which we share. There's still plenty left over for local wildlife.
Young parents Steven and Laura are among the most ambitious front-yard farmers, although their four-by-eight-foot growing space lay fallow this year while they added a second storey to their home. "I wanted to grow some fresh goodies to supplement what we buy at the supermarket," says Steven. "At first I just grew tomatoes and beans in pots on the front deck. The next year, I built a front porch with the plan of growing things in containers. And the next year I went all out." Building containers from a design conceived by Montreal's Rooftop Gardens Project, he grew eggplants, tomatoes, onions, salad greens, Swiss chard and radishes on the porch roof.
Then there was his "salad curtain," made of beans and cherry tomatoes trained up from the front yard to meet squash and cucumbers growing down from the top. "Not only was this going to feed me, but it cut out sun from the front window, lowering our air conditioning costs... That actually worked quite well."
Although he lost much of his food crop that year to squirrels, he says, the screen of green had other benefits, he says. "Once we were eating [on the porch] and some ladies stopped by to admire it; they didn't even notice that we were eating out there. I knew we had achieved salad curtain." When their renovation is finished, Steven and Laura dream of "the ultimate urban agriculture experience:" a roof garden, chickens and a bee hive.
Similarly, neighbours Allan and Sara, who have been extensively renovating their home since they moved in three-and-a-half years ago, have plans to move the ground-level garden up higher. "I was very tired that all of the produce we're getting is coming from so far away," says Allan; the turning point was a recipe that called for fresh basil. "We couldn't find any," he says, "so we just said 'Let's grow our own.'" The pair experimented with potatoes, pumpkins, corn, garlic and herbs; now, with a newly-installed green roof, they have plans for a full vegetable garden—with bees, if possible.
Is Craven Road unusual? "More and more people are looking for space and seeing the front yard for more than ornamental plants," says Johnson. "As conventions change, and it becomes more accepted, I think we'll see more and more of it, especially in cities."
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