At Debbie Goldwasser’s home in the San Francisco area, the grass was brown, sacrificed to the drought that’s slowly suffocating California. But, she and her husband wondered, might there be a landscaping alternative both sustainable and practical?
Meanwhile, Sean Eastwood, a chef in the same Bay city as Goldwasser, was grappling with dead landscaping undermining his restaurant’s name, Tender Greens. He needed a solution, one befitting his establishment.
Goldwasser and Eastman both found their answers in foodscaping, in which the plants decorating a property can be eaten. It’s a facet of the growing trend of urban farming, which ranges is scale from a lot-sized community garden to potted herbs in a windowsill.
“It’s a money savings, and we eat more vegetables now than we used to,” says Goldwasser, who raves of ivory egg tomatoes, purple basil pesto, pattypan squashes, and so many cucumbers that she’s taken up the art of pickling. “And I’ve got mega-goodwill with my neighbors, because they get what we can’t eat.
“All in all, it’s been a pretty good deal.”
In Tender Greens’ dishes that use thyme, chives, cilantro, etc., the difference can be tasted.
“The herbs I order from my produce vendor, they’ve probably been out of the ground three to four days,” Eastwood said. “The herbs out of the garden in the front of the restaurant, they’ve been out of the ground two to three minutes.”
And for people either too busy to garden or without the know-how, like Eastwood and Goldwasser, there are companies that will set up supporting infrastructure (e.g., irrigation, raised beds, trellises), plant the vegetation, and come to the property weekly for maintenance. Once the crops are ripe and ready, the harvest is handed over to the owner.
Lara Hermanson co-owns Farmscape, a company that has installed gardens on 400 properties in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including Goldwasser’s home and Eastwood’s restaurant.
While any experienced farmer can testify to the fragility of crops due to weather, pest infestations, digging dogs, or scavenging rodents, Hermanson boasts of annual yields of 3-5 pounds of vegetables for every square foot of garden.
Many potential customers are hesitant, she admitted, due to the drought. But Farmscape has estimated its gardens use 75 percent less water than a typical lawn. Throw in the overall effect of these vegetables no longer needing packing and transporting after picking, Hermanson noted, and the positive impact upon the environment grows even higher.
Foodscaping is taking hold across the west, as water-worried property owners look for alternatives to manicured lawns and sculpted hedges. But experts say this movement also could be a benefit to people beyond well-to-do homeowners: It might be a lifeline to health for those who reside in “food deserts,” where access to nutritious fruits and vegetables is limited either due to distance or obstacles, such as freeways or gang violence.
LaVonna Blair Lewis, a professor at the University of Southern California, has studied food deserts and their impacts upon cities’ underserved populations.
“I think everybody understands we need multiple strategies to make food accessible—there is no magic bullet,” says Lewis, who teaches at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “You may not get a new grocery store, but maybe you get half an acre or somebody’s front yard to grow fruits and vegetables.”
Blocking the way for foodscaping in poorer neighborhoods are the associated costs. Hermanson said her company charges for a basic garden start-up about $2,500 with weekly maintenance costs of $59. The average set-up runs about $3,500 with a weekly charge of $69.
But Lewis said foodscaping can be done successfully for the less well-off: “It takes partnerships—you’ve got community-based organizations and master gardener programs that are helping with the transformations, playing an intermediary role.”
Acting as the middleman is how Hermanson got her start, albeit for a different clientele. The daughter of a landscaping mother, Hermanson was managing an organic farm in Malibu after college. “The rich ladies used to come in and go, ‘We really love the produce from your garden, but couldn’t you just do this at my house?’”
While foodscaping is done for sensible reasons, there is a nod to aesthetics. Eastwood says future Tender Greens restaurants in the Bay Area have plans to feature vertically-tiered terraces “so the herbs can cascade down.”
Of Farmscape’s 400 installations, Hermanson says about half have “graduated,” in the company’s terminology, after successfully passing along its knowledge to the client.
“If you grow your own food in your back yard, you know exactly what’s going into it,” Hermanson says. “There’s a peace of mind you can’t get at the grocery store.”
Adds Goldwasser, who now knows enough to raise her own plants but allows Farmscape to use her property as something of a test garden: “I like doing the yard stuff, which is something that surprised me. I’m a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, so working with my hands outside is not something that I thought I was inclined to do—it’s not really in my DNA.”