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How to grow your own invisible allotment

Lots of people want to grow some of their own food - and lots of people have front gardens, or at least a place to keep pots. But these can seem like wasted spaces to frustrated veg-growers in an age of allotment waiting lists and small back gardens. For various reasons people usually don't want their fronts to look like vegetable patches.

This beautifully illustrated book solves that problem, giving advice on how to grow and use 30 plants which produce edible crops - but which don't look like fruit and vegetables. It includes plants usually grown as ornamentals in this country, but as edibles in the countries where they are native, and some which are little known in the UK, and which can pass for ornamentals. These are crypto-vegetables - hidden edibles - perfect for the 'invisible allotment'.

Eat Your Front Garden is an enjoyable, interesting read - suitable as a gift - but above all it's very practical. Written entirely from experience, it goes into solid detail on each of the plants covered, assuming no prior expertise, making it suitable for readers new to gardening as well as to experienced gardeners who are interested in growing something new. This book reveals, to both tenants and owner-occupiers, a potential 'allotment' which many people do have access to, but which is usually ignored: the front garden. You don't even need soil: most of these plants will grow in containers, so a tarmac-covered parking space will do. You'll be able to grow something to eat, without shocking the neighbours or upsetting the landlord, in a huge front garden or on a tiny strip of concrete.

Mat Coward has been writing a monthly column on organic gardening for the Morning Star newspaper since 1993 - a time when 'fruit and veg' columns had more or less disappeared from the national press.
He also wrote a monthly humour column for Organic Gardening (for almost 20 years, from 1989) during most of that pioneering UK newsstand magazine's existence.
Mat started gardening seriously in the late 1980s, when he rented his first allotment. Untrained in horticulture - except by books like this one - he has always been careful to write from experience, about failures as well as successes.
When it's raining, Mat works as one of the 'Elves' who research and write BBC TV's QI, writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and has published numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction. His short stories have been nominated for numerous awards (without ever actually winning a single sodding one). He was one of the original regulars on Radio 4's Loose Ends, has written for dozens of magazines and papers (including the New Statesman and Oink!), and wrote two Doctor Who stories for Big Finish Productions. He lives in Somerset.

There are towns in the USA where people are forbidden by law from growing vegetables in their front gardens. Those who do so can be charged with committing a misdemeanour, and even, in theory, jailed. In some places you can not only be compelled to put your front down to lawn, but even to keep it mown to a specified, statutory height.

Here in Britain, we perhaps live in a generally more liberal state, with greater tolerance of eccentricity and more respect for the rights of the individual. Even so, I once a knew a man who was ordered by his landlord to stop growing carrots in the window-boxes of his rented flat because vegetables "made the property look scruffy." (I'm glad to say that he replaced the carrots with nasturtiums, which are just about the most wholly edible plants on earth.)

But although in this country we don't need to fear a knock on the door from a local authority enforcement officer, there are still plenty of reasons why people might be shy about openly filling their front gardens with vegetables.

Most obviously, there's simple conformism; if all your neighbours plant up their fronts with grass and shrubs, tarmac and shingle, you might feel that devoting yours to broccoli and onions, spuds and beans, would mark you out as odd. We British might tolerate eccentricity - but only in other people, thank you, not in ourselves.

There are more practical objections, too. If your front garden looked like a veg patch, would that have an unwanted effect on property prices? The price of your property, that is, or - mortifyingly - the price of your neighbour's property?

Would out-front cabbages be tempting to passing thieves, or vandals? And then, of course, there are plenty of tenants with unsympathetic landlords, like my friend with the carrots.

At the same time, I know a lot of people who would like to grow some food in the front - because the front garden is sunnier or more sheltered than the back garden, or because the back isn't big enough to feed their family and they've already spent three years on the waiting list for an allotment, or because they are home-grow fanatics who grind their teeth in frustration every time they think of all that wasted space. Or simply because the front garden is the only garden they've got.

This book, and the idea of the "invisible allotment," is aimed at all those people. It offers some suggestions for edible plants that can easily be smuggled into ostensibly ornamental gardens, and detailed advice on how to grow and eat them. These are crops that you can grow without scandalising the neighbours. Your front garden won't look like an allotment, but you'll still get significant amounts of food out of it.

There are plants here which are bona fide, universally acknowledged ornamentals - sold and grown for looking at - but which, to many people's surprise, have edible parts. You may well already have some of these plants in your front garden, which will give you a head-start (and save a few quid).

Then there are species which are grown as ornamentals in this country, but which are considered vegetables back in their homelands. Hosta is a good example; in Japan it's grown as an agricultural crop, not as a herbaceous perennial with colourful leaves.

Finally, I've included some lesser-known edible plants which would be used as ornamentals in UK gardens, if they were used at all, like the Cinnamon Vine (Dioscorea batatas) which is a charmingly-perfumed climber - and as long as you don't tell anyone that one of its other names is Chinese Yam, then only you need ever know that every now and then you're going to dig up its roots and roast them.

So that you can look for a plant to fill a gap in your front garden, while knowing that it will also provide a crop for your invisible allotment, the book is divided into sections that relate to the ornamental use of the plant, rather than its edible use. Dahlia, for instance, is listed under Flowers, although it's the tubers that you eat.

Perhaps I should finish by briefly explaining what I haven't put in this book. I haven't included what might be called "vegetables that look nice." In my view, as a dedicated veg grower, all vegetables look nice. And I haven't, for the most part, included herbs used purely for flavouring. The plants in this book must meet two criteria: they need to be substantially, not just peripherally, edible; and they need to be unobtrusive when grown in a front garden.

In other words - we're not planting a potager. We're planting an invisible allotment.


Since you ask: sort of like figs, with a hint of citrus.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Fuchsia 2

My fuchsias have been a bit late flowering and fruiting this year, having been knocked back by the harsh spring weather. But they're in full bloom now

and you can see the fruits forming behind the flowers. I'm hopeful they'll still have time to ripen before the first frost.

As far as anyone knows, all fuchsia berries are edible, but not all are palatable. The one I grow is called Fuchsiaberry…

Love story

Monday, 3 September 2018

Amaranth awaiting stripping 30 sep 08

If you're growing love-lies-bleeding (or any other Amaranth) for grain, you need to keep an eye on it at this time of year. Check the plants every few days, running the flower heads through your hands. When a lot of tiny seeds are released, it's harvest time.


The flowers should still be moist; later, they become prickly and harder to work with. Tear off all the flower heads, and strip…

Magic numbers

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Allium hookerii

This is Allium hookeri, which is surviving the drought and thriving in the sunshine.

Sometimes known as Hooker's Onion, this species isn't in the book, because I've only been growing it a few years, not long enough to confidently write about it. But it certainly counts as an edible ornamental. It's grown in the West as a bulbous perennial with attractive foliage and summer flowers, and in the…

A good soaking

Friday, 20 July 2018

Liquorice 1

I never thought of including liquorice in Eat Your Front Garden, but I'm beginning to wonder if I should have: what do you think, could this plant pass as a front garden ornamental?

In my last update I described how I keep plants in containers alive through droughts by standing them in water. But someone asked me "What about pots that are too heavy to move?" One thing that works surprisingly well…

Just in case you don't get the storms ...

Thursday, 12 July 2018


In a prolonged period of hot, dry weather it is nearly impossible to keep the compost in pots moist. Even if you water twice a day, eventually the strong sun will cause the top layer of compost to dry out so that when you pour water in from the top, it just runs straight through. If you've got some drought-stricken containers at the moment, perhaps in which the plants are flagging and the compost…

Indian Cress

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The hot, dry weather means that a lot of the plants we grow for their leaves aren't very productive at the moment. But one front garden vegetable that I find keeps going well through the heat is nasturtium (which used to be called Indian Cress). The young, smaller leaves (and the flowers) are best if you're eating them raw, but the darker, full-grown leaves are good as greens in, for instance, Indian…

Sweet cicely - and some EYFG publicity.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Kg spread

I've written a two-and-a-half page spread about EYFG in the latest issue of Kitchen Garden magazine, which will be on sale in newsagents from 31st May. I'm hoping that will bring in some pledges from the magazine's 50,000 readers!

Meanwhile, here's a picture of some seedpods on my sweet cicely plant. Myrrhis odorata doesn't make it into the book - I'm not sure it's quite "invisible" enough to…

The easiest plant in the book?

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


I'm hoping that the hot Bank Holiday weekend will have led to a flurry of pledges for Eat Your Front Garden, with people having spent three days fretting about how dull and unproductive their fronts are. Meanwhile, I'm writing the chapter on Oenanthe javanica - a plant with very pretty, very tasty leaves, which I grow in a big tub of water. It might not be the longest chapter in the book, because…

Hosta la vista!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

This week I am both eating, and writing a chapter about, hostas. They are a perfect EYFG plant, widely grown in front gardens for their colourful leaves, and really delicious as a green vegetable. It's the spring growth that's used as food - the rolled-up leaves that look like witloof chicory. Slice them off at ground level and eat them lightly steamed, or use them as an ingredient in, for instance…

There was a young gardener ...

Monday, 19 March 2018

EYFG is now 7% funded - many thanks to everyone who has pledged, and please keep telling your friends about the book. I promised on Twitter that I would write a limerick, or clerihew, for the pledger who tipped us over the 7% line, and send it to them on a postcard. That person was Sam Farrell - so, Sam, if you'd like to contact me here or on social media, I'd be very glad to do that for you.



Friday, 2 March 2018

Yesterday's pledges took us to 5%, and today's took us over the first £1,000 raised. Many thanks indeed to everyone who has pledged. Because of the Data Protection Act, I don't receive a note of pledgers' email addresses, so I'm not always able to thank everyone individually - but please know that I am very grateful to all of you!

Oca and mashua

Monday, 26 February 2018

Oca nov 15 003

If you're growing oca and mashua from tubers saved from last year's crop, don't forget to check the "seed" tubers regularly from now on. If they haven't already started sprouting, they'll probably be doing so soon. When the oca have sprouts showing, move them to a light, cool, frost-free place - just as if you were chitting potatoes. Sprouting mashua are best planted in 4 inch pots in multi-purpose…


Sunday, 18 February 2018

Many thanks to everyone who has supported Eat Your Front Garden so far - we've reached 2% funded on the third day of funding, which I'm very pleased with. I've always maintained that the final 98% is the easy bit ... Also, I note that of the 11 backers so far, 2 are people I don't know - which seems a very decent ratio for so early in the project. Thanks again, and please keep spreading the word!

Non-edible, but non-negotiable.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Someone asked me today which of the non-edible plants in my front garden I'd most like to get rid of. I didn't need to think about it long: there's a climbing hydrangea which was already in place when we arrived here, 20-odd years ago. It's one of the dullest plants I've ever known. It needs a lot of pruning, otherwise next door can't see to back their car out, it has (in my opinion) rather uninteresting…

These people are helping to fund Eat Your Front Garden.

KJ Charles
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Mike Pugh
Elliott Mannis
Sally Vince
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Mike Butcher
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patricia botwright
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Conrad & JoAnn Ruppert
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Mat Coward
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