OLD TOWN, Maine — When Stephenie MacLagan and Dave Oliver say they don’t like to mow their lawn, they really mean it.
So the couple has dug up the grass on most of their small property on Veazie Street in Old Town and switched it out for an extensive garden, where they grow enough produce to feed several families. Moving from grass to garden has been a great fit for the couple, whose jokes about disliking the lawn mower are belied by the time and effort they put into growing vegetables. With more than 1,000 square feet of garden on a lot that is smaller than a quarter acre in total, they are seriously committed.
“It started out very small,” MacLagan, who works at the Island Institute, said. “Just a teeny footprint with some tomato plants and bush beans. Every year the garden expanded a little bit more and a little bit more. And it’s continuing to grow.”
In late August, when other people’s gardens may look more like tired, weedy, wilted patches of land where blights and pests have had their way on the vegetables, MacLagan and Oliver’s yard garden looks healthy and vibrant and still is producing bushels of produce. Located amid the small lawns and lots belonging to the other houses on the street, their garden is bursting with plump red tomatoes; tender zucchinis and summer squash; sweet cantaloupes and raspberries; delicate purple string beans, bright red-and-green chard; fat, glossy poblano peppers; and so much more. The land feeds a lot more people now than it did when it was a lawn, they said.
“We have extra yield we share with families that are food insecure,” MacLagan said. “In any given week we can feed up to five families.”
For decades, the visual representation of the American dream has included a house surrounded by a soft emerald green swath of weedless, perfect lawn. But this is changing, as more people have become interested in growing food or pollinator habitat for economic, health or environmental reasons and are swapping out their yards for gardens. The national trend caught some municipalities by surprise in other states a few years ago, when would-be front yard gardeners found that not everyone was a fan of their activities. Between 2010 and 2012, home gardeners across the country were ordered to dig up their vegetables and medicinal herbs or else. One mother in Oak Park, Michigan, even faced three months in jail for refusing to take out the raised beds in front of her home and planting what her city considered suitable ground cover instead, according to a 2012 article in the New York Times headlined “The Battlefront in the Front Yard.” (Ultimately, Oak Park dropped the charge against the gardener).
Those skirmishes seem to have fallen by the wayside, according to Scarborough garden activist Roger Doiron, who runs a nonprofit organization now called SeedMoney, which helps public food gardens to start and thrive. But for years, Doiron’s organization was known as Kitchen Gardeners International, and because of it the Mainer found himself on the front lines of the fight and helping to support home gardeners against what he considered to be municipal overreach.
“It seems like we have so many more important problems to be dealing with than someone trying to grow better food for themselves,” Doiron said this week. “A lot of this has to do with a particular culture being carried over from a different time. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when people had a vision of what the perfect yard should be. It involved bright green grass and flowers and some ornamentals. The idea of having a vegetable garden in the front yard was not part of the suburban aesthetic.”
But since 2012, he said, he hasn’t been seeing much information about new cases of people being prevented from growing food in their front lawns.
“Ever the optimist, I’m going to draw the conclusion that that’s a good sign,” he said. “I think it means the culture is changing … we need to help individuals and communities redefine what a healthy yard looks like.”
In Maine, a state that is not famous for pristine green lawns, there haven’t been as many rules set down by municipalities that govern whether people can plant gardens on their front and side yards. But home gardeners might still need to cope with neighborhood covenants or even just the judgement of neighbors who aren’t used to seeing lettuces where the lawn used to be.
“I think that in a place like Maine, which has the cultural heritage of doing things for oneself — being able to hunt and fish and grow food if you want to — the feeling that you should be allowed to grow food in your front lawn resonates here,” Lisa Fernandes, the founder of the Portland-based Resilience Hub, said. “But the idea of converting your front lawn to gardens seems a little strange in some neighborhoods.”
When she started her own lawn-to-garden conversion in 2005, some people were confused by it.
“I would say at that point it was still kind of a fringe practice,” she said.
But she would not call it that anymore. People all over Maine are digging up their lawns and replacing them with gardens, including Allen Smallwood, a police dispatcher from Bradley. This summer, Smallwood planted his front yard with peas, lettuce, cucumbers, dill, string beans and broccoli. Generally, he grows his potatoes there, but this year decided to give the ground a rest.
“I have a good amount of room in the backyard but I have a lot of trees. There’s not a lot of sunny spots, and I have my leach field back there,” he said, explaining why he has chosen to situate his garden in the sunnier front yard. “Other than the aesthetics, I can’t see a reason why someone would object to having a garden in someone’s front lawn. It’s not hurting anyone, other than the landowner not having a yard.”
In fact, he finds that his garden gets positive feedback from the neighborhood.
“People honk and wave as I’m out there digging potatoes in the fall,” Smallwood said.
In Belfast, teacher Chris Goosman initially chose to put her garden in the front yard because her daughter used the back yard for playing. This summer, she has harvested onions, broccoli, lettuce, snap peas, beets, garlic, cucumbers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and more from her garden, which is right in front of her house. At first, the placement of the garden struck the family’s midwestern relatives as strange, she recalled.
“They were just like ‘What? You’re putting a garden in your front yard?’ These are midwestern folks who have immaculate lawns, with no weeds in the front,” Goosman said. “But the neighbors like it. They like to see all the stuff that’s coming out of it these days.”
That’s true in Old Town, too, MacLagan and Oliver said. Their lawn-to-garden conversion requires a lot of time and labor, but it’s been well worth it, they said. They start their seeds indoors under grow lights, and in the summers, Oliver, an educational technician in Hermon, often spends five hours a day working in the garden. There, they risk stinging themselves on the electrified fence they put up as a deterrent to the population of hungry deer, raccoons and skunks that live on Marsh Island, where Old Town is located. And recently, they went on a field trip to harvest seaweed, which they were drying on their short driveway. They planned to use the seaweed to add more nitrogen to their garden.
“Right now the neighborhood smells like low tide. But our neighbors are very appreciative when we bring over bags of jalapenos and cherry tomatoes,” MacLagan said. “Our mission is if you’re in a position where you can start a garden, it’s worth it to know where your food comes from.”